Orbán's regime set out to promote political realignment in Europe


A European Parliament (EP) report adopted on 15 September on "The existence of a clear risk of serious breach by Hungary of the values on which the Union is founded" stated that "the lack of decisive EU action has contributed to a breakdown in democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights in Hungary, turning the country into a hybrid regime of electoral autocracy". Despite this unusually clear definition of the regime in the context of EU documents and the political pressure represented by the statement, there are still doubts about whether the European Union (EU) will be able to effectively address the rule of law problem within the Union. The European Commission (EC) seems to underestimate the importance of the Orbán regime and fails to communicate clearly on the rule of law mechanism. Taking advantage of this, the Orbán government is blaming the “sanctions of Brussels” for all the problems arising from the energy crisis, both at the domestic and the European level.

an image of two large billboards depicting a bomb labelled "sanctions" and the text "Brussel's sanctions are destroying us"

The EP report on Hungary was adopted with 433 votes for, 123 against, and 28 abstentions. In the European People's Party (EPP), only a handful of MEPs from four different parties voted against the resolution: György Hölvényi of the Christian Democratic People's Party (KDNP), which is a governing coalition partner of Fidesz; the two Hungarian MEPs of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (RMDSZ); the Slovenian MEP of Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), an ally of Orbán’s; while four of the seven MEPs from the French Les Républicains voted against and three abstained.

The three Italian parties which have come to power in Italy since this vote was taken did not vote in the same direction: The Fratelli d'Italia and the Lega voted against the resolution, while Forza Italia voted in favour. Only members of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and Identity and Democracy (ID) groups voted against, with a few exceptions. In the ECR, the Belgian NVA voted in favour and the Czech ODS and one Dutch MEP abstained. In ID, the only MEP from the Danish People's Party abstained. There were hardly any speeches in the debate in defence of the Hungarian government. This means that Viktor Orbán's government has far fewer allies on the current European political scene than it had at the time of the Sargentini report.

Despite pressure from the EP, the Commission intends to make it possible for the Hungarian government to reach an agreement with the EU on the rule of law mechanism. One reason is that after the Hungarian parliamentary elections on 3 April, it became clear that in the years to come, the EU institutions will have to continue working with the government that they have gotten to know during the past 12 years. To a certain degree, there is a mutual interest in ensuring access to EU funds for the Hungarian government, but at the same time the Commission is seeking to enforce the conditions and milestones imposed on the Hungarian government by the rule of law procedure.

At this stage, the Orbán government still has time to implement the anti-corruption reform package prescribed by the EU's Council of Finance Ministers if it wants to avoid fines. Therefore, the fate of the EU funds could become clear by year-end. It is important to note that the issue will not just be resolved through handshakes. Obviously, the EU bodies want to ensure that the measures agreed on will not just exist only on paper, so if they detect that the Hungarian government is not fulfilling its commitments despite the agreement, they will be in a position to suspend payments at any time and even to open another rule of law procedure.

For the time being, the process is at the stage of the parliamentary codification of the Hungarian concessions. The government has pledged to reform the public procurement system, tighten the recently watered-down asset declaration system, and involve civil society in the consultation process on laws and legislative amendments. Furthermore, while it has refrained from joining the European Public Prosecutor's Office, the government has pledged to set up a new anti-corruption authority. Some of these commitments have already been presented in the form of bills and passed in the Hungarian Parliament, but the degree to which they will be executed is highly questionable, all the more so because the bargaining between the Commission and the Hungarian government is completely incomprehensible to the majority of Hungarian voters. The Orbán government has proposed its anti-corruption measures sotto voce and does not announce details of the negotiations; rather, it keeps asserting that there will be an agreement on EU funds sooner or later. The Commission, meanwhile, has also failed to communicate about the negotiating process in a way that is comprehensible to the average Hungarian citizen.

What is pronounced, however, is the Orbán government's vociferous anti-Brussels campaign running in parallel with the negotiations. The campaign’s core communication is that the Hungarian government blames the EU sanctions against Russia as being fully responsible for the prolongation of the Russo-Ukrainian war and the energy crisis that preceded the war, and - in full accordance with Kremlin propaganda - claims that sanctions are ineffective against Russia, drive up energy prices, and cause serious damage to European countries.

The Hungarian government is campaigning on this message more and more intensively, not just in domestic politics, but also at the EU level. Thus – although he does not have many allies at the moment, as the EP vote shows –Orbán is hoping that in a Europe growing weary of the energy crisis, more and more Europeans will adopt his position. Therefore, he voices his anti-sanctions views wherever he can, trying to convince the Austrian and German chancellors during bilateral visits of the truth of his claims. He has attributed the results of the Italian elections, as well as the demonstrations in the Czech Republic, to the failure of the sanctions policy and is promoting this information warfare on his newly-launched Twitter channel, where he admits he wants to make as much noise as possible.

In addition to this increasingly forceful communication, the Hungarian Prime Minister is also using veto threats in an attempt to assert his own interests and influence in the face of his international isolation. Although the Hungarian government has so far voted in favour of all sanctions against Russia, in its rhetoric it constantly emphasises that it would never support direct gas sanctions (even though there has been no talk of such sanctions, of course). Moreover, EU sanctions against some individual Russians have actually been blocked by the Orbán government; for example, the EU did not impose sanctions on Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, because Hungary threatened to veto the sixth package of sanctions against Russia if he were included.

From time to time, the Hungarian government tries to be "the stick in the spokes" in NATO (in Orbán's words), which is why it is delaying recognition of Finland’s and Sweden’s accession to NATO. In fact, there has already been a precedent for this, such as when Hungary vetoed a joint statement by NATO ambassadors on Ukraine in October 2019.

At this point, it is impossible to know whether Orbán can achieve anything with this at the international level or whether he will isolate himself even more. What is certain, however, is that he should not be underestimated by the current key players in the EU. He is not operating in a vacuum, but is part of an autocratic network opposed to liberal democracies that encompasses Donald Trump; Jair Bolsonaro, who outperformed expectations in the first round of the Brazilian elections; Vladimir Putin; and even China. Moreover, Orbán is often used in the EU as a loudspeaker for some of the things which other EU Member States do not want to say themselves, so his international movements reflect the interests of those actors as well.

In addition, Hungary has a geopolitically important position in the region, and Orbán makes use of this whenever he can. The country is the gateway to Eastern Europe and the Balkans, where he is consciously trying to build an influence that could be marketable in both the East and the West and that is of great significance in terms of security policy for the whole of Europe. Therefore, the manner in which the EU will deal with the Orbán regime in the current period of crises is far from a minor issue.