Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán plays a political poker game. What’s he gonna do? Is he plunging the EU into an internal crisis, or is he losing both control over EU subsidies and the freedom to interpret the principles of the rule of law in its own way?
It is yet another EU crisis. This week it was announced that Hungary, Poland and later Slovenia are blocking the coronah Recovery Fund and the EU multi-annual budget. They are protesting against a partial agreement whereby countries that do not comply with the principles of the rule of law are reduced to European subsidies.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, in particular, seems adamant, and his attitude is not surprising. He had stated on several occasions that such an appointment for him is a dealbreaker. According to Orbán, it is not at all clear what exactly is meant by ‘the principles of the rule of law’. In his view, such an agreement amounts to a new political control instrument for Brussels, which could force member states to accept migrants.
However, according to critics of Orbán, his attitude stems more from the knowledge that by accepting such conditions he risks losing access to EU subsidies. The EU has been conducting an Article 7 Criminal Procedure against the Hungarian government for several years for systematically violating the principles of the rule of law. It does not seem to be doing much in practice. After more than two years, hardly anything happened. Critics of the Orbán government therefore see the grant conditions as the best way to bring him into line.
It is a complicated situation for Prime Minister Orbán, because although he is often very negative about Brussels, he is dependent on European Union subsidies in various ways. The Hungarian economy has grown considerably in the decade that it has been in power with the help of EU subsidies, and that is a factor in the popularity of the prime minister and his Fidesz party.
But his power is also stabilised in other ways by European money. Development projects in Hungary – which, for example, improve infrastructure, street lighting or sanitation – have often been carried out in recent years by companies and people linked to the Prime Minister. Some of them are now among the richest people in Hungary, like his friend Lorinc Mészáros and his son-in-law István Tiborcz.
Whether Orbán’s attitude is therefore partly motivated by personal, financial interests? András Pethó, an investigative journalist who has been investigating the misuse of EU subsidies in Hungary for years, does not dare to say so. “But the fact remains that economic power is political power. Orbán’s allies have been able to build their empires partly with EU money. That’s what’s at stake now.”
In the meantime, Hungary has been hit hard by the second wave of the coronapandemia, which is many times more severe than the first wave. It has far-reaching socio-economic consequences. The blocking by Orbán of the European coronah Restoration Fund does not therefore seem to be in Hungary’s interest.
”That does not weaken Orbáns so much further,” says Daniel Hegedus, a political scientist specialising in the state of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. Hegedus believes that it will be difficult for Orbán to explain to his own voters why he is using such a huge support fund as a stake in a political poker game at this time of crisis.
“Especially in a game he plays with pretty bad cards. Legally, there are even ways of regulating the recovery fund outside Hungary and Poland – although I do not see that happening.”
Orbán seems to be facing a choice between two evils. Or it could plunge the EU into an internal crisis and block access to funds that its country desperately needs. Or he will lose control over EU subsidies and the freedom to interpret the principles of the rule of law in his own way, and that is independent of the way in which the other European member states do so.