The free and democratic Europe: a death by a thousand cuts?

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The Hungarian parliamentary elections in April 2010 changed the country – for worse. Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz took power for the second time. Today, ten years later, we can see how the prime minister has turned his country into an illiberal state, ignoring the basic principles of the rule of law, writes MEP Udo Bullmann.

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The Hungarian parliamentary elections in April 2010 changed the country – for worse. Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz took power for the second time. Today, ten years later, we can see how the prime minister has turned his country into an illiberal state, ignoring the basic principles of the rule of law, writes MEP Udo Bullmann.

Udo Bullmann is a German MEP and former chairman of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament.

His latest move in parliament, granting the government the power to rule by decree, is a further step towards an autocratic style of government.

Orbán’s misunderstanding of democracy has spread far beyond the country’s borders and is gaining track in the Western Balkans and with like-minded far-right forces in the EU. But it doesn’t stop there.

His vassals are rising to powerful positions in the European institutions, gaining strategically important portfolios to push Orbán’s dangerous policies in the EU and beyond. In a time where a strong, united European Union is needed, his ambassadors of Authoritarianism are actively contributing to the division of Europe.

One of them is Olivér Varhélyi, the Hungarian EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement. In mid-April, he re-tweeted, and later deleted, a statement by the Italian neo-fascist Fratelli D’Italia, claiming it was simply a sign of solidarity with Italy.

He also “liked” another tweet by Giorgia Meloni, the leader of Fratelli D’Italia, in which she savaged the Democratic Party, the centre-left member of the Italian ruling coalition, for supposedly giving in to Brussels’ diktat. Such things do not happen by accident.

Varhéyi is a man of confidence of his prime minister. Orbán effusively praised him as an “exemplary Hungarian patriot”. He also lobbied hard for Mr Varhélyi to get the neighbourhood policy portfolio. Orbán never made a secret of his desire to snatch this dossier.

He enjoys close relations with some of the leaders of the countries in question, such as the head of Israel’s far -ight government Benyamin Netanyahu, Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Azerbaijan’s dictator İlham Aliyev. Having his protégé in a key EU position of direct interest to these pals and allies would presumably strengthen these ties even more.

Such a close association with Orbán, however, wasn’t an obstacle for Varhélyi to get green-lighted by the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament. This is because Orbán’s Fidesz party is a member of the European People’s Party (EPP), an umbrella of Europe’s centre-right parties.

Over the years, the EPP has consistently downplayed the signs of authoritarian backsliding in Hungary. A cynical, and perhaps plausible, explanation is that Fidesz is simply too important and strong to expel them from the party.

Another, more sinister, explanation could be that many in EPP simply share Orbán’s views when it comes to immigration, borders, so-called traditional cultural values and Islam.

The results of the European Parliament elections in 2019 provided a real opportunity for a centre-left candidate, Frans Timmermans, to lead the European executive. Even the German chancellor Angela Merkel seemed to have signed off on such a deal.

She, however, faced a revolt in her own EPP ranks, fuelled, to a large extent, by eastern European conservatives who were not prepared to accept a social-democratic President of the Commission.

played a very vocal role in this opposition, as Timmermans, in his previous capacity as the Commission’s vice-president for rule of law, took a hard line against Orbán’s creeping authoritarianism.

The negotiations over the distribution of the top posts in the European Union, however, were promptly taken over by the national governments, who eventually agreed to a deal with the EPP, that catapulted the hitherto unremarkable German Christian-democrat Ursula von der Leyen to the main job in the Commission. In return, they secured other top-positions for their representatives.

This brings us back to Varhélyi. Although he could not convince a majority at the hearing in the foreign affairs committee – for obvious reasons – he was waved through after having answered a few additional, written questions.

As a result, creeping right-wing extremism has been allowed to move in at the heart of the EU Commission. This makes a mockery of von der Leyen’s pretensions of a “geopolitical Commission” and is a cumulative result of the connivance of some, lack of foresight and backbone of others, and of petty ambitions getting in the way of big historical moments.

The loser could be Europe, firmly on its way to meet death by a thousand cuts, if courage and a new vision of democracy, freedom and solidarity do not emerge to prevent this.

Europe relies on the determination and joint effort of all democrats in the European institutions. The Commission cannot stand by idle. The rule of law procedure, initiated under Article 7 of the EU Treaty, must finally be pursued consistently.

The European Commission has to present its report on the review of the rule of law in the member states in September.

Illiberal governments should no longer expect unconditional European solidarity and support, if they keep on trampling down freedom and justice, the democratic foundations of the European Union.


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