In the midst of the fuss (insufficiently focused fuss) about what Johnson did and didn’t do, and what Cummings did and didn’t say, Viktor Orbán is to visit Downing Street on Friday for talks with Johnson. He will be one of the first EU leaders to visit since Brexit. Leader of the far-right Fidesz party, Orbán has centralised power in Hungary around himself and his allies, turning it into a repressive state that is increasingly at odds with Brussels.
Human rights groups, as well as Jewish and Muslim MPs, have questioned whether he is an appropriate guest of honour, given his targeting and scapegoating of minorities: his government has been accused of running anti-Semitic and Islamophobic campaigns, and he has also cracked down on LGBTQ rights and on the status of minorities such as Hungary’s Roma – about whose treatment, unlike the treatment of Jews and Muslims, mainstream media has been markedly silent.
But why is Orbán visiting the UK?
Firstly, because it will annoy the EU: it’s sending a message to the bloc, within which Hungary is an increasingly problematic and dissenting member.
Secondly, because it gives Johnson an opportunity to split the bloc over the Northern Ireland Protocol using Hungary’s presidency of the Visegrad group as leverage. He has wanted for some time to “divide and rule”: Frost has repeatedly attempted to engage in bilateral negotiations with single states to get what he wants, and this may well be the thin end of his wedge, given that there is clear ideological sympathy between the Orbán and the Johnson regimes.
Thirdly, because Johnson’s government is in sympathy with Orbán’s brand of “democracy” and the far-right politics Orbán practices: their views align in many areas.
Fourthly, Orbán is pro-China, pro-Russia and dislikes Biden: all things that increasingly it looks like the UK government will become, especially if the UK and the US fall out over, yes, you’ve guessed it, the Northern Ireland Protocol. Johnson could well see himself as establishing an alternative bloc.
But who is Orbán, what does he stand for, and why should Johnson not even be giving him the time of day, much less fêting him as a guest of honour?
Orbán has been Prime Minister of Hungary since 2010; he was also Prime Minister from 1998 to 2002. He has also been President of Fidesz, a national conservative political party, since 1993, with a brief break between 2000 and 2003. Under his control it has become the most centralized, most homogeneous and most disciplined party in Hungarian history. He supervises communications, long-term planning, daily operations, policy direction, and selection of candidates. Orbán has also said his party has “replaced a shipwrecked liberal democracy with a 21st-century Christian democracy” in Hungary.
Orbán is seen as having laid out his political views most concretely in a widely cited 2014 public address at Băile Tușnad (known in Hungary as the Tusnádfürdői beszéd, or “Tusnádfürdő speech”). In the address, Orbán repudiated the classical liberal theory of the state as a free association of atomistic individuals, arguing for the use of the state as the means of organizing, invigorating, or even constructing the national community. Although this kind of state respects traditionally liberal concepts like civic rights, it is properly called “illiberal” because it views the community, and not the individual, as the basic political unit.
In practice, Orbán claimed, such a state should promote national self-sufficiency, national sovereignty, familialism, full employment and the preservation of cultural heritage. (Familialism views the nuclear family of one father, one mother, and their child or children as the central and primary social unit of human ordering and the principal unit of a functioning society and civilization. It therefore privileges – often legally and financially – that unit at the expense of others such as the single-parent family, the gay or lesbian family, or the blended family, and may in some cases promote the nuclear family by e.g. banning reproductive practices, privileging mothers of many children, denying non-conforming couples the right to adopt, and banning gay marriage or partnership rights.) Orbán cited countries such as Turkey, India, Singapore, Russia, and China as models.
Following a decade of Fidesz–KDNP rule lead by Orbán, Freedom House’s Nations in Transit 2020 report reclassified Hungary from a democracy to a transitional or hybrid regime. A hybrid regime is a mixed type of political regime that is often created as a result of an incomplete transition from an authoritarian regime to a democratic one: in this case, Hungary is transitioning the other way. Hybrid regimes combine autocratic features with democratic ones and can simultaneously hold political repressions and regular elections.
Generally, the election does not result in a change of regime, as the odds are always stacked in such a way as to return the regime in power. Such regimes tend to be both stable within their state of repression, as the opposition is usually weakened and dissent punished as soon as it arises, and tenacious over time because their governments reach an equilibrium where they have weakened the opposition sufficiently to be unopposed. Western researchers analysing hybrid regimes look for democratic institutions that are “decorative” (elections do not lead to a change of power, different media broadcast government point of view and the opposition in parliament votes the same way as the ruling party, among other markers) and posit that if these are present, then authoritarianism is at the base of the regime. These regimes often imitate dictatorship by using a cult of popularity around the leader to promote national cohesion. The levels of violence in a hybrid regime are usually lower than in a straight-up dictatorship, although in many of them both the police and the judiciary function as an arm of the government, rather than being independent, and dissent on the street is often met with state-sanctioned police violence in the name of national security.
Under Orbán’s leadership, Hungary has experienced a shift from liberal democracy, moving toward authoritarianism. Orbán’s populism, social-national conservatism, Euroscepticism and advocacy of what he freely describes as an “illiberal state” have attracted significant European and international attention and criticism. As a result of Orbán’s political conduct, Fidesz was suspended from the European People’s party March 2019 until March 2021, when Fidesz left the EPP after its new statute strengthened the commitment of constituent parties to respect the principle of the rule of law.
What happened there, then?
Orbán pulled his right-wing Fidesz party out of the main centre-right political group in the European parliament after the European People’s party (EPP) moved towards excluding it by changing its rules: he jumped before he was pushed. The EPP’s 180 MEPs, some of whom have campaigned for years for the expulsion of Fidesz, which they accuse of weakening the judiciary and curbing media, academic and other freedoms, backed the change by 148 votes to 28 with four abstentions.
Orbán said in a letter posted on Twitter soon after the vote that it was “disappointing” that in the midst of a pandemic the EPP was busying itself with curtailing the rights of its own representatives. He accused the EPP of “trying to mute and disable our democratically elected MEPs”. The vote was “a hostile move against Fidesz and our voters”, he said, as well as “anti-democratic, unjust and unacceptable … Therefore, the governing body of Fidesz has decided to leave the EPP Group immediately.”
A spokesman for the EPP parliamentary group, Pedro Lopez de Pablo, said the Hungarian prime minister’s response to the vote was “his own personal decision” and that the group would not comment. Under Orbán, Fidesz had “eroded democracy in Hungary and vandalised European values,” Dacian Ciolos, a Romanian MEP said, adding that it was regrettable that the EPP had harboured the slide to authoritarianism in Hungary for so long, and that there was no space for the toxic populism of Fidesz in European politics.
Orbán’s decision to walk away from the biggest single voting bloc in the parliament ends years of wrangling between EPP parties over whether or not to kick his right-wing, populist party out of the group or keep its MEPs onboard. In a letter to the EPP’s leader, Manfred Weber, on Sunday, Orbán had threatened to leave the group, saying the proposed rule changes – to allow entire member parties, rather than just individual MEPs, to be expelled with a simple majority – were “tailor-made to punish Fidesz”. The EPP suspended Fidesz’s membership in 2019 over growing concerns that the rule of law was being eroded in Hungary and that the party was engaging in anti-Brussels rhetoric and attacking the EPP leadership. Fidesz currently has 12 MEPs. As for the EPP, beside Merkel’s CDU, the EPP faction includes Poland’s opposition Civic Platform, Belgian Christian Democrats, France’s Les Republicains and others. It will remain the largest group in the 705-strong chamber even after the Fidesz MEPs’ departure, but it is vulnerable to national elections coming up over the next few years.
Fidesz’s MEPs could now join either the socially conservative and Eurosceptic European Conservatives & Reformists (ECR) group dominated by Poland’s Law & Justice (PiS) party, or the far-right, nationalist Identity & Democracy group founded in 2019 by France’s Marine Le Pen and Italy’s Matteo Salvini. Le Pen has stated that her aim, if elected as French President next year, is not to take France out of the EU but to push the EU to the right, and strengthen the hold of the far-right parties.
The EPP effectively voted to expel Hungary from its group. Can the EU itself expel Hungary as a member state if it transgresses against EU rules?
Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union is a procedure in the treaties of the EU to suspend certain rights from a member state. While rights can be suspended, there is no mechanism to expel a member.
The procedure would be enacted where the EU identifies a member persistently breaching the EU’s founding values (respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities), as outlined in TEU Article 2.
The European Council can also vote to suspend any rights of membership, such as voting and representation as outlined above. Identifying the breach requires unanimity (excluding the state concerned), but sanctions require only a qualified majority. The Council acting by majority may alter or lift such sanctions. The state in question would still be bound by the obligations of the treaties.
Has this ever been used against Hungary?
It has. In June 2015, the European Parliament asked the Commission to present a proposal for starting the mechanism against Hungary over rule of law concerns in the country; but in October voted down a similar proposal to begin procedures against Hungary over its treatment of migrants. Nothing came of this attempt.
On 12 September 2018, however, the European Parliament voted on the Sargentini Report, calling for action against Hungary, and alleging breaches of core EU values.
The Sargentini Report cited many issues, including concerns regarding the constitutional and electoral system; the independence of the judiciary’, corruption; privacy and data protection; freedom of expression; academic independence; freedom of religion and association; the right to equal treatment; the rights of minorities, migrants, asylum seekers and refugees; and the abolition of economic and social rights. It also accused Orbán of attacks on the billionaire philanthropist George Soros that included “clearly antisemitic stereotypes”.
However, UK Conservative MEPs supported Orbán against the motion to censure him in the European parliament on the grounds of the findings of the Sargentini Report.
At the time, Orbán thanked Conservative MEPs for their “solidarity” in voting against EU action to protect the rule of law in his country. In a signed letter to UK Conservative MEPs who voted with his Fidesz party, Orbán expressed his appreciation of “the support you’ve shown towards national sovereignty and solidarity during the vote,” and said that “I can assure you that regardless of the shameful attacks of pro-immigration forces, we will not give in to extortion. We will continue to fulfil our European obligations and defend the borders of European and Hungary for the sake of our citizens.”
Two Conservative MEPs abstained from voting with Orbán. Another two, who were at that time suspended from the Conservatives’ European parliamentary group, because of their stance on Brexit, voted to start the sanctions procedure against Orbán. One of the rebels, the MEP for South West England and Gibraltar, Julie Girling, said that the Orbán vote was a further sign that the “hard-right of the party had seized control of the agenda”. Echoing this view, a former leader of the Conservatives in Brussels and Strasbourg, Edward McMillan-Scott, said he no longer recognised the party he had been a member of for 25 years.
The Conservatives were criticised at the time by political opponents for “tramping on the legacy” of previous Conservative governments, which promoted democracy in central and eastern Europe. The party staunchly rejected these assertions, arguing that triggering the EU sanctions procedure would do nothing to change Orbán’s behaviour.
At the time, the Conservative home affairs spokesman in the European parliament, Daniel Dalton, wrote “We take very seriously the concerns about the direction that the Hungarian government is taking, particularly in the rhetoric surrounding migrants and ethnic and religious minorities, and the rule of law and freedom of the press.” And a Conservative spokesman played down the letter. “This is a round robin letter sent to MEPs of all parties who voted against the motion. As we have made clear, our vote in no way signalled approval or support for any of the policies of the Hungarian government. On the contrary we opposed the resolution because it will not work and could make any subsequent legal moves against Hungary more difficult. This is not unlike what has happened today with Orbán’s visit: a nominal formal protest about his erosion of human rights, but covert approval of his form of government by giving him house-room as a visitor.
But, seriously, the EU can’t get rid of Hungary? Why not?
While a state can be suspended, there is no provision to expel a member state outright. The idea appeared in the drafting of the European Constitution and the Lisbon Treaty but failed to be included. There are a number of considerations which make such a provision impractical. Firstly, a member state leaving would require amendments to the treaties, and amendments require unanimity. Unanimity would be impossible to achieve if the state did not want to leave of its own free will. Secondly it is legally complicated, particularly with all the rights and privileges being withdrawn for both sides that would not be resolved by an orderly and voluntary withdrawal. Third, the concept of expulsion goes against the spirit of the treaties. Contrary to expulsion, most available sanctions are conciliatory, not punitive; they do not punish a state for failing to live up to fellow states’ demands, but encourage a state to fulfil its treaty obligations.
Has Hungary been sanctioned since?
No, but it’s sailing close to the wind. On 30 March 2020, in response to the pandemic, the Hungarian Parliament approved a bill to make its state of emergency indefinite, and to grant the ability for Prime Minister Orbán to rule by decree. (Not unlike the situation Dominic Cummings was suggesting yesterday: arguing for autocracy and “kingly power” to be given to an individual.) The bill also made the deliberate distribution of “misleading information that obstructs responses to the pandemic” punishable by up to five years in prison. The Bill faced opposition for containing indefinite restrictions on these powers, as well as concerns over the possibility that the “fake news” prohibition in the bill could be abused for censorship of independent media outlets. As a result, European Parliament group leaders raised concerns, in a meeting of the Conference of Presidents about the emergency measures and a majority of groups asked parliamentary president Davis Sassoli to relay their concerns in a letter to the Commission and to consider activating the Article 7 procedure. Before this could be done, the rule by decree was later voted out by the Hungarian parliament.
Why is Johnson meeting Orbán now?
The meeting has been planned ahead of Hungary assuming the presidency of the so-called Visegrad group of Central European nations later this year. The group, which is made up of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, was established 30 years ago to promote the European integration of the four countries. Downing Street says co-operation with Hungary “is vital to the UK’s prosperity and security” even though critics have questioned why the meeting is going ahead.
As for the Visegrad group, the V4 members are EU member states, but only Slovakia is part of the eurozone. Observers often refer to the V4 as “two plus two,” because of their differing attitudes to European integration. Slovakia and the Czech Republic are comparatively Europe-friendly, whereas Hungary and Poland take a much more Eurosceptic approach. These two, in particular, are keen to give member states within the EU a much stronger role once more: They want to see a “Europe of homelands” rather than a political union.
Tell me about the Visegrad group. Why might the UK see its interests aligning with the group? What could it hope to gain?
Within the group, Hungary’s main position is that it does not want to become a country of immigration. This is something Orbán has repeatedly emphasized. It has erected a separation fence along the border with Serbia and Croatia. More than 170,000 people applied for asylum in Hungary in 2015; in 2017, the figure was just under 3,400. Orbán is also one of the harshest critics of Chancellor Angela Merkel and her refugee policy.
Unlike the rest of the V4 group, Hungary has a good relationship with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Orbán and Putin meet regularly; the two countries have complementary economic and security policy interests. Refugee policy is not the only issue that has Hungary at loggerheads with the EU: Orbán’s restructuring of the constitutional state and the accompanying restrictions on media freedoms, the undermining of the constitutional court, and the action he has taken against civil society organizations have caused the EU to launch several infringement procedures against Hungary.
Poland was the first country against which the EU instigated proceedings for violations against the principles of the rule of law. The reason for this was the country’s controversial judicial reform, which the EU considers to have undermined the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers in Poland. To date, the reform has only been partially revoked.
Like Hungary and the Czech Republic, Poland refused to take in refugees and was sued by the EU as a result. Its categorical refusal to accept distribution quotas is still creating tension. Although Warsaw refuses to tolerate any interference in its domestic affairs, leaving the EU is not an option for Poland – the economic benefits of membership for the country are too great.
The Czech prime minister, Andrej Babiš, is also a staunch opponent of EU solidarity on refugee policy. He declared last year that his country would not take in “a single illegal migrant.” Economically, the Czech Republic is very closely integrated into the EU. However, it has a big problem with corruption and is not really seeing much improvement. Prime Minister Babiš is the second-richest man in the country and is suspected of unlawfully pocketing millions of euros in EU subsidies via one of his companies.
Slovakia is in the eurozone, and wants to become part of a “core Europe.” It’s the only V4 country that has agreed to take in small contingents of refugees; and in doing so, unlike the other V4 countries, it avoided prosecution by the EU Commission. However, last year Slovakia voted with Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic to reject the UN Migration Pact. The Slovak prime minister, Peter Pellegrini, said at the time: “Slovakia does not agree that there is no difference between legal and illegal migration, and we consider economic migration to be illegal, damaging, and a security risk.” Like the Czech Republic, Slovakia too has a corruption problem that extends into the higher levels of government.
Johnson’s staff have described the meeting as routine, but some major European powers will see it as a sign that the UK prime minister is more interested in disrupting rather than coexisting with the EU. He has so far only met the Irish prime minister, Micheál Martin, in an effort to reform the Northern Ireland protocol. And the risks to Johnson of a close relationship with the EU’s enfant terrible are clear, given that the Biden administration has frequently described Hungary as a totalitarian regime that is too close to China.
(Hungary has twice used its veto against EU criticism of China, most recently in May when it vetoed a motion criticising Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong – a move the German foreign minister, Heiko Mass, described as “absolutely incomprehensible”. The other occasion was when it refused to condemn China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority. Hungary is deeply intertwined with and, indeed indebted to China, making it China’s Trojan Horse into the EU, but that’s another article.)
Despite its stream of criticism of the EU, Hungary is likely to receive as much as €16.8bn (£14.5bn) under the bloc’s resilience and Covid recovery plan.
So what could the UK gain by conciliating this group?
Currently, the imposition of sanctions by the EU requires unanimity among EU Member States. However, there have been calls, including from the European Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen, to move towards a qualified majority voting system “at least for human rights and sanctions implementation.” In part, this movement towards reform of the EU’s sanctions-related decision-making process has been motivated by Cyprus’ recent initial refusal to approve sanctions against Belarus, as part of its political manoeuvring to force the EU to adopt further sanctions against Turkey, but it has also been recognised for some time that the requirement for unanimity weakens the EU, as its own report below recognises.
“Divisions within the EU, however, often prevent effective common action, as foreign policy decisions usually require unanimity. Divisions may stem from different analyses of the problem, conflicting national interests or member-states acting at the behest of, or under pressure from, external powers.
In response, the European Commission proposes to extend Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) to three policy fields within the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP): sanctions, human rights positions and civilian missions. For a vote to pass under QMV, it requires 55 per cent of member-states representing at least 65 per cent of the total EU population to be in favour of a proposal in the Council. The Commission argues that these reforms would not require changes to the EU treaties.
In theory, QMV would increase the EU’s effectiveness by ensuring that a single state or a small group could not block decisions. Member-states should see the benefits of such reforms: faced with external challenges to the rules-based order, their national interests should increasingly converge; and the treaties already protect critical national interests from majority decision taking.
In practice, majority voting would only help in one of the three areas: it would become easier to take decisions on sanctions. Human rights statements would not tangibly benefit from QMV, while civilian missions are inherently unsuitable to majority voting. Member-states should also use the existing provisions for QMV to implement common strategies.
Many member-states, however, oppose any extension of QMV to foreign policy: small member-states fear that larger member-states with greater voting power would ignore their views; Eurosceptic governments reject further encroachment on their formal sovereignty; and those states that profit from Chinese, and to a lesser extent Russian, investment want to preserve their ability to do foreign policy favours for their investors by blocking EU action.”
If Johnson can get Orbán on side, and through him win influence with the Visegrad group, he has a way to ensure that if he rejects the Northern Ireland Protocol, then he will have “friends in court” to mitigate or stop any action the EU chooses to take. If Johnson is able to win support from other far right parties of MEPs, he may even be able to defeat QMV: it depends on the extent to which the bloc will allow itself to be split, and the extent to which Johnson is able to tempt its Eurosceptic members.
Initially, though, Orbán is the obvious choice to reach out to: politically similar, ideologically in sympathy, Eurosceptic, Russophile and Sinophile, he is the ideal partner. And his visit will be seen by the EU as a whole as a hostile move on Johnson’s part, which will not smooth matters at all.
What the visit of this right-wing dictator in all but name says about Johnson’s government doesn’t bear thinking about. But now you’ve read this, are you really surprised that he’s been invited?