Orbán’s attempt at blackmail

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is blackmailing the rest of the European Union, but MEPs and EU leaders must call his bluff to hold up the COVID-19 recovery fund if rule of law criteria are included. This may be the EU’s last chance to crack down on his rogue regime.

Orbán is threatening to withhold Hungary’s agreement to the EU’s €750 billion coronavirus recovery fund, unless rule of law criteria are changed to his liking. As the enactment of the Recovery and Resilience Fund (RRF) is subject to the approval of national parliaments, the Hungarian Parliament can reject – and thus veto – the deal.

In May this year, Prime Minister Orbán had his constitutional majority in the Hungarian Parliament pass a resolution setting out conditions under which he could agree to an agreement in the European Council.

One precondition was that any rule of law criterion was unacceptable. Another stipulated that no political organisation “camouflaged as civil society” could be supported. We know how that story went: Orbán ended up agreeing to a deal that was not in line with any of those preconditions, without asking for a new mandate from the Parliament or reporting back why he deviated from his mandate.

When Orbán claims the decision is about the RRF in the hands of the Hungarian Parliament, do not believe him. Rest assured, his MPs will decide precisely how the Prime Minister wants, as they always have in the past 10 years.

Orbán can and will gamble. It is his nature to raise the stakes sky-high, hoping his partners will not dare to call his bluff. And the stakes are now higher than ever. Why would heads of state and government risk the entire €750 billion recovery fund because of rule of law problems in one or two member states? This is Orbán’s contemplation, and this is his game.

Hungary – representing 2% of the population of the European Union and 1% of its GDP – is set to receive about 3% of its annual GDP from the EU budget. Make no mistake: most of this massive amount will never reach the average Hungarian.

As always, most of it will be funnelled to oligarchs in the inner circles of Orbán’s power structure. Orbán likes to present himself to his voters as this brave, courageous fighter against “Brussels”.

Yet members of the European Council will tell you that he is far more collaborative behind closed doors. Orbán enjoys conflicts but he is also fully aware whom he should not go to war with. He is also not brave enough to kill one of the most ambitious plans of the EU, turning even his most loyal allies into bitter enemies.

He is bluffing. He is trying to erase or soften the rule of law criterion, but if the Council continues to insist, he will give in as he did before.

Of course, one should also take into account that Orbán might be serious. In my opinion, if he were, he would make a fatal mistake. Orbán, who destroys everything he cannot rule, would provide a pretext for member states to outflank him by accelerating the finalisation of a “two-speed Europe”.

In that Europe, member states committed to the European ideal, sharing the respect for democratic institutions, checks and balances, independent media, the rule of law, for human rights and the protection of minorities, hold genuinely free and fair elections and use the Euro, will build a more effective Union.

An EU that will withstand the competition from the USA and China, and will have global influence. Despite everything, Hungarians are still a nation committed to EU membership. So the drama would help them understand that the Orbán-regime is a dead-end. And, ultimately, they would also choose Europe.

But how can European leaders explain to voters the conflict they must now confront? Unfortunately, the term “rule of law” is inadequate for mobilising public support.

What people need to be explained is that the rule of law in fact provides them with protection from their own governments, and their politicians, so that they cannot steal and get rich off public money.

Therefore, the EU should provide funds only to countries where the flow of money is supervised and governments cannot treat EU development programmes as their own personal piggy bank.

Orbán is bluffing, and European leaders should insist on the rule of law criteria. It is in the interest of both Europe and the Hungarian people. If the dispute is not settled now, it might never be. This game is not about the Recovery Fund.

The real danger is that – if Orbán were allowed to win – his camp of autocratic, anti-European, illiberal leaders could grow beyond Poland and Hungary, and put the whole European project in jeopardy. This is perhaps the last chance for the EU to crack down on his rogue regime.

Csaba Molnár

Csaba Molnár is a Member of the European Parliament and heads the Democratic Coalition delegation. This article originally appeared in EurActiv.com and was republished in HFP with permission. 


  1. Avatar András B. Göllner says:

    While I share Mr. Molnár’s description of Hungary under Orbán as a predatory state, I do not share his assessment of the EU Council as a credible defender of the rights of EU citizens to an ecologically sustainable path to the future under the principles of justice, constitutionalism and the rule of law. The EU Council has been asleep at the wheel for a decade as Orbán executed his carefully orchestrated gang-bang of Hungary’s common people with Europe’s money. The Council has ignored a series of Parliamentary resolutions condemning the Orbán regime’s theft of billions from Europe’s hardworking taxpayers – never mind, his denial of the fundamental rights of EU citizens in this part of the Union.
    We need not look further for the cause of the EU’s betrayal of its sacred trust than Germany’s publicly declared 2020 “Ostpolitik”. It is in full harmony with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and no one has spelled this out more clearly this year than German Chancellor Angela Merkel: “The Orbán government is doing an excellent job with the European Union’s cohesion and structural funds… Our two countries are on a common path together. Our economies have become tightly interlinked.” (See: “Közös úton jár Németország és Magyarország” (Germany and Hungary are on a Common Path). Híradó.hu. February 20, 2020. See also “Dícséret Merkeltől” (Praise from Merkel). Demokrata. August 30, 2019.)
    It is Orbán’s willingness to allow Germany’s fortune hunters get a “good bang for their buck” in Hungary that makes Angela look the other way, this is why the European Council is so reticent to follow the dictates of its own Parliamentary deputies. It is Orbán’s embrace of universal capitalism’s pleasure principle that enables him to bond with not only Angela, but with Donald, and to reach across the aisles and gain endorsement for his rape of Hungary’s “Sleeping Beauty” from the fortune hunters of Russia, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Brazil and elsewhere.

  2. As usual Gollner is right on with his comments.
    The big 3 (Audi, Mercedes, BMW) got their billion$ from Orban’s government thus Merkel gave Orban freedom to build his dictatorship, which he has done well.
    The EU is an impotent, useless organisation. (About the ONLY truth Trump said the last few years…..)

  3. The EU was and is a very useful, vital project for the (at least) economic development of Europe.
    This makes it all the more worth of defending it against the shenanigans and open assaults of the new fascists, who find it difficult to grow in the democratic political and liberal cultural environment of the EU, hence their attempts to weaken the union by various ways and means, to rot it from inside.
    The shortsightedness, inaction and even dereliction of duties has already damaged the Union and has allowed, indeed fostered the regimes of Orbàn and Kaczinsky, the Brexit and the growth of the anti EU, Euro sceptic camps. It is amazing that the four year life cycle pols cannot see or don’t want to do anything about the creeping fascism which would eventually drag them on the ground just as it does with the Hungarian MPs now.

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