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Aided by von der Leyen, Orbán has made a mockery of the values the EU is meant to uphold

Unconscionable move by Ursula von der Leyen and European Commission to unblock €10.2bn in EU funding for Hungary is single worst decision by any commission

Last week’s European Council summit meeting was one of the most extraordinary in the history of EU diplomacy.

In the weeks leading up to the summit, Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán made it clear that his country would not agree to the opening of negotiations for membership with Ukraine. He argued that Ukraine did not meet the criteria laid down by the European Commission. He made a clear link between the accession decision and the need for the EU to unlock up to €30 billion in EU funds, withheld from Hungary for the last two years, because of serious and ongoing rule of law violations by Orbán’s regime.

The unconscionable decision by President Ursula von der Leyen and the commission to unblock €10.2 billion in EU funding for Hungary constitutes the single worst decision I can ever remember any commission taking in its seven-decade history. It makes a mockery of the democratic norms which the EU is supposed to represent and uphold.

EU leaders treated the Orbán veto threat as a short-term challenge that needed immediate diplomatic attention. In reality, they were ignoring the longer-term challenge of radical right confrontation with democracy, and Vladimir Putin’s sponsorship of Orbán’s Euro-antagonism.


The commission’s justification for releasing the cash was that Hungary had substantially improved the independence of its judiciary. But every EU law expert that has examined the recent Hungarian “reforms” is emphatic in saying that these are in no sense meaningful and consequential changes to Hungarian law.

Rather, they are consistent with a pattern of engagement by Orbán’s regime going back to 2010, where he has led the commission on a merry dance of fake reforms. In reality, authoritarianism in Hungary has only deepened. The European Commission and European Council “bought” the reforms only to the extent that they needed to get through the summit. Everyone in Brussels knows that these reforms are entirely fake.

Orbán began dismantling the checks and balances within the Hungarian political system as soon as he returned to office in 2010. Adopting the language of ethno-populism, he deployed what has become known as the “authoritarian playbook” to firmly consolidate his hold over Hungary. This saw him engage in sustained attacks on democratic institutions, including the Hungarian courts, which he packed with his own supporters, sacking any jurist of an independent cast of mind. Orbán also rigged the electoral system so that it is now impossible for opposition parties to win elections in Hungary. Thus, he and his Fidesz party will remain in power in perpetuity.

Harassment from Orbán’s government forced the Central European University, the best university in Central and eastern Europe, to relocate from Budapest to Vienna, Austria. “Media capture” saw supporters of Orbán buy up virtually all private media groups in the country. Editors and journalists were sacked and replaced with loyalists, while the editorial line often somersaulted to reflect the ruling party’s priorities. Public media is completely controlled by Fidesz.

Orbán has succeeded in turning the public sphere in Hungary into a grotesque alternative reality, replete with paranoia and Kremlin-supported conspiracy theories of all kinds, generated to keep the public in a constant state of watchfulness about “foreign threats” to Hungarian identity and culture.

Last week, we saw a new law legislated by the Hungarian parliament called the Sovereign Protection Act, which is modelled on Russia’s foreign relations law, and explicitly attacks civil society and the media. Orbán and his cronies felt so emboldened that they timed this legislation to coincide with the week of the European Council. Why? Because they know that the EU authorities simply refuse to stand up for the rule of law.

Although Orbán did not veto the opening of accession negotiations with Ukraine, he opposed the EU attempt to send €50 billion in financial support to Kyiv. He then, however, made clear that he would not hesitate to veto Ukraine’s progress in the accession negotiations in 2024.

The end result of this is that we can expect Orbán to return to the European Council table within months to try to repeat the blackmail trick and unblock even more of the EU cash that had been withheld from Hungary.

Thus the EU celebration of the opening of negotiations with Ukraine as “historic” and “momentous” may turn into a pyrrhic victory – Orbán remains resolutely opposed to Ukrainian membership of the EU and will press every lever to prevent Ukrainian progress in 2024.

Democracy around the world has never been so threatened in the modern era. An era of democratic recession that began about 15 years ago shows no sign of abating. The European Union is defined by the values of democracy and pluralism written into Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union. The commission’s decision on Hungary (with the agreement of the European Council) drives a coach-and-four through those values. How does anybody representing the EU now claim to represent democratic values when our leaders are engaged in acts of self-sabotage from within?

Looking ahead, 2024 is looming as a particularly frightening year for democracy. There is every chance of Donald J Trump returning to the White House. The prospect of the United States lurching towards dictatorship is no longer a science fiction fantasy. It is becoming frighteningly real.

But, just as worryingly, across Europe, far right parties are continuing to surge. The recent poll-topping performance of the Dutch Freedom Party (PVV) is just one example. The far-right party in Austria is poised to become the largest party in the Austrian assembly within months. Alternativ fur Deutschland is the second most popular party in Germany. Marine le Pen’s National Rally is likely to win far more seats in the European Parliament elections in France than President Emmanuel Macron’s party.

It is possible that, a year from now, far right parties will control four or five EU member state governments. Orbán will have a significant number of allies at the table of the European Council and in the European Parliament, and he will have the support of both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in his effort to destroy the European Union.

Last week was the moment when the EU could have and should have confronted the authoritarian in its midst. Although EU leaders managed to garner agreement to open accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova, the price paid for gaining that agreement may prove far too high.

John O’Brennan is a professor in the Department of Sociology at Maynooth University and director of the Maynooth Centre for European and Eurasian Studies