September 19, 2022 - 7:30pm

The dispute between Hungary and the EU is building to a crescendo, with the European Commission deciding on Sunday to recommend withholding a portion of Hungary’s budget funds over rule-of-law concerns. Yet looking behind the headlines, the Commission’s decision lays bare fundamental problems with the rule-of-law proceedings. 

The Commission has proposed cutting Hungary’s funds from three particular budget areas, with the European Council to have the final say in a qualified majority vote. But the announcement is being spun relentlessly by both sides. International media hostile to the Hungarian government bellow that the EU is “set to hold back €7.5 billion from Hungary over rule of law violations,” while Viktor Orbán’s pet media outlets trumpet that the announcement in fact proves “the EU money is coming.” 

As leading Hungarian opposition figure Anna Donáth pointed out, the EU “left an escape route”; if Hungary implements reforms by November 19, the proposed budget cuts should be avoided. Donáth predicted that the Commission’s threat is really just a delay “at the end of which the government will receive the EU funds.”  

Indeed, EU budget commissioner Johannes Hahn couched the proposed cuts in a conciliatory tone suggesting the Commission has little appetite for inflicting serious punishment. And even if Hungary somehow fails to carry out already-agreed legislative changes, the cuts are a disappointment to rule-of-law crusaders. As German Green MEP Daniel Freund put it, €7.5 billion “sounds like a lot” but “€27 billion will keep flowing into a corrupt and authoritarian system.” 

His statement encapsulated the problems with the rule-of-law debate. MEPs and activists pressuring the Commission are fundamentally opposed to any agreement with Orbán. Their loathing and distrust run so deep that they will never be satisfied no matter what the Hungarian prime minister does.  

They have also allowed themselves to fall into hyperbole while questioning Orbán‘s policies and style of government. The European Parliament last week informed Hungarians that they are no longer living in a democracy, but rather an “electoral autocracy.” The announcement was branded a “boring joke” by Orbán — and will have come as news to the millions of Hungarians who voted for him in April elections.  

But the relentless politicisation of the rule-of-law process is monomaniacal. There was always the hint of an agenda when Poland and Hungary — the two EU countries pursuing an overtly Christian conservative political agenda — were singled out as targets even though countries such as Bulgaria and Slovakia have also seen significant problems with corruption in recent years. Now, even the proceedings against Poland have fallen by the wayside. Instead, the bloc has become fixated on corruption in Hungary alone. 

Still, unlike the European Parliament, the Commission at least seems to recognise the pitfalls of being seen to selectively punish governments which it doesn’t like. The relatively limited scope of its proposed budget cuts, and the off-ramp offered to Hungary, suggest a reluctance to completely alienate Orbán as well as other conservative members of the European Council who would be asked to vote on the cuts. The question must therefore be asked: why on earth did the Commission allow MEPs to pressure it into this political mess in the first place?

William Nattrass is a British journalist based in Prague and news editor of