By Arab News
By Andrew Hammond*
Hungary is preparing for a landmark election on Sunday that is expected to see euroskeptic, illiberal Prime Minister Viktor Orban returned to power for a fourth term.
While challenges to Brussels are often seen through the prism of Western European states, Orban’s re-election is significant because he has helped lead the Visegrad Group of ex-communist states in opposition to the EU, in what has been called a potential “East-West rift.”
For instance, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic (whose collective population is around 65 million) met in Budapest in January to agree a joint position on pushing back at proposals being floated for greater post-Brexit integration amongst the EU-27. Speaking on behalf of the four nations, Orban — who US President Donald Trump has said is a “strong and brave person” — asserted that “Europe needs a new blueprint.”
While increasing euroskepticism is now prevalent over much of the EU, what is striking about Hungary and Poland, in particular, is the rise of right-wing populism, with leaders forcefully promoting values that often clash with the standards promoted by Brussels on democracy, the rule of law and wider freedoms.
Indeed, some six decades after the Treaty of Rome, which was one of the EU’s founding treaties, European Council President Donald Tusk has said the challenges facing the bloc are “more dangerous than ever.” Tusk, who served as Polish prime minister from 2007 to 2014, has identified three key threats, “which have previously not occurred, at least not on such a scale,” that the EU must tackle to survive, let alone thrive, going forward.
While the first of these relates to the external environment outside of Europe, Tusk highlighted two other dangers relating to the rise of anti-EU, nationalist sentiment across the continent, plus the “state of mind of the pro-European elites,” which he fears are now too subservient to “populist arguments as well as doubting in the fundamental values of liberal democracy.” The latter is especially relevant to Hungary and Poland in the eyes of many in Brussels.
Take the example of Hungary, a country with a population of around 10 million, which was at the front-line of Europe’s migration challenges in recent years. There are growing concerns in Brussels that the nation, under Orban, is following a so-called Russian or Turkish model by weakening democratic norms, including clamping down on international NGOs and press freedoms.
On the migration front, specifically, the country experienced in 2015 some 174,435 asylum requests, many from Middle East migrants, with just 502 getting a positive response from Budapest. In 2017, the number was reduced to 3,115 asylum applications, with about a third getting a green light.
Yet, despite this drop-off, the prime minister told an election rally this month that “external forces and international powers want to force all this (immigration) on us with the help of their henchmen here in Hungary… They want to force us to give up (our country) voluntarily over a few decades to strangers arriving from other continents who do not… respect our culture, our laws and our way of life.”
Poland, with a population of around 38 million, has also faced the ire of Brussels, which took the unprecedented step in December of triggering Article 7 — which can lead to the imposition of sanctions — over Warsaw’s controversial judicial reforms.
Developments in Hungary and Poland have given rise to concern in Brussels over the degree to which the Visegrad countries — in the context of their shared concerns over immigration — could function as a more coherent “challenger” bloc at such a crucial moment in the EU’s history. But, for as much as the four countries have common concerns, their interests are by no means identical. Last year, for instance, Slovakia and the Czech Republic disagreed with Poland and Hungary over new EU cross-border labor rules. The former pair endorsed a French-led proposal opposed by Warsaw and Budapest, bringing out in the open tensions within the four.
This underlines the fact that the Visegrad Group has — since its establishment in 1991 — served as more of a diplomatic network than a clear and coherent political bloc. While they have long had common objectives, including initially becoming EU and NATO members, their priorities are not always the same as they compete for external political preferment and investment.
Nevertheless, Orban’s expected re-election will only add to the eastern challenges Brussels now faces. Hungary and Poland, in particular, have the potential to be persistent thorns in the side of the EU, adding to the internal and external threats that may ultimately become, collectively, an existential challenge to the future of the union.
• Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.