Europe’s other crisis: authoritarianism

Viktor Orbán, Hungarian Prime Minister, is busy creating a nightmarish "managed democracy" while Europe has its gaze turned to its other crisis. The political conditions of EU membership are more fundamental than the economic ones, and Hungary should not be allowed to stay in the club while flouting basic democratic principles

These past few weeks European leaders have declared time and time again that the European Union is going through its gravest crisis ever.  They are right – except that it is a double crisis: one is about the Euro; the other has nothing to do with the common currency and is not unfolding in Rome or Athens, but further north: in Budapest.  There the national-populist government of Viktor Orbán, in power since April 2010 with a two-thirds majority in parliament, has been systematically undermining the rule of law and dismantling democratic institutions.  It is the first time ever that an EU Member State is sliding back towards authoritarianism.  Failure to prevent the emergence of a ‘managed democracy’ within the EU puts the promise of European integration into much more serious doubt than the troubles of the Eurozone – because that promise was at heart always political, not economic.  If European leaders continue to care only about financial matters, they’ll miss a much more dangerous form of contagion.

Viktor Orbán was prime minister of Hungary once before, from 1998 to 2002.  He already then behaved in sufficiently illiberal ways that Washington in particular was not pleased and denied him a much-desired invitation to the White House.  But his government was not illiberal enough to delay Hungary joining the EU in 2004.  Hungarians, like all other new entrants to the EU, felt that both political stability and prosperity were now safely ensured.  But the left-liberal parties which ruled from 2002 onwards discredited themselves by a series of corruption scandals and by lying about the state of the economy.  They also ran up huge debts.  The result: Orbán collected around 53 percent of the votes in the 2010 elections – but the peculiarities of the electoral law gave him a huge majority in parliament.  He promptly used that majority to erect a new ‘system of national cooperation’.

In practice, this meant curtailing the powers of the courts (the Hungarian Constitutional Court, internationally highly respected, in particular), passing a draconian media law which the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe compared to the rules on press freedom in totalitarian states, and hastily enacting a new constitution which entrenches the highly partisan vision of Orbán’s party without popular consultation or referendum.  The constitution’s nationalistic preamble also rehabilitates the authoritarian regime of Admiral Horthy – one more symbolic act in an antiliberal Kulturkampf, which has already seen the appointment of openly anti-Semitic intellectuals to prestigious cultural posts.    

All this was possible because Orbán has a two-thirds majority in a unicameral parliament -- and, to be sure, support in the population, at least up until recently, when the economy took yet another turn for the worse.  In fact, his majority is still busy enacting so-called ‘cardinal laws’ to specify many of the general provisions of the constitution.  One is a new election law which disadvantages smaller parties -- which, to be sure, is not in itself necessarily undemocratic -- but, more important, redraws elections districts in such a way that Orbán’s party would have won every single election since 1998 (that is to say: also in 2002 and 2006, when the socialist-liberal coalition clearly outpolled them).  Even more worrying is that the government is staffing many state posts (especially courts and media boards) with its own people for exceptionally long periods – a fact which reinforces the impression that Orbán is trying to create a system where ideally he never loses an election – but even if he were to lose one, his party would never fully lose power.        

To be sure, other Central and Eastern European countries have had their ups and downs with liberal democracy -- one need only remember the Polish Kaczyński brothers a few years back.  In fact, one could be forgiven for thinking that the security of actual EU Membership precisely allows national leaders to act up a little, while never quite going over the authoritarian brink.  But this time really is different: never before has a constitution rendered a decidedly antiliberal political vision permanent, and never before have both an opposition and potential countervailing powers -- such as the Constitutional Court -- been so systematically weakened.  Western observers have been right to warn of ‘Putinization’ and the emergence of a ‘Lukashenko lite’, a milder version of Belarus’ ruthless authoritarian ruler, inside the EU.

Hillary Clinton made the displeasure of the US obvious in a meeting with Orbán in the summer, and Washington should keep up the pressure on what after all is a NATO ally.  But the real burden is on Europe.  Officially the European Union has no mechanism for excluding countries – they can only leave voluntarily.  However, Brussels can name and shame – and ultimately suspend the voting rights inside the EU of states that violate core values of democracy and the
rule of law.  Of course, this can sound like a typical Eurosceptic nightmare: Europe dictating to a democratically elected government and giving nationally legitimated politicians lessons from on high as to what a proper understanding of people power is.  But Europe is, after all, a club with its own rules (and particular understandings of those rules); any club has the right to enforce them for members who have entered the club voluntarily.  European understandings of democracy and the rule of law are indeed diverse – but not infinitely so.   

Still, European leaders have been reluctant to open a second political front, when saving the Euro is seemingly consuming all available political capital.  But if they are willing, for instance, to threaten Greece with exit from the Eurozone, why are they not prepared to confront the Hungarian government, when actually so much more is at stake?  The European Union might sometimes get it wrong on economics and survive – but it can’t afford to get it wrong on politics.        

About the author

Jan-Werner Mueller is a Professor of Politics at Princeton University.  His latest book is Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in Twentieth-Century Europe (Yale University Press).