Decisiveness with Hungary is also about EU survival

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Supporters of Hungary's political opposition take part in an anti-government protest entitled 'We do not give away our future, we stay here' at Budapest University of Technology and Economics in Budapest, Hungary, 21 May 2017. [Balasz Mohai/EPA]

The Hungarian authorities are increasingly eager not only to disregard EU laws and norms but to publicly embarrass the Union, writes Daniel Penev.

Daniel Penev, 23, is a Bulgarian journalist and a member of the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria, who is currently pursuing an M.A. degree in international relations at Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, Hungary.

On 4 April, the Hungarian parliament passed a set of highly controversial amendments to the higher education law which triggered a tsunami of criticism across Europe and the US and a series of demonstrations in Budapest.

What started as a ruthless attack against Central European University (CEU), one of the few sanctuaries of free speech and open debate left in the country, has turned into yet another source of bitter contention between Hungary and the European Union.

Two months after the beginning of the Lex CEU saga, the struggle between the two has just entered a stage that will shape not only the CEU’s future but also that of the EU.

Following the European Commission’s decision of 26 April to open an infringement procedure against Hungary, hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens, academics, civil society organizations, and policy-makers in Europe and beyond were looking forward to the Hungarian’s government response.

The much-awaited response finally came last week, proving for an umpteenth time that Hungary and the EU can hardly cooperate simply because they speak completely different languages. Contrary to the European Commission’s conviction that Lex CEU directly violates EU principles like the freedom to provide services, the freedom of establishment, the right of academic freedom, the right to education, and the freedom to conduct business activities as provided by the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, the Hungarian ruling politicians keep insisting that no matter how hard they try, they just don’t see any problems with the amendments.

The Hungarian government’s steadfast reluctance to talk to the CEU’s administration almost two months after President János Áder called for negotiations between the two sides suggests that it has no intention to reconsider Lex CEU. Its response to the European Commission, which looks more like a non-response, further indicates that it has no intention to comply with EU rules, either. Indeed, it looks as though the Hungarian authorities are increasingly eager not only to disregard EU laws and norms but to publicly embarrass the EU – often with the help of EU money.

To save the European integration project, EU leaders now more than ever need to prove that they are ready to protect the union’s fundamental values by employing all existing mechanisms and instruments against in response to Hungary’s misbehavior. Potentially the most effective among these is Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU).

Never used before, this article provides for the possibility to suspend a member state’s voting rights in the Council when there is “a clear risk of a serious breach” of the EU’s values. The European Parliament, recognizing that the risk had long become reality in Hungary, recently called for launching Article 7. Thus, the ball is now in the hands of the European Council and the European Commission. They must show that they put the EU’s survival and prosperity before short-term political considerations.

The European Commission, as the guardian of the Treaties, has a vital role in the process which, among other things, reveals the EU’s greatest shortcoming: once a country has joined the club, the European institutions have no effective tools to ensure that this country adheres to the EU’s rules and principles. Surprisingly (and sadly), the European Commission has so far rejected the European Parliament’s invitation to submit a proposal for the conclusion of a Union Pact for democracy, the rule of law, and fundamental rights aimed precisely at ensuring a country’s compliance with EU standards both before and after accession.

In their response to the Hungarian government’s recalcitrance, the EU leaders should send two crystal-clear messages: that EU membership is entirely voluntary and that it carries rights as well as responsibilities.

Article 49 TEU makes it clear that any European state that respects and is willing to promote the EU’s values may apply to join the union. Noteworthy, it does not oblige any European country to apply for membership. Once it joins, however, it must stick to the common rules if it wants to reap the financial and other benefits membership offers.

In addition to adopting or planning to adopt policies designed to restrict academic freedom, suppress civil society, and stifle critical voices in the media, the Hungarian government vehemently blames the EU for all its existing (and imaginary) woes.

While he is constantly bashing the EU, including through a recent “Stop Brussels” campaign dubbed “national consultation”, Prime Minister Orbán nevertheless wants Hungary to stay in the EU so that it can continue to benefit from the EU funds.

It is for this reason that Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), told Orbán in the European Parliament last month that he has far more respect for Eurosceptic politicians like those who initiated Brexit because they disagree with certain developments and announce that they want to leave the bloc.

Finally, the European People’s Party (EPP), to which Orbán’s Fidesz belongs, is another major player that has the power as well as the moral duty to defend the EU’s values. Last month, the EPP Presidency stated that it “will not accept that any basic freedoms are restricted or rule of law is disregarded” and demanded that the Hungarian government suspend the deadlines related to Lex CEU and start a dialogue with the US.

While they tend to the Hungarian government as more open to dialogue than its Polish counterpart, the EPP leaders should have realized by now that Hungarian Prime Minister acts on his own unique terms. Orbán has repeatedly shown that he is not afraid of threats. What he does fear, however, is tangible sanctions, such as expelling Fidezs from the EPP.

The EU leaders should keep in mind that the current tensions with Hungary are not simply about the need to discipline a member state. Instead, they are also about the EU’s very survival.

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