Orbán’s Enablers

Victoria Harms

Johns Hopkins University

Victoria Harms is a DAAD Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Johns Hopkins University. She spent three years as post-doc at the Herder Institute for the History of East Central Europe in Marburg and as instructor at the Justus-Liebig-University in Gießen, Germany. She is the author of the upcoming monograph, The Making of Dissidents: The Hungarian Democratic Opposition and Its Western Friends, 1973-1998 (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2023).

Victoria Harms specializes in Cold War and recent European history and politics, the history of sports, ideas, and intellectual history. Her work usually pursues a transnational and comparative approach and explores the entanglements of national histories in the twentieth century. Currently, she works on a project about the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and Ronald Reagan’s America as well as a project on West Germany’s positioning vis-à-vis the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics at a time of deepening trade relations with the Soviet Union.

Victoria Harms holds a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh, a MA from the Central European University, Budapest, and a BA from the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder).

German Conservatives and the EU Council’s Unanimity

On December 12, 2022, as the first news of Eva Kaili’s arrest and “Qatargate,” the European Parliament’s first major corruption scandal, broke, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán gleefully tweetedGood morning to the European Parliament!” Set over a photo of U.S. President Ronald Reagan, Vice President George H. W. Bush, Secretary of State James Baker, and others doubling over in a fit of laughter, he added: “And then they said the EP is seriously concerned about corruption in Hungary.”

To be sure, the Hungarian prime minister has every reason to gloat. He has undermined the rule of law, civil liberties, checks and balances, and free and fair elections with impunity since his re-election in 2010. The self-declared “freedom fighter” has survived countless reports, investigations, and, tellingly, challenges in the European Parliament (EP). Yet he owes his prime ministerial longevity not exclusively to the skewed electoral system, the massive expansion of executive power, and the tight control of the media that he has established. Observers, particularly in the United States, who have looked fondly at Angela Merkel’s Germany as a bastion of stability, common sense, and reliability, might be surprised to learn that much of the blame for Orbán’s immunity to criticism and well-documented indictments can be laid at the feet of German politicians, especially members of the conservative sister parties Christian Social Union (CSU) and Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Their long-time accommodation of the Fidesz leader has significantly stalled the EU’s reform progress and created a dangerous, potentially disintegrative precedent.

Orbán’s first confrontation with the EP dates to January 2011, when Hungary took over the rotating EU council presidency. During the first session, MEPs protested Fidesz’s new media law, and journalists covered their mouths with tape to illustrate the muzzling of Hungary’s press. Orbán remained unfazed, and his government proceeded to draft a new constitution, called the Basic Law. MEPs commissioned the so-called Tavares Report, which lists its numerous violations of EU principles. However, the exposure and public shaming barely amounted to a slap on Orbán’s hand. Chancellor Merkel and the Hungarian prime minister met several times (although not as often as Orbán and Putin). Although the two were certainly not friends—barely friendly—, Merkel never put her foot down. As the European sovereign debt crisis raged, a country of 10 million outside of the Eurozone hardly featured at the top of the EU’s agenda. Orbán, who portrays Hungary as an aggrieved small state and victim of great power politics, exploited the West’s preoccupation with larger challenges. Unrestrained by the rule of law and democratic principles, Fidesz won reelection in 2014, 2018, and 2022.

Meanwhile, millions of EU funds have ended up in the coffers of Orbán’s relatives and friends. In 2016, after three years of investigations, OLAF, the EU’s anti-fraud agency, submitted its findings of “serious irregularities” to the Hungarian prosecutor—to no avail. The agency has no authority inside member states and relies on national judiciaries to initiate legal proceedings. In 2018, eight years into the Orbán regime, the European Parliament had grown so frustrated that MEP Judith Sargentini headed another investigation. Her “report” triggered Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, which might end in a member state’s suspension from voting, committee memberships, and funds. However, for sanctions to kick in, the Treaty of the EU requires unanimity in the council, a numeric impossibility among the twenty-seven member states.

Whether the rule of law conditionality represents an efficient tool to defend EU laws, the proper use of EU funds, and the rights of all EU citizens, including Hungarians, will very much depend on Germany.

For years, Orbán could count on conservative politicians in Europe, especially in Germany, to acquiesce. The list of long-time enablers includes Manfred Weber, CSU, president of the European Peoples Parties in the EP since 2012. In September 2015, during the so-called “refugee crisis,” Weber stood side-by-side with Orbán and then Bavarian minister-president Horst Seehofer, CSU, in opposing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Willkommenspolitik. Resentful of her “Wir schaffen das” approach, the CSU rolled out the red carpet for a man who had closed Hungary’s borders and caused a humanitarian crisis at Budapest’s Keleti train station. In the sweltering August heat, Orbán’s hardline stance had forced tens of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans to walk to the Austrian border on their way to Germany. The CSU—together with Austria’s then-Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, ÖVP (the Christian democratic Austrian People’s Party)—approved. Hiding behind opaque references to the Dublin Agreement, which he had no intention of honoring, the Hungarian proudly and defiantly declared: “I am Europe’s border guard.” Weber and Seehofer, whose home state Bavaria formed a frontline of sorts, looked on smugly. When it comes to Muslim immigrants and an EU-wide refugee quota, the Hungarian has happily done “the dirty work” for CDU, CSU, ÖVP, and other conservatives in Europe.

Bavaria’s and Baden-Württemberg’s cordial relationship with Orbán began during his first administration from 1998 to 2002. Irked by the prestige of the George Soros-funded Central European University (CEU), the prime minister partnered with the two states and the Republic of Austria, all mostly Catholic entities governed by fellow conservatives, to found a counter-model, the Andrássy University, a German-language degree-awarding institution that produces reputable results but never on par with CEU. In 2017, after Fidesz had whisked the controversial “Lex CEU” through parliament, instead of opposing it, CSU politicians allegedly offered the institution Bavaria as an anchor. Unable to meet the vague, ever-changing requirements of the law, CEU left Budapest for Vienna in 2019. For the first time since the 1930s, Europe witnessed the forced shutdown of a university. One would have thought that the EU, especially Germans, could and should have mustered a more resolute opposition. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) struck down Lex CEU in October 2020, a verdict that came predictably too late.

In appeasing Orbán, Weber and others have not only allowed this troubling precedent; they have also protected German business interests, particularly those of companies headquartered in the southern heartland of German conservatism. In 2021, journalist Szabolcs Panyi revealed the complicity of Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Bosch, even Opel, in sustaining Fidesz’s rule. The article earned him a nomination for the 2021 European Press Prize as well as an infection with the Israeli spyware Pegasus, courtesy of Fidesz. In the 2010s, German car manufacturers expanded into Hungary, where Orbán has welcomed them with open arms. Mercedes-Benz operates out of Kecskemét, Opel out of Szentgotthárd, and Audi’s plant in Győr is with over 12,000 employees the world’s largest producer of car engines. Their Hungarian factories have reaped the benefits of state subsidies and EU-funded infrastructure projects, executed by Orbán’s cronies. They can rely on weak labor laws in Hungary: for instance, the government legalized 400 hours of overtime per year, allowed three years delay in pay for said overtime, and significantly curtailed the right to strike. Most importantly, Orbán has guaranteed disgracefully low wages that no German worker would accept. As a reward for such a “business-friendly” environment, Weber and others have ensured that Orbán would not be offended or humiliated on the EU level.

Weber’s accommodation of Orbán can partly be explained by his erstwhile aspiration to the highest office in the EU, the post of commissioner. To enter the 2019 EP elections as the European People’s Party’s (EPP, the center-right party group in the EP) Spitzenkandidat and eventually be appointed, he needed Fidesz’s approval. But his hopes were crushed when, in a closed-door meeting, the council selected Ursula von der Leyen instead. Nevertheless, Weber’s criticism of Orbán remained muted: despite the Tavares and Sargentini reports, he resisted calls to exclude Fidesz from the EPP. Amidst growing pressure, he only consented to the suspension of Fidesz’s membership in March 2019, two short months before the above election. A year later, reassured by Polish support at the time, Orbán, the maverick, turned his back on Weber and withdrew his party from the EPP.

Another German conservative among the accommodationists is Günter Oettinger, CDU, who in the past occupied various posts in the EU Commission. In 2013, Oettinger, then EU Commissioner for Energy, flew to Budapest on the private jet of “Mister Russia,” i.e., the German businessman Klaus Mangold, to advise on a deal with Rosatom, the Russian nuclear energy corporation, which now builds Hungary’s second nuclear plant, Paks II. At the time, the use of the jet caused more of a stir than the deal. But Oettinger brushed off criticism: the Hungarian government would not have allocated money for transportation; he had not participated in his official function and did not receive compensation for his contributions. After Oettinger had departed Brussels (and CEU Budapest) in 2019, Orbán appointed him to the National Science Foundation, a body packed with Fidesz allies that have overseen the diminution of science and research in the exclusive service of Fidesz.

Orbán’s superpower is a widely known flaw in the EU’s governing structure: unanimity. When criticized in camera or in public, he threatens to block any and all EU projects. In the Council, Hungary’s vote counts as much as anybody’s. The Next Generation EU recovery package as well as the 15 percent global corporate tax rate have been subject to Orbán’s principled veto—a sign of his power and disregard for solidarity and progress. Until a few months ago, EU Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen, CDU, took the well-trodden road of appeasement, too. When Orbán balked at a sixth round of sanctions against Russia, she flew to Budapest in May 2022 to “bring him in.” After the courtesy visit and sufficient media exposure, Orbán relented. The motion passed but “more work [was] needed,” she acknowledged. Unanimity came at a steep price: Hungary was granted generous, prolonged exemptions and continues to rely on Russian oil and gas, more so than Germany. To get things done and avoid a stalemate in the Council, von der Leyen, Orbán, and everyone else understand that the Hungarian will blackmail the EU with his veto until concessions are granted. The late Paul Lendvai, a Hungarian-born journalist in Vienna, called Orbán’s negotiating strategy “the peacock dance”: when in Brussels or Strasbourg, Orbán would feign betterment and extort compromises, only to return to Hungary, pound on the EU, and continue as before.

Orbán’s superpower is a widely known flaw in the EU’s governing structure: unanimity.

After years of watching this game, the EP eventually pressured the Commission to make changes, and at the beginning of 2021, the two bodies introduced the “rule of law conditionality mechanism.” The lever has become the EU budget. Based on the annual rule of law reports and ECJ rulings, the Commission can now withhold funds, including COVID-19 recovery funds, from member states which have been found to violate the rule of law. Poland and Hungary, cause for and target of the new regulation, sued, and delayed the application of the new law until late last year. Predictably, and ironically, the Hungarian Minister of Justice responded: “We say no to blackmailing with the rule of law!”

In March 2022, the ECJ approved the rule of law conditionality regulation—much to Orbán’s annoyance. Whereas Poland agreed to roll back some of its breaches, the Hungarian spent the rest of 2022 blocking any major decision presented to the council. Undeterred, the EP declared in September that it no longer considered Hungary a democracy; for the first time has an EU member state been reclassified as such. However, with rising inflation and growing unrest at home, his regime desperately needs EU funding. A late December compromise saw Orbán reluctantly approve 18 billion euros in aid to Ukraine in return for the release of some of Hungary’s blocked recovery funds.

At home, Orbán celebrated the compromise as another example of his “freedom fight.” He and President Katalin Novák, the other of two token women in Fidesz’s leadership, used the withholding of funds to blame Brussels for not being able to raise the salaries of Hungarian teachers, which rank among the lowest in Europe. Despite smear campaigns and terminations, throughout December, Hungarian educators have gone on strikes in protest of their abysmal working conditions. On December 18, amidst galloping living costs, workers at the Audi plant in Győr won an exceptional pay raise. Their fight and that of the EU is far from over.

Whether the rule of law conditionality represents an efficient tool to defend EU laws, the proper use of EU funds, and the rights of all EU citizens, including Hungarians, will very much depend on Germany. The trouble with Hungary and Poland found its way into the 2021 traffic light coalition agreement, which pledges a strengthening of the European Parliament, more transparency in the operations of the council, and a clear commitment to the defense of Article 2 of the Treaty of the EU, which precisely enshrined the rule of law. Although Berlin has not exerted more pressure on Budapest since Merkel’s departure in late 2021, the EPP and Orbán have lost an important, albeit not always well-liked advocate who in the name of the status quo rather pushed compromises through than risk a stalemate or commit to an overdue reform process. As of now, it appears that power has shifted to Brussels and Strasbourg. That means that German politicians in the CSU, CDU, and EPP, which is still the largest faction in the EP, will have to decide how strong the wind of change should blow. By the time Hungary takes over the EU council presidency again in the second half of 2024, we should know.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.