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It’s Time to Hold Hungary Accountable

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges to Europe. As of April 15th, there have been nearly 550,000 cases and more than 80,000 deaths due to COVID-19 across the continent. In attempts to mitigate the spread of the virus, many European governments have imposed stringent social distancing measures on their populations, with some of the hardest hit even entering lockdowns.

In most cases, these heightened government controls are both necessary and justified. In fact, it could be argued that some European nations, such as Sweden, have not yet gone far enough. One country, however, has far exceeded reasonable limits in its response.

Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has taken advantage of the crisis to dramatically increase its own power. On March 30th, the Hungarian parliament voted by a two-thirds majority to approve new legislation authorizing Orbán’s government to indefinitely rule by decree. These new rules, which can only be overturned by another two-thirds majority and a Presidential signature, also prohibit by-elections from taking place and penalize those who are believed to propagate “untrue or distorted facts”.

This cynical move is only the latest in Orbán’s decade-long effort to undermine Hungary’s democratic institutions and rule of law. Since the start of his second stint as Prime Minister in 2010, he has systematically worked to reduce judicial independence and censor media throughout the country, and even changed the constitution to remove critical checks and balances on the government.

Yet as the country steadily slid towards autocracy over the years, the European Union mostly refrained from taking action against Orbán. This is largely due to the continuing membership of Fidesz in the European People’s Party (EPP), the bloc of national center-right parties that holds the most seats of any such political grouping in the European Parliament. Though the EPP voted to suspend Fidesz in March 2019, the party will always retain a degree of protection unless it is expelled outright.

The EU’s most significant attempt to sanction Hungary thus far was its September 2018 initiation of Article 7 proceedings, which could lead to suspension of the country’s voting rights within various EU decision-making bodies. However, in the first year and a half since the procedure began there have only been a few unstructured and irregularly scheduled hearings lacking concrete outcomes.

These latest developments in Hungary make it clear that more must be done as soon as possible. It is not an exaggeration to say that increasing authoritarianism in an EU Member State represents an existential threat to the Union as a whole. The entire rationale for the EU’s revolutionary sovereignty-sharing arrangement rests on an assumption of common values among its citizens. It is one thing to make the argument that the inhabitants of like-minded democracies should pool their sovereignty; it is much harder, however, to make the case that citizens of a democracy should allow countries who do not respect their fundamental freedoms to have a say in their affairs.

Despite these tremendous stakes, initial responses to the new Hungarian legislation have been predictably disappointing. While 16 EU Member States have signed a statement expressing concern “about the risk of violations of the principles of rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights arising from the adoption of certain emergency measures,” they failed to explicitly mention Hungary. A statement by European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen was similarly vague.

Some reactions external to official EU channels are more emphatically critical, for instance those of former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and of U.S. Representative Elliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  The EU’s leadership would do well to adopt a similarly definite stance in future communications.

Rhetoric, however, will not be enough – there must be decisive action against Hungary. In an ideal scenario, Hungary would be expelled from the EU altogether. Unfortunately, this may not be possible, as the EU treaties do not provide for a mechanism to expel an existing Member State. Nevertheless, there are other avenues through which to punish Orbán and Fidesz – formal expulsion from the EPP would be a good place to start. European leaders could also execute on proposals to make future cohesion funding from the EU budget conditional on upholding the rule of law.

It is high time for the EU to find the courage to defend its foundations as a community of values. Any further delay will risk undermining the bloc’s moral authority, and ultimately its very logic as a political project.

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Nick Lokker

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