Hungarian PM tests the E.U.’s limits

I mentioned Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán yesterday, and, with his willingness to say what other people are only thinking, he’s really emerged as the face of Europe’s anti-refugee element.

…its jowly, pasty face

Orbán is an interesting guy, a former advocate of liberal democracy against Soviet hegemony who now models himself after Vladimir Putin and openly talks about running Hungary as an illiberal state along the lines of Russia, Turkey, and China. Political scientist Kelemen, writing at The Washington Post’s “Monkey Cage” blog, took a detailed look at Orbán in a post yesterday:

Orbán’s government may be deliberately twisting E.U.rules as part of his campaign to make populist appeals while actually restricting his nation’s democracy. Earlier this month, Orbán pushed a new immigration law through Parliament that established new crimes for damaging or simply crossing a border blockade, such as the new razor-wire fence Hungary has erected on the border with Serbia. This move criminalizes most refugees entering the country. The law also empowered the government to declare a “state of migration emergency” which it has just done. Under that state of emergency, the government is promising to quickly arrest or deport most migrants. Later this month the Hungarian Parliament will consider further expanding the powers of the police and armed forces during a migration emergency.

Orbán’s reaction to the refugee crisis is only the latest of his regime’s challenges to the European Union. Since Orbán’s Fidesz party swept to power in Hungary in 2010 with a parliamentary supermajority, his government has managed to eliminate previous constitutional checks and balances, undermine the independence of the judiciary, diminish media pluralism, and introduce a new electoral system that favored his party and helped him retain power in the 2014 elections. He has declared his rejection of liberal democracy in favor of an “illiberal state” modeled on Russia, China and Turkey. He has cultivated ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, pursuing energy deals with his regime that were in tension with E.U. policy.

The thing is, the E.U. takes a pretty dim view of forms of government that aren’t liberal democracy; in fact, Article II of the Treaty on the European Union (TEU) reads thusly:

The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.

Orbán’s treatment of the Syrian refugees and his efforts to de-democratize Hungary’s political system violate these principles.

So why hasn’t the E.U. done anything to rein Orbán in? Two reasons. One, the E.U. has no provision to kick a member state out, so the ultimate punishment for Hungary’s transgressions is off the table. There is a provision, in Article VII of the TEU, to suspend the privileges of E.U. membership if a member state is found to be in violation of the values expressed in Article II. But that requires the E.U. government to take action, and as Kelemen writes, the center-right plurality in the E.U. parliament is protecting Orbán from any such action:

Orbán’s Fidesz party is a member of the European People’s Party (EPP) – the center-right faction in the European parliament. Leading figures in the EPP have long tolerated the Orbán regime’s violations of democratic values and sheltered it from censure in the interest of party loyalty and of maintaining their majority in the European Parliament.

For example, in July 2013, the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs issued a report criticizing the erosion of fundamental rights in Hungary. But EPP vice-chair Manfred Weber (now party chair) dismissed that as a politically motivated attack by leftist parties. In March 2014, EPP President Joseph Daul endorsed Orbán’s reelection at a Fidesz campaign rally in Budapest. In June 2015, the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning Orbán’s statements on the death penalty and his “consultation” on migration—but only parties of the Left voted in favor, while the EPP leadership publicly defended the Orbán government.

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