How do you solve a problem called Viktor Orban? Since the combative Hungarian prime minister’s government came to power in 2010, he has repeatedly undermined the rule of law at home and challenged some of the core values of the EU, becoming a darling of Europe’s far-right in the process.
For years, Brussels dithered over what to do, with the fact Orban’s party, Fidesz, is a member of the key European People’s Party (EPP) political grouping (which also includes Angela Merkel’s party and Fine Gael) within the European Parliament hampering any moves to censure him. No longer.
This week, MEPs voted by more than the required two-thirds majority to launch a process of sanctioning Hungary under Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty for potentially violating democratic norms, the first time such an action has been taken. In an accompanying statement, MEPs said Orban’s government posed a “systemic threat” to democracy and the rule of law, damning words against an EU member state.
The unprecedented move came on foot of a report by Dutch MEP Judith Sargentini which detailed the ills of Orban’s Hungary, from the undermining of judicial independence, the hollowing out of media and academic freedoms, the hounding of migrants and widespread corruption. Sargentini challenged her colleagues on the floor of the parliament: “Will you ensure the value of this union is more than just words written on a piece of paper?”
The vote marks the first step towards possible sanctions on Hungary, which could even mean the country loses its voting rights. But, for that to happen, the leaders of the EU’s other 27 member states would have to agree collectively to such a penalty. The prospects of this are slim, given Poland is currently faced with the same process and both Warsaw and Budapest have, unsurprisingly, promised to back each other.
Last December the European Commission began Article 7 proceedings against Poland, largely due to concerns over the rule of law.
The vote to penalise Orban was also significant because a majority of the EPP finally broke ranks with a man whose increasingly provocative behaviour and inflammatory rhetoric had become too much of an embarrassment to its centre-right alliance.
A total of 115 members of the EPP bloc voted against Orban’s government and only 57 voted to support him, with 28 abstaining. Notably, Manfred Weber, the EPP leader in the European Parliament, and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose own party formed a coalition government with the far-right, both supported the move to penalise Orban.
The Hungarian prime minister’s evolution from rather conventional centre-right politician to a firebrand accused of bigotry and blatant disregard for the rule of law has seen him lauded by the far-right in other corners of the EU. Orban boasts of what he calls the “illiberal democracy” he oversees at home – he has spoken of introducing the death penalty, outlawed by the EU – and calls for a “cultural counter- revolution” across Europe.
In recent months, he has hobnobbed with Italy’s far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, and Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist who is now engaging with far-right movements from France to Germany.
Not surprisingly, Orban is defiant in the face of possible sanctions. True to form, he attempted to frame himself not as the enemy of European values but their main defender.
“This is the first case in the history of Europe where a community condemns its own border guards,” he told the European Parliament. Such bombast will play well at home, where Orban has won three elections in a row and his party still enjoys ratings of more than 50pc. The disconnect between Orban’s attacks on the EU and the fact his government receives generous EU funding has not dented the effectiveness of his messages with his base at home.
As for the EPP, with some of its members calling for Fidesz to be expelled altogether, Orban has indicated he could form a new bloc of the far-right with allies that would take on the long-standing alliance in next year’s European elections. His cosying up to Salvini in Rome and warm relations with Polish leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski may be a sign of what such a front may look like. Orban’s battle with the mainstream European body politic is far from over.