30 November, 2023
by Oleksandra Zadesenets, Research Assistant
Eastern Europe is currently witnessing a dramatic erosion of democratic institutions. The recent victory of Eurosceptic former communist party ‘Direction – Social Democracy’ in parliamentary elections in Slovakia and a substantial prevailing of right-wing movements in Polish politics until the electoral outcomes in 2023 signify the revival of conservative values and the rise of populism. The spreading of anti-European messages against the background of domestic violations of human rights and suppression of freedoms by some Eastern European governments is alarming, and it facilitates the creation of ambiguity with regards to the legitimacy of their place within the European Union. Hungary, which will be the focus of this article, represents the most prominent example of this phenomena. The incumbent prime minister, Victor Orban, who has been in office since 2010, is renowned for opposing key EU resolutions and flirting with Russia, and has taken Hungary to a crossroad in its relationship with Europe. The negligence of the adherence to democratic values and the acquiring of autocratic features that emerged during Orban’s rule has resulted in the EU freezing Hungary’s access to billions of euros of funds. On the top of that, the surge of corruption, compromising on the rule of law and independence of the judiciary, infringements on economic and social freedoms, discriminatory stances and the violation of rights of the asylum seekers led to the triggering of sanctions against Hungary envisaged in the Article 7 mechanism. Considering all of this, one may be preoccupied with the question of how the scenario of the further coexistence between the EU and Hungary might look like and whether Hungarian EU membership has reached crisis point.
The History of Hungarian European Integration and How Hungary Benefits from it
The Hungarian radical deviance from democratic European values is an exceptionally sore spot given its initial enthusiasm to become part of the European community. The connection between Hungary and the EU was established a long time ago, setting an inception back at those times when Hungary was known as the Hungarian People’s Republic and the EU was functioning as an economic union. Hungary highly benefited from its chosen path of recovery from the socialist path through European integration. Furthermore, this pro-European path came hand-in-hand with the intense support of the country’s citizens, with 83.8% of the population voting for membership in the April 2003 referendum.
Alongside the required standardisation with the Copenhagen criteria, which facilitated the development of democratic institutions and Western style political governance as well as a market economy, Hungary became the recipient of the PHARE program, aimed at the economic assistance and the development of efficient judicial and financial systems. The negotiation about Hungarian accession to the EU began in 1998. As a result, it significantly improved the social and economic situation in the state after post-socialist chaos, created more workplaces and spawned tight trade networks within and outside the European Union. The benefits of these reforms started fully manifesting themselves around the time Hungary joined the EU, with economic growth approaching 5% per year.
Despite this success, 2008 became a year of severe economic strain as a result of a wider global financial crisis. Nevertheless, EU membership was instrumental in rescuing Hungary from a critical situation when it was on the brink of sovereign default: the EU joined the IMF and World Bank in delivering a $25bn rescue package that prevented bankruptcy.
Today, Hungary is one of the biggest recipients of financial aid from the EU, receiving a net total of €4.2bn in the organisation’s 2021 budget. EU-funded projects in Hungary help to keep the country’s development afloat in various spheres including economic transition, sustainable development, enhancement of social wellbeing, healthcare and infrastructure as well as broadening academic opportunities and facilitation of the effectiveness of public administration systems. However, the ground for the stable development given by the EU and the resultant prosperity did not hinder the appearance of democratic backsliding in Hungary, which necessitated a response from Brussels.
The Reasons Behind the Triggering of Article 7
Before analysing the facts of Hungarian malfeasance of adherence to the democratic principles of the EU, one should examine the meaning of Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, better known as a ‘nuclear option’, and the ramifications of its application. This Article represents a kind of penalty for the state failing to protect key freedoms and human rights in their domestic affairs. After a careful scrutinisation of the functionality of democracy in the member country suspected of delinquency by the European Parliament, the procedure envisages the application of sanctions on this member in case of the determination of clear risks of human right violations. To put it practically, it advises the suspension of the right to vote on EU decisions, which hinders the state’s ability to actively participate and influence EU political affairs. This procedure has also been used against Poland as a result of reforms to the country’s judicial system due to Warsaw’s failure to ensure the diligent functioning of the check-and-balances system, which constitute the backbone of democratic rule.
However, in the Hungarian case, the violation of the rules of the European Union was more substantial and concerned the extensive scope of infringement on political and human rights. The Orban government was accused of encroachment on the rights of women, national minorities and asylum seekers, the breach of academic freedom and freedom of speech as well as a dramatic rocketing of corruption. According to the Corruption Perception Index, the level of corruption in Hungary is ranked as 42/100, which estimates Hungary as one of the most corrupt nations in the European Union. The spread of corruption disables the transparency of governmental structures and separation of powers. Furthermore, it raises questions over the inclusion of the population in political life and confounds the work of the private sector.
The weakening of the rule of law and compromising of the independence of judges is intrinsic to the current Hungarian government. Hungary was found to have violated EU law by forcing judges, prosecutors, and notaries to retire at age 62. In response, Hungary passed Act XX of 2013, reducing the retirement age to 65 over ten years, with options for reinstatement or compensation. However, the majority of retired judges didn’t return, and the judiciary’s independence and the rule of law in Hungary remained doubtful, as noted in a report by the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute in October 2015.
In addition, the UN Human Rights Committee raised concerns about the independence of media and freedom of speech in Hungary. The committee shed light on the fact that the amendments to the legislative framework did not completely ensure unrestricted media coverage following excessive regulatory and sanctioning powers. This amendments to key law significantly hindered the work of NGOs working on human rights protection and investigation of governmental disfunction.
Academic freedom is one of the key components of the democratic state. The intentions to eliminate the Gender Studies Master’s program at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) and reject recognition of the MA in Gender Studies from the Central European University by the Hungarian government underpinned the deficiency of education on gender equality and women’s rights issues and subsequent failure to introduce the procedures for their solution. As a result, since Orban’s occupation of the prime-minister’s office, gender inequalities significantly deteriorated in economic decision-making. On the top of that, the Hungarian Parliament refused the ratification of the Istanbul Convention aimed at the combating of domestic violence. It was stated that the principles of this convention would contradict the conservative ideology of the ruling party.
Even more significant was the infringement of asylum law and minority rights, marking a prominent instance of democratic erosion in Hungary. The Jew and Roma minority are facing marginalisation, persecution and exclusion from social life. Anti-Gypsyism, particularly violent actions against Roma people and paramilitary activities in Roma-populated areas, was highlighted as a severe form of intolerance. Despite the public condemnation of anti-Semitic narratives, the practicing of anti-Semitism remains an issue and manifests itself in violence against Jewish individuals or property, as stated by The Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees raised concerns about the possibility of a surge of xenophobic attitudes and rise in racism caused by the restrictive immigration law in Hungary. The country is known as a violator of the asylum law represented by the frequent reluctance to give shelter to those fleeing from grievances and their mistreatment by Hungarian border guards. For example, in 2015 the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) paid a visit to Hungary and determined that a considerable amount of migrants were subjected to physical ill-treatment leading to severe injuries. A prominent case is the death of Syrian refugee Abdullah Mohamed Alhowais as a result of the violence from Hungarian border guards.
Friendship with Russia and the European Destiny
Despite the stated facts of the breach of European Union values by the Orban government, a consensus on Article 7’s application has not been reached and Hungary has managed to sustain its full-fledged rights to influence the decision-making process in the European Union. The freezing of access to billions of funds could not be regarded as a sufficient measure of resistance: Orban found another way to strengthen his power by taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic. One would daresay that the hesitancy to combat the rising autocracy comprehensively played a fatal joke on the background of the full-scaled Russo-Ukrainian war. The partial censorship of Orban in the European Union forced him to reconsider the relationship with Russia and build closer ties with Putin. Orban repeatedly stated that the confrontation with Russia had never been his priority and has expressed a willingness to expand ties with Moscow.
Superficially, Hungary’s relatively recent experiences of control by Russia, including the 1957 invasion of the country by Soviet troops to suppress an anti-government rebellion, should have rendered Budapest sympathetic to Kyiv’s plight. Yet both Hungarian and Russian imperial pasts indicate their common interest in the further expansion of their control of Ukrainian territory. It is a rarely-known fact that after the obtaining of Ukrainian independence in 1991, there has been dispute between Budapest and Kyiv over the Hungarian minority living in Ukraine’s Transcarpathian region. This region contains large settlements of Hungarian and Ruthenian minorities and is notable for the prevalence of Hungarian language, education and cultural narratives, which makes it possible for Hungarian and Russian governments to exploit this minority to destabilise the territorial integrity of Ukraine from both West and East. One can suspect that the dissection of Ukrainian territories is seen as potentially profitable for both of these states given their geopolitical interests.
Orban can be seen as a voice of the Kremlin in the European Union. His claims about the necessity of withdrawal of sanctions from Russia, hindering the arm supply to Kyiv and opposition to Ukrainian membership of the European Union prove that this suspicion is relevant. Without a doubt, these narratives directly play into Moscow’s hands and correspond with the Russian political course dictated in the doctrine of the Russian World. The ramifications of proposals advocated by Orban in the European Parliament are evident. In case of the adherence to them the defeat of Ukraine, the shrinkage of the NATO and EU blocks as well as the positive restatement of Russian positions in the international arena are a major risk.
Nevertheless, the Hungarian economy is closely tied to the EU: about 78% of its exports are going to EU countries, and 71% of imports originate from the EU members states. Besides, approximately 60% of the population express their desire to remain in the EU, and Orban himself mentioned his reluctance to reject EU membership. Orban does not seem likely to leave his office soon: the congress of the Hungarian ruling party “Fidesz” re-elected Prime Minister Viktor Orban as its chairman on 18th of November, 2023. To defend itself, the Hungarian Government resorts to nationalistic approaches and states that as long as “Fidesz” is in power, the questions regarding the issues of migration, human rights and aid to Ukraine will be solved domestically. Yet Orban’s attempts to sit on both European and Russian stools cannot go on indefinitely. It is impossible to take full advantage of the benefits the European cooperation and constantly undermine the values constituting this institution. Considering the substantial popular support for EU membership, the application of Article 7 may lead to domestic upheavals – potentially even resulting in the ousting of the government. Hungary will inevitably be faced with a choice. It is just a matter of time.