Hungary: Coronavirus and Orban’s Power Play

Hungary: Coronavirus and Orban’s Power Play

For Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, the coronavirus pandemic is another opportunity to pursue his approach of power politics in a democracy, that is increasingly at odds with the EU’s values. Orban has clashed with the EU on many issues, most notably the handling of the refugee crisis of 2015-16, and his Fidesz Party was suspended from the EPP, the centre-right grouping of parties in the European Parliament. As the coronavirus pandemic unfolds across Europe and around the world, the Hungarian Parliament voted to accept Orban’s request for emergency powers to ‘rule by decree’ for an indefinite period while the virus continues to be a threat.

Orban is skilled at using his powers in a time of a perceived threat and national emergency, and he usually acts very quickly and decisively, often in sharp contrast to the EU, which collectively can take a sclerotic approach. In response to Orban’s move, 13 EU member states issued a strongly worded statement announcing their “deep concern”, but it is unlikely that further EU action against Orban will occur. 

The EU vs. Orban

In a time of crisis, the EU has shown itself to be a slow and compromised actor, while Orban has often unilaterally taken charge and not worried about the consequences from Brussels. In a period that should seemingly unite the EU around the shared threat from the coronavirus, Orban’s move will likely strengthen the divide between Brussels and the Visegrad Group of newer Central and Eastern European member states which joined the bloc in 2004 and 2007. In the months ahead, the EU will likely be focused on mitigation efforts and a coordinated recovery plan for the coronavirus, while Orban will be focused on the power he has amassed and the potential future uses of that power. While undoubtedly a controversial and divisive figure, Orban has proven himself to be an adept leader capable of testing the shared values of the EU from within while also prodding at the EU’s weaknesses from the position of an ally and partner of Russia and other illiberal states.

Already, Orban is moving Hungary closer to Russia and the socially conservative and Christian values that Vladimir Putin is keen to uphold. Like Putin, Orban believes that Hungary’s strength comes from individual, strongman rule, with one leader and one platform embodying the ideals of the state. This will continue to be fundamentally at odds with the EU’s values of tolerance, multiculturalism, and representative government that respects different regional and national identities. The EU has been criticized for having a ‘democratic deficit’, but when it comes time to coordinate legislation or a unified policy response, it is remarkably democratic in its ability to accede to the demands of regions within EU member states, most notably Wallonia in Belgium, which blocked a trade deal with Canada in 2016. Orban has now amassed a degree of power that signals to the EU that he, and only he, speaks for Hungary. If Orban continues to follow Putin’s playbook and arrested journalists and opposition figures, it would be hard to imagine the EU not suspending Hungary’s voting rights or considering removing Hungary from the bloc.

After Coronavirus

Orban is likely to try and hold onto his emergency powers once the threat of the coronavirus passes. These powers are likely to be further utilized in critical areas that Orban has already focused his attention on, including media and academic freedom, the independence of the judiciary, immigration policy, and counter-terrorism. These powers are a political tool that are firmly at odds with the EU’s founding principles and the democratic processes that form a critical part of being an EU member state. That Orban feels emboldened to craft these powers knowing they are at odds with the EU speaks to Brussels’ inability to provide effective oversight over the legislative bodies of member states. 

The EU may emerge in a weak position after the coronavirus. It may lack the energy to successfully confront Hungary over its new illiberal policies. For Orban, the EU is weak and ineffective, lacking the strength and the capacity to respond to urgent crises that threaten the fabric of European civilization. It is hobbled by a commitment to democracy, one of the side effects being that legislative actions require compromise and deliberation, often taking a while to take effect. At the same time, Orban is also an asset to the EU, and his personal relations with Putin and his ability to learn about Russian interests in Ukraine from the perspective of an ally will likely remain an important way for the EU to gauge Moscow’s intentions. Orban knows that he has an important role, and he is unlikely to miss the opportunity to further strengthen his influence within the EU even as he focuses on his power grab.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Alexander Brotman

Alexander Brotman received an MSc in International Relations from The University of Edinburgh. He previously was a researcher with the Center for a New American Security in Washington and has been published with PassBlue, a digital publication covering the UN, as well as Cable, an online global affairs magazine published by the Scottish Global Forum. His research interests include European politics, NATO and Russian foreign and security policy.