What will it take for the European Union to stand up for the democratic principles it claims to promote? How much longer will it allow itself — and the taxpayers who fund it — to be played for fools?
Hungary’s Viktor Orban — Europe’s top exponent of the new global wave of autocracy — has just won an ugly election to his fourth term. His country will now accelerate its march away from the values so clearly spelled out in the E.U. charter — even though Orban has happily taken advantage of European subsidies to boost his own political career. It is time for Brussels to turn off the tap.
The E.U. is meant to be more than a club for economic growth. Its Charter of Fundamental Rights proclaims that the union is founded on shared values, “on the principles of democracy and the rule of law.” The charter demands that members respect the “freedom and pluralism of the media” and that they refrain from discrimination on almost any grounds, including religion, ethnicity or nationality. In short, it demands that members abide by ideals and practices that Orban has brazenly attacked.
Orban’s dirty-tricks election campaign, replete with anti-immigrant fear-mongering, a revival of anti-Semitic tropes and open attacks against the E.U., may have been the last gasp of Hungarian democracy. A country that once seemed to be pushing forward toward a liberal future has succumbed to the authoritarian agenda of a craven demagogue.
The election law was already deeply imbalanced, causing a founding member of the country’s constitutional court to conclude that “Hungary is therefore not a democratic country.” And Sunday’s election was rife with irregularities.
It is a curious coincidence that Orban’s Fidesz party and his allies, at this writing, had won 134 seats, just over the threshold for a two-thirds control of parliament, which allows them complete freedom of action. Even though more people voted against Fidesz than for it, Orban-engineered gerrymandering meant that the party still won a landslide parliamentary majority.
But Hungarian democracy was already in its death throes before the Sunday vote.
Orban and his backers have steadily dismantled democratic and liberal structures. There are no more checks and balances. The party has gained control of the judiciary, with its hand-picked supporters able to choose the country’s judges. Similarly with the press, Orban and Fidesz control media regulators. Under pressure, most of the independent media has been sold to Orban supporters, while the state-run outlets gradually morph into propaganda.
Most contemptibly, Orban has demonized immigrants as invading hordes and turned his rabble-rousing neo-fascist sights against George Soros, the man who he has chosen as personification of the enemy. The Soros Foundation has spent millions of dollars financing liberal projects in Hungary. But Orban has spent tens of millions of dollars in government money to portray Soros in the sinister shades of old anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, as a powerful puppet master threatening the country.
Orban described his system as an “illiberal democracy” – but right now it’s hard to see what’s left of the democratic part of that equation. He has declared that the liberal consensus in Europe has come to an end, openly attacking the European Union as a threat to Hungary.
Why, then, does the E.U. continue to transfer billions of dollars to aide a man who describes the E.U. as an enemy?
The E.U. does not have a clear mechanism for expelling a member. But Article 7 of the E.U. treaty says that some of a country’s rights may be suspended if it is in serious violation of E.U. values. Suspending a member is particularly difficult because E.U. rules require unanimity for major proposals. Poland, for one, whose government admires Orban, would resist. And the European People’s Party (EPP), the conservative bloc within the European Parliament, could also protect Hungary, a member. But others, like Germany, have particular power within the EPP, and they could pressure members to take action.
Suspending some of Hungary’s rights would leave the E.U. door open in case Hungarians who want to take their country back to the path of real democracy manage to defeat the Orban machine. An even more effective tactic: turn off the flow of subsidies from Brussels to Budapest.
Hungary is one of the E.U.’s greatest beneficiaries. The billions it receives from European taxpayers have helped build support for Orban and lie at the heart of the kleptocracy he has built. The E.U. helped to pay for a railway near Orban’s home, built by his childhood friend, and for the 65 million euro (about $80 million) streetlight project that made Orban’s son-in-law fabulously wealthy.
E.U. money has made it easier for Orban to find money in the government budget to make cash payments to the middle class, fortifying his support. And it has contributed so much to Hungary that it has allowed Orban to preside over a growing economy that would be much less prosperous without E.U. support.
But the most important reason to cut off funds to Hungary is to send a warning to the other would-be autocrats who see Orban as someone to be emulated. The E.U. should make clear that it has had enough of being ridiculed and exploited and is now serious about defending its democratic principles. It should make clear that those who choose to move away from the universal values the European Union says it represents will have to pay a price.
Frida Ghitis is a columnist for World Politics Review and a regular CNN.com opinion contributor.