Why the EU should take action on Hungary

The bloc must actively defend its core values if it is to secure its future

People attend a protest against the government of prime minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, Hungary. Photograph: Bernadett Szabo/Reuters

People attend a protest against the government of prime minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, Hungary. Photograph: Bernadett Szabo/Reuters

 

The European Union has largely overcome the debt crisis which threatened several national economies at the start of this decade, leading many hostile commentators to predict the end of the euro, even of the EU itself. The euro has survived but still needs reinforcing, especially on banking union, if it is to weather another financial crisis. Plans by President Macron of France for a euro zone budget and finance minister are being resisted by the new German government.

These plans are now caught up, as Macron told the European Parliament last week, with the “a form of European civil war” over political values and liberal democracy.

His meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin two days later saw them acknowledge the need for convergence on values, including on foreign policy issues as well as on economic and financial ones. Macron is willing to add competitiveness to the equation, but stresses the need for overall solidarity.

He must now take proper account of the political shifts at national level, reflected in general elections, which over time lead to changes of perspective at the European level, or even to paralysis, as the differing elements represented find they cannot agree on the fundamentals of what the Union is or what it stands for.

The elections last year in France and Germany produced governments strongly committed to the Union, though the CDU/CSU, one component of the German coalition, is increasingly nervous at the success of other, more Eurosceptic, parties of the right and far-right.

Elsewhere national election results have been less positive. In Austria, the centre-right People’s Party (ÖVP) formed a government last December with the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), though the latter is being kept away from EU affairs.

If the EU is to mean anything, its members must ultimately be prepared to respect its values

Elections in Italy last month brought success to the right-wing Eurosceptics of the Lega Nord and the left-leaning Eurosceptics of M5S, the composition of the government being still undecided.

Most recently in Hungary, the national-conservative Fidesz party, which espouses what prime minister Viktor Orbán calls “illiberal democracy” and which orchestrates an almost permanent populist campaign against EU “interference” in its affairs, won a very clear victory in this month’s election.

How should the EU react to Orbán’s challenge? If the EU is to mean anything, its members must, while defending their own interests, ultimately be prepared to respect its values.

If, as with Greece during the debt and financial crises, orthodoxy can be imposed in budgetary matters, should it not also be imposed when, as in Hungary, fundamental matters of political liberty and democratic standards are at stake? That is the logic of political convergence on values. To demand it be applied here is merely to ask the EU to uphold the political decency it has always claimed to represent.

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