Hungary vs EU: Tensions escalate

Tensions between Budapest and Brussels escalated further this week after the European Commission, as expected, decided to open two infringement proceedings against Hungary over the controversial legal amendments effectively targeting the LGBTIQ community in the country. Tensions between the two sides have become the norm and not the exception, and diplomats in Brussels have been left to guess Orban’s next move. Barely twenty-fours have passed from the European Commission’s press conference, that Orban announced a referendum on the proposed LGBTIQ legal amendments, effectively pitching his people against the EU.

With Hungary’s national election due next year, Prime Minister Orban seems to be leaving no stone unturned to win this election. The irony is that the EU, unintentionally, is playing his game. Whenever, a new controversy arises, the EU, as it is dutybound to do, intervenes, and Orban comes up with some form of a statement or action that allows him to score points with his electorate, by creating a fresh controversy or by escalating tensions even further. 

Together with Poland, Hungary is currently under the Article 7 proceedings within the Council of the EU, following the proposal by the European Commission and votes in the European Parliament. Dialogue between Member States have been ongoing for more than two years and many doubt whether any outcome is to be expected anytime soon as the whole process requires unanimity. Events in Hungary are condemnable, yet the Eastern European countries always stand with each other under the V4 umbrella.

The idea of Poland leaving the EU has already been floated around within the Brussels circles. Last week the European Commission has given Poland an ultimatum regarding the primacy of EU law issue. EU law primacy over national law is sacrosanct, to which all Member States have signed upon acceding to the EU. As far-fetched as it may be, the possibility that Hungary might either be asked to leave the bloc or triggers the process on its own steam seems to be plausible as the two sides are diverging further from each other as time passes. The only carrot that is keeping Hungary within the bloc, is EU funds. Should Hungary be punished or sanctioned, then we dare to assume, that the inevitable might happen. 

With Hungary’s national election due next year, Prime Minister Orban seems to be leaving no stone unturned to win this election.

Losing on recovery funds is not a remote possibility either. The European Parliament is already pushing the European Commission to consider such an avenue should tensions escalate further. An example has already been set by the Norwegian Fund, where an agreement was not reached on the disbursement of funds to Hungary.

Another escalation has been the publication of the Rule of Law report which, as expected included tough comments and analysis on the situation of both Hungary and Poland. On Hungary the report states “Risks of clientelism, favouritism and nepotism in high-level public administration as well as risks arising from the link between businesses and political actors remain unaddressed.” It further adds “independent control mechanisms remain insufficient for detecting corruption. Concerns remain regarding the lack of systematic checks and insufficient oversight of asset and interest declarations.”

This is a further testament of the acrimonious relationship between Orban and the European Commission. The EU is a rule-based organisation, and any deviation from its sacred rules of values and human rights is not tolerated in absolute terms. This Commission, presided by Ursula von der Leyen is proving to be more rigid and strict from previous Commissions, which were more political. While, Orban might be testing its patience, he is forgetting how thin patience is in Brussels. However, he is aware that he is holding the trump card and always has an ace card up his sleeve.

The European Parliament is urging the Commission to use its bazooka’ – the rule of law clause contained both in the Recovery Fund and in the seven-year budget. This may prove too tough a pill for Hungary to swallow and any move towards this end should not be hastened. A deep and thorough analysis should be undertaken prior to any political action, as the repercussions would be catastrophic, as other super powers might be more than willing to fill the void.

The European Union cannot afford two of its Member States, Hungary and Poland, who are in the centre of Europe, to consider leaving the bloc. Such an action would destabilise the whole continent, and both countries outside the EU might be more a thorn in the EU’s side than if they remain members. Ironically, for Orban to retain power, he requires constant tensions to play the victim card at home. Time and again, we have seen that this strategy works. It has worked in the UK and will work in any other country as long as the EU Commission is perceived as distant from the real needs of its citizens. 

Will tensions escalate further? Time will tell but from experience we can safely assume that they will, and the EU’s patience will be tested to the limits. The EU should somehow avoid falling into Orban’s trap.

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