Caroline de GruyterEuropean affairs correspondent for NRC Handelsblad

The question is not whether the union is too soft. The question is what it is to do in order to protect our legal order, in Hungary and elsewhere.

We tend to treat Hungary and Poland as one. Nothing is more wrong. The current Poland is ideological and is desperate to show, clumsily, that it is a big country. Hungary knows it is small and relishes the underdog posture. The founding myth of Hungary is that of the little chaps poking their big master. This was true under the Habsburgs, during Soviet times, and now with the EU. It is a Hungarian source of pride.

What is the EU to do, then? Firstly, as former French president François Mitterrand used to say: “give time to time.” Let time do its work. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is more transactional than ideological: he tests boundaries in Brussels, then often retreats. He needs Brussels ultimately more than the internal posture. And no leader is for ever.

And secondly, the European Commission needs to be strong on the legal fundamentals, not only in relation to Hungary but also in relation to other member states. The primacy of European law is routinely questioned, even in countries like France and Germany. This is lethal to the European legal order, more than anything Orbán could ever do. That is the crucial fight.

Daniel HegedusTransatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States

The European Commission went through a significant learning process in 2021–22 and has shown remarkable changes in its approach to the authoritarian developments in Hungary and Poland.

Between 2010 and 2021, the Commission clearly subordinated the protection of EU values like democracy and rule of law to short-sighted institutional and party-political interests, like consensus-building in the European Council or keeping Hungary’s ruling party Fidesz in the European People’s Party.

The European Commission hasn’t only been too soft on Hungary; it failed to realize the strategic challenge posed by autocratizing member states to the internal integrity and external perception of the EU. It fulfilled its role as “guardian of the treaties” with gross negligence.

Since 2021, one can see clear attempts to exploit available political tools, like the conditionality regulation or the suspension of the European Recovery and Resilience Facility assets to put leverage on Europe’s illiberal twins and change their cost-benefit calculations regarding autocratization. This change in the Commission’s behavior was mainly triggered by political pressure from the European Parliament and “friend of the rule of law” member states like the Netherlands.

However, exactly due to the central role of external incentives in this behavioral change, there is no guarantee that in the future the Commission will continue playing hardball with Hungary and Poland and refrain from foul compromises. The protection of European values needs continuous commitment from all stakeholders across Europe to keep its current direction.

Shada IslamFounder and Managing Director of the New Horizons Project

The EU’s “let’s not rock the boat” strategy toward Hungary’s Viktor Orbán is short-sighted, self-defeating, and shameful. It erodes the EU’s reputation and standing, both at home and abroad.

In the eyes of many European citizens—especially Europeans of color—the EU approach makes a mockery of the bloc’s commitment to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Foreign observers, meanwhile, see it as yet another demonstration of EU double standards in chiding the Global South for not respecting democratic norms while allowing one of its own member states to flout them, repeatedly.

Interestingly also, while some half-hearted attempts are being made to call out the Hungarian government on key issues of independence of the judiciary and media and violations of rule of law, over the years, EU policymakers have turned a deaf ear to Orbán’s racist rants and white supremist diatribes.

There was a lukewarm reaction to the Hungarian leader’s angry denunciation of “mixed race” societies last July but it took the European Parliament and European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen about a week to gather the courage to remind Orbán—who was not mentioned directly—that such “hostile rhetoric” and “inexcusable statements” were in breach of EU treaties.

Such complacency must end if the EU is to be taken seriously as a geopolitical actor: the union can’t accommodate racism at home while urging foreign governments to stop discrimination and marginalization of minorities abroad.

Alica KizekováHead of the Asia Pacific Unit at the Centre for the Study of Global Regions, International Relations Institute Prague

The EU’s response to Hungary’s democratic backsliding has been slow and ineffective. Hungary is the only EU member that is not “free” but “partly free” according to the assessment of Freedom House, and this has been the trend for the past few years. If this trend continues and Viktor Orbán further strengthens his power, restricts the public debate, and does not provide fair conditions for the opposition to participate, then the EU could face a true embarrassment in 2024, when Hungary is bound to take on the presidency of the Council of the European Union.

The EU treaties clearly declare that decisions should be taken by twenty-seven democratic countries and if a member state that presides the union is not a full democracy, that puts the EU in a difficult position, and the union loses its credibility. It could also further encourage anti-democratic movements across Europe.

It is vital for the EU to prepare a set of clear recommendations and ensure that Hungary demonstrates tangible improvements to access the funds related to the post-COVID-19 recovery. Additionally, there should be more consultation on how to navigate the resource dependencies on Russia. For some EU member states, such as Hungary, it is not easy to cut ties completely due to the high reliance on energy resources. But it is important that they voice their positions in a manner that does not undermine the EU’s energy diversification efforts or weaken the union’s positions.

Péter KrekóDirector of the Political Capital Institute, Budapest

So far, the response to this question has been an obvious “yes.” Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been able to build an illiberal hybrid regime—or, I would even say, an “informational autocracy”—with the financial support of the EU. This regime is doing its best to undermine the union’s decision-making capabilities. 

The actual response to this question will be ready when we will see the EU’s decisions on two crucially important issues. The first is the freezing of about 20 percent of Hungary’s next seven-year-long budget and the second is the further (or even permanent) withholding of the Resilience and Recovery Funds.

The government seems to be ready to make concessions, promising to implement many systemic changes—for example, setting up an anti-corruption agency. Yet many in the Commission still seem to be naive enough to believe that such changes will matter. They won’t.

If there is no rule of law, more laws passed will not change the modus operandi of the regime. Systemic corruption is the engine of the Orbán regime. The engine won’t be switched off at Brussels’ request. The big question is if the hawks in the Commission, the European Parliament, and some member states in the European Council will put pressure on the members of the Commission who think a soft compromise is inevitable.

While the Commission has largely stood by and watched as Orbán built his informational autocracy, the European Parliament—the EU’s only directly elected body—has been much tougher on Hungary. Had its stance been adopted earlier, Hungary’s democracy might be in much better shape.

Jacek KucharczykPresident of the Executive Board at the Institute of Public Affairs, Warsaw

Democratic backsliders in Budapest and in Warsaw have been playing a long game with Brussels. They want to ensure it continues to provide them with the funds necessary for them to consolidate their authoritarian power and ensure social peace through financial transfers to crucial constituencies, such as rural inhabitants or pensioners.

Victor Orbán has played this game for much longer than Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) de facto leader Jaroslav Kaczyński. His success has encouraged Polish authoritarian populists - acknowledged by the PiS slogan “Budapest in Warsaw”. Had Brussels been tougher with Orbán early on, his Polish counterparts in the PiS would have found it more difficult to convince the voters that they can flout European values and continue to benefit from the EU largesse. Orbán showed them that they can have a cake and eat it too.

The introduction of the rule of law mechanism has given the EU a new powerful tool of enforcing the compliance with European values. At the same time, Hungary’s pro-Putin stand after the Russian invasion of Ukraine has made it obvious to the EU political class that Orbán is not just a threat to Hungarian democracy but to the EU’s ability to respond to this war in accordance with Europe’s core values. Orbán’s latest offer of a phony compromise should not give Brussels an excuse to abandon its principled position and to release the funds he needs for his political survival. 

Pol MorillasDirector of the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB)

As a community of values, the EU should not compromise its most fundamental ones. Democracy, rule of law, and individual rights, particularly those of minorities, have all been questioned by Viktor Orbán’s ideology and government practices.

True, many member states have internal flaws that prevent them from fully complying with these values. But no other compares to the way Orbán challenges the EU’s fundamental principles in the name of his particular “culture war.” Let’s be clear: Orbán’s attack on a “mixed-race” Hungary is not a form of acceptable “family-friendly” conservatism, but an outspoken and contemporary version of the politics of stigmatization.

On Ukraine, Orbán builds his current position on a longstanding attempt to cultivate links with Russia and China at the expense of the EU’s interests and common positions. He would like to be seen as a useful, impartial mediator when the time of negotiations arrive, but the rest of the EU is well aware that Orbán has promoted disrespect for the EU and its institutions, so no loyalty on his part can be expected. Hence the distance of traditional friends, such as Poland, from Orbán’s Russia policy.

The anti-Brussels alignment between Warsaw and Budapest is being tested against more material and tangible issues: security in Europe, energy dependence, and access to EU funds. The union has shown remarkable resilience as a political project when subsequently confronted with the challenges of disintegration, the pandemic, and the war.

Zsuzsanna SzelényiProgram director at the Central Europe University Democracy Institute

We do not know yet. Viktor Orbán’s government has been intensively negotiating with the European Commission and announced concessions to strike a deal and unlock €7 billion ($7 billion) that have been frozen due to concerns about state capture and corruption. This fund is the cornerstone of maintaining Viktor Orbán’s power, and is needed more than ever before: the Hungarian currency has hit a low and inflation keeps rising.

The government promises consensus on all the Commission’s recommendations, above all on an independent anti-corruption authority. But Hungarians remain skeptical. For twelve years Orbán’s circles have managed to capture all state institutions and it would be a miracle to have a new body of checks and balances now. Instead of new legal trickeries, joining the European Public Prosecution Office would be somewhat promising, at least on the corruption front.

The Commission seems to be more determined than ever to push Orbán’s government to comply with the basic interests of the EU. But will it be persistent enough? The maintenance of the Russia sanctions policy and creating a joint European energy policy are decisive for the success of the von der Leyen Commission and also for Europe’s future.

Will the Commission finally have the patience to force Orbán’s government to follow rule-based politics or will it cut negotiations short, again, with too much give?

Ivan VejvodaHead of Europe’s Futures Project at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna

The EU has been all too slow at recognizing that there has been and continues to be a very serious issue with the erosion of democracy in a certain number of its member states. Heralded as the frontrunner in the transition to democracy Hungary for more than a decade, as an EU member state, has been curtailing rights and freedoms and the rule of law.

Complacency and the “do not rock the boat” attitude of EU institutions and other member states have led to fruitlessly hoping that things would in time change. In Hungary Orbán’s grip on power, institutions and control of media had in September 2018 triggered the Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union. The EU is now blocking until further notice disbursement of the recovery funds.

The European People’s Party shoulders much of the responsibility for the slow and soft response to Hungary’s democratic backsliding. Suspended from the group in the Spring of 2019, Hungary’s ruling party Fidesz decided to leave the group before being expelled in March 2021.

Hungary undermines cores values the EU stands for. Importantly, what goes on in Hungary sets a nefarious example to aspiring EU candidate countries in the Western Balkans.

In light of the Russian war of aggression against independent and sovereign Ukraine and the latter’s struggle for freedom and rights, more needs to be done by EU member states and institutions to defend democracy and rights in Hungary and elsewhere.