The Hungarian Government and the Erosion of EU Values
Written by Marko Milutinovic, member of the editorial team of Libertas
The European Union’s values are values which are common to the European Union countries, in a society which takes pride in inclusion, tolerance, justice, solidarity and non-discrimination. These values are the bedrock of what we like to refer to as the European way of life, which includes: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law and human rights.
Why is it important to examine these values and their meaning for European countries? It matters because there has been a marked trend in democratic backsliding among some European Member States, most notably in Slovenia, Poland and Hungary. The crucial thing to mention here is that when we talk about certain countries’ failures it is important to stress out that this is not the failure of the country itself nor is it the failure of its citizens, but rather the failure of their government and their elected officials.
In order to understand what is happening and how Hungary has arrived at this point, we need to take a look at what has happened since Viktor Orbán came into power. It is also quite a big U-turn for Orbán himself, transitioning from a student who was the champion of democracy, left-wing atheist to the icon of the far-right. Orbán was the prime minister from 1998 to 2002, however that is not the period which is relevant for the transition that Hungary has gone through. The important date for this conversation is 29th of May 2010, when he assumed the office of prime minister for the second time. From that moment forward, democracy began to collapse in this Central European country. It did not take long for Orbán’s government to take on democracy and rule of law. At the beginning of 2012 the Hungarian government started to centralise the judiciary system and they dramatically lowered the retirement age for judges from 70 to 62. Of course, this attracted reaction from the European Union and in November of 2012 the European Court of Justice ruled that this was unlawful. Unfortunately, this did not mean much to the judges who were forced into retirement. Although they could have opted for compensation or reinstatement, the latter did not guarantee their return to a senior judiciary position, which meant retirement for most of them. This way Orbán took care of the judges that he deemed to be too independently-minded. He had other plans, none of which focused on democracy and rule of law, they were quite the opposite.
Following its election victory in 2014, the Fidesz/KDNP coalition lost significant public support, largely due to a backlash against a proposed tax on Internet usage. Orbán fought to win back support and he was in luck. His election conundrum coincided with the migrant and refugee crises. These crises were used as a tool to instil fear and build up support among voters. He blatantly disregarded the majority of the European Union’s values, especially the ones that focused on human dignity and human rights. Hungary erected a razor-wire wall alongside the border with Serbia and not long thereafter a similar one was built along the border with Croatia. As a result of these actions, the popularity of Orbán’s party, Fidesz, rose. The polls showed that Orbán managed to weaponise the human tragedy to his own gain. By September of 2015 two-thirds of people who were polled agreed with the decision to build walls in an attempt to prevent refugees and migrants from entering Hungary. These walls became a symbol for the far-right all over the world. Even the former US president Donald Trump tried to create his own version on the border with Mexico during his time in office, but with far less success.
In his attempt to consolidate his power he had two more targets on his list, the free media and universities. The plan to control the media initially focused on analogue and print media, because Orbán wanted to target the elderly voter base and ensure that by the next elections this base was a shoo-in for Fidesz. Unfortunately, this was just the beginning. What happened next was that the largest news portal in Hungary was successfully silenced; news editors that were too independently minded found themselves out of work; and finally the Hungarian government refused to renew the broadcasting license of the last independent political radio station. The Hungarian government has strengthened its control of the media in its country by consolidating regulation of the media into a single body, the Media Authority, itself overseen by the Media Council. The president of the Media Council is appointed by Orbán himself, which means that the state media authority is led by people who are close to him. A similar strategy was implemented in order to bring state-funded universities under government control. This was important, because these universities were the epicentre of anti-government and social liberal thought. The control over universities was handed over from independent trustees to new educational foundations, which were of course led by people loyal to Orbán.
The newest flagrant violation of human rights in Hungary came as a result of the new anti-LGBTQ law. The said law includes the new Child Protection Act, as well as the Family Protection Act, which initially aimed to protect children from paedophiles. The creation of this law was brought about by the scandal involving the former Hungarian Ambassador to Peru, Gabor Kaleta. He was removed from service and returned home when more than 19 thousand indecent photos of minors were found on his devices. To make the matters even worse he received just a small sentence for his crime. The situation escalated when Fidesz added amendments with the sole purpose of restricting LGBTQ education and rights. This included prohibiting information that has been deemed by the government to promote homosexuality or gender change to people under the age of 18 in schools, programmes or advertisements. The human rights violations were taken even further with the newest changes to the Hungarian Constitution, which came about at the end of last year. These changes altered the meaning of family in a way which excluded transgender and other LGBT individuals.
Naturally, the latest violations of human rights provoked a stark reaction from the European Union leaders. The loudest one came from the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, who argued that the newest developments in Hungary warranted the ejection of the said Central European country from the European Union. Furthermore, the European Union leaders have signed a letter in which they outlined their commitment to fighting for and protecting the LGBTQ community, although the letter does not mention Hungary specifically. Members of the LGBTQ community do not know what to expect and given Orbán’s tendency to escalate things even further, who knows how the future might look?
It is clear that the time for talking with the Hungarian officials has passed and that action is necessary. Orbán has been ridiculing the values upon which our Union has been founded for a decade. There needs to be a serious discussion on the matter with strong reaction to everything that has been happening. The problem is that autocratic leaders such as Orbán hide behind their people. He will not be the one to bear the brunt of consequences, if for example Hungary is kicked out of the European Union, but the citizens of Hungary. For this reason, the solution should not be to oust Hungary from the Union. Orbán would create this into his own personal victory, the situation in the country would deteriorate even further and the minorities would find themselves in a very dangerous position.
However, something must be done and that decision needs to be connected to funding. It is ludicrous to reward a member state for the violation of the values upon which this Union was created. There has to be a commitment attached to the respect of the rule of law and human rights to funding which is received from the European Union. Another option could be that until Hungary gets back on track with human rights and rule of law obligations, the allocation of the money to the Hungarian citizens is done by the European Union itself. Some mechanism along these lines must be put in place. The situation with Hungary is difficult, the Hungarian citizens are hurting, which means that every single European Union citizen is hurting. The EU is supposed to be a safe place for all EU citizens and as long as there are people who are discriminated against within the EU territory then our European values, ideas and dreams are in jeopardy. The EU leaders must decide on the action, which will not put those citizens in an even more precarious position, but rather help them out of the unwarranted danger they find themselves in!
About the author:
Marko Milutinović (CRO) is an individual member of LYMEC. Besides this he is also a Young European Ambassador for the Western Balkans, as well as a Youth delegate at UNITE 2030. Previously, he graduated from University of Belgrade, Faculty of Law, where he is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in European Integration. Marko is passionate about Climate action, Environmental protection, as well as the topic of the Federalization of the European Union.
December 11 2023
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