A few weeks ago, the European Union underwent a fundamental change: it ceased being a bloc of exclusively democratic states. Worse, leaders across Europe barely flinched.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s seizure of absolute power in Hungary at the beginning of April – under the cover of the coronavirus pandemic – culminates a decade of authoritarian moves. Step by step, Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party have politicized the courts, decimated independent media, destroyed academic freedom, hobbled civil society, and promoted xenophobia. Even after the European Parliament launched an “Article 7” process, which allows sanctions against states that breach EU values, the EU Commission and member states did almost nothing to stop Orbán. Foot-dragging prevailed.
Even to the most blinkered of European eyes, Orbán’s latest maneuver – assuming the power to rule by decree for an unlimited time – should have registered more than pro forma mutterings of concern.
Under President Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission’s initial response to Orbán’s power grab was so mealy-mouthed that it didn’t even name “Hungary.” That travesty was surpassed only by a joint statement from 16 EU countries that, while also omitting mention of Hungary, was so bland and generic that Hungary seemingly mocked its EU peers for their timidity and announced it would sign it.
A stronger response was possible. European leaders could have announced that they would accelerate the Article 7 process and press for the suspension of Hungary’s voting rights on EU matters; review the generous EU subsidies that, as both media investigations and regulators have been pointing out for some time, Orbán uses to line the pockets of his cronies; and politically isolate Orbán and his ministers at every opportunity — until the Hungarian dictatorship ends. All EU member state leaders, especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, should make clear that there will be no business as usual when dealing with Orbán as a dictator.
Instead, all we saw was handwringing and milquetoast statements.
The European People’s Party (EPP), the center-right pan-European political alliance to which Fidesz belongs, deserves special reprimand. Worse than abandoning its own stated values (not to mention the EU’s), it has appeased Orbán for years, refusing to expel Fidesz — only “suspending” it, a move that allowed it to maintain many of its advantages within the group — as, step by step, it destroyed Hungary’s democracy. For years, Manfred Weber, leader of the EPP in the European Parliament and from Germany’s CSU, has given Orbán credibility and acceptability as part of a supposedly mainstream group of democratic parties. Some national parties in the EPP have now protested Fidesz’s latest move, but two of the biggest and most influential members – Germany’s CDU/CSU and France’s Les Républicains – have not signed on to their rebuke.
EPP President Donald Tusk, a man with a once-proud history of fighting dictatorship in Poland, clearly knows he’s helping a monster. In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, he said an infamous Nazi legal expert would be “proud” of Orbán. Tusk also wrote a letter to suggest that Fidesz should be expelled from the group. Yet Tusk absurdly remains the head of the alliance despite Fidesz’s ongoing membership.
Von der Leyen’s own EPP (and CDU) background is also likely making matters worse. She seems unable to confront the EU’s greatest internal democratic challenge since its founding. Others before her – most notably her immediate predecessor as president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, also of the EPP – have preferred a muted approach to Orbán’s attacks on democracy, despite the utter failure of these cautious entreaties. Neither von der Leyen nor Juncker seemed ever to learn that weakness is an authoritarian’s lunch.
Other authoritarian-minded leaders around the EU have taken notice of the EU’s spinelessness. Poland’s ruling party, which has long seen Fidesz as its model, is proceeding with its efforts to undermine the independence of its judiciary, while Bulgaria is moving to muzzle free speech.
Rot tends to spread when it encounters no resistance. Dictator wannabes prey upon weakness. EU and member state leaders now need to ask themselves: is the EU only a trading bloc or also a club of democracies? The answer to that question used to be obvious. Sadly, it no longer is.
Ten million EU citizens now live under authoritarian rule. How many millions more will have to suffer the loss of their freedoms before Europe’s leaders draw the line?