The European Union stands by as Hungary becomes an authoritarian state

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Andrea Douglas, Queens University.


The popularization of neo-nationalist, nativist, anti-environmental and anti-Islamic rhetoric has changed the political conversation in many nations, including Hungary. According to a 2018 European Union survey on immigration, only 10% of Hungarians said they would be “totally comfortable” being friends with an immigrant. An overwhelming 55% of this majority white, majority Christian country would be “uncomfortable” with having a foreign friend. This atmosphere of xenophobia and racism has led to the rise of authoritarianism in Hungary, best exemplified by their increasingly despotic Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán.

Since 2010, Orbán’s Fidesz government has gradually dismantled the checks and balances that keep democracy strong. The parliament, constitutional Court, president, chief medical officer and the expansive network of state-controlled media are all now under Orbán’s control. The government has also been brazen enough to amend media laws to ensure that they have full control over appointments to the media’s regulatory bodies, and they have introduced vague content restrictions that carry the possibility of high fines.

In 2016, Nepszabadsag – the country’s largest daily newspaper – was forced to shut down. The closure followed the publication of several articles detailing the alleged corruption of many of Orbán’s closest colleagues and friends. The closure of opposition news media was accelerated in 2018, with a “merger of more than 400 media into one nonprofit conglomerate loyal to the government, sidestepping competition laws” and ultimately, putting “an end to media pluralism” in Hungary.

As a member of the European Union, Hungary is beholden to their standards of democracy. In 2018, the European parliament invoked Article 7, stating that should any member nation’s government put the values of the Union at risk, including freedom of expression, action would be initiated against said member state. Despite these veiled warnings from the EU, free speech in Hungary is still compromised. According to Szabolcs Panyi, a political and investigative journalist, the Fidesz government has increasingly ignored requests for interviews and comments. Access to information and official documents has also been heavily restricted and Orbán has held such a limited number of local press briefings that Panyi has been forced to attend EU press conferences in Belgium to ask his own Prime Minister questions about national affairs.

Orbán and his administration have long championed “family values,”  has demonized gay and transgender people for failing to fit the traditional family narrative. Last year alone, the speaker of parliament likened LGBTQ+ couples adopting children to pedophiles. In the spring of 2020, the Hungarian parliament quietly passed a bill that rescinds the legal recognition of transgender people in the country.

Orbán’s frequent scapegoating of the vulnerable is another trademark of national populists. Orbán has ruthlessly attacked immigrants, as seen from his vehement refusal to accept refugees into the country during Europe’s refugee crisis. He constructed a border wall in order to prevent the migration of refugees and, in doing so, made entry into the country a crime. Not only does this prelude Trump’s xenophobic border wall, it also serves as a symbolic political statement of Hungary’s conservatism.

Orbán has also scapegoated Jews and stirred up anti-Semitism in the country. The Prime Minister has mercilessly maligned Hungarian pro-democracy advocate and Holocaust survivor George Soros, claiming he is behind an international plot to destroy the Hungarian state by pushing refugees and migrants into the country and destabilizing the region. These unsubstantiated claims have demonized Soros, and Orbán has gone so far as to create campaign slogans with anti-Semitic tropes and tones. Government-funded posters and billboards of Soros with a menacing, twisted face and villainous smile were put up around Hungary championing the slogan and anti-Semitic rhetoric. 

Due to the nature of the work Soros supports, all of which is antithetical to Orbán’s efforts to become a dictator, Soros has become a target of Orbán’s personal ire. 2018 was a federal election year in Hungary, and in an attempt to drum up support for himself, Orbán created an imaginary threat out of Soros and the Jewish population. He stated: “We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.”

Within the last few years, the “Stop Soros” bill was passed, which made it illegal to help any undocumented migrants. The bill was promoted under the pretext of taking a harder stance against illegal immigration when, in reality, it gave the government the power to jail political opponents. The bill had little to do with Soros, but it furthered the narrative that he was behind the influx of migrants into Europe and Hungary. The law created a new category of crime called “promoting and supporting illegal migration.” It banned “individuals and organizations from providing any kind of assistance to undocumented immigrants. This [law] is so broadly worded that, in theory, the government could arrest someone who provides food to an undocumented migrant on the street or attends a political rally in favor of their rights.” Local human rights group the Hungarian Helsinki Committee claims the bill “threatens [to] jail those who support vulnerable people,” potentially discouraging many citizens from peacefully exercising their political right to organize and advocate their beliefs.

In addition, Orbán has attacked the independence of the judicial system. He has gerrymandered electoral districts in the country, making it almost impossible for his Fidesz party to lose their parliamentary majority. In jurisdictions of opposition control – like the capital city of Budapest, the local authorities were stripped of their decision-making powers, with power instead being transferred to the largely Fidesz controlled counties. Municipalities were also harmed financially, with one third of the opposition-controlled municipalities’ tax revenue and one fifth of their territory being diverted to the county without logical reason. In an apparent attempt to justify these abuses of power, Orbán has proclaimed “…you can’t reform a nation in secrecy: The era of liberal democracy is over…Rather than try to fix a liberal democracy that has run aground, we will build a 21st-century Christian democracy.”

Orbán’s right-wing rhetoric has only become stronger during the pandemic. On March 30, 2020, Orbán was granted “sweeping emergency powers” by parliament in order to combat COVID-19. The emergency powers gave him the right to rule by decree indefinitely, bypassing the national assembly and suspending existing laws that could limit his power. Most frighteningly, due to the state of emergency, future elections in Hungary were suspended. David Vig, Director of Amnesty International’s Hungarian division, says “This bill creates an indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency and gives Orbán and his government carte blanche to restrict human rights.”

This new law stipulates that anyone Orbán’s government believes to be disseminating ‘false’ information could face five years in prison. Political science professor at Barnard College, Sheri Berman has stated: “At this point, Hungary is a full-on dictatorship. No if, ands, or buts. This [bill] was simply the last step in the process.”

In April of 2020, the European parliament issued a statement saying that Hungary’s new emergency measures were “incompatible with European values.” The European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, issued a veiled warning to Orbán, with Vĕra Jourová, the commission’s vice-president, declaring Hungary’s laws “disturbing.”

In June 2020, members of the Hungarian parliament voted to revoke the emergency powers granted to Orbán. Despite the superficial action of revoking the law, NGOs monitoring Hungary’s democracy have called the action an “optical illusion,” their argument being that since his emergency powers were granted, Orbán has made over 100 decrees, most largely unrelated to COVID-19. His government has retained greater powers than prior to the pandemic, with the Karoly Eotvos Institute claiming that the legislation doesn’t actually end the measures, it only “creates a legal basis for the use of newer extraordinary and unlimited government powers” Despite the state of danger declared over by the parliament, an “omnibus bill” was issued, turning most of the non-COVID-19 related changes into permanent law.

After Orbán’s businessman friend Miklos Vaszily bought a 50% stake in the company, Szabolcs Dull, the editor-in-chief of Hungary’s biggest news website, Index, was fired. Index, a publication read daily by at least one tenth of Hungary’s population, (approximately one million people) was one of the country’s last news outlets that reflected free speech, diversity of thought and media independence. Lydia Gall, a senior Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said Dull’s firing is “another nail in the coffin for press freedom and independent journalism in Hungary.”

One would be remiss to overlook the European Union’s failure to intervene. Prominent spokespeople like von der Leyen and Jourova claim to be in support of democracy, yet they seemingly pursue a policy of appeasement, like the allies in the 1930s. As Gall argues, “if the EU Commission is serious about protecting common values in member states, it needs to step up its efforts to ensure that Hungarian journalists can do their work without political pressure or editorial influence.” While Orbán is “consolidating control by stamping out the dissent, undercutting the power of his opponents and demonising minorities”, the EU stands by and watches as his last obstacles in attaining absolute power are removed.



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