Monday

25th Jan 2021

Opinion

Stopping the authoritarian rot in Europe

  • Neither Ursula von der Leyen nor Jean-Claude Juncker seemed ever to learn that weakness is an authoritarian's lunch (Photo: Council of the European Union)

A few weeks ago, the European Union underwent a fundamental change: it ceased being a bloc of exclusively democratic states.

Worse, leaders across Europe barely flinched.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

Prime minister Viktor Orbán's seizure of absolute power in Hungary at the beginning of April – under the cover of the coronavirus pandemic – culminates a decade of authoritarian moves.

Step by step, Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party have politicised the courts, decimated independent media, destroyed academic freedom, hobbled civil society, and promoted xenophobia.

Even after the European Parliament launched an "Article 7" process, which allows sanctions against states that breach EU values, the EU commission and member states did almost nothing to stop Orbán. Foot-dragging prevailed.

Even to the most blinkered of European eyes, Orbán's latest manoeuvre – assuming the power to rule by decree for an unlimited time – should have registered more than pro forma mutterings of concern.

Under president Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission's initial response to Orbán's power grab was so mealy-mouthed that it didn't even name "Hungary."

That travesty was surpassed only by a joint statement from 16 EU countries that, while also omitting mention of Hungary, was so bland and generic that Hungary seemingly mocked its EU peers for their timidity and announced it would sign it.

A stronger response was possible.

European leaders could have announced that they would accelerate the Article 7 process and press for the suspension of Hungary's voting rights on EU matters; review the generous EU subsidies that, as both media investigations and regulators have been pointing out for some time, Orbán uses to line the pockets of his cronies; and politically isolate Orbán and his ministers at every opportunity - until the Hungarian dictatorship ends.

All EU member state leaders, especially German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron, should make clear that there will be no business as usual when dealing with Orbán as a dictator.

Handwringing

Instead, all we saw was handwringing and milquetoast statements.

The European People's Party (EPP), the centre-right pan-European political alliance to which Fidesz belongs, deserves special reprimand.

Worse than abandoning its own stated values (not to mention the EU's), it has appeased Orbán for years, refusing to expel Fidesz - only "suspending" it, a move that allowed it to maintain many of its advantages within the group - as, step by step, it destroyed Hungary's democracy.

For years, Manfred Weber, leader of the EPP in the European Parliament and from Germany's CSU, has given Orbán credibility and acceptability as part of a supposedly mainstream group of democratic parties.

Some national parties in the EPP have now protested Fidesz's latest move, but two of the biggest and most influential members – Germany's CDU/CSU and France's Les Républicains – have not signed on to their rebuke.

EPP president Donald Tusk, a man with a once-proud history of fighting dictatorship in Poland, clearly knows he's helping a monster. In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, he said an infamous Nazi legal expert would be "proud" of Orbán.

Tusk also wrote a letter to suggest that Fidesz should be expelled from the group. Yet Tusk absurdly remains the head of the alliance despite Fidesz's ongoing membership.

Von der Leyen's own EPP (and CDU) background is also likely making matters worse.

She seems unable to confront the EU's greatest internal democratic challenge since its founding. Others before her – most notably her immediate predecessor as president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, also of the EPP – have preferred a muted approach to Orbán's attacks on democracy, despite the utter failure of these cautious entreaties.

Neither von der Leyen nor Juncker seemed ever to learn that weakness is an authoritarian's lunch.

Other authoritarian-minded leaders around the EU have taken notice of the EU's spinelessness. Poland's ruling party, which has long seen Fidesz as its model, is proceeding with its efforts to undermine the independence of its judiciary, while Bulgaria is moving to muzzle free speech.

Rot tends to spread when it encounters no resistance. Dictator wannabes prey upon weakness.

EU and member state leaders now need to ask themselves: is the EU only a trading bloc or also a club of democracies? The answer to that question used to be obvious. Sadly, it no longer is.

Ten million EU citizens now live under authoritarian rule. How many millions more will have to suffer the loss of their freedoms before Europe's leaders draw the line?

Author bio

Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Coronavirus

Von der Leyen criticises Hungary, but fails to mention it

The EU Commission called on member states not to trample on democratic rules in the fightback against coronavirus - without mentioning Hungary by name. It will monitor all EU countries and discuss emergency measures on Wednesday.

Coronavirus

Hungary's Orban seeks indefinite power in virus bill

In a draft bill Hungary's ruling government seeks special powers uncontrolled by parliament, election, referendums, courts for an indefinite amount of time, rights' groups worry. The bill could be vote on within eight days.

MEPs complain of 'no action' on Hungary and Poland

Five European Parliamentary groups warned EU member states that if they don't act on breaches of EU rules and values in Poland and Hungary, the EU's integrity and credibility will be undermined.

Letter

Orban government responds to Human Rights Watch

With his opinion article Kenneth Roth joins what are now dozens of critics to criticise the Orbán government and insult the Hungarian people with the charge that Hungary's extraordinary measures to fight Covid-19 amount to "dictatorship."

Column

The slow death of EU Christian Democracy

Before World War Two, Christian parties' commitment to democracy was far from unequivocal. But after the war, Christian Democratic parties adopted a political formula that brought them political domination in much of western Europe for two decades.

News in Brief

  1. Estonia to get first woman prime minister
  2. Turkey and Greece to hold Mediterranean security talks
  3. Dutch police detain 240 in anti-lockdown protests
  4. Renewables overtake fossil fuels in EU electricity mix
  5. France's top scientist warns of corona 'emergency'
  6. Growing appetite for Northern Ireland independence
  7. Surge in support for Portuguese far-right party
  8. German far-right party sues to avoid stigma

Column

BioNTech: Stop talking about their 'migration background'

I understand that the German-Turkish community - often subjected to condescension in Germany - celebrated the story. Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türecki represent scientific excellence and business success at the highest level.

Italy's return to statism spells trouble for the eurozone

There are profound questions about whether the windfall of cash from the EU coronavirus recovery fund will truly help Italy recover or whether it will cause more problems than it solves, for Rome and the rest of the eurozone.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAEU Code of Conduct can showcase PPPs delivering healthier more sustainable society
  2. CESIKlaus Heeger and Romain Wolff re-elected Secretary General and President of independent trade unions in Europe (CESI)
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersWomen benefit in the digitalised labour market
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersReport: The prevalence of men who use internet forums characterised by misogyny
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic climate debate on 17 November!
  6. UNESDAMaking healthier diets the easy choice

Latest News

  1. Navalny protests sharpen EU sanctions talks
  2. Why Russia politics threaten European security
  3. MEPs call for workers to have 'right to disconnect'
  4. Reality bites EU's 'No More Morias' pledge
  5. Ten years on from Tahrir: EU's massive missed opportunity
  6. Vaccine delay and Russia sanctions debates This WEEK
  7. Will EU ever take action to stop Israeli settlements?
  8. EU leaders keep open borders, despite new corona variant risk

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us