Inside the Latest E.U.–Hungary Clash

Inside the Latest E.U.–Hungary Clash

Hungary has become the black sheep of Europe because of its staunch stance on national sovereignty and its more conservative values. 

Credit: CCat82

It is always difficult to explain to our American friends why it was so crucial for the countries of Central Europe to join the European Union. The ease of travel is a particularly useful and relatable example. Growing up as a child in post-communist Hungary in the 1990s, I still remember the feeling of dread emanating from my parents whenever we had to travel to the “West”—mostly Austria—and pass border control by car. Their unease was mostly due to past experiences under communism, when travel to the West was a privilege. Yet passing the border to Austria even after the fall of the Soviet Union was still no piece of cake, sometimes taking even half a day. After joining the Union, however, cross-border travel went from being an obstacle to be surmounted to a minor hindrance, if that. A far more fundamental factor, however, was behind the drive to join the E.U.: the feeling of once again being part of the Western world.

The countries of this region strongly feel that they are the eastern and southern bulwark of the West, but, due to their unfortunate history, they have been regularly cut off from Western development. The latest of these tragedies was being traded away to the Soviet Union like cattle after the Second World War. Joining the European Union—and, to some extent, NATO—was thus akin to finally reclaiming our birthright; our well-deserved place in the Western world. This is why, despite everything, support for the E.U. is still much higher in the region than in some other parts of the Union, and also why conservative governments have to walk a much thinner line when it comes to dealing with Brussels.

After finally joining the E.U., things seemed to go well: Borders opened, tourism thrived, infrastructure was built, and other investments flourished. Of course, there were also some downsides of rapidly opening up our markets—like losing most of our economic national champions and almost destroying our agricultural sector. These developments were less evident in the beginning, however, and were also overshadowed by the euphoria of joining the European project.

This honeymoon period came to an abrupt end almost immediately after Victor Orbán won a landslide victory and started his second premiership in 2010. The incoming conservative government started to reassert Hungary’s sovereignty in its domestic economy and foreign policy. More distinctly, this government boldly took a much stronger stance on culturally conservative issues like family policy and migration. This was not welcomed by most of the progressive elites of the E.U. and heavy criticism followed. These accusations were notably ideologically coded, lambasting Budapest for “democratic backsliding” and not respecting human rights, particularly those of economic migrants and LGBT people. These are charges that American conservatives are, sadly, becoming more and more familiar with as well. 

This criticism of Hungary took on a new level of intensity and pressure after the 2015 migration crisis, escalated even further after Donald Trump got elected, and reached a fever pitch after the war in Ukraine broke out. Hungary from the very beginning condemned Russian aggression and tried to mend its own strained relations with Ukraine—since about 150,000 ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine were caught in the crossfire of restrictive language laws originally targeted toward ethnic Russians. These included symbolic gestures, such as relinquishing its veto towards Ukraine’s NATO accession process. At the same time, Budapest was not disposed to fully sacrifice its own crucial national interests for what amounted to a virtue signaling exercise via the imposition on Russia of certain economic sanctions of dubious effectiveness. More specifically, Budapest asked for and secured crucial sanctions exemptions for its oil and gas industry. This is because, as a landlocked country, Hungary needs time to completely detach itself from Russian energy sources. Budapest has also been reluctant to allow Brussels to use common E.U. debt to finance Ukraine, especially as it itself is still waiting on funds from a similarly debt-financed E.U. Covid-relief fund. 

Brussels’ reaction regarding this “reluctant” attitude was intensified threats and further mounting criticism that gradually turned into blatant blackmail. Just a few days after Hungary’s 2022 parliamentary elections, which Orbán once again won in a landslide, the European Commission launched the so-called “conditionality procedure”—which suspended Hungary’s access to certain E.U. funds. This timing can hardly be seen as a coincidence.

This procedure is still ongoing, but by the end of last year Hungary has scored some victories and secured partial access to these funds. The latest confidential plan leaked by the Financial Times, however, shows that the E.U. has by no means finished its use of blackmail. It once again deployed economic and political pressure towards Hungary to secure more support for aid to Ukraine at the E.U. summit on February 1st; Hungary acceded, dropping its veto of the funding. Yet we do not have to look at secret documents to see how crude the E.U. has become. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also acknowledged about two weeks ago that they are still withholding about €20 billion from Hungary for “reasons that include concerns on LGTBIQ rights, academic freedom and asylum rights.”

What makes this sort of treatment all the more galling is that, on a technical level, Hungary is actually a pretty average E.U. member state. If we look at some specific, technical details, Hungary is one of the most efficient countries in the Union when it comes to accessing E.U. funds. It also is quite average in regard to the number of ongoing infringement procedures, which are started if a country is in non-compliance with E.U. law. Countries like Spain, Greece, and even Germany have far more infringement procedures with the E.U., yet we still do not seem to hear much about them.

Any unbiased person must come to a simple truth: The reasons while Hungary is in Brussels’ crosshairs are purely political. Indeed, there is fighting even over issues like family or foreign policy, where the E.U.—at least according to the current treaties—has no mandate whatsoever to intervene in the sovereignty of its member states.

Sadly, the E.U. has fallen under the sway of a progressive ideology that deems woke issues—such as the sexual transition rights of children and unfounded fear of “imminent” climate change—are more important than the geopolitical and national interests of its member states. To some, it seems that championing these niche causes is seeming even more important than respecting the E.U.’s own treaties and internal rules.

I am an individual who truly believes in greater European cooperation, as our countries cannot confront global threats—along with engaging in economic competition from China, India, or even the United States—alone. But such cooperation has to be based on the willingness of sovereign states and on mutual trust, not blackmail. As Hungary’s treatment clearly demonstrates, the E.U. is no longer based on that kind of cooperation. One can only have faith that this June’s E.U. elections will bring necessary changes and we can still have a European Union that we hoped for in the 1990’s. This particular former E.U. fan, however, is skeptical if our continental cooperation can survive the next decade.

The post Inside the Latest E.U.–Hungary Clash appeared first on The American Conservative.

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