January 31, 2024 - 10:00am

An attempt to inflict a punishment beating on a nation has been exposed. This week, an alleged plot by the European Union to savage the Hungarian economy in retaliation for Budapest’s impudence in refusing to support a proposed aid package for Ukraine was leaked to the Financial Times. This, in turn, has forced the EU to deny that the “background note” was official policy, although it has admitted that it was written by someone working for the Secretariat of the Council. Unsurprisingly, Viktor Orbán’s government is gloating, as EU hypocrisy over the “rule of law” now stands exposed, while it was reported this morning that the bloc has made the Hungarian Prime Minister a further offer in the hope of convincing him to drop his opposition. 

That Brussels has an ongoing feud with some of the EU’s more uppity easterly member states is hardly news. Nor do we need a confidential memo to expose that the EU is run by economic illiterates — one only need look at the Eurozone to see that. Nor is the fact that the EU administers beatings to recalcitrant members surprising: the punishment of Greece during the debt crisis of 2015 was a theatre of vindictive cruelty, its brazenness intended to cohere the Eurozone through fear.  

Nonetheless, there are some instructive differences between then and now. The Eurozone itself was seen to be at stake in the sovereign debt crisis of 2015. By contrast, this conflict between Brussels and Hungary concerns the extent of EU support for a non-member state, Ukraine, as Orbán has taken issue with the use of the bloc’s budget to provide 50 billion in aid to Kyiv. 

While the stakes were existential for the Eurozone in 2015, just as they are for Ukraine today, support for Ukraine is not an existential question for the EU. The fact that the Brussels bureaucracy is willing to make it so by considering economic sabotage of its own member states indicates that the imperial centre is floundering and losing its authority. 

However crude the plan, what it reveals is that the EU is shedding the appeal of its hallowed membership precisely at the point when the Union is supposed to be expanding to bolster its eastern and southern periphery against Russian influence. For what is the point of glorifying collective diplomacy if this is how it treats disagreement? 

Plans to wreck national economies make the EU seem like a protection racket rather than a union founded on cooperation and solidarity. Even if the attempt to make the Hungarian economy “scream” will have to be shelved, the European Parliament was actively seeking ways to strip Hungary of voting rights in the bloc.

By hollowing out the benefits of its own membership in this way, the EU is tracing the arc of imperial decline. Rather than transcending the nation-state, it is incubating new nations within it, akin to a postmodern version of the Holy Roman Empire. The question is whether the peoples of Europe are willing to grasp for their own independence. For this process of imperial decline cuts two ways — the more that EU thuggery is exposed, the more hollow national-populist griping about bureaucrats in Brussels sounds. After all, why stay in a club which treats its members so badly?

Philip Cunliffe is Associate Professor of International Relations at the Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London. He is author or editor of eight books, as well as a co-author of Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy After Brexit (2023). He is one of the hosts of the Bungacast podcast.