"Hungary is being held hostage by an outdated tyrant"

Viktor Orban’s government is returning the country to totalitarianism.

Hungary is a country on the edge. In the last twelve months it has undergone profound political reform and economic collapse but has been given almost no profile in Britain. 

The Constitution has been amended ten times in one year and then replaced all together. The Constitutional Court has been expanded and packed with allies of the Prime Minister. 200 judges have been forced to retire whilst a former party official now gets to decide which judge hears which case.

Election boundaries have been redrawn to ensure the ruling party would have won the last three elections (even the two they lost). Abortion and gay marriage is banned, whilst 238 churches were “de-recognised”, leaving only 14 behind. The multi-party Election Commission has been removed and replaced with five party officials. An ominous Media Board has been given draconian powers to keep the press in check and impose vast fines for ambiguous offences.

To top it all, the President’s private bodyguard is now the head of a new "anti-terror" force with unlimited powers to conduct secret surveillance, demand financial and medical records, and listen into phone calls without a warrant. All of this in contravention of a landmark 1989 court ruling that marked the end of the Communist secret state.

It was a cold dark day in late December and the clocks were striking thirteen.

In the name of tackling government inefficiency and the legacy of Communism, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s constitutional reforms undid two decades of democratic progress on 1st January 2012. In the heart of Europe, the rights and norms that underpinned the politics settlement have changed beyond recognition. 

Orban’s Fedesz Party won a super-majority of seats in the 2010 elections as the result of popular frustration and a disproportionate electoral system. But they used their position to systematically remove checks and balances, install political cronies, and ensure that such a sweeping popular change could never happen again.

Hungary has a proud tradition of democratic progress and the changes did not go unmarked.

There had been relatively few protests during the two decades of democracy, and so tens of thousands of people marching through the bitter winter cold demanded attention. Orban smiled and waved his hands.

Dissidents who led the underground movement against dictatorship and who helped the country transition to democracy pleaded with the EU not to “sit back and watch as [Hungary] is being held hostage by an outdated, provincial tyrant”. Orban smiled and turned away.

Typically softly spoken Brussels bureaucrats issued sweeping denunciations and Hilary Clinton voiced grave concern. Orban smiled and carried on as before.

When Fidesz was swept to power in 2010, their campaign effectively channeled popular frustration. The economy was deep in recession and relied on IMF support to avoid bankruptcy, unemployment was soaring, and even the beleaguered euro was preferred to the forint.

The far-right ultra nationalist Jobbik party used similar campaign tactics. Their leaders railed against the EU, Roma, and Jews. Far from being shunned by the electorate, they were returned as the second largest party in Parliament and boasted one of the highest youth membership rates.

In 2010, Hungary was clearly demanding a dramatic change. However, in exchange for two years of sweeping reforms and stringent cutbacks, they have not said goodbye to hard times, merely their right to demand better. The economy is in such bad shape that last November the vehemently anti-IMF Orban was forced to go cap in hand to the very institution he derided. Not coincidently, his dramatic constitutional changes distracted attention from the stumbling pirouette.

This is the Hungary of today; constitutional manipulation, bubbling extremism, and economic crisis. However, the EU and IMF are in a strong position to promote change. In January, Orban dared the EU to act on their criticisms of the constitutional manipulation. On 6th September, this political brinkmanship was repeated with his rejection of a 15 billion euro IMF deal. But the economy is falling and popular frustration is rising.

Orban famously points to ghosts in the system – conspiracies outside, Roma within, and Communists everywhere. Rather than searching behind for the pantomime villain, Hungarians need to see the one right in front of them.

The EU and IMF are just prolonging the Orban charade by demanding cuts to pensions without making a tough stand for transparency, accountability, and the constitutional integrity of Hungary. They have the leverage to lift the curtain, but do they have the courage? 

The far-right Jobbik party marches in Budapest. Photograph: Getty Images
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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.