The European Parliament’s declaration that Hungary is no longer formally a democracy should come as no surprise to those who have witnessed Budapest’s democratic backslide. According to the European Parliament’s report, Hungary should be classified as a “hybrid regime of electoral autocracy” and a state where European values are under constant threat. Similarly, the EU has proposed suspending €7.5 billion in funding for Hungary over corruption and democratic backsliding. Hungary is increasingly becoming a pariah in the EU and is more closely linked to Russia, Turkey and far-right figures in the US than to its fellow member states.
The case of Hungary makes it clear that EU membership does not guarantee democracy, although candidates to join the EU must go through a rigorous process of developing democratic credentials known as the Copenhagen criteria. Ukraine, Moldova and other Balkan states with corruption problems and influence from outside powers like Russia are currently formal candidates for EU membership. As such, criticism of Hungary is an alarming wake-up call for EU enlargement and for spreading its own values in the future.
Viktor Orban’s Hungary, as well as Poland under the Law and Justice Party, are states where the role of the media, the judiciary and academia is increasingly politicized and the rights of migrants, the LGBTQ community and women are often stripped back. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Orban used the state of emergency to consolidate his power, and Hungary’s close alliance with Russia, including its willingness to continue paying for Russian gas in rubles, has soured ties with the rest of the EU.
Under Orban, Hungary has benefited enormously from its position in the EU and Budapest has emerged as a kingmaker for populist movements not only across the continent but also in the United States. Orban has become more of an international than a European icon as he fights less for Europe and more against the perceived tide of corrosive, cosmopolitan liberalism with global repercussions. While this threatens Orban’s definition of European values, it also threatens a traditional, white-Christian way of life that is just as noticeable in some electoral blocs in American swing states as it is in the heart of Europe.
Hungary clearly belongs to Europe, but it doesn’t need to belong to the EU if its values are not in line with those of its fellow member states. After living under communism for decades, Hungary chose to be part of an enlarged, democratic EU in order to thrive alongside its fellow citizens on the continent. However, membership of the EU is a privilege, not a right, just as the shared European experience of borderless travel and freedom of movement is the privileged result of long-warring states choosing to pool their sovereignty and fight for their common future . Orban does not believe in fighting for Europe’s common future, as envisioned in the EU’s many treaties, and no alliance is too unreasonable for him if it serves his ideological agenda. Orban has more to gain from allying with neo-imperial autocrats like Putin and Erdogan on Europe’s periphery than with liberal reformers and even populist Eurosceptics in neighboring EU states.
For Orban, the challenge will be to decide whether his mission is too big for Europe or whether he still needs Europe and the trappings of its institutions and alliances to move forward. Over the course of the year, events outside of Hungary in Ukraine, Russia and Italy could do more to shape Orban’s strategy than anything happening domestically. Even if Italy wins a far-right leader in its September 25 elections, a government headed by Giorgia Meloni is expected to take a tough stance on Russia and work with NATO and the EU. Further advances by Ukraine in its counteroffensive could prompt France and Germany to increase military aid, and Italy, under a far-right government, could continue to support sanctions against Russia and work to reduce its dependence on Russian gas. Should that happen, Hungary will have little leverage to continue on its pro-Kremlin stance, and Orban would likely be forced to think realistically about the feasibility of maintaining such close ties with Moscow.
Autocrats and illiberal figures like Orban and Putin still care about their image and how they are perceived in the world. Further isolating Orban in Europe could only increase his appeal abroad and as a showcase for grievance-based populist nationalist movements. However, a victory for Ukraine would be an important symbolic boost for democracy in the global fight against authoritarianism. This victory will be credited in large part to the EU and the importance of its mission to those in Ukraine struggling to distance themselves from Russia in order to build a more prosperous future.
If the EU, and with it democracy, continues to prevail, Budapest will have a hard time not finding a reason to join. Hungary’s isolation may be necessary in the short term, but Budapest should not be prevented from contributing in good faith to European issues. There are many Hungarian citizens who do not support Orban’s ideology but are unable to turn to effective political or media outlets to voice their concerns. As Ukraine advances towards EU membership, Brussels would do well to look to Hungary to ensure its civil society can transition effectively into the post-Orban era. It will be important to maintain support for the Democrats in Hungary while recognizing the pernicious threat posed by illiberal figures ready to hijack their agenda.
Brussels is likely to develop a strong backbone should events in Ukraine take their current course, prompting Orban and his supporters to reckon with a reckoning truly worth fighting for European values.
Further reading on E-International Relations