Orbán’s threat to democratic values

Orbán’s threat to democratic values

Europe should warn Hungary that its voting rights are at risk

Financial Times Editorial – Thursday, March 7, 2013

Europe last year successfully pressed Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s firebrand prime minister, to back down on aspects of a new constitution that would have posed a grave threat to judicial, religious and press freedoms. This week the Hungarian parliament, dominated by Mr Orbán’s Fidesz party, threatened to revive curbs that violate European values in an amendment to the constitution. If this goes ahead, the response from Brussels should be rapid and robust.

Mr Orbán insists the measures are not of his government’s doing. But most of his own reforms have been introduced through private member’s bills which allow laws to be passed at accelerated speed. This is a poor camouflage for a government that has become increasingly authoritarian and intolerant of checks and balances.

Brussels will have to set out in precise detail where the amendment violates Hungary’s membership of the EU. But once that is established, it should warn Mr Orbán that it is prepared to use the most powerful weapons in its armoury to defend European values. Last year it held back from the so-called nuclear weapon of withdrawing Hungary’s EU voting rights. Memories of the failed protest against the inclusion of a far-right party in the Austrian government 13 years ago are still fresh. But this time there is greater political consensus that Mr Orbán’s attacks on democratic norms cannot be tolerated.

Some newer EU members in central and eastern Europe fear they may be next for rebuke as they deal with post-Soviet power struggles. But the difference is that Hungary appears to be backtracking on explicit pledges made last year. Everyone has an interest in holding the line on the European values to which they are bound.

Withdrawing voting rights would dent Mr Orbán’s domestic image as a strong leader who insists he can make Hungary’s voice heard. But financial sanctions too should be considered. Hungary received €25.7bn in cohesion funding from the EU between 2007 and 2014. Its budget allocation for the next seven years could be increased. Faced with an economy in deep recession, and a decline in foreign investment, Mr Orbán needs the money.

Brussels should not hesitate to threaten a withdrawal of structural subsidies, for example, if Mr Orbán does not call on his party to drop any amendments that violate EU membership. If the Hungarian prime minister insists on flouting European values, he cannot expect Europe’s support.

Source: Financial Times

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