In their recent stand-off with Hungary over the Ukraine Facility, EU leaders exerted some tough pressure. As these kinds of tension spread, they need a clearer strategy of what they actually hope to achieve through their diplomatic leverage and aid conditionality.
The upcoming European elections are seen as a test of the continent’s move to the right. Much of the commentary is reminiscent of 2014 or 2019, when media and experts heralded an “earthquake” and a real breakthrough for far-right political actors. Those surges turned out to be more of a ripple – some far-right parties gained ground while others lost significant support – but there has been an undeniable mainstreaming of far-right ideas since, especially among right-wing and conservative parties.
Given this shift, the EU will have to contend with the prospect of democratic backsliding long term, irrespective of the outcome of the elections. A future expansion to 35 will only complicate matters further, heightening the geopolitical stakes of the debate. This raises a key question: how effective is the EU in defending democracy and keeping homegrown anti-democratic actors at bay?
Looking at the latest debacle over funding for Ukraine, one would think not very much. Viktor Orbán has kept the EU hostage, symbolically taking his veto out for coffee only to come back with more demands, hindering the approval of a €50 billion aid package. While he eventually folded, Hungary has also been stalling Sweden’s NATO accession, hiding behind Turkey’s back and frustrating allies with its intransigence.
All of this comes 12 years after the European Parliament first called for launching Article 7 against Hungary and 3 years after an agreement, labeled as “historic,” that allows for the cutting of funds to member states that disrespect the rule of law. As a result, the Commission suspended a total of €32 billion to the country in late 2022, amounting to one-fifth of Hungary’s GDP.
Notwithstanding these moves, Orbán has continued to perfect a semi-autocratic system at home, muzzling independent institutions and radicalising his voter base. The day the Commission green-lighted disbursing €10.2 billion – based on formal compliance with four super milestones on the rule of law – the Hungarian parliament adopted a so-called “sovereignty” bill, potentially ensnaring anyone participating in public life as serving foreign interests.
It is easy to conclude then that the EU is bad at defending its democracy. And that may very well be the case. But the reasons behind its failure are as much strategic as political – European politicians lack political will to punish backsliding at home, but they also lack clarity about their goals going forward.
The adoption of the rule of law mechanism, later watered down and renamed as the budget conditionality regulation, perfectly exemplified this confusion. While protecting the financial interests of the European Union was certainly an easier sell than enforcing its values, some hoped that hitting budding autocrats in the pocketbook would lead to a restoration of democracy, with no in-between steps required.
But whose democracy and at what cost? Is the EU’s goal to pressure wayward member states into acting in line with the majority? Or is it to protect democracy and the rule of law on the common market? Do we want to get rid of the Orbáns or at least have them cause as little trouble as possible? Or do we want to re-establish democracy in Hungary so that all EU citizens enjoy the same rights and freedoms?
European politicians and bureaucrats need strategic clarity around these questions. Safeguarding EU unity requires very different tools from protecting democracy, not to mention re-establishing the rule of law in Hungary. Each goal necessitates different steps and asks different sacrifices from member states. Political and financial pressure, including a leaked proposal to “sabotage” the Hungarian economy, was clearly enough to force EU unity on funding for Ukraine. But it has done little to help rebuild democracy in Hungary, a task that requires more robust programs aimed at supporting democratic actors and civil society on the ground.
In other words, the EU needs a credible theory of change – on Hungary but also beyond Hungary. It should include a well-thought-out list of options, from the minimalist, which details isolating member states from decision-making, to the maximalist, that focuses on reviving democracy.
Reality suggests that most politicians are uncomfortable interfering in fellow member states’ affairs. Not to mention that they fear they may be next in the line. And there are valid reasons behind taking a more cautious approach. Outside pressure without a supportive domestic constituency – such as the one that defeated Law and Justice in Poland – is unlikely to yield positive outcomes in the long run.
Yet, the EU’s democracy problem is unlikely to go away on its own either. The challenge posed by Orbán and like-minded politicians is set to escalate following the European elections, and after Hungary takes over the rotating presidency in the second half of the year.
Renewed talk of finally invoking the “nuclear option” and suspending Hungary’s voting rights shows that European leaders are aware of the gravity of the situation. Still, without a strategic rethink, chances are that the EU will continue to muddle along and towards a less democratic and more dangerous future.
Zselyke Csaky is a senior analyst with a policy research focus and background in human rights law. Her primary areas of expertise include the rule of law, media freedoms, democracy, and Central Europe. She was previously Policy Leader Fellow at the EUI and research director at Freedom House, overseeing projects on governance and press freedom in Europe and Eurasia. Her comments and writings have appeared in the Washington Post, Politico Europe, and Foreign Policy among other. She has also dabbled in journalism as a reporter for Bloomberg, the founder of In Between Europe, a podcast about Central Europe, and the co-host of Sandals, a series of short conversations published by the Florence School of Transnational Governance.