In recent years, as Viktor Orbán has consolidated his hold over Hungary’s body politic, he has acquired a cult following on America’s Republican right. That status was confirmed last week when US conservatives staged a special conference in Budapest, the centrepiece of which was an address by the newly re-elected prime minister. Speaking to the conference theme of “God, homeland, family”, the self-styled standard bearer for “illiberal democracy” did not hold back. Delegates were told that “ideologically trained bureaucrats” in Washington and Brussels – in cahoots with progressive liberals and “neo-Marxists” – were seeking to undermine traditional western values. Mr Orbán then outlined the strategy taken in Hungary to eradicate this threat. “The first point in the Hungarian formula,” he said, “is to play by our own rules.”
In that spirit, Mr Orbán’s Hungary has flouted the democratic norms of European Union membership for years. On issues relating to corruption, the independence of the media, asylum and LGBTQ+ rights, Budapest has flatly ignored EU objections to its actions. Mr Orbán has made domestic political capital from waging a culture war against Brussels, even as Hungary accessed billions of pounds worth of EU regional aid. As he trolls the EU ever more brazenly from within and gives masterclasses to America’s “alt-right”, what can Brussels do about it?
Up to now, despite a plethora of legal manoeuvres, the answer to that question has been not much. In 2018, the European parliament voted to pursue disciplinary action against Hungary under article 7 of the EU treaty, which is designed to protect the union’s fundamental values. But despite another Brussels hearing on the subject on Monday,matters have proceeded at a snail’s pace. Last month, the European Commission accused Hungary of “continuous breaches” of anti-corruption rules, triggering a formal process that could lead to the withholding of funds. But though the move was acclaimed by MEPs, this is likely to be a similarly drawn-out process.
The war in Ukraine has now complicated matters, giving Mr Orbán new leverage as the EU seeks to present a united front against Vladimir Putin. Hungary is the only member state refusing to sign up to a ban on Russian oil imports, despite concessions allowing it until 2024 to organise alternatives. Any eventual agreement is likely to come at a high price financially, in terms of assistance, and politically. As Lithuania’s foreign minister put it last week, “the whole union is being held hostage by one member state”.
For now, as the EU seeks to unite in the face of urgent geopolitical threats, it may have to put up with Mr Orbán’s efforts to undermine it from within. But a reckoning must surely come with a leader who holds its rules – and the values that inform them – in contempt. In theory, the article 7 process could lead to the suspension of Hungary’s voting rights in the EU. Almost certainly, there is neither the bandwidth nor the appetite in Brussels to go down that route, given current circumstances. But joining a club means playing by its rules, rather than your own. Sooner or later, there must be meaningful consequences for not doing so.