The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hungary’s government is increasingly autocratic. What is the European Parliament doing about it?

Demonstrators in Hungary protest an amendment to the higher education law, seen by many as a first step to closing Budapest’s Central European University, founded by Hungarian-born billionaire businessman George Soros, in front of the Parliament building in Budapest, April 4, 2017. (Zoltan Balogh/European Pressphoto Agency)

On April 5, the Hungarian parliament passed a law that would close down the Hungarian American Central European University (CEU). This is the university that businessman and philanthropist George Soros founded and funded in Budapest in 1991, after the fall of the “Iron Curtain.”

To many commentators, the CEU is one of the few remaining bastions of liberal thought under the increasingly autocratic rule of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. The Hungarian government initially stressed that the law was not specifically aimed at the CEU. But when he addressed parliament before the vote, Minister of Human Resources Zoltán Balog acknowledged that the government is committed to thwarting “pseudo-civil society spy groups such as the ones funded by George Soros.”

This is why Hungary is trying to close George Soros’s prestigious university.

The pending CEU closure does not come out of the blue, but is in line with Orban’s moves toward an “illiberal state.” Orban’s Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Alliance) party government has attacked the Hungarian Constitutional Court, freedom of the press and citizens’ Internet access.

The European Parliament hasn’t spoken up — yet

Despite these attacks on basic principles of liberal democracy, the European Union response has been limited. Among the transnational party groups in the European Parliament (EP), the Christian Democrat European People’s Party (EPP) has in particular been criticized by Hungarians for taking a hesitant attitude toward the country’s democratic backsliding. The EPP includes 54 national parties such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU and the French Républicains, but also includes Orban’s Fidesz party.

Are there patterns in how members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have responded to Hungary’s democratic relapse? We examined 1,634 written parliamentary questions in the EP from April 2010, when Hungarians voted Orban into office, until January 2017. After web-scraping written parliamentary questions from the European Parliament’s online archives, we analyzed those questions with a dictionary-based approach. Since all MEPs can bring up written parliamentary questions on any given topic, they are a powerful agenda-setting instrument.

In the political science literature, there is broad agreement that political parties are selective in the issues they emphasize. To shape the political agenda to their advantage, parties are keen to ignore issues they deem unfavorable to their party.

So we expected the EPP, with Orban’s Fidesz party in its midst, would probably try to sweep the issue of Hungary’s democratic lapse under the rug. After all, the EPP needs Fidesz’s 12 seats to achieve a plurality in the EP.

Figure 1 shows the average number of parliamentary questions on the “Hungary issue” per member of the European Parliament, based on transnational party group membership. Who drove the issue the most in the EP? That would be the radical-left GUE party group, the green party group, and the liberal party group, ALDE.

Christian Democrat MEPs from the EPP clearly brought up far fewer questions, as we expected. This suggests that this party group tried to keep a lid on the issue — and keep Hungary’s democratic backsliding off the agenda. Radical right groups, such as the EFD and ENF, also have kept silent about the developments in Hungary. Considering that these numbers represent the average number of questions per MEP throughout the whole period under study, the differences between the party groups are substantially quite large.

Is a political fight brewing over the future of Europe?

To understand how ideological preferences guided discussion of Hungary’s democratic backsliding, we conducted a statistical analysis of the ideological characteristics of MEPs asking questions about “Hungary.” We looked at indicators of the average ideological positions of the MEPs’ national parties in the period from 2010 to 2017.

We found that the more right-wing and culturally conservative an MEP’s national party is, the fewer parliamentary questions on the quality of Hungarian democracy he or she brought up.

Worried about the decline in democracy? Worry about the politicians, not the voters.

In particular, MEPs from parties with a strong authoritarian and nationalist appeal — such as the radical right — raised few questions about the topic. This suggests that besides the EPP’s strategic silence, some parties had other motivations. For example, it is plausible that radical right parties do not want to question the democratic backsliding of liberal democratic values because they substantially agree with Orban’s attempts to create a semi-autocratic Hungary. Hence, it is possible that these results could suggest a conflict among the transnational party groups about which direction the E.U. or its member states should take.

The European Union does have some options

Observers have argued that the E.U.’s “halfhearted and ineffectual” reaction to Viktor Orban’s increasingly autocratic course can be attributed both to the “lack of adequate legal instruments and the lack of political will.” Mark Dawson has argued that Orban has perfected the technique of masking authoritarian politics as public interest regulation and administrative changes — making decisive E.U. legal action more difficult.

As a last resort, the E.U. member states could invoke the unused “nuclear option” — Article 7 of the Treaty on the European Union, which enables the E.U. to sanction member states violating basic E.U. principles. However, any attempt to invoke the Article 7 procedure can be blocked by Poland — a member state that is also on the road to autocracy. This means that the other E.U. member states would have to simultaneously trigger Article 7 for both Hungary and Poland.

This is what the gradual erosion of rule of law looks like in Poland

Given these difficulties in taking formal action against Orban’s illiberal moves, do E.U. member states and political parties have any options? The EP could resort to social pressure, as Ulrich Sedelmeier has argued. These findings show that only some party groups in the European Parliament attempt to pursue such public forms of social pressure. We agree with the arguments of R. Daniel Kelemen — we find evidence consistent with the idea that the EPP could value party political considerations more than addressing supposed breaches of the E.U.’s fundamental liberal values.

Yet prominent EPP leaders Manfred Weber and Joseph Daul, along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have denounced Orban’s attack on academic freedom in Hungary in recent weeks. Time will tell whether such public statements against the Fidesz government signal a profound change in the EPP’s policy toward Orban’s Hungary or are, rather, strategic attempts to defuse the mounting criticism on the EPP’s close ties with the Orban government.

Dr. Maurits J. Meijers is assistant professor of comparative politics at the Institute for Management Research at Radboud University, the Netherlands. He occasionally tweets at @MauritsMeijers.

Harmen van der Veer is a PhD candidate in the department of political science of the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands.