By CRAIG WILLY
The Hungarian government’s critics can cite a long list of grievances: restrictions on raising LGBT issues in schools, weakening independence of the media and judiciary, and misuse of EU funds.
The Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán is unimpressed by such arguments. Continuously in power since 2010, his Fidesz party won a fourth parliamentary majority in April this year. Although the government had been fearful it could lose this time, Fidesz actually strengthened its position, winning 52.5 percent of the vote and just over two thirds of seats in Parliament.
The authors of the Bertelsmann Foundation’s 2021 report on sustainable governance in Hungary however faults the Fidesz government for having created an unfair electoral playing field. The opposition was hobbled by reduced funding to their political parties, a weakening of municipalities (which contain several opposition bastions), tightening political influence over the media, and increased censorship by criminalizing “fake news” and scaremongering.
But from Orbán's perspective, his government’s legitimacy had been confirmed yet again, boasting in his election-night speech that he had a won “a victory so big you can see it from the moon – and from Brussels.”
This puts the European institutions in an awkward situation as they consider whether to cut off Hungary’s access to EU funds. A newly-created “rule of law mechanism” enables the EU to withdraw funding from misspending countries. Eurocrats had withheld from using those powers, perhaps not to be seen to be interfering in Hungary’s election.
What’s more, the European Commission still has to decide whether to approve Hungary’s post-COVID economic plan and provide almost €17 billion in grants and loans from the Next Generation EU recovery package. The Bertelsmann report worries that the EU’s post-COVID funds could end up “enriching [the government’s] cronies” while constraining future governments’ fiscal room for manoeuvre.
The EU institutions now have a delicate task of navigating two imperatives: that of respecting the will of the Hungarian people and protecting the interests of the broader constituency, namely all of the Union’s 447 million citizens.