To Viktor too many spoils
Europe could do more to stop Hungary’s erosion of democratic norms
Jan 7th 2012 | from the print edition
VIKTOR ORBAN, Hungary’s conservative prime minister, seems an unlikely villain. A firebrand dissident in communist times, he had already served one term as a respectable if somewhat populist prime minister before he led his Fidesz party back into power in 2010. Yet with the implementation on January 1st of a new Hungarian constitution, accompanied by a barrage of new fundamental laws, Mr Orban stands accused by his critics at home and by Hungary’s friends abroad of steering his country back in the direction of a new autocracy.
Mr Orban’s supporters claim that the need to sort out an economic mess, clean up corruption and eradicate remaining traces of communism justify his radical approach. They maintain that, because Fidesz won the 2010 election with a two-thirds majority, the government has a mandate to push through big constitutional changes, even if some of these appear illiberal and nationalist. Yet democracy is not just about winning elections. Even a two-thirds majority should not entitle Fidesz to grab power over supposedly independent outfits such as the media regulator, the judiciary, the central bank and the budget and audit watchdogs, still less to twist the electoral rules in its favour (see article).
These developments should be embarrassing to the European Union (EU), whose proudest claim is to have entrenched democracy as well as prosperity on the continent. However, there are limits to what it can do about Hungary’s behaviour. It has more leverage over countries that want to join the club than over those that are already members. In the late 1990s Brussels got the politicians in Slovakia, then a candidate country, to dump the nationalist Vladimir Meciar as prime minister. But an attempt in 2000 to ostracise Austria, an EU member, for including Jörg Haider’s far-right party in government, failed.
Still, the EU could do more, especially where Mr Orban’s machinations threaten Hungary’s economic stability. As central Europe’s biggest debtor, Hungary desperately needs support from foreign investors, yet they are spooked by the political risks that the government has itself increased. The EU and the IMF have pulled out of talks over a precautionary line of credit for Budapest because they believe Fidesz is undermining the independence of the central bank and national fiscal council. Not surprisingly, Hungary’s credit rating has just been downgraded to junk, short- and long-term interest rates have been rising and the forint has been falling.
Don’t make the Berlusconi mistake
As well as refusing the country a credit line, the European Commission should take Hungary to the European Court of Justice over the new law that seems to contradict its treaty commitment to an independent central bank. If the Hungarians were to ignore an adverse judgment, the commission should also be ready to invoke provisions in the treaties to suspend a country’s voting rights in Brussels. The commission is often hesitant about confronting national governments head on, but in this case it should hold firm.
European leaders should condemn Mr Orban’s anti-democratic behaviour loudly and clearly. Yet Hillary Clinton, the American secretary of state, has taken the lead in censuring him. The problem is that EU leaders, who nowadays hold summits almost every month, are often too chummy to be ready to criticise each other. Too few ever complained about Silvio Berlusconi’s grip on Italy’s broadcast media, for instance. More should follow the example of Alain Juppé, the French foreign minister, who this week criticised Mr Orban’s power grab.
Mr Orban’s fellow centre-right leaders, who include Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, have more leverage over him than other European politicians, and therefore a particular responsibility to take him to task. Fidesz is proud to belong to their umbrella group, and the biggest political family within the EU, the European People’s Party. Threatening to chuck Mr Orban out of the EPP could be the best way of steering him off the path towards autocracy.