Orbán’s latest blow demanding the Commission’s President von der Leyen to secure the resignation of Vice-President Jourová over recent statements on Hungary’s state of democracy pokes fun at the already timid criticism by EU leaders of his authoritarian regime.
Orbán’s progressive erosion of democratic norms in Hungary is progressing at full speed. As illustrated in a recent report by Liberties and Greenpeace European Unit, Fidesz’s authoritarian crackdown on freedoms and dissent was accelerated by recent measures which the government disguised as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
These include provisions substantially allowing for the criminal prosecution of government critics, a new clampdown on the last remnants of independent media and the introduction of a special regime which the government could trigger to give itself the power to rule by decree for a potentially indefinite amount of time.
When will EU leaders stop letting Orbán get away with all this?
So far, nothing has suggested they will. Just last week, the Commission decided to postpone the adoption of its first rule of law report to a yet unknown date, right after von der Leyen praised herself over what she considered to be a fruitful discussion with Hungary, Slovakia and Poland on, among others, the rule of law. And Germany, holding the rotating Presidency of the Council, came out yesterday proposing yet another compromise to populist authoritarians that rely heavily on EU money to remain in power.
In the meantime, the Fidesz government is joining forces with Poland's PiS to set up their own ‘rule of law monitoring institute’, tasked to asses how the rule of law is being upheld across the EU. This is yet a new gimmick that would help them further muddy the waters on their authoritarian moves and drag EU officials and leaders into senseless legal quarrels, anticipating criticism that the first Commission’s rule of law report is reasonably expected to raise with regards to Hungary and Poland.
But it doesn’t have to stay this way. It is high time that EU leaders put a break on Orbán’s plan to strip his own people of democracy and freedoms and recklessly fuel Eurosceptisism in and outside Hungary.
If she cares about the future of the Union and wants to give some hope back to the Hungarian people, here’s what President von der Leyen should do in reply to Orbán’s letter, instead of playing his game:
1) Put teeth on rule of law monitoring. This should include making sure its rule of law report, and those that will follow, includes clear recommendations whose implementation must be closely followed up. To that effect, von der Leyen should be a driver for the conclusion of an interinstitutional agreement as proposed by the European Parliament to make sure that governments breaching EU values face proper sanctions under Article 7, and quickly.
2) Stop the money flow, now. Von der Leyen should be vocal and urge the European Council President and the Presidency of the Council to remain firm on the Commission’s proposal to make the granting of EU funding to member states conditional upon the respect of the rule of law. Until the proposal becomes law, von der Leyen should instruct her services to suspend disbursement of funds, including COVID recovery funds, on the basis of rules on sincere cooperation and legal spending, while making sure that end beneficiaries can benefit from alternative funding channels.
3) Clean up the house. Von der Leyen’s German Christian Democratic Party (CDU) is the most influential member of the European People’s Party (EPP) – the EU political family to which Orbán’s Fidesz party is also a member of. As president of an institution which the EU Treaties tasked to be the guardian of EU values, von der Leyen must do all that is in her power to stop those values from falling prey to political games. She must show leadership and make sure that CDU joins those calling EPP leadership to finally take the long due decision to expel Fidesz from the alliance.
If she does not feel up for any of this, then she should be the one to resign.