Hungary with its new ultra-right government is among the two most right-wing governments in the European Union (EU) which have significantly eroded democratic norms. Hungary has breached several of the European Union’s core values, such as democracy, freedom, equality, and the rule of law. The Prime Minister Victor Orbán thrives on conflict and openly advocates for Hungary being an illiberal democracy, which he justifies by invoking national sovereignty and security.
Victor Orbán has been the Prime Minister of Hungary since 2010 and has led the political party Fidesz since 1993 as a far-right political candidate. Orbán has abused the EU rule of law several times which has inspired populist parties across Europe. Since coming to power in 2010, Orbán has systematically dismantled the country’s democracy – eroding institutions designed to balance the powers of the government, such as free media and independent judiciaries. He says he took these actions in Hungary’s national interest against a political elite that seeks to control its member states. His actions are a direct challenge to the EU which requires all member nations to treat its law as supreme.
Orbán has taken actions that clearly demonstrate his opposition to democratic principles; an example is his controversial stance towards the LGBTQ+ community. He has restricted LGBTQ+ education and rights, including outlawing information perceived as promoting homosexuality or gender change to minors in schools, in advertisements, and even on TV shows. This undermines Article 2 of the founding treaty of the EU which states that discrimination against anyone on the basis of sexuality, ethnicity, and gender is not allowed as a member state. Orbán has also taken a firm stance against immigration when in 2015 he built a fence along Hungary’s borders to keep migrants out. The European Commission has repeatedly sued Hungary for its treatment of migrants, and ultimately article 7 was enacted. Inspectors from the United Nations traveled to Hungary to ensure that their immigration centers met international standards, however the Hungarian government refused to let them in. Hungary also used the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to abuse emergency powers. Orbán has passed laws that remove any oversight and silencing of any criticisms of the Hungarian government, resembling an outright authoritarian system.
The current approach by the bloc towards Hungary lacks authority. Several EU leaders have given frustrated speeches and the Parliament has denounced Hungary’s actions; however, nothing has worked to change Orbán’s policies. Part of the bloc’s hesitation to crack down on Hungary is political. Orbán benefits from the bloc – Hungary has become the second-largest net beneficiary of the EU budget, receiving more than 5 billion euros ($5.9 billion) more than it contributes back into the EU budget per year. Orbán also, until recently, benefited from Fidesz being part of the biggest bloc in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party (EPP). The EPP had been reluctant about punishing Fidesz or Orbán for its actions because of the potential impact on the group’s overall influence and image. In March of 2021, the EPP was voting for a rule that would allow them to expel a member of the group, as a response Orbán quickly exited the group.
The problem has become more complicated now that Orban won his election for its fourth consecutive term on April 3. Several European Union leaders have announced that they will still do their best at protecting Hungary’s minorities and that they will continue to uphold the rule of law. This raises the question whether Hungarian citizens agree with the international community that their government is infringing on their rights and eroding their democracy. However, several reports have been made that the election results are due to voter fraud and how the government has created a favorable media ownership structure.
President Ursula von der Leyen announced earlier this month that EU funds to Hungary could be suspended due to rule of law violations, however this will likely not happen in the near future because of how lengthy the process is. There is a procedure in place which exists to hold accountable governments whose actions threaten the bloc’s rule of law, human rights, and democratic principles. The sanction mechanism is Article 7 of the founding treaty of the EU. It requires unanimity, which makes it easy to undermine because Poland can veto it when it is triggered against Hungary, and vice versa. Article 7 also defines how measures can be taken against the member state in question.
The European Union should enact Article 7 of the Treaty of Lisbon to suspend certain rights of Hungary on the basis of a breach of the EU’s fundamental values. Hungary has actively acted against freedom, democracy, equality, and the rule of law and should therefore be punished. The sanction mechanism has been used before but was unsuccessful because of Poland’s veto. The member states should enact it again while excluding Poland from the vote as their veto undermines the reason why the mechanism exists – to hold members accountable.
Orbán is a direct threat to Europe’s democratic ideals, therefore, action must be taken immediately to show that the EU holds its members accountable. Article 7 includes many steps which can include adopting specific rule-of-law recommendations that Hungary must carry out by a set deadline. Clearly, the EU’s usual approach to encourage member states to conform to their rules has been ineffective at stopping Hungary from drifting away from the EU ideals. Although unprecedented, it is crucial that Poland is taken out of the unanimous support requirement as this rule prevents the EU from taking any meaningful action. Currently, there is no mechanism to eject an EU member state against its will and, therefore there is little incentive for Hungary to change its actions. This heavily undermines the democratic requirements for membership and can create a long-lasting negative impact on the bloc.
In addition, European leaders should limit the amount of funding allocated to Hungary in its next long-term budget. Hungary clearly no longer follows the EU law, however, they still accept a large amount of EU funds which is intolerable. If no action is taken, Hungary’s behavior will continue to inspire other European right-wing populists which can create new political agitators, putting the future of the entire EU at stake.