Punishing Hungary

September 14, 2018 by Willis Sparks

This week, more than two-thirds of members of the European Parliament approved unprecedented disciplinary action against Hungary in response to alleged violations of EU core values. The motion accuses the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban of refusing to accept migrants according to EU quotas agreed by a majority vote of EU members. It rebukes the Hungarian government for its attacks on the media, minorities, and the rule of law.

Orban called the charges blackmail and an insult to Hungary’s people. His foreign minister denounced them as the “petty revenge” of “pro-immigration” bureaucrats.

Each side claims it is defending “European values.” Most members of the European Parliament define those values as freedom of speech, respect for human rights, judicial independence, and separation of powers within a democracy. Orban and likeminded allies in other countries define them as local values and protection of traditional ethnic and religious identity against mandates from politicians in other countries. Europeans say Orban is bullying Hungarians who don’t support him. Orban says European institutions are bullying Hungary.

What power does the EU have to discipline Hungary? That question now rests in the hands of the EU Council—the heads of government of the 28 EU member states. Stripping Hungary of voting rights would require a unanimous vote. Poland, which may soon face similar disciplinary pressure from the EU, would cast a veto.

The European Commission has proposed measures that would tie some of the money that member states receive as part of the EU budget to respect for the rule of law. That means countries like Hungary and Poland might one day face substantial cuts in EU subsidies.

That’s a big deal for smaller countries that receive more from the EU budget than they contribute. Hungary contributed €924 million to the EU budget in 2016, it received €4.5 billion in EU funding in the same year.

But those changes are not imminent, and this action against Hungary is the first of its kind. There are still more questions than answers.

In the meantime, Brussels must hope that Hungary will take steps to avoid pariah status, but this latest action may serve mainly to further elevate Orban’s stature as champion of those who say the EU lacks respect for the values of its member states.