Orbán’s attempt at blackmail

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

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban arrives for the fourth day of the European Council meeting in Brussels, Belgium, 20 July 2020. European Union nations leaders meet face-to-face for a fourth day to discuss plans responding to coronavirus crisis and new long-term EU budget. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is blackmailing the rest of the European Union, but MEPs and EU leaders must call his bluff to hold up the COVID-19 recovery fund if rule of law criteria are included. This may be the EU’s last chance to crack down on his rogue regime. writes Csaba Molnár.

MEP Csaba Molnár is the head of delegation of the Democratic Coalition in the European Parliament.

Orbán is threatening to withhold Hungary’s agreement to the EU’s €750 billion coronavirus recovery fund, unless rule of law criteria are changed to his liking. As the enactment of the Recovery and Resilience Fund (RRF) is subject to the approval of national parliaments, the Hungarian Parliament can reject – and thus veto – the deal.

In May this year, Prime Minister Orbán had his constitutional majority in the Hungarian Parliament pass a resolution setting out conditions under which he could agree to an agreement in the European Council.

One precondition was that any rule of law criterion was unacceptable. Another stipulated that no political organisation “camouflaged as civil society” could be supported. We know how that story went: Orbán ended up agreeing to a deal that was not in line with any of those preconditions, without asking for a new mandate from the Parliament or reporting back why he deviated from his mandate.

When Orbán claims the decision is about the RRF in the hands of the Hungarian Parliament, do not believe him. Rest assured, his MPs will decide precisely how the Prime Minister wants, as they always have in the past 10 years.

Orbán can and will gamble. It is his nature to raise the stakes sky-high, hoping his partners will not dare to call his bluff. And the stakes are now higher than ever. Why would heads of state and government risk the entire €750 billion recovery fund because of rule of law problems in one or two member states? This is Orbán’s contemplation, and this is his game.

Hungary – representing 2% of the population of the European Union and 1% of its GDP – is set to receive about 3% of its annual GDP from the EU budget. Make no mistake: most of this massive amount will never reach the average Hungarian.

As always, most of it will be funnelled to oligarchs in the inner circles of Orbán’s power structure. Orbán likes to present himself to his voters as this brave, courageous fighter against “Brussels”.

Yet members of the European Council will tell you that he is far more collaborative behind closed doors. Orbán enjoys conflicts but he is also fully aware whom he should not go to war with. He is also not brave enough to kill one of the most ambitious plans of the EU, turning even his most loyal allies into bitter enemies.

He is bluffing. He is trying to erase or soften the rule of law criterion, but if the Council continues to insist, he will give in as he did before.

Of course, one should also take into account that Orbán might be serious. In my opinion, if he were, he would make a fatal mistake. Orbán, who destroys everything he cannot rule, would provide a pretext for member states to outflank him by accelerating the finalisation of a “two-speed Europe”.

In that Europe, member states committed to the European ideal, sharing the respect for democratic institutions, checks and balances, independent media, the rule of law, for human rights and the protection of minorities, hold genuinely free and fair elections and use the Euro, will build a more effective Union.

An EU that will withstand the competition from the USA and China, and will have global influence. Despite everything, Hungarians are still a nation committed to EU membership. So the drama would help them understand that the Orbán-regime is a dead-end. And, ultimately, they would also choose Europe.

But how can European leaders explain to voters the conflict they must now confront? Unfortunately, the term “rule of law” is inadequate for mobilising public support.

What people need to be explained is that the rule of law in fact provides them with protection from their own governments, and their politicians, so that they cannot steal and get rich off public money.

Therefore, the EU should provide funds only to countries where the flow of money is supervised and governments cannot treat EU development programmes as their own personal piggy bank.

Orbán is bluffing, and European leaders should insist on the rule of law criteria. It is in the interest of both Europe and the Hungarian people. If the dispute is not settled now, it might never be. This game is not about the Recovery Fund.

The real danger is that – if Orbán were allowed to win – his camp of autocratic, anti-European, illiberal leaders could grow beyond Poland and Hungary, and put the whole European project in jeopardy. This is perhaps the last chance for the EU to crack down on his rogue regime.

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