After the Hungarian parliament adopted an emergency law that gave Prime Minister Viktor Orbán extensive powers on 30 March, 13 EU member states issued a joint statement on the need to protect rule of law. Austria, however, did not join as it prefers to seek dialogue, the country’s EU minister, Karoline Edtstadler, told EURACTIV Germany.
The joint statement of 13 (now 16) EU member states against Hungary’s emergency laws deserves a place in the catalogue of political curiosities. For starters, Hungary was not explicitly mentioned, although the declaration was an obvious reaction to the country’s recently enacted crisis law.
While the declaration issued a general warning against emergency laws in all EU member states, the timing left no doubt as to who was being referred to. And because the declaration was so openly formulated, it was even supported by Hungary itself. “It feels so empty without us,” tweeted Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga.
— Judit Varga (@JuditVarga_EU) April 2, 2020
“You have to indicate the recipient, otherwise the message will only partly get through,” Paul Schmidt, secretary-general of the Austrian Society for European Policy, told EURACTIV and added that “they wanted to avoid direct conflict”.
Dialogue instead of hostility
The Austrian government decided early on that it would not support the declaration and rely on “direct talks” instead, said EU Minister Karoline Edtstadler from the ruling conservative party ÖVP.
On 20 March, she told EURACTIV in an interview that she would defend the rule of law “without ifs or buts” and would openly address these issues, as she was not a diplomat but a criminal judge.
At the request of EURACTIV, the minister now declared that “we don’t need to point fingers at each other now”. However, she said she holds a “very critical” view of Hungary’s emergency laws because they are not limited in time and expects the Hungarian parliament “to withdraw the emergency legislation created for this exceptional situation at the earliest possible time”.
Schmidt suspects that Austria’s refusal to sign the declaration was a “conscious strategy choice” because Austria and Hungary had “many bilateral issues to be resolved. They don’t want to add fuel to the fire”. His opinion is shared by Daniela Neubacher, a research assistant at the Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe (IDM).
Neubacher said it was important to know “how special the relations between Austria and Hungary are”. After all, they have grown historically, as Austria and Hungary formed the last remnants of the Habsburg Empire as a “dual monarchy” – which included a voluntary customs and monetary union – until 1918, long before the EU was founded.
During the Cold War, this relationship played a special role in the “policy of détente” between East and West. By adopting a lively ‘visiting diplomacy’, Austria was able to position itself as a “bridge-builder’, an image that Austrian diplomacy still cultivates today.
Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) took part in the Visegrád Summit in January with the declared aim of using Austria’s “role as a bridge-builder between East and West” to overcome European rifts.
Neubacher suspects Austria may have refused to sign the declaration in order to preserve this image.
‘It’s the economy, stupid’
But the most important consideration, she suspects, was economic.
Hungary is Austria’s sixth most important export market worldwide and the most important in the Central and Eastern European region.
For Hungary, Austria is the second-largest trading partner and the third-largest investor. As a small landlocked country, Austria is dependent on goods transports from Eastern Europe, and the government is “very aware that this is now the most necessary thing to do”.
On top of that, several thousand people cross the border every day for work. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the border has now been closed but there are exceptions for commuters.
This dialogue must not be jeopardised, said Neubacher, and Austria’s decision should also be understood in this context.
For her part, EU Minister Edtstadler told the Austrian public broadcaster ORF that Austria was dependent on good cooperation with Hungary, especially with regard to “commuter regulations”.
Need for closer cooperation
However, there was certainly conflict between the two countries.
Hungary’s only nuclear power plant in Paks is a thorn in the side of anti-nuclear state Austria, which brought a complaint on the matter before the European Court of Justice in 2018.
In Budapest the same year, people were angry about Kurz’s decision to index family allowances for children living abroad, for which a case is still ongoing.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]