Europe must seize this chance to help restore democracy in Hungary | Timothy Garton Ash

One day last month I stood in a large crowd at the bottom of Andrássy Street in Budapest and heard Hungary’s leader, Viktor Orbán, denounce the European Union, of which his no longer democratic state remains a full member. “They would force us to be European, sensitive and liberal – even if it kills us”, he said. “Today the words and actions that Brussels directs at us and the Poles are like those usually reserved for enemies. We have a feeling of deja vu, as throughout Europe we hear echoes of the Brezhnev doctrine.’ This from a man whose whole regime depends heavily on EU money. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. The crowd murmured support, although louder applause was reserved for the line, “Hungary will be the first country in Europe in which we stop aggressive LGBTQ propaganda at the school gates.” I saw not a single European flag.

At the other end of Andrássy Street, however, once I had got past a vast double row of coaches used to bus in Orbán supporters, I reached an opposition rally. Here, the much smaller crowd waved European flags. And here I heard Peter Márki-Zay, the candidate of a united opposition for next spring’s parliamentary election, declare that they would bring Hungary back to democracy and the legal standards of the EU. Referring to the misuse of EU funds by the Orbán regime, Márki-Zay said, “We should join the European public prosecutor’s office, which does not infringe our sovereignty, only the sovereignty of criminals.” Then a large group of opposition candidates, from six parties that range all the way from right to left, crowded on to the stage for a group photo.

Afterwards, I had a chance to talk to Márki-Zay, a trim, sharply dressed, fast-talking man of 49, who spent years as a salesman in Canada and the US. “I am everything that Viktor Orbán pretends to be,” he told me. Márki-Zay is conservative, the mayor of a town in provincial Hungary, a devout Christian and father of seven children. This has brilliantly wrongfooted the Orbán regime, whose election playbook has thus far been directed against a demonised, cosmopolitan left. At the regime rally, Orbán declared that opposition leaders “have been competing to see which of them could rule over Hungarians by the grace of Brussels and George Soros … who could be the new pasha [Ottoman ruler] of Buda … Their aim is to take Hungary from the hands of [the Virgin] Mary and put it at the feet of Brussels.” But this looks ridiculous against a conservative Catholic from Hungary’s heartlands.

Suddenly there is a sporting chance of an opposition victory next spring. It will, however, be an uphill struggle for six diverse parties to unite in one effective campaign around a non-party candidate. The election will not be entirely free and most definitely not fair. Orbán controls the lion’s share of the country’s media, and in the 2018 election shamelessly used the resources of the state to back his Fidesz party and ruling coalition. Hungary is reportedly the only EU member not to have been invited to president Joe Biden’s “summit for democracy” later this year, which is quite right, for Hungary is now not a democracy. It is a hybrid regime, somewhere between democracy and dictatorship, which is constrained but also sustained by the country’s membership of the EU. Describing Fidesz’s large, effective propaganda machine, one leading independent journalist told me: “Orbán built this machine on EU money.”

There is therefore an obligation as well as an opportunity for the EU and its democratic member states to support the restoration of democracy in Hungary. As requested by the democratically elected mayors of Budapest, Warsaw and other cities, a larger part of EU funding should go directly to cities, local governments and NGOs. (The Orbán government has slashed its funding to Budapest.) As demanded by the European parliament, the European Commission should already be implementing a new mechanism linking EU funding to respect for the rule of law.

Currently, moneys for Hungary and Poland from the post-Covid European recovery fund have been held back by the commission. Approval for Hungary’s national plan, in particular, should depend on much more stringent provisions on transparency and corruption. There is extensive evidence of the misuse of EU funds in Hungary, including reports from the EU’s own anti-fraud office. In public contract after public contract, there has only been one bidder and that bid has not infrequently turned out to come from an oligarchic crony of Orbán’s. In several cases the successful bidders appear to have been closely connected to members of his extended family, such as his son-in-law.

Everyone knows this, but European politicians have been loth to say it out loud. EU heads of government meet all the time, depend on their peers to make intra-EU political deals and are accordingly reluctant to criticise each other in public. But there is a higher imperative here. Corrupt, lawless, illiberal, undemocratic member states are not just bad in themselves; they threaten the entire working of the EU as a democratic, law-based political system. In relation to Hungary, the focus on corruption will be politically important in the next few months, because Márki-Zay won his mayorship on an anti-corruption platform, and is now running nationally on the same theme.

EU officials should of course remain scrupulously impartial, but elected European politicians must not hold back. As Márki-Zay himself emphasises, you need direct, plain speaking to penetrate the “bubbles” created by Orbán’s propaganda machine. The usual Brusselspeak does not cut through.

A particular responsibility falls on the new German government. Germany, although itself a model liberal democracy, has alas been an enabler of the erosion of democracy in Hungary over the last decade. A change of government in Berlin is the perfect moment for a change of message and tone. I look particularly to the Greens, who have consistently made democracy and human rights a key part of their programme, but also to Free Democrats and Social Democrats. After all, it is German taxpayers’ money that is being misused by the demokratura on the Danube.

Orbán is also an international icon of the illiberal right, including Trumpian Americans such as Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. The day I left Budapest, France’s Marine Le Pen arrived there, to be feted by Orbán and to praise him in response. In speaking out at last, European leaders will not just be seizing a real if narrow chance for the restoration of democracy in one beautiful, historic central European country. They will also be serving the cause of democracy in all of Europe and beyond.



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