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From 'check to 'checkmate': Analyzing the changing relations between Hungary and the EU

maandag 28 januari 2019, 13:00, analyse van dr. Ekaterina Rashkova-Gerbrands

De politieke koers in Hongarije wijkt het laatste jaar steeds verder af van de democratische waarden die de Europese Unie voorstaat. Onder leiding van de nationalistische premier Orban werd de afgelopen maanden de academische vrijheid stevig ingeperkt en werd de onafhankelijkheid van de rechtstaat aan banden gelegd. Het Europees Parlement zette in september 2018 een formele strafprocedure tegen het land in werking. De vraag is echter of dat dit een effectieve oplossing zal zijn. Wellicht zet een volksopstand meer zoden aan de dijk?


In the last couple of months, the political situation in Hungary has taken a turn in sharp contrast with the democratic values of the European Union. A number of laws have been changed or enacted. These new legal arrangements limit personal freedoms, breach human rights, and concentrate the political power within the incumbent government of the nationalist conservative party Fidesz. The political developments in Hungary since Fidesz’ last electoral victory have spurred a large amount of international attention, as well as popular revolt. Most recently, the election of the European People’s Party spietzenkandidat for President of the (new) European Commission, Manfred Weber, often seen as Orban supporter, resulted in media discussions on the implications this internal election has for EU Politics altogether. Mudde (2018) links Orban’s politics to Trump’s America and warns against the changing outlook of European politics, where he sees the European People’s Party – the main right-wing political group of the European Union (also home to Fidesz) – to be ‘much more the party of Victor Orban than of Angela Merkel’. In the aftermath of the European Parliament vote against Hungary, which took place in September 2018, and the not-much-having-happened after that, the questions that remain are ‘What will it take from the European Union to change the course of political action in Hungary and will the European Union (manage to) do that?’.

What has happened?

In April 2018, Fidesz, a nationalist, conservative right-wing populist party, won the national election, retaining its two-thirds grip of the 199 parliamentary seats after its landslide victories of 2010 and 2014. Victor Orban remained the prime minister. On first glance, not much had changed – the same political party, the same leader, yet different and more deeply disturbing for the international community politics. Since the start of its term, the fourth Orban cabinet has adopted legislation directly or indirectly targeting multiple sectors within society. Legal changes have been made against the education sector and academic freedom with the ‘Stop-Soros Law’ and the banning of gender studies in Hungarian universities, the independence of the courts has been further blurred with new constitutional amendments, there has been a serious attempt to discredit civil society organizations which help immigrants and asylum seekers and to curb their activity by publicly denouncing what they do and subjecting them to newly introduced taxes. Media ownership has been concentrated in holding with close ties to the government. The Orban government went far as to incriminate help to asylum seekers, making such activity punishable with prison, it also banned homelessness, adopted new inadmissibility reasons among which about the land from which asylum seekers enter Hungary making it practically impossible for someone to receive asylum, and even denied food to those challenging governmental decisions in court. If that wasn’t enough, after turning on those who stand for freedom of expression and those who stand for protecting human rights, Orban’s government turned onto its own people. On December 20th, Victor Orban signed amendments to the Labour Law, which allow businesses to request unpaid overtime work in the amount of 400 hours per year from their workers. Dubbed ‘Slave Law’, the changes are in effect of January 1, 2019, and are likely to spark the first general strike after the fall of communism.

What did the European Union do?

The European Union has expressed its disapproval of the politics of the Orban government repeatedly. In April, 2018, after deciding that the Hungarian Higher Education Law is not compatible with the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, the Commission sends a Letter of Formal Notice to the Hungarian Government on the Hungarian Higher Education Law, to which Hungary has one month to reply. Following are statements by the EPP and a resolution by the European Parliament, which urge the Hungarian government to repeal controversial laws. Due to the non-response of the Hungarian government, the European Parliament proceeded with official voting on the Article 7’s procedure. The vote received the necessary 2/3 majority. Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, if fully implemented, which would require also a 4/5 vote in favor at the European Council, can strip a member-state of its voting rights. However, with the rate that the Orban government is going, isn’t this as Carrera and Bard (2018) noted, too little, too late?

Who can stop Orban?

If the answer to this question is that the EU’s way of responding to the spread of illiberalism right within its territory is not as successful as hoped, ‘what are the alternatives?’. In addition to pressure from outside, there are two other possibilities – a mass bottom-up revolt of the people, or internal party dissent (similar to the dynamics, which led to the demise of the communist regime). And to close off with a chess metaphor, if the king keeps changing the rules, so that he can always escape the check-mate, the highest likelihood that his reign will crumble is if and when his own fleet – from queen to pawns – resists to move by the new rules of the game. And the likelihood of the latter is higher with increasing pressure from abroad, and the looming possibility of national revolt.

Dr. Ekaterina Rashkova-Gerbrands is als universitair docent verbonden aan de Utrechtse School voor Bestuurs- en Organisatiewetenschap (Universiteit Utrecht) waar zij veel onderzoek doet naar politiek in Oost-Europa.

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