In a surprise decision on Wednesday, the European Parliament decided to trigger a procedure to sanction one of its member states: Hungary. The battle for the future of Europe is on.
With nine months to go until European Parliament elections, some rifts are showing on the continent’s political landscape. One thing is definite: immigration will be at the forefront of the upcoming debates. Look for that issue to divide the progressives, who want to further the centralization of the European Union, from the populists, who oppose more power being sent to Brussels.
Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron identified two countries as obstacles to further European integration: Poland and Hungary. Since then both have only become more vocal in their opposition to the Brussels bureaucracy. It must be said that the conservative majorities in those Central European countries have opposed the EU on grounds of culture, heritage, and tradition much more so than the Euro, big government spending programs, and tax harmonization. In fact, Hungary and Poland both feed enlarging welfare states with little concern for the sustainability of their spending, so their common ground with American conservatives exists mostly on social values.
Macron’s aggressive rhetoric towards Poland and Hungary had deteriorated their relationship with Europe’s ruling elite even before he took office. And his is, by every measurement, the EU’s strongest voice. Macron has suggested reform plans for the Union that would increase the budget and capabilities of Brussels and deepen the rift between those who believe in centralization versus those who advocate national rights.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, on the other hand, believes that the EU has been plotting against European values and culture. He has specifically targeted the permissive immigration policies of German chancellor Angela Merkel and billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros, widely known for financing left-wing NGOs in both Europe and the United States. For this purpose, the government itself has launched public billboard campaigns with the words “Don’t let George Soros have the last laugh.” (While it is true that Soros stumped for Hungary to accept more migrants, those migrants are already voting with their feet, essentially using the country as a passageway to Germany.)
The European Union has been critical of Orbán because, among other reasons, in its attempt to root out what it calls “foreign interference,” Budapest has cracked down on civil liberties. NGOs receiving money from outside of Hungary face significant challenges, including the government’s so-called “Stop Soros” bill, which imposes a 25 percent tax on foreign donations to NGOs that back migration. Mind you, such a bill would also affect American organizations were they to try to host lectures in Hungary. NGOs marked as a “national security threat” can be outright outlawed. The idea that there is a right to free expression, both with speech and money, doesn’t find friends in Budapest at the moment.
Before the Hungarian parliamentary election on April 8, Orbán was sharpening his populist tone to secure another absolute majority in parliament. With regard to his ideological opponents being funded by Soros, he said this:
We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.
Such rhetoric has no place in the realm of liberal democracies. And that probably doesn’t bother Orbán, who in 2014 said that he wanted to create an illiberal state.
So Hungary definitely has its problems. But the procedure initiated by the European Parliament is unlikely to make anything better.
Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty (which has governed how the EU functions since 2009) allows the European Parliament to launch a procedure against a member state that doesn’t fulfill the criteria that it initially agreed to when it joined the EU. Once triggered, the European Commission investigates the situation. The European Council (which represents the member states of the EU) then votes on whether to strip the country of its voting rights within the council. The proposal can only pass if countries vote in favor by a four-fifths majority (Hungary cannot vote on its own behalf).
The fact that Article 7 was triggered at all shows the EU’s distrust of Hungary, which will only alienate Budapest all the more. If the European Union wanted to diffuse Hungary’s fear of foreign interference by showing that immigration from outside the EU would remain a competency of member states, it could do so by simply reaffirming that principle. Brussels isn’t doing that because it is currently under pressure by Italy, which wants to redistribute migrants across Europe. That will leave Hungarians who believe in cracking down on freedom of association and free speech to prevent foreign interference feeling vindicated.
What does all this mean? The European Union is at a breaking point.
Emmanuel Macron is touting his ambitious reforms for the future. Angela Merkel is in an internal political row over immigration that will lead her to resist those reforms. The Italian government is demanding deep changes on immigration and threatening to defund the EU. And Central European nations are increasingly skeptical of the centralization of powers in Brussels. All of this is happening alongside Brexit, scheduled for March of next year, and negotiations for the accession of Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania, and Serbia, which are all unfit to join according to the EU’s own observers.
Instead of dealing with these issues in a rational manner and considering that, yes, the EU just might have too much power, and, yes, it should reduce its competencies in different areas and affirm national rights, Brussels is now looking to exclude its own members from major decisions. The debate is moot because anyone who dares to disagree is called a racist and a nationalist, including those with legitimate concerns about the behavior of both the Hungarian government and the European Union.
The EU has declared war on Hungary for all the right and all the wrong reasons. It can only win it if it allows member states to debate openly.
Bill Wirtz comments on European politics and policy in English, French, and German. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The Washington Examiner, CityAM, Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Die Welt.