Thursday

21st Jan 2021

Opinion

Why China and Cambodia are watching Hungary's EU battle

  • Hungarian foreign minister Peter Szijjarto. His trip to Cambodia showed Pnohm Penn they had an ally within the EU - but turned into a PR disaster when he tested positive for Covid-19 (Photo: Council of the European Union)

In early November, Hungary's foreign minister Peter Szijjarto paid a visit to Cambodia to reopen the country's embassy in Phnom Penh, which had been closed for decades.

For Cambodia's authoritarian government, who in August saw trade privileges partially cut by the EU in response to the erosion of democracy in Phnom Penh since 2017, Szijjarto's visit signalled something more important: it had found a new ally within the EU.

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Cambodia's foreign minister Prak Sokhonn put it: "Hungary's position on the removal of [trade privileges] is another example of a friend who understands the situation in Cambodia and is brave enough to support Cambodia for justice towards a democratic democracy."

This PR coup turned into a disaster after Szijjarto tested positive for Covid-19 the day after leaving Phnom Penh, forcing most of Cambodia's senior officials, including long-ruling prime minister Hun Sen, to quarantine for several weeks.

Nonetheless, Cambodia, along with some other of the world's authoritarian states, including China, now see Hungary not only as a lobbying ally within the EU but also an inspiration as a fellow sovereignty-fundamentalist, who like them argues fervently that no other state has the right to pass judgement on their domestic affairs.

They are now also watching Hungary and Poland's campaign to undermine EU unity and Brussels' resolve amid the rule of law-mechanism dispute.

Their interest will be in whether, firstly, Brussels avoids a direct head-to-head with Budapest and Warsaw, either by backing down or trying to circumvent their vetoes by bypassing the two countries and issuing recovery funds without them.

The latter may be presented as a show of force by other EU states, but it also signals that Brussels wants to postpone the battle for another day.

Secondly, even if the rule of law-mechanism is enforced as part of the budget and relief fund (as it is or watered down), will the EU use it?

Indeed, stipulations could affect member states other than Hungary and Poland where rule of law is weak.

Bulgaria, for instance.

Instead, these mechanisms might be accepted but not implemented, much like the Stability and Growth Pact which sets prohibitive rules on state spending - but punishments seldom handed out.

Placate...then placate the others

As the Economist recently put it: "strict rules (to placate supporters) which are never enforced (to placate opponents)."

Strict rules but little enforcement - that could possibly be the way the EU's policy on democracy-building and human rights support goes.

Clearly, there is momentum within Brussels to be more serious in defending international values. Writing in a blog post late last month, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell affirmed that Brussels will be more "straight-talking" on these issues, adding that: "In the competition of great powers, Europe's support for democracy is an important source of our power of attraction."

The EU's new Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy provides an institutional framework for a values-led foreign policy. A planned new sanctions regime ('Europe's Magnitsky Act' as it has been dubbed) provides additional mechanisms.

Another problem shown by Hungary is that if you wait too long, the situation becomes unmanageable.

Does Brussels "re-double our efforts" now, as Borrell wrote last month, or wait until it has its vast array of new mechanisms and institutional-practices to punish international human-rights offenders? Or, indeed, until it has the full support of the incoming Biden administration on this matter?

But the EU missed an early opportunity for "straight-talking" when this week its relationship with the southeast Asian bloc, a region of serious erosion of democracy and human rights, were upgraded to a "strategic partnership". Their joint-press release failed to mention "democracy" or "human rights" at all , and only "rule of law" once.

Much like the EU's internal regulations, its external mechanisms for supporting democracy and human rights globally may be expanding.

But this will mean little if Brussels doesn't have the guts to use them - and, more importantly, if authoritarian states reckon Brussels doesn't have the nerve to use them. Indeed, in the field of democracy-building, perception matters most.

Because the EU, like the US, cannot possibly sanction every authoritarian official or human rights abuser around the world, sanctions must be used sparingly and selectively - and, indeed, should spark enough fear in the autocrat that they mend their ways before sanctions are even applied.

Author bio

David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and the UK, reporting on EU foreign policy and Europe-Asia relations. He was formerly based in Southeast Asia between 2014-2019. He is Southeast Asia Columnist at the Diplomat, a columnist and correspondent at Asia Times, and a contributor to Foreign Policy, Euronews, Nikkei Asia, and others.

Disclaimer

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

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