Last week, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán posted a full-page ad image, the German mass-media newspaper and several European newspapers, in which he set out his views on the European Union. We learn that he rejects a European empire, that he wants to protect “the European people” from migration and pandemics, and that he thinks nothing of the European Parliament.
Orbán has chained the press and restricted freedom in his country. He lives the LGBTQ community and has made rich friends and family with money from Brussels. Still, one must feel very safe publicly mocking the EU.
Why wouldn’t he have done it? The dismantling of democracy and the rule of law in Hungary has been harshly criticized by its European partners and the EU institutions in Brussels. So far, however, Orbán has not had to fear any consequences, at least none of which really hurt. When Orbán ignores a ruling by the European Court of Justice, the European Commission does not even ask for the institution of punitive damages. Countries like Poland, where the ruling PiS party has largely put the judiciary under its control, can also expect clemency.
And there are good reasons why the EU should not interfere too much in the politics of its member states, whose governments were democratically elected. If Poland does not want to take in Syrian refugees, this is unfortunate for humanitarian reasons, but it is not a sufficient cause for punishment.
However, in the long run, what is happening in Hungary and Poland will destroy the foundations of the EU. Politicians often use the term “community of values” lightly, but in the case of the European Union, its use is justified. A community whose members contribute part of their power to make the whole function as a unit cannot exist without shared beliefs. nor do they share European ideas of democracy, the rule of law and the protection of minorities, nor do they have any company that benefits from the EU.
For a long time, Brussels had no effective means of sanctioning Orbán’s nepotism and autocratic tendencies. But the European rule of law mechanism has been in place since last autumn. It can be used to hit the governments in question where it hurts: funding.
So far, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has not resorted to using the new instrument. For the first time, it awaits a decision by the European Court of Justice, where Poland and Hungary have filed a lawsuit against the rule of law mechanism. The leaders of the 27 EU member states agreed on this process to obtain the consent of both countries. Von der Leyen also agreed on this.
Those who do not share European ideas of democracy, the rule of law and the protection of minorities also have no business that benefits the EU.
But this agreement is not legally binding. Yes, it is true that anyone who violates political agreements commits a breach of trust. In this sense, von der Leyen’s hesitation is understood. Despite this, it is wrong.
Orbán himself does not feel bound by any agreement. Hungarian law classifying homosexuality alongside child abuse, for example, is a provocation against Europe. The EU must obey the law, of course, but it must not stand a dangerous harasser.
Hungary will elect a new parliament early next year and the EU cannot allow a leader who joins the European Union to pay for his campaign with European taxpayer money. This clemency also has a corrosive effect on the EU as a whole.
When von der Leyen visited Slovenia last week, Prime Minister Janez Janša showed him a photo of alleged communist judges claiming that his country’s judicial system is full. The President of the Commission felt compelled to recall the rules of the rule of law, such as an independent judiciary. The Commission, the EU’s executive body, had just approved billions of euros in aid for coronavirus in Slovenia.
Now, pressure from the European Parliament and the public is beginning to take effect. Von der Leyen did not approve the release of money from the coronavirus rescue fund requested by Hungary. The country has first been ordered to explain how it will prevent money from disappearing into the pockets of Orbán’s comrades. That is a good sign, but it remains to be seen how far the President of the Commission will go. If Orbán gets some cosmetic changes, he will succeed again.
Von der Leyen said Wednesday that he plans to implement the rule of law mechanism this fall. Better late than never. But acting immediately would be better. Enough damage has been done in recent years.