‘We are the sand in the gears of the machinery’ – Hungary’s EU membership is under serious threat

The populist right is becoming stronger, louder and more unified – no one should underestimate Fidesz’s skill in manipulating public opinion

Zsuzsanna Szelényi
Sunday 21 November 2021 14:25 GMT
Five takeaways from Hungarian PM Viktor Orban's meeting with French far-right leader Le Pen

While world leaders gathered at Cop26, Viktor Orban, who did not attend, fired yet another blow at the EU. He labelled the EU’s green proposals a “utopian fantasy” that would push energy costs up in Europe, and promised that Hungary would “resist”. There would be a diplomatic brawl, he predicted, at the EU summit in December.

A few days earlier, Orban further poked the EU on the anniversary of Hungary’s 1956 revolution when he claimed that “words and actions that Brussels directs at us and the Poles are like those usually reserved for enemies. It is time Brussels understood that we were more than a match for even the communists. We are the sand in the gears of the machinery, the stick caught in the spokes, the thorn in the flesh. We are the David that Goliath would do well to avoid.”

Orban’s mood of hostility may come from a realisation that Europe’s leaders are running out of patience with his strain of illiberalism. The European Commission initiated infringement proceedings against Hungary for the homophobic “paedophile” law it passed earlier this year, which mixed measures against paedophilia with bans on media depictions of gay relationships in content aimed at young people. At the same time, the commission is demanding stricter anti-corruption measures before it will authorise Hungary’s payments from the reconstruction recovery fund.

Elsewhere, the EU is also toughening up. The European Court of Justice has recently fined Poland €1m per day for ignoring an EU ruling that the country’s Supreme Court disciplinary chamber – which threatened the independence of judges – must be suspended. The commission has also made clear that Poland must back down to receive EU funds. Openly challenging the EU seems riskier today than a few years ago.

‘Shame on you Orbán’ protest hits Budapest

In response to a tougher EU, some prominent figures within the Hungarian government have suggested that the country should consider leaving. Some of Orban’s cabinet ministers floated the idea that membership could be reviewed in a few years when Hungarian economic growth is less dependent on EU funds.

There is a worrying pattern emerging that – through design or miscalculation – is seeing Hungary heading ever closer to the EU exit door. Six months ago, the Fidesz party quit before it was pushed from the centre-right EPP bloc in the European parliament after repeated violations of European law.

Rhetoric aside, does Orban actually want to leave the EU? On the face of it, there’s little to suggest that Orban wants a “Huxit”. Eighty-five per cent of Hungarians support EU membership, among them 77 per cent of Fidesz voters. It is more likely he is preparing for next spring’s general election that Fidesz could well lose. He is trying to repeat 2018’s successful formula when Fidesz won their third consecutive term on a radical anti-migration and anti-EU platform.

But in the long run could this change? Orban riles up his fans with relentless anti-EU propaganda. No one should underestimate the governing party’s massive campaign infrastructure and skill in manipulating public opinion. If Orban win’s next spring’s election, this barrage could erode this pro-EU majority.

While some EU leaders would be more than happy to see Orban leave, Polexit or Huxit would demonstrate a dramatic decline of the EU in the world, which no European leaders would want after the shock and chaos of Brexit.

Orban is a clever tactician. While he provokes the EU rule of law issues, he cooperates in several other fields crucial for the bloc. Until the pandemic, Orban followed a disciplined financial policy partnering with Germany and the frugals. He was fully cooperative after Brexit, and even on foreign policy issues, he kept aligned on important decisions – such as the sanctions against Russia, creating obstacles only on minor issues. Orban also supports French ambitions to accept nuclear power as clean energy and pleases German car manufacturers by representing their interests in EU decisions.

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This “peacock dance,” as Orban himself put it, has worked very well so far. Unlike the Polish PiS government, Orban has never engaged in direct combat against the EU. He doesn’t want to leave the EU; he wants to change it. By organising a new grouping of radical right parties in Europe, Orban, and Jaroslaw Kaczynskihope want to combine their governmental weight and experience with western radical parties to alter the curve of EU politics – forcing it to accept autocrats among its members.

Orban’s recent meetings with France’s Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour, together with his support of Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki and Italy’s Matteo Salvini suggests that a radical right-wing political group will be launched soon. I predict it will be formed before the Hungarian election to demonstrate to Hungarian voters that his party is not a pariah but fully engaged in Europe.

The autocratic push will be stronger, louder and more unified from that moment, especially if moderate European parties can’t find a better strategy to push back the illiberal threat. The EU, in response, must stay true to its values, establish red lines on its membership, and ensure that illiberal rule-breakers cannot operate in its bloc. Whatever Orban’s intention, there is a danger that, if he wins another term, Hungary’s membership of the EU could be at risk for the first time.

Zsuzsanna Szelényi is a Hungarian politician and expert in foreign policy, who started her career in Fidesz, which she represented in parliament from 1990 to 1994

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