COVID-19: Tensions Heighten Between Orbán & EU

Some in Europe are already calling for Hungary’s expulsion if Budapest doesn’t meet the EU’s membership requirements, writes Giorgio Cafiero. 

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. (Twitter)

By Giorgio Cafiero
Special to Consortium News

Throughout this century, the European Union has had many difficult international issues to deal with: the 2007-08 global financial crash; the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees after the “Arab Spring;” Brexit; Trump’s 2016 victory, and, most recently, the Covid-19 pandemic.  They all fueled debate about the meaning of “European values” and what the EU should do to uphold them.

Covid-19 has further fractured the EU, which had already been grappling with its North-South divide for many years prior to the pandemic’s outbreak. Southern European countries, which have been hardest hit by the disease, see the EU’s more financially well-off northern members as failing to do enough to help the bloc deal with coronavirus and its painful fallout.

In the middle of the EU’s Covid-19 crisis is the problem of Hungary. This central European country’s right-wing, nationalist government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Mihály Orbán, has had no shortage of problems with the EU, which Hungary joined in 2004. 

Shortly after Orbán was elected prime minister in 2010, he and his government set Hungary down an undemocratic path. The country’s new constitution, approved in 2011, put Hungary and Brussels on a collision course. Subsequent amendments added new tensions to Budapest’s relations with various European and North American governments and institutions. The institutionalization of the ruling party’s power, the rule-of-law, media and academic freedoms, assaults on civil society, and the stoking of hostilities against Muslim refugees and other marginalized groups have been at the heart of such friction between Orban’s regime and the EU.

The Coronavirus ‘Coup’

Masked bus passenger in Budapest. (@thandojo, Twitter)

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, Hungary has accelerated its move toward autocracy and kleptocracy at an astonishing rate. In late March, Hungary’s parliament approved emergency laws which give Orbán authority to rule by decree indefinitely while circumventing all other institutions of government, rendering parliament powerless. Hungary’s head of state now has the power to suspend existing laws. The government can punish journalists with prison sentences (up to five years) if they report information about Covid-19 that officials in Budapest deem false. No elections are to be held while the emergency laws are in place.

Although Orbán’s regime emphasizes that this is all temporary and necessary for dealing with the pandemic, there are good reasons to question the motives behind these draconian laws, given Orbán’s record. Media outlets have referred to this power grab as a coup d’état. Some experts and members of Hungary’s opposition have called Orban a “dictator.”

If the EU can’t pressure Orbán back to a democratic path, how long can it tolerate Hungary as a member?

The preamble of the EU charter reads:

“The peoples of Europe, in creating an ever closer union among them, are resolved to share a peaceful future based on common values. Conscious of its spiritual and moral heritage, the Union is founded on the indivisible, universal values of human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity; it is based on the principles of democracy and the rule of law. It places the individual at the heart of its activities, by establishing the citizenship of the Union and by creating an area of freedom, security and justice.”

Some voices in Europe, including former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, are calling for Hungary’s expulsion if Budapest doesn’t meet its membership requirements. Sophie in’t Veld, a Dutch European Parliament member, declared that “the actions of the Hungarian government are incompatible with EU membership.” Dacian Çiolos, the former prime minister of Romania and EU commissioner, called it “shameful” that Hungary’s authorities had “abused” Covid-19.

“If a dictator can violate the core values of the EU without consequences then the whole project will rot from the inside out,” wrote one writer in The Daily Telegraph. “The EU cannot avoid this any longer, it must confront Orbán head-on.”

White House Silence

The United States Department of State has not commented. As Orbán and President Donald Trump maintain warm relations, the Hungarian leader has not been criticized by Trump. Indeed, Hungary’s ties with Washington have significantly improved since Trump’s predecessor left the White House.

Barack Obama had already condemned Orbán’s dismantlement of Hungarian democracy and the Obama administration shunned Hungary as a central European pariah state as early as 2012.

That said, not all in Washington have refrained from criticizing Orbán amid the Covid-19 crisis. The chairman of House foreign affairs  committee, Congressman Eliot Engel, accused Hungary’s leader of “making a blatant power grab in the face of the worst global health crisis in recent history,” enabling him to “rule by decree like a dictator.”

The EU’s Hungary Test

“Hungarians won’t live according to the commands of foreign powers,” Prime Minister Viktor Orbán told a crowd at Kossuth square on March 15, 2012. (Derzsi Elekes Andor, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Wikimedia Commons)

Hungary remains a sensitive issue for the EU. In the past, the EU has failed to apply enough pressure on Hungary in order to prevent the country’s move to a one-party-state. There are at least three reasons why Brussels may tread carefully vis-à-vis Budapest and refrain from expelling Hungary from the union.

First, crisis-hit Europe is concerned with Covid-19 and saving lives in the short-term. Thus, now is not the time for the EU, which moves slowly anyway, to address Hungary in a decisive manner. Cynically, Orbán has taken advantage of this international distraction and exploited the global crisis to achieve a decisive power-grab.

Second, there is no official mechanism in the EU for expelling a member.

Third, there is a risk that the EU kicking out Hungary under Orbán could backfire politically. Poland could be expected to defend Hungary, which it has in the past, preventing the EU from imposing sanctions on Orbán’s government. Moreover, there are concerns that an expulsion of Hungary could boost other populist, anti-EU parties and leaders throughout Europe. 

The EU has no easy path on Hungary’s slide from democracy.  Nonetheless, failure to act will further call into question the EU’s real power.

The Covid-19 crisis has pressured virtually all governments to address the pandemic in manners that earn them their citizens’ confidence. The very legitimacy of governments and individual leaders have been on the line. Many governments have exploited the disease by restricting press freedoms and taking other authoritarian actions with countless examples in multiple continents, including at least one in the heart of Europe.

Giorgio Cafiero (@GiorgioCafiero) is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington-based geopolitical risk consultancy.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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24 comments for “COVID-19: Tensions Heighten Between Orbán & EU

  1. Craig
    April 30, 2020 at 07:54

    Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington-based geopolitical risk consultancy. That explains the clear bias in favor of the globalist agenda.

  2. bandi
    April 29, 2020 at 23:04

    There is not a one party state in Hungary. The opposition neo-liberalists, 4+ different parties all keep mouthing the Soros dictum, and are unable to appeal to the public to elect them and their policies, at election time. Hungarians do not want a Globalist World, run by the World’s wealthy families and that is why Orban’s first term program was to pay back the IMF loan and kicked them out of the country. They managed to keep getting re-elected with a 2/3 majority. Isn’t that, what a democracy is all about? If the majority of the Hungarians, and I am one, are happy with how Orban runs the country, what business is it of these Globalist elites to criticize the Hungarian Nation, for making a democratic choice, that happens to disagree with elitist EU unelected bureaucrats and elected neo-liberals. The Orban government has not used it’s power to pass any laws contravening any EU laws and that has been admitted by the EU .

    • April 30, 2020 at 10:43

      Bandi, liked your response. We are very good at judging others and clinging to out exceptionalism. In our regime change fervor, we seldom consider how the people of the country feel about leaders. We seem to make the judgment in demonizing leaders that their popular support is because the people just don’t know any better. That is probably the most charitable description of our behavior.

  3. Evan Jones
    April 29, 2020 at 21:27

    Has the author considered the current police state that is France? A product of the little Napoleon following the undemocratic dictates of Capital and the undemocratic dictates of Brussesls.

  4. April 29, 2020 at 15:58

    To those who claim that Hungarians have the right to be governed as they wish. To a degree this is true, and Antlanticist Euro-elite has a lot of problems of its own, but there should be some limits on destroying democratic institutions and on kleptocracy. What Fidesz have done now is enacting a “temporary dictatorship” with no time limit. Hungary has a history of that, in 1919-1944 (I can be slightly off) it was “temporarily” ruled by a regent — for a “temporarily absent” Hapsburg monarch. Adding to the fun, the regent was an Admiral.

    Fidesz autoritarianism (dictatorial rule from now on?) was subsidized by the richer part of the Union, even though of all possible sanctions, EU budget does not required unanimity. And development subsidies were a reliable pot of gold to spread among business tycoons friendly to the government. And the governments of Germany, France, UK etc. did not mind.

  5. Antonio Falcomer
    April 29, 2020 at 13:25

    I do believe Orban is acting in the real interest of its Nation, maintaining independence from non elected super national entities like the EU. A juriducal, political and social monster which caused enormous damage to the life of many europeans in the last 20 years.
    My plause to Mr. Orban! Behind the democratic issue the EU is imposing rules against the people and erases the sovrenty of member states. Like Vladimir Bukoski pre-viewed the EU is designed to callaps economically and politically as well as the former USSR, the sooner the better!

  6. Rick Patel
    April 29, 2020 at 13:05

    Dissolve the EU and flush it to history’s septic tank of political failures.

    • maria
      April 29, 2020 at 22:04

      I can’t understand why Europe has a lot of members who are not representing what the people want

  7. Lolita
    April 29, 2020 at 12:12

    Brought to you by Soros?

    • April 30, 2020 at 10:32

      Maria, same thought occurred to me. The megalomaniac who brought suffering to millions through currency manipulation and now fancies himself as the great reformer. I think our president gets much of his support, whether deserved or not , from the behavior 0f the enemies he has. Soros is one of them. Maybe it’s true with Orban, as well.

  8. Francis Lee
    April 29, 2020 at 10:20

    I really don’t know how the EU-NATO-US imperialist bloc have the temerity to lecture Orban on his alleged democratic shortcomings after their bombing and regime changing of Yugoslavia, Libya and Afghanistan and meddling in the Ukraine and Georgia.

    As for the internal politics of the EU it is rotten and corrupt to the core reducing former states to bureaucratically administered provinces rather than sovereign states. See how it has treated Greece, Ireland and now Italy and Spain.

    The sooner this monstrosity breaks up the better for Europe.

    • April 29, 2020 at 11:52

      Well said Francis Lee. The actions run contrary to the pretty “EU Constitution”. Interesting that Trump likes the Orban. I often think he has to watch his step. He can never be quite evil enough to satiate their bloodlust. God knows he’s done his best.

    April 29, 2020 at 08:48

    Some very good points showing weaknesses in the nature of he EU.

  10. Skip Scott
    April 29, 2020 at 08:39

    The EU is hardly a democratic institution itself. It is of, by, and for the Oligarchy and Empire. I am no fan of dictators, but a sham “democratic” institution like the EU is not much better.

    • Steven
      April 29, 2020 at 12:40

      Yes, you’re right Scott. Hungary (and Poland) don’t want to be pushed around by the Globalist elites.

    • Realist
      April 30, 2020 at 01:42

      It’s a bit tedious the way we are constantly asked to believe that the citizens of so many other countries hate their leadership (even if democratically elected), feel oppressed by their own customs and mores, and pine for American intrusion into their governance and economics. You know what? I’m not buying it. MYOB, Uncle Sam!

  11. Jeff Harrison
    April 29, 2020 at 00:52

    ROTFLMAO.. Fools. The EU grew out of BENELUX. I remember BENELUX back in the ’60s. A completely mercantilist, trade group. Somebody with delusions of grandeur thought they could make a “United States” of Europe. It never occurred to them that the societies of the old Austro-Hungarian empire and Ottoman empire might be incompatible with the societies of “The West”(tm) – the old colonial powers who were the scourge of he world for centuries. I’d say that it was pretty obvious that they are incompatible.

  12. Neutral Observer
    April 28, 2020 at 19:22

    Re: “That said, not all in Washington have refrained from criticizing Orbán amid the Covid-19 crisis.”

    Why should the U.S. care how Hungary governs itself? How Hungary, which is thousands of miles away from U.S. borders, governs itself has nothing to do with American citizens.

    The perverse irony is Washington constantly lecturing other states while conveniently ignoring its own huge problems. Moreover, you don’t see other states lecturing the United States on its many faults. Including it’s War Machine arrogantly marauding around the planet playing the Global Cop Gorilla and wrecking things. What the Hungarian government does is chump change compared to the U.S. government engineered pathologies both foreign and domestic that have resulted in hundreds of thousands of lives and Trillions of dollars lost.

    How Hungary is run should be up to the Hungarian people, not the arrogant and stupid Elites in Washington and Brussels.

    • April 29, 2020 at 11:56

      Pity there is no “like” button !

    • April 29, 2020 at 13:06

      Well said. You are totally right.

  13. Drew Hunkins
    April 28, 2020 at 17:57

    “Barack Obama had already condemned Orbán’s dismantlement of Hungarian democracy and the Obama administration shunned Hungary as a central European pariah state as early as 2012.”

    Say what you will about Orban and Hungary, but I don’t remember them drone bombing half a dozen states over eight years, annihilating the most prosperous state in Africa or orchestrating a neo-fascist coup in Kiev.

    • Skip Scott
      April 29, 2020 at 08:43

      Great point, Drew. It is very tiring to see Barack Obama constantly getting soft-balled over his role in upholding Empire and the war machine.

    • Realist
      April 29, 2020 at 14:19

      Great point. The EU moans about Hungary’s moderate and justifiable exercise of its national sovereignty in the face of the authoritarianism emanating from Washington’s pooches in Brussels. Meanwhile, Washington supports true bellicose and dangerous fascists in Ukraine and Georgia. The words spouted by Washington and its puppets in NATO have less to do with fostering “feedom” and “democracy” and more to do with aggregating and imposing power. All of the Balkans and the “Intermarium” countries seem to be a bad fit for the EU and NATO. And, they really weren’t much wanted by the West until it was discovered how they could be used as a facile cudgel against Russia. Orban doesn’t envisage the future of his country as primarily a forward base for American missiles pointed at Russia and one of the first targets in any war between NATO and that country.

    • Rosanna F.
      April 30, 2020 at 00:06

      Two thumbs up! The Clinton Doctrine has never been put under the tiniest bit of scrutiny by the “elites”, as it furthered the globalists’ agenda.

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