Hungary versus the EU?

Hungary risks EU membership, ex-U.S. Ambassador Mark Palmer tells Nepszabadsag.

Questions:

These are pretty harsh words. Do you think they could transform into reality and what kind of approach should the EU follow in your opinion toward Budapest?

Answers:

Sean Hanley, Senior Lecturer in East European Politics, University College London

I think it is highly unlikely in the rather stark and simple way he suggests – there is a lack of effective formal mechanisms to sanction full member (as opposed to candidate) states and, as the Austrian crisis around the FPO-OVP coalition showed, political pressure can be rather ineffective. Moreover, most EU states are currently focused on much bigger issues around the Euro and the future shape of the Union and it is hard to imagine that Hungary will really be a priority.

It is also worth noting that while bad democratic practice in many respects, formally speaking, most of what Fidesz has done is entirely constitutional and legal and consistent with minimal democratic standards.

In the longer term, however, Hungary could find itself excluded or, in effect, exclude itself, from the core, inner track EU that seems likely to emerge from the current Eurozone crisis. Hungary’s weak economy may also allow the Union and other international bodies  to impose informal political conditionality.

As with the Meciar government of the 1990s in Slovakia, it is perhaps a matter of how much Fidesz want to trade  international opprobrium and damage to the economy against entrenching its power domestically.

Martin Brusis, Center for Applied Policy Research, University of Munich

The EU Treaty enables the Union to suspend Hungary’s membership if the Orbán government seriously and consistently violates the principles of democracy and rule of law. However, the EU member states / institutions are unlikely to initiate this formal procedure in the near future. Rather, I would expect (1) the Commission to take Hungary to the European Court of Justice due to violations of EU law and (2) the European Parliament or the Council to adopt political declarations criticizing the erosion of independent checks and balances (media, judiciary, Central Bank) in Hungary. If Orbán ignores such statements, EU member states might perhaps agree on diplomatic sanctions, as they did when the right-wing FPÖ joined the Austrian government in 2000(though this ambivalent experience has probably taught most member states to exercise restraint).

I think public scrutiny and critique from abroad and from the EU institutions is useful and should be sustained in order to prevent the Hungarian government from abusing its powers and to support its domestic critics. But it is ultimately up to Hungary’s citizens to vote Orbán out of (or keep him in) office.

Cristian GhineaDirector, Romanian Center for European Policies

I don`t think someone would want to create this precedent – e.g. excluding a country from EU because of short term internal troubles (leaving aside the fact that formally this is nearly impossible). I think diplomatic pressure will be enforced on Orban to calm down. Let`s remember the pressure on Austria when their extremists were co-opted into government.

On the other hand, we have to make the necessary difference between what is not popular and what is not acceptable in EU. Orban`s conservative policies are not popular, that`s clear, in the Western mainstream, but is this a reason to discuss the exclusion of Hungary?

The entire debate around Orban is mixing things in an awful manner. Having a constitutional provision about the income tax is odd, but is not non-acceptable, this is not attacking a fundamental value of EU. Having religious references in the Constitution is also odd, but again not a deal breaker.

Let criticize Orban for it`s real `sins`, such as limiting freedom of expression. Otherwise it will look like an Eastern post-communist politician attacked by mainstream media in the West, which would make him popular in the East (basically he`s doing what former Polish president Kaczynski would have done with such a majority). I`m afraid this could turn into a West versus East debate and we do not need another one.

In conclusion, let`s concentrate the critique towards Orban on concrete issues and to make the difference between non-popular and fundamentally unacceptable policies.

Anton Pelinka, Professor of Nationalism Studies and Political Science, Central European University

The Hungarian government has not (yet) completely isolated itself. Orban is still interested in being perceived a respected member of the the EU and – as representing FIDESZ – the European People’s Party. This is the reason why the EU still has significant leverage. Two questions:

Who is the EU? I think that the European Parliament (at least the party groups of the center and of the left) must speak out as openly as possible to put pressure on the Hungarian government. The European Commission has to be more guarded: The Commission has to argue not along political but along legal lines. The Commission has – as it has done already with respect to the Hungarian Media law – to use existing European Law for its criticism of the Hungarian government. So: The EU should follow not one approach, but a combination of political and legal approaches.

The Hungarian government is still interested in good relations with the US, recognized as a reliable partner within NATO. For that reason, Orban will be careful not to provoke the US (especially the State Department) more than he has already done. The problem: Is he in full control of his own government and party?

The main problem is which tendency within FIDESZ (within Orban’s complex personality?) will prevail: the Western orientation – or the isolationist and nationalist (“We Hungarian against the rest of the world”).

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