EU Criticism Mounts Towards Orban’s Cold Illiberal Policies

  • The national assembly of Hungary recently passed a bill that bans content promoting homosexuality or sex reassignment from being disseminated in schools or in media aimed at minors.
  • The bill is politically advantageous for Orban as it appeals to his conservative constituency, diverts attention from other controversial issues and divides a seemingly united opposition. 
  • However, the bill was heavily criticized during the summit of the European Council held on the 24-25 June, reflecting that the union is struggling to continue to be a community of values. 

Why is Orban’s temperature mild?

Answer: Although Orban will politically benefit from the recently passed bill, he is facing greater challenges to pursue illiberal policies. 

Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party proposed a legislation that was amended last minute to include a ban on content that promotes homosexuality or sex reassignment from being disseminated in schools and in media aimed at minors. Although the vote was boycotted by some parties, the legislation was passed by 157 votes to 1 in the Hungarian national assembly where the Fidesz party holds a ⅔ majority.  

The passing of the bill could increase Fidesz’s chances of winning the parliamentary elections that will be held in 2022 in several ways. First, it could boost the party’s popularity. The bill was passed following a scandal regarding the visit of a leading Fidesz figure, MEP József Szájer, to a gay sex party. The scandal undermined the image that the Fidesz is a defender of traditional Christian values. However, the bill is expected to reinforce this image and the Fidesz’s popularity among conservative voters ahead of elections.

Moreover, while the EU has expressed outrage in response to the bill, Orban seems unperturbed. Last weekend, the Hungarian government paid several foreign newspapers to publish an advertisement in which it accused Brussels of trying to create a European superstate without permission from EU Member States. In the eyes of Orban’s constituency a dispute with Brussels reinforces the image that he is protecting Hungary’s traditional values in the face of a globalist threat coming from the union’s institutions. 

Second, the bill could divert attention from issues that undermine Orban’s popularity. Hungary has had the highest per capita death rate from Covid-19 after Peru, and the government is criticized for its handling of the pandemic. Moreover, the government’s plans to construct a campus in Budapest for China’s Fudan University sparked the first protests since the pandemic and have helped bring opposition parties together ahead of elections. Fortunately for Orban, the legislation has distracted from these recent problems that he cannot address.

Third, the passing of the bill could help divide a seemingly united opposition. The opposition parties successfully coordinated themselves in the municipal elections of 2019 and won Budapest as well as other major cities. However, the opposition bloc consists of various parties belonging to the centre, left and right. The passing of the bill has reminded of these differences and sparked divisions. Namely, while the far right Jobbik party supported the bill, the centre-left Democratic Coalition condemned it as discriminatory politics. 

Nevertheless, Orban is facing greater challenges to pursue his illiberal policies. 

What is changing Orban’s temperature?

Answer: The EU is increasingly intolerant of Orban undermining liberal democracy.

During the European Council summit held on the 24-25 June, Orban was heavily criticized for what many EU Member States view as an anti-LGBTQI+ bill that conflicts with the EU’s fundamental values. Dutch PM Mark Rutte even suggested that Hungary trigger the Article 50 TEU exit process if it doesn’t want to repeal the legislation. Although Orban hit back at EU criticism, increasing EU intolerance could present challenges in the long run. Indeed, the Fidesz’s departure from the European People’s Party (EPP) was due to criticism from fellow party members over the Fidesz’s alleged weakening of democracy. 

Fidesz left the EPP after a new rule that would allow the EPP to kick members out was passed. As a result of this departure, Fidesz MEPs will be less able to propose and amend EU legislation. Fidesz will also be unable to claim that it is a mainstream conservative party. Being part of the EPP, a centre right grouping, had given Orban’s increasingly right wing party legitimacy and protection that it is now set to lose

Furthermore, the EU has the mechanisms to “punish” Hungary economically for its illiberal policies. Namely, the Commission of the European Union is now able to suspend funds when it feels that the rule of law is under threat in a country, thanks to the rule of law conditionality mechanism. Should funds actually be withheld this could present a serious blow for Orban. Hungary has been hit hard by the pandemic and is one of the Member States that relies the most on EU funds (before Covid-19 they constituted 2 – 5% of its GDP). 

What is driving Orban?

Answer: Orban is seeking personal power but also to build a strong Hungarian state whose sovereignty is protected and that has many allies worldwide. 

Orban seeks to acquire more power through the use of populist styled politics. Orban gives himself a political justification to amend the law and seize further power by claiming that he is defending traditional Hungarian Christian values. For instance, over the past years Orban has given himself greater power to regulate education and the media stating that people that have national interests in mind should head educational institutions and since the media landscape needed to become more balanced by introducing counterparts to “progressive” news outlets. Moreover, these justifications seem to be accepted by many Hungarians as Orban and his party still enjoy great popular support. 

Orban also diverges with the EU fundamentally in the values he harbours. Orban was once a liberal academic who fought communism from behind the Iron curtain and helped steer Hungary into the EU and NATO. However, in order to stand out on Hungary’s political scene and perhaps disappointed with the democratization process, Orban made his party more nationalist. Today Orban is an illiberal populist. He openly stated in 2014 that his government is building an illiberal state, one that does not “reject the fundamental principles of liberalism such as freedom … but it does not make this ideology the central element of state organisation…”. Rather, Orban primarily cares for building a strong, stable and effective state.  

Similarly, when it comes to foreign affairs Orban seeks sovereignty for Hungary. At the EU level this means that Orban is strongly against EU level decision making on issues he deems are closely tied to national sovereignty. Hence, while Hungary officially supports the EU’s efforts to become a global player by enhancing its security capabilities and international competitiveness, it has voted against plans to redistribute asylum seekers at the height of the migration crisis in 2015 claiming that it threatens Hungary’s Judeo-Christian heritage.

Orban’s emphasis on national sovereignty makes him somewhat of an outlier in the EU. Aware of this, Orban seeks to attract sympathies of other conservatives worldwide. He has stated in a recent press conference that China’s relationship with other states is always pragmatic, and it does not force ideologies on its partners unlike the West.

Orban added that the EU tries to instruct China in “matters which we should not be instructing them in.” He has also supported his words with action. Hungary has been exercising its right to veto whenever the EU has tried to condemn Chinese actions in Hong Kong or in the South China Sea, to the criticism of other Member States. China is considered a systematic rival by both the EU and NATO.  

What does this mean for you?

Answer: The recent European Council summit has reminded us that divisions between EU Member States are deep running and cannot be easily overcome.   

The passing of what is deemed to be an “anti-LGBTQI+” bill is only another step in a long series of actions that have progressively undermined liberal democracy in Hungary. According to the think tank Freedom House, the Fidesz party has used a parliamentary supramajority to impose restrictions over “the opposition, the media, religious groups, academia, NGOs, the courts, asylum seekers, and the private sector” over the past decade. This is concerning in two ways. 

First, the fact that EU Member States are clashing over fundamental issues of the union shows that a community of values in the union is being threatened.  Without a common set of values the EU becomes, as Rutte pointed out, “nothing but a trading bloc with a common currency”. This puts in danger the European project itself. The EU will become increasingly difficult to govern and further integration hard to achieve. 

Second, the fact that Hungary has been able to pursue these policies for so long without facing serious political or economic consequences raises the concern that the EU lacks the means, or the political will, to hold a community of values together. Although EU Member States have a way of leaving the EU, there is no way of pushing an EU Member State out of the union.

Furthermore, an Article 7 process that suspends the voting rights of Member States is unlikely to go anywhere as other Member States can simply veto it and Poland is expected to back Hungary in this regard. Finally, while the rule of law conditionality mechanism has been adopted, Brussels has agreed not to use it until guidelines for its implementation have been adopted and pending challenges before the Court of Justice of the European Union.  

In sum, while the EU has taken important steps in the recent past to address Orban’s policies, it is unclear how it will find a permanent solution to the internal divide they are causing.