On Awkward Membership: Beyond Awkward - Remarks on Hungary as a Member State of the EU Today

By Ferenc Laczó (Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Maastricht University)

If we wished to answer why Hungary has become such a remarkably awkward member of the EU, an obvious starting point would be the political landslide of 2010 when Fidesz acquired more than two-thirds of the parliamentary mandates. This in turn enabled Viktor Orbán to implement what some have called his illiberal counter-revolution by largely legal means.

So the starting question for my reflections today has to be why there was such a political landslide in the country in 2010? In brief, it was the decline of a somewhat naive transition narrative focused on Europeanization and convergence, the generational and legitimacy crisis of the post-communist left, and the grave economic downturn shortly before the elections of 2010 which combined to make a right-wing populist party suddenly occupy the structural position of catch-all parties of the broad center.

The consequence of this landslide has been the consolidation of one-party rule in a more radical manner than anybody – save the current rulers – would have imagined possible. Many of the momentous changes introduced since 2010 might be arguable if they amounted to no more than single measures. However, taken together the changes introduced clearly amount to a very serious deterioration of democratic standards. What is equally disconcerting is that the seeming consolidation of the Fidesz regime has gone hand in hand with its further radicalization. In more recent years, the contest with the far right has resulted in conspicuous signs of convergence in terms of authoritarian proclivities and xenophobic attitudes.

The current rulers of Hungary are Euroschizophrenics rather than Eurosceptics and their Euroschizophrenia appears to be on purpose. Despite their emphasis on ‘the defense’ of national sovereignty – in which they indeed have a vested interest so that no stronger guarantees of liberal democratic standards would emerge in the Union – they also rely on the EU as a major source of funding. Among members of Hungarian society, trust in European institutions remains higher than in national ones and so there is something rather puzzling to how a society which is nominally so pro-European can nonetheless be ruled in such a dubious manner. A major and unforeseen factor here is the paradoxical consequence of open borders – the dissatisfied have the exit option. Open borders thus rather worsen what Daniel Kelemen recently called the problem of autocratic enclaves in democratic unions.

Overall, the European response to the worsening crisis of democracy has been insufficient. At the risk of sounding controversial, I would argue that one of the reasons for this is that the case of Hungary has tended to be approached as a rule of law issue rather than a major political challenge. What Hungary has experienced since 2010 has to be assessed as a legalized counter-revolution and we should therefore be asking questions of legitimacy rather than ‘mere’ legality – even if the two questions are clearly interrelated. The focus on the rule of law is thus needed but remains insufficient because the Fidesz leadership does not need to violate the rule of law in an egregious manner. I would thus maintain that we should be focusing on European values and liberal democratic standards before we enter into the legal fine print. Here I find Jan-Werner Mueller’s proposal regarding a Copenhagen Commission, which would create a new possibility of reaching Europe-wide agreements on minimal standards of liberal democracy as well as new mechanisms for their enforcement, both convincing and urgent.

What complicates the situation further is that the insufficient European response to the deterioration of democratic standards in Hungary also has clear political causes. Despite its ever further shift to the right, Fidesz has maintained its membership in the EPP and continues – at least formally – to be part of the European mainstream; Merkel and Orbán may be politicians with contrasting visions of the European future but they remain pragmatic allies on the European level.

At the beginning of the remaking of the Hungary’s regime shortly after 2010, the question frequently posed in political circles opposed to Fidesz was how long the EU is going to tolerate Orbán? However, by now many well-informed opponents of Orbán’s regime consolidation and radicalization in Hungary view the EU as complicit. Many of them are prone to think today that as long as the EU continues to function the way it currently does (providing crucial financial support with no clear expectations in turn), Orbán can dismantle liberal democracy all the more effectively – until it may be too late for everybody.

The challenge Hungary currently poses for the EU is no longer simply about finding ways to counter the deterioration of liberal democratic standards but about having to pro-actively foster their revival. This is admittedly a new and specifically political challenge for the EU. Only by finding appropriate instruments of tackling it can the Union ensure that it regains the trust of those who are meant to be its greatest supporters in Hungary. 

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