How the EU allowed Hungary to become an illiberal model
BRUSSELS — After long indulging him, leaders in the European Union now widely consider Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary an existential threat to a bloc that holds itself up as a model of human rights and the rule of law.
Orban has spent the past decade steadily building his “illiberal state,” as he proudly calls Hungary, with the help of lavish EU funding. Even as his project widened fissures in the bloc, which Hungary joined in 2004, his fellow national leaders mostly looked the other way, committed to staying out of one another’s affairs.
But now Orban’s defiance and intransigence has had an important, if unintended, effect: serving as a catalyst for an often-sluggish EU system to act to safeguard the democratic principles that are the foundation of the bloc.
Early this year, the European Court of Justice will issue a landmark decision on whether the union has the authority to make its funds to member states conditional on meeting the bloc’s core values. Doing so would allow Brussels to deny billions of euros to countries that violate those values.
The bloc has consistently worked on political consensus among national leaders. But Orban has pushed Brussels toward a threshold it had long avoided: making membership subject to financial punishments, not merely political ones.
The new frontier could help solve an old problem — what to do about bad actors in its ranks — while creating new ones. Not least, it could invite the European Commission, the bloc’s executive branch, to exercise a new level of interference in the affairs of member states.
How Orban has forced the EU to such a juncture, and why it seemed helpless to stop him for so long, says much about the bloc’s founding assumptions and why it has stumbled in the face of populist and nationalist challenges.
Interviews with more than a dozen current and former European officials show how sentiments toward Orban and his illiberal project evolved from complacency and incomprehension to a recognition that he had become a serious internal threat — despite Hungary’s having fewer people than the Paris metropolitan area and a language so esoteric that it bears no relationship to those of its neighbors.
The willful neglect was encapsulated neatly in 2015 at a meeting, when Jean-Claude Juncker, then the European Commission’s president, saw Orban arriving and said, “The dictator is coming,” before greeting him with “dictator,” and giving him a friendly pat on the face.
No one in power wanted to confront Orban over issues like rule of law and corruption — especially not his fellow national leaders, who each have a seat on the powerful European Council.
“At the council myself I felt the reluctance of Orban’s peers to deal with these kind of issues,” said Luuk van Middelaar, an aide to Herman Van Rompuy when he was council president. He added that the council was “like a club, where Viktor is just one of them — and they are political animals, and they respect each other for the simple fact of having won an election.”
The leaders “prefer not to deal with hot potatoes or each other’s business when they can avoid it,” van Middelaar said.
Orban faces new elections this spring against a formally united but extremely diverse set of opposition parties. But he has become a model for the politics of identity and religion, not just in Poland but in the United States, as well.
On Monday, former President Donald Trump endorsed Orban for reelection, pledging “complete support.” Orban was an early supporter of Trump, endorsing him in the summer of 2016 and again in 2020. Orban said Trump was “probably, like me, a little bit controversial, but that’s OK.”
Some European lawmakers recognized early on that Orban was trampling on democratic norms but were stymied by national leaders, particularly those from the European People’s Party, the powerful center-right political grouping that has dominated the European Parliament for the past decade.
Among those conservatives who protected Orban was Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany at the time. German companies had major investments in Hungary, and Merkel saw the Hungarian leader as a political ally in Brussels. One prominent member of the European People’s Party said Merkel and her aides brushed off complaints about Orban, saying that he could be difficult, but that it was important to keep him in the family.
“The biggest failing — the one that we are still paying the price for today — is the European Council,” said Rui Tavares, a former European legislator who helped write a report on Hungary’s violations adopted in 2013. “The European Council did nothing.”