How Viktor Orbán’s deepening power in Hungary is breaking the EU

Amid a worsening coronavirus pandemic, the ruling party has a new target: LGBT Hungarians. 

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Earlier this month, Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party submitted a controversial set of amendments to the constitution. The proposed changes have two main strands: the first, aiming to make life harder for LGBT Hungarians; the second, making it more difficult for opposition candidates to be elected to parliament.

Taken together, the amendments amount to yet another assault on the conception of liberal politics championed by Western European countries and Brussels. “The logic of autocracy demands the creation of more and more enemies,” Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, the EU Parliament’s rapporteur on the situation in Hungary, told the New Statesman.

Fidesz, the party headed by prime minister Viktor Orbán, has a two-thirds majority in parliament, making the proposed changes almost certain to pass unimpeded. Orbán has spoken in the past of wanting to “bind the hands of the next ten governments”. The changes to the constitution, which will be difficult for any future government to unpick because of a required two-thirds majority, could entrench his conception of politics until well after he leaves office.

The anti-LGBT amendments will make it almost impossible for single people and gay couples to adopt children. The Equal Treatment Authority, an independent body charged with investigating cases of discrimination on the basis of, among others, sexual orientation and gender identity, would be abolished from next year. The organisation has been critical of government attempts to limit the rights of LGBT Hungarians.

Separately, proposed changes to the electoral system would make it more difficult for opposition candidates to be elected to parliament, stymieing plans by the opposition to run joint anti-government candidates in elections scheduled for 2022 and likely entrenching Fidesz rule even further. The proposals come months after a shockingly authoritarian law passed in March, when MPs declared a state of emergency and allowed Orbán to rule by decree (the state of emergency was replaced in June with a “state of medical crisis”).

The amendments could signal a worrying new trend in the preferred scapegoats of the Orbán government. Until now, although the Hungarian government was never discreet about its homophobia, it preferred to focus its fire on migrants and the supposed Muslim threat to European civilisation, allegedly orchestrated by arch-bogeyman George Soros. But the explicitly anti-LGBT agenda of the proposed changes may indicate new targets for Orbán’s vitriol.

Tamás Dombos, a board member of the Háttér Society, a Hungarian NGO advocating for LGBT rights, said that the proposed amendments may be intended to distract from a pandemic the government does not seem to have a firm grip on. “[The amendments] are part of a strategy to draw attention away from the coronavirus situation,” he said.

Indeed, Covid-19 is worsening in Hungary, which appeared during the first wave in the spring to have avoided the worst of the pandemic, but which is now seeing case numbers comparable to most other European countries. It has a confirmed rate of over 500 cases per million, higher than the US and more than double the rate of infection in Germany.

The amendments are almost certain to pass even while the Orbán government continues its ongoing standoff with Brussels, which bristles at Budapest’s blatant disregard of minority rights and its consistent eroding of democratic norms. (Hungary is the only EU member state rated “partly free” by the watchdog Freedom House.) Just this week, Hungary – backed by fellow democratic backslider Poland – vetoed the EU’s long-awaited recovery fund over a mechanism to enforce the rule of law in member states.

Brussels has long been forced to tolerate Orbán’s anti-democratic backsliding, lacking both appropriate instruments (the few legal avenues available to the EU to sanction Hungary are difficult to implement and can be frustrated by member states friendly to Budapest) and the will to take action (the fact that Fidesz continues to sit with the European People’s Party, the European Parliament’s main right-wing grouping, has long symbolised the apathy with which the centre-right EU establishment treats Orbán’s rule).

If the EU continues to be unable to meaningfully sanction Hungary for undermining democratic norms and the rule of law, some MEPs fear the end of the European project. “I think the EU could collapse as a result of this crisis. European functionaries will continue to work and the structures will continue to exist, but would this EU have meaning and influence? I am not so sure,” Delbos-Corfield said.

While Hungary will likely continue to evade serious sanctions from the EU, the arrival of a new Biden administration in Washington early next year will likely signal a change in approach from the US government. Donald Trump was friendly with Orbán, whom he viewed as his ideological ally against globalism and Brussels overreach. But under the Barack Obama administration, in which Biden served as vice-president, sanctions were imposed on Hungarian officials in 2014.

“I do think we are likely to see much more decisive action in response to the corruption of the Hungarian government and this power-grab, especially due to the fact that Orbán is cosying up to [Vladimir] Putin and also to China. Hungary is providing Russia and China with a foothold within the EU, which Biden views as a security threat,” Melissa Hooper, director of the Human Rights and Civil Society programme at Human Rights First, said. (Brussels recently warned Hungary against using Russia's Sputnik-V vaccine.)

Yet it is ultimately the EU which has the most leverage over Hungary, reluctant as it is to use it. Ongoing negotiations over the EU recovery fund may prove a turning point. France has threatened to cut recalcitrant member states out of the mechanism as a last resort. But Brussels’ record on standing up to Orbán suggests little reason for optimism.

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Ido Vock is international correspondent at the New Statesman.

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