Playing with Democracy: Hungary 101

Selen Eşençay* |

*Department of International Relations, Bilkent University

One can ask why and how Hungary’s Viktor Orban extends his dominance on the universities by passing a law that radically alters the structure of the universities and how they are run. You may not be in great shock after hearing the recent events in the country due to what has been happening for quite some time; that is, this university reform contradicts European values as the other previous acts of the Hungarian leader. However, I would like to mention that this illiberal turn, labelled by the Freedom House, from one of the member states of the European Union, which has increased its succession, especially since the outbreak of the pandemic, is actually a situation that needs to be questioned.

I am talking about a country that refuses to renounce its sovereignty to serve for the responsibilities of being a member of the union, and in return for this sacrifice, this country becomes one of the member states that benefits the most from being a part of the EU, of a club of liberal democracies. Although Hungary is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the EU funds and foreign direct investments between 2014 to 2020, many of Hungary’s decisions are being questioned due to the populist policies the country has employed since Orban came into power in 2010.

The latest law raises the government’s influence over the institutions. Hence the universities will face a massive structural overhaul by becoming foundations and instead will be owned by the Hungarian state; the universities will not be able to keep their autonomy. As a result, the government will assign members that will run the foundations and govern major estate assets by using EU funds and impacting the universities. The opposition criticises the latest act of Fidesz, the ruling party, saying that universities and their spending should not be regulated by the government. Also, one of the most significant claims that the opposition makes is that the Hungarian government fills the foundations with ‘politically like-minded people’. Therefore, the Hungarian Prime Minister clearly stated that anyone with “internationalist and globalist” views would not take part in these institutions to preserve Hungary and its national interests. Even though the criticism and concerns about the future of academic freedom in the country are gradually increasing, there are questions about the future presence and involvement of the EU.

In addition to the debate over the new reform, the construction of a new Chinese university, the so-called “China’s ‘Trojan horse’ in the EU” by the opposition, heats up the tense atmosphere in the country. Fudan University, owned by Shanghai, is preparing to open a branch in Budapest in 2024 after Hungary and Fudan University agreed on a strategic agreement on April 27, 2021. This will be the first Chinese University within the European borders. It will be considerably bigger than all other Hungarian universities in terms of campus size. Some also disclosed the financial motivation of the Hungarian government by pointing to the cost of the construction: €1.5 billion. However, the Hungarian government opposes the economic criticisms by arguing that the primary goal of such a foundational model is to increase the preferability of Hungary as an educational destination.

The issue of national interests and the protection of Christianity based on what the Hungarian leader has been defending loses its influence and credibility with the inclusion of economic interests in the debate. But this contradiction often shows the equation of how politics actually work. Although the situation is not surprising, it is also a question of curiosity about how the EU, which defends its values whenever it needs to, will approach this issue. The way in which the EU will intervene or comment on the cultivated close ties between Beijing and Hungary will carry importance; that is, it will evaluate the situation and predict its future. First of all, what will Brussel do about Europe’s damaged image with a member state like Hungary that violates European values? And does a member state that builds such a close economic relationship with China essentially jeopardise the future of the EU? These questions will remain unanswered for the moment. Nevertheless, analysing the previous reaction of the EU towards the populist right-wing leader Orban and his policies is not promising for the future of the opposition and European values in Hungary.

Although the EU has mechanisms to deal with the democratic backsliding in its member states which requires consensus and unanimity, such as Article 7, it is unfortunately not sufficient to tackle the contemporary political turn in Hungary. Nevertheless, there is a new mechanism in the EU’s budget that has a condition with the rule of law implications which was introduced in 2021. Therefore, the new mechanism can actually impact the ongoing situation in Hungary. The conditionality gives permission for disbursements to be withheld if there are particular violations of basic cases, such as the undermining of judicial independence. Because the Hungarian PM is a great innovator by depicting excuses for his policies, he can inspire other EU MS, such as Poland and Czechia, by putting Europe’s future more in danger. If the expected intervention from the EU does not come in the desired way, the domestic solution is also on the table. Six opposition parties coming from different ideological positions have already announced that they will form an alliance to defeat Orbán’s government, which they criticise for authoritarian rule and corruption, in the 2022 elections. Thus, the merger of six opposition parties could be a factor that will change what is happening in the country.

When the contradictions are examined between how Hungary acts and what does the EU want, we can see groups that defend what happened and groups that oppose what happened. If it is not at the decision-making level, intervention from Brussel, the European voters’ anger can help the democratic parties to win the 2022 elections.  Some will accuse the EU of not taking sufficient responsibility and act accordingly, while others will accuse Hungary of being reckless and Eurosceptic. But what if there is a relationship of interest behind what is visible that is not shown to the public? What if Hungary and the EU are benefiting from this conflict? In this case, as in many political crises, there will be people who are the subjects of these events that are damaged and ignored. Since the political interests can easily undermine the will and right of the people, the repetition seems likely to re-occur: Orban will again win. In this case, whether the EU citizens, who feed illiberal transformation in Hungary with their taxes, will pay the price and Hungarian citizens who defend European values and liberalism.

Of course, one might assert that, due to the detrimental consequences of the recent health crisis, it is not unpleasant to pursue economic interests and political interests from politicians’ point of view. However, fundamental facts such as human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, which are said to be more significant and needed than these interests, may, unfortunately, turn into a sacrificed pawn for the economy.

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