12 January 2021

Politico: “How Orbán broke the EU — and got away with it”

Countries like Germany at that moment still thought keeping him in the family… will bring him back to order, which didn’t happen, Reding said.

Over and over during the past decade, the Hungarian leader has introduced measures that pushed the limits of what his fellow EU leaders were willing to accept, only to row back under fire to secure a partial victory. It’s a strategy that some of his critics have called his “two steps forward, one step back” approach.

It’s a strategy Rui Tavares, a former Portuguese MEP who was appointed Parliament’s rapporteur on Hungary in 2012, described as Orbán’s “Frankenstein” approach.

Dr. Frankenstein built a monster, and the monster is made up of bits and pieces of other bodies that in themselves are not problematic, said Tavares. It’s the mix that is problematic.

For Tavares, the problem was that Fidesz officials would swamp EU officials and politicians with details and examples — but it was only once you looked at how the pieces fit together that the systemic problems became apparent.

Lili Bayer

A problem delayed only grows bigger, becoming harder and more complicated to solve. This is what happened to the erosion of democratic institutions in Hungary and Poland, an issue years in the making, that culminated late last year in the resistance from these two countries during negotiation for the next EU budget. Ultimately, a compromise has been reached regarding the EU budget, delaying the rule-of-law mechanism temporarily in order to lift Hungary’s and Poland’s veto.

Backers of Orbán included Angela Merkel's CDU
Backers of keeping Orbán within the broad party included Angela Merkel’s CDU Carsten Koall/Getty Images

The dynamic between Fidesz and the larger EPP group reminds me on a smaller scale of the takeover of the American Republican party by its extreme wing: the same attitude of not condemning radical acts, the misguided hope that continued engagement will soften their views. In some sense, this is what happened in foreign policy with China, the idea that trade and inclusion in the global community might bring about democratic reforms – instead China has used this leverage and economic prosperity to further strengthen authoritarian control.

At the same time this situation reflects the large difference between the American and European political systems: with its two party system, American politics has a ‘winner takes all’ attitude to governing, where one side must overcome and push out the other and compromise is increasingly difficult to achieve. At the other end of the spectrum, European countries have several parties active in Parliament, and, since none of them can generally get a majority on their own, they are compelled to negotiate and compromise to form coalition governments. EU governance is even more extreme, as many decisions require consensus from all member states. EU decision-making could use some flexibility, but unfortunately member countries are not willing to relax these rules, for fear of losing their veto powers on key issues.

In regards to Hungary, there are some signs of political change, as recently six Hungarian opposition parties formed a coalition to run together against Fidesz in the next parliamentary election. Personally I would not get my hopes up yet; that election is more than a year away, and in that time many things can happen to undermine this alliance. Even if they win, governing would prove challenging for such a broad coalition, and a failure to collaborate effectively would shift public support back towards Fidesz.

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