Saturday

21st May 2022

Analysis

Orban set to face down EU threats

  • Viktor Orban at an EPP congress in Madrid in March. He has defended himself in the European Parliament six times. (Photo: EPP)

The European Commission is expected to take legal decisions against Hungary on Wednesday (26 April) over recently adopted laws, particularly its attempt to close down the Central European University.

Prime minister Viktor Orban will take centre stage at a European Parliament debate on his country's backsliding on democratic values.

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It is the kind of scene Orban has been involved in repeatedly since his 2010 election.

In 2011, the EU Commission launched a probe into his attempt to curb media freedom in 2011. A year later, the commission launched a series of investigations into whether Hungary had broken EU laws on the independence of institutions including the judiciary, the national bank and the data protection authority.

He has defended himself in the European Parliament six times.

Several infringement procedures followed, but most ended in political compromise.

The commission received little encouragement from member states and Orban continued to enjoy domestic support in the face of a weak and divided opposition.

An 18-month inquiry by MEPs produced a report on Hungary in 2013 that listed the problematic rules introduced by Orban's government and suggested setting up a special commission to examine threats to democracy and European values.

However, it did not call for the Article 7 procedure that checks if there is a "clear risk of a serious breach by a member state" of the European values, dubbed the "nuclear option" because it can end up with the suspension of the country's voting rights.

The difficulty of dealing with Orban's self-proclaimed "illiberal" democracy gave birth to the so-called rule of law framework now in motion over Poland's alleged breaches of EU rules.

Yet, even two weeks ago, when commission vice-president Frans Timmermans announced that the executive would again scrutinise several Hungarian laws, he maintained the rule of law in Hungary does not face a systemic threat.

Some had placed their hope in the political family of Orban's Fidesz party, the European People's Party (EPP), to bring Orban in line. But fellow EPP members did not go beyond scolding their stiff-necked colleague.

Over and over

On Wednesday, the commission could decide to launch new probes, particularly into the latest amendment to the higher education law that critics say target the EU over the mobility of non-EU researchers. It could announce further examination into a planned legislation on NGOs, on Hungary's treatment of migrants and on Roma integration.

Orban, whose government runs a campaign called "Let's stop Brussels!" at home, will once again debate MEPs in the EP.

According to Hungarian media, the Hungarian delegation of the EPP sent out a letter to fellow group members saying: "We'd also like to confirm that our party, Fidesz, and our prime minister are committed Europeans."

The EPP leadership will discuss Fidesz on Saturday before the Brexit EU summit. Despite some frustration in the group, it is unlikely that they will sanction Orban.

Sabine Verheyen, a German MEP from the EPP, who represented her group on Tuesday in an event supporting the Central European University, a school that has come under fire from the Hungarian government, told Euobserver that while "she is not happy with the what seems to be a direct attack on a university", the EPP must move carefully.

"You have to ask, if you want to have influence, is it easier with him [Orban] in the group or outside the group," she said.

She pointed to Poland, saying while Hungary has tweaked some of its laws under EU pressure, there has been little impact in Warsaw.

Contamination

In 2015, EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker once greeted Orban with a jovial "Hello, dictator!". EPP chairman Joseph Daul amicably calls Orban the party's "enfant terrible" that one finds in every family.

Belgian MEP Phillippe Lamberts, co-chair of the Green group in the EU parliament, has warned however that the risk Orban poses, as he constantly stretches the EU's red lines, is greater than that of the far-right politicians.

"I'm not so much afraid of the nationalist populist parties, I am much more afraid that they are contaminating traditional political families," he said on Tuesday at the CEU event.

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