The EU must tread carefully: Victor Orban and the rise of autocracy

By Sophia Gaston

Extraordinary scenes played out in the European Parliament this week, as Hungarian President Victor Orban clashed with European officials in Strasbourg about his government’s increasing illiberalism. By Wednesday, the EU had dramatically voted in clear agreement to trigger the Article 7 process against Hungary – the second time this ‘nuclear option’ has been deployed against an EU member state in two years.

Over the past eight years, Orban has undertaken sweeping reforms that have consolidated his own power and built a resilient autocracy. He has clamped down on media freedoms, violated judicial independence, and embedded corruption at the heart of the government. Through audacious new legislation and instilling a culture of thuggish intimidation, Orban has made it almost impossible for civil society to scrutinise his activities, as well as threatening the future of the respected Central European University. At the same time, he has marginalised minority communities in Hungary, made homelessness a crime, and waged an anti-Semitic campaign against George Soros, which has seen the Open Society Foundations forced out of the country.

The EU has watched in growing discomfort as Orban has followed the path of the Polish populist government, in building an illiberal democracy from within its ranks. It had been hoped that Orban’s membership of the European People’s Party (EPP) group would provide avenues for dialogue amongst his peers on the centre-right, but this vote signalled that patience has worn thin.
In practical reality, the Article 7 process is unlikely to achieve anything substantial – the EU has built a framework that holds member states to tough conditions of entry, but with such stringent requirements for action once they are in the club, it is almost impossible to meaningfully then hold them to account. Moreover, while Hungary is a net recipient of EU funds, and citizens’ support for the EU within the country remains high, the process of withdrawing money could threaten to sour public opinion. As always, the EU must tread carefully.

Sophia Gaston is the Deputy Director and Director of the Centre for Social and Political Risk at the Henry Jackson Society

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