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Reviewing the increasingly complicated relationship between Hungary and the EU

Hungary is moving in a direction that experts are now classifying as a “hybrid regime”; it has become a “partially free” state.

The rift between the EU and Hungary is deepening, due to the system of “illiberal democracy” that Viktor Orbán – the Hungarian Prime Minister - has established in the country. In 2014, in a speech delivered at the 25th Bálványos Free Summer University located in Romania, Orbán declared that Hungary had abandoned the liberal principles of societal organisation and would adopt an illiberal form of governance.

The European Union has tried to contain the effects of this policy – such as the restricted freedom of the judicial organs - but Orbán seemed to always push for stricter reforms. One of his last measures intended to block funds for Ukraine, and in this case, the EU was not willing to negotiate. These tensions had started already years ago with the stated reason for blocking European funds directed to Ukraine being that the provided “money is financing prolonging the war”.

The great power Orbán has accumulated over the years, also through the adoption of a new Constitution in Hungary, is worrying the EU and other international actors, including one of the world’s superpowers: the USA. Having a country with authoritarian tendencies in the EU could have dire consequences all over the world, altering the balance of power and compromising the established system of alliances, agreements, and treaties between countries and supranational organisations. This is one of the main reasons why the European Union has tried to reappraise Orbán’s aims, with several recommendations and solutions, such as in the cases of the “New Act on Media” and the Hungarian policy about the reduction of energy costs. In both cases, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that the laws were not against the EU law following the judicial procedures.

The Venice Commission – a branch of the European Commission – has analysed the ongoing situation in Hungary and the legitimation of its legislation several times, but seeing as the EU is a supranational entity, it cannot rule on matters that are within the full competency of a member state. There are policies and aspects of government where the EU cannot interfere, and this has permitted Orbán to use the EU’s partnership to his advantage, modifying his country’s legislation out of compliance with EU values.

Reducing or containing the power of a country that is a member of a unique supranational organisation such as the EU, however, is not an easy task for the other members.

The measures taken by Hungary during the years have not been fully democratic and in compliance with  EU values, but at the same time did not violate EU law. As a result, the European Court of Justice cannot proceed with stronger judicial measures against Hungary unless Orbán fully breaks the European law.

One of the measures the member states took to try to reduce Orbán’s power and his veto on EU measures and agreements was to suspend and “freeze” the funds directed to Hungary. 

One of the last measures adopted by Orbán was particularly highly criticized and led to further deterioration of the relationship between the EU and Hungary. In December 2023, Orbán blocked the EU from sending aid to Ukraine, delaying the economic aid to Ukraine which indirectly benefits Russia’s position in the war. 

If the Hungarian Prime Minister does not change the direction of his policy – the limitation and control of the media and the judicial system, restricting civil society, the new “compensate the winner” electoral system, etc. -  member states may move to suspend Hungary’s voting rights in the EU voting process, through Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union.

This decision could dramatically change the balance of power inside the European countries.

Adopting Article 7- implying restricting Hungary’s voting rights due to the violations- is the most drastic measure the European Union could adopt against one of its member states, but it would become a real possibility if Hungary had blocked again the aid directed to Ukraine - a candidate state in the EU.

At the 2024 February Summit – the Special European Council where EU leaders discussed the multiannual financial framework for 202-2027 and support for Ukraine - Orbán did not veto (as it happened in December) the agreement regarding the 50 billion Euros for Ukraine. The economic aid to Ukraine has the aim of helping a candidate State but is also a symbolic sign of showing strong cohesion between the EU countries.

Since the beginning of the Hungarian democratic backsliding, the EU has tried to keep this phenomenon under control. However, Orbán has been tactically using the Hungarian EU membership to obtain more control over his territory, while still reaping the benefits of being part of the EU.

Regardless of whether Article 7 is enacted, it is clear the relationship between the EU and Hungary will be very difficult to restore unless political changes occur, both in the sense of leadership change or a change in Orbán’s policy direction.



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