Rule of Law
Green Light for Rule of Law Mechanism in Hungary

Commission triggers instrument in the wake of Orbán's victory
Ursula von der Leyen

© picture alliance / AA | Thierry Monasse / Pool  

On Tuesday, Commission Chief Ursula von der Leyen announced the first ever proceeding under the rule of law mechanism against Hungary. In the wake of a landslide victory for Orbán in the Hungarian parliamentary elections, one cannot help but wonder: Did the decision come too late? and What will happen next?

On the 16th of February, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) rejected Hungary's and Poland's challenges to the rule of law conditionality. The mechanism is the first of its kind in the EU and tries to reign in Member Countries that are actively infringing on rule of law and democracy at home, by leveraging an important bargain: EU subsidies. The ruling was high time for the European Parliament, which had already sued the Commission in October 2021 over the inactivity in the face of a variety of breaches by Hungary and Poland. However, in order to prepare a solid case for the qualified majority that is needed to trigger the execution of the mechanism in the Council of the EU, while at the same time being aware that triggering the mechanism before the parliamentary elections in Hungary could be interpreted and criticised as interfering in domestic politics, the Commission decided to put the decision on hold.

Orbán’s Landslide Victory

Fast forward to this Tuesday, when von der Leyen officially announced to the European Parliament the decision to trigger the mechanism. In the meantime, Orbán and his governing Fidesz party just secured another four-year term and a two-thirds majority in parliament, which would enable him to topple the opposition and continue passing constitutional changes – a liberal nightmare considering his efforts to undermine liberal democracy, press freedom and human rights in the country. But how did we get here? The election campaign clearly showed the systematic use of disinformation campaigns and state control of media, that Orbán has established over the past years. For the opposition, it was therefore extremely hard to convey messages to especially more rural or poorer areas of the country. After the realisation that no party alone could pose a serious threat to Fidesz’s electoral performance, six parties, including the liberal Momentum party, formed a coalition in a historic move. They held an innovative primary with an impressive turnout, which selected the conservative leaning independent mayor of Hódmezővásárhely Péter Márki-Zay as their prime ministerial candidate. However, the more parties involved the wider the variety of worldviews and the harder it is to find common ground. While the opposition focused on issues that they could agree on, such as anti-corruption, rule of law and internal coalition politics, which are less relevant to the average voter but easier to agree on, Fidesz used economic incentives, such as the increase in social security benefits and interventions into consumer market prices. In Tuesday’s Liberal Breakfast on the Hungarian Election (organised by FNF Europe & ALDE Party), Deputy-Mayor of Budapest Daniel Berg (Momentum) pointed out:

The Ukraine war is a really good example of these dynamics. On the one hand you had the opposition coalition who was talking about the things that people in Brussels were talking about: European values, integration, state sovereignty, criticism of Putin. Then on the other hand, you had Fidesz which was talking about three things, and three things only: cheap gas, security, and stability. Instead of a value proposition, it was more of a safety bet for many voters.

Daniel Berg
Daniel Berg

Máté Hajba has more on the election campaign and results here.

Wrong Timing Or a Long-Overdue Decision?

With von der Leyen’s announcement coming just after the election, it was bound to play into Orbán’s anti-EU narrative. Chief of staff, Minister Gergely Gulyás, accused the EU to align with the “Hungarian Left” and to punish the democratic choices made by Hungarian voters. He also compared Brussels to the performance of the Hungarian opposition, in pointing out that Hungarians had rejected both by a large majority in the election. This comparison is, however, incorrect as a majority of Hungarians have a pro-European attitude. Orbán has a history of using the EU as scapegoat in his populist rhetoric and fostering anti-EU sentiments. Waiting to trigger the rule of law mechanism until after the election might just provide him with a welcome excuse to blame the looming economic impact of the sanctions against Russia, inflation, as well as the missing EU recovery funds once again on the bloc, instead of facing the consequences of his own political decisions. This being said, if the mechanism was triggered before the election, Orbán could have surely argued that the EU was trying to interfere with the elections and used it to his advantage. While the European Parliament’s criticism on the continuous delay in the process is therefore justified, it remains questionable whether it would have influenced the state of play and the narrative that Hungary’s government is conveying to its citizens. We are now awaiting a lengthy process of back and forth between the Commission and Budapest, with a final vote in the Council of the EU. For a qualified majority, at least 15 out of the 27 EU countries, representing more than 65% of the EU’s population, is needed. In November, the Commission had already sent an executive letter with questions on corruption and judiciary independence to Hungary. The Commission’s main concern remains, that Orbán has been misusing EU funds by funnelling them to his friends and family. Now, Brussels will be following up with an official letter, any many more questions.

Poland Spared – For Now

During her announcement on Tuesday, von der Leyen said that Poland still has work ahead to fulfil the rule-of-law conditions and unlock the €36 billion in EU pandemic recovery funds. Poland’s governing Law and Justice (PiS) party has been fighting the European Commission in court over its continuous efforts to erode the independence of the judiciary. In addition, the country saw serious human rights backsliding on issues like reproductive and LGBT rights, as well as the crackdown on freedom of speech. In February, President Andrzej Duda extended, what seemed to be an olive branch, by putting forward a proposal to reform a controversial judiciary chamber. This legislation might be a step in the right direction, however, it has not been passed yet and does not cover all the issues the Commission had raised. In the meantime, Poland is still facing a daily €1 million fine for not freezing the disciplinary chamber’s work. However, Poland’s role in the war in Ukraine, by taking on more than two million refugees, may very well play into the fact that the Commission is granting them this reprieve. Considering how long it took them to make a move on Hungary, it remains to be seen how much patience the Commission has left.

Re-Watch our Liberal Breakfast on the Hungarian Election (05.02.)

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