by William Nattrass
Monday, 19
September 2022
Analysis
19:30

The EU reaches a budget standoff with Viktor Orbán

The bloc is coming after the Hungarian regime
by William Nattrass
Credit: Getty

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?

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Peter B
Peter B
2 months ago

I don’t know just how badly the Hungarian government is violating the EU “rules”. There are certainly things we would not accept here in the UK. On the other hand, Orban’s government has repeatedly been re-elected. We cannot just dismiss an elected government we do not like as “undemocratic”.
But what I do know is that the EU itself is quite incapable of following the standards it purports to enforce regarding democracy (unelected commission), accountability and corruption (agricultural subsidy fraud, unaudited accounts). The EU needs to set a better example before trying to set itself up as any authority in these areas.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

It’s not just the EU bureaucracy, but us too.
Some years ago I was once interviewed for a senior job with a government agency to manage the EU subsidies that go to landowners in the U.K. I was invited to look round the office and talk to a few people. It was classic civil service, and quite depressing. I’d done my research too, and discovered how awful they were at calculating and distributing these subsidies – the NAO produced scathing reports about them.

So I deliberately failed the interview. As I left, at 5pm, the massive queues to leave the building by 5pm meant I had to wait a while – reflecting positively on my decision.

Last edited 2 months ago by Ian Stewart
Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
2 months ago

Anybody else reading this as the EU has a very hard time understanding that there are things people want more than money?

Last edited 2 months ago by Laura Creighton
R Wright
R Wright
2 months ago

The Commission has no right to lecture anyone about democracy.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 months ago

If the EU break their rules it’s “unofficial flexibility” – when others do it, they call it “corruption”.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
2 months ago

The article’s last question doesn’t need to be answered – we have a fair idea why!

Martin Brumby
Martin Brumby
2 months ago

Having pondered the EU (and particularly the EC,)’s workings for many years, I think that their only practical use is (like the Green Party), a handy guide to correct policy.

As in, anything they say, propose, support; is almost always tendentious, eggregious, nonsensical, corrupt rubbish.

Head off at 180° and you’ll very likely be correct.