Recalcitrant Hungary and Poland Exhaust Europe’s Patience

Lawmakers open a probe into Hungary’s democracy. Ministers admonish Poland for attacking the courts.

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán enters the European Parliament in Brussels for a debate, April 26
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán enters the European Parliament in Brussels for a debate, April 26 (European Parliament)

The European Parliament has opened an investigation into the state of democracy and rule of law in Hungary, which is ruled by the self-described illiberal democrat Viktor Orbán.

The resolution, introduced by liberal and left-wing groups, passed on Wednesday with the support of 68 members of the conservative European People’s Party, to which Orbán’s Fidesz belongs.

The mainstream right has long shielded Budapest from scrutiny, despite Orbán’s years of attacks on the courts, the central bank and the media, the removal of checks on his parliamentary majority and his pursuing of economic and migration policies that defy the European mainstream.

At the same time, it has repeatedly warned Orbán to keep his anti-EU rhetoric and authoritarian tendencies in check; warnings that have gone unheeded.

First step

Wednesday’s vote is only a first step. EUobserver explains it creates a committee, which will write a report, which will require the approval of a four-fifths majority of EU member states before even raising the possibility of sanctions, which would then require unanimity.

But it isn’t the only sign Hungary has exhausted Europe’s patience.

Last month, the European Commission launched a probe of its own into Orbán’s attempt to make life impossible for the Budapest-based Central European University, which was founded in 1991 by the Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros.

The EU executive has since added an investigation into Hungary’s treatment of asylum seekers.

Isolated

Orbán’s allies in Warsaw have come under criticism as well. The Financial Times reports that EU ministers “rounded” on Poland during a council meeting on Tuesday, demanding that it reopen talks with the commission over reforms to its justice system.

Germany voiced “great concerns”, according to one account of the meeting, while Belgium raised the possibility of limiting Polish access to the EU budget.

Hungary took Poland’s side, but the two were apparently isolated.

Court battle

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, which is ideologically close to Orbán’s Fidesz, has been in a row with the European Commission for months over its assault on the judiciary.

Soon after coming to power, the party removed justices appointed by its liberal rival. It introduced reforms that the Constitutional Tribunal’s president, Andrzej Rzepliński, said violated the body’s independence. The tribunal threw out the changes, but Law and Justice refused to accept its judgement.

The government recently escalated this standoff by proposing to give itself the right to decide which of the court’s verdicts are published and which are not — a blatant attempt to hide unfriendly rulings.

Reactionary movement

Law and Justice’s attempts to defang the tribunal do not stand on their own.

In the last year, the ruling party has purged political opponents from government agencies and state-run companies. Critical media outlets have been threatened by lawmakers. Poland has loosened public spending and adopted protectionist economic policies the European Commission advised against.

Like Orbán, the leaders of Law and Justice see themselves as the vanguard of a global reactionary movement against the multiculturalism and neoliberalism of EU elites. Now finally the multiculturalists and neoliberals are pushing back.

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