EU needs to act now to curb Orbán’s despotic tactics

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has pursued control by varied and ruthless means — breaching EU law and his citizens’ rights. EU states have to do more than finger wag, writes Guy Verhofstadt

EU needs to act now to curb Orbán’s despotic tactics

European politicians have mastered the art of wagging their finger, most recently at Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russian president Vladimir Putin, and US president Donald Trump. Sadly, the same cannot be said for our ability to formulate political solutions and implement common policies.

The refugee crisis has shaken Europe to its core, because, rather than taking collective responsibility for managing the flood of migrants and refugees into Europe, we have mostly shifted the burden to frontline countries. This has eroded European solidarity. Likewise, our inability to come together to stop Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s war crimes against his own people has left a void that Mr Putin and Iran have filled.

European leaders too often shout from the sidelines when they should be on the field, acting to defend common European interests. And as if our failure to ensure stability in our own neighbourhood was not enough, we have also allowed right-wing populist and nationalist movements to take off within the European Union itself. These movements, actively fomented by Russia, have produced homegrown political leaders who frighteningly — but not surprisingly — resemble Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan.

Poland’s de facto leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, in particular, have been busily constructing illiberal states within the EU. Since coming to power in 2010, Mr Orbán has been using his large parliamentary majority to rewrite Hungary’s constitution for his own ends. Apparently, winning elections is not enough. He now wants to shred the liberal values he once championed as a young centrist politician, and cement his control over Hungary’s political process.

In recent years, he has pursued this project by varied and ruthless means. The government regularly harasses or raids civil society and non-governmental organisations. Media outlets that disseminate Mr Orbán’s propaganda receive tax breaks. Those that criticise him are taxed so heavily that they eventually have to give up. This means that EU money is effectively being used to stoke euroscepticism.

In what is only the latest outrage, Mr Orbán’s government is attempting to shut down Central European University (CEU) in Budapest. Although CEU, founded by the Hungarian-American investor and philanthropist George Soros and led by the human rights scholar and former Canadian opposition leader Michael Ignatieff, is just 26 years old, many of its departments already rank among the top 50 in the world. Nonetheless, MR Orbán has refused to talk with Mr Ignatieff; consequently, the university could be forced to close by the end of the year.

Mr Orbán has tried to smear CEU with hysterical reporting about the university’s foreign financing. And, because he wants to portray CEU as “un-Hungarian”, he usually neglects to mention that he himself received a Soros-funded scholarship to study at Oxford soon after the collapse of Hungary’s communist regime.

Now that he has weakened Hungary’s constitutional court and free press, Mr Orbán wants to undermine critical thinking itself. If he succeeds, he will have removed yet another check on his power. By shutting down such a prominent US-supported institution, he can send a message that no one who has stood up to him has won.

Despots throughout history have used the same tactics. But Mr Orbán is doing so in the EU of 2017. In order to join the EU, Hungary had to meet stringent accession criteria, including credible democratic institutions and adherence to the rule of law. The fact that those high standards are now being systematically eroded has introduced a paradox for the EU. Once a country has gained entry into the bloc, there is little that can be done to ensure that it maintains democratic standards and upholds European values.

The European Commission can launch as many “infringement procedures” against Hungary as it wishes; Mr Orbán will simply ignore them. After months of discourse with Hungarian government officials, the EU’s only option now is to invoke Article 7 of the Treaty of Lisbon, which could ultimately remove Hungary’s voting rights within the EU.

Invoking Article 7 is not a “nuclear option”. It is the logical response to a member state government that has routinely violated citizens’ fundamental rights and EU values. Earlier this month, deeply concerned members of the European Parliament, after two previous attempts, finally approved a resolution that will pave the way for EU sanctions against Hungary.

There is no reason why sanctions cannot be quickly implemented. The commission has already documented the facts of the case against Hungary, complete with arguments and counter-arguments. If two-thirds of MEPs now approve sanctions, the file will be forwarded to the European Council — at which point European heads of state will have no choice but to address the matter.

Europe’s credibility already suffers because some of its leaders hold ambiguous attitudes toward Mr Erdogan, Mr Trump, and Mr Putin. But continuing to waver over Mr Orbán’s transgressions will have even more serious long-term costs. We Europeans must aspire to be more than just participants in an internal market.

A values-based community has no place for governments such as those that now rule Hungary and Poland. The EU should invoke Article 7 as soon as possible, and with the broadest possible majority among member states. And, after Mr Orbán, we will have to turn our attention to Mr Kaczynski.

Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister, is president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group (ALDE) in the European Parliament.

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