The Right Way to Handle Hungary’s Illiberalism

(The Bloomberg View) -- Say this much about the European Union: It rarely runs out of crises. In Sweden, the far right just moved closer to power. In eastern Europe it’s already there, and populist governments are flouting democratic norms and daring Brussels to stop them. The EU’s leaders must respond to the threat of illiberalism — but they should be careful not to overreach.

Punitive steps that aim to isolate democratically elected governments in countries such as Poland and Hungary will do more harm than good — by pitting member states against each other and encouraging nationalist politicians to rally their supporters against Brussels. That doesn’t mean the EU is powerless. Coordinated measures to call out potential violations of the rule of law before they occur are the best way to prevent the illiberal contagion from spreading.

The government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban presents the most immediate challenge. Since 2010, Orban has pursued laws that stifle independent media and consolidate his control of the judiciary. He’s echoed anti-Semitic themes and demonized nongovernmental organizations — notably the George Soros-backed Central European University — that he considers disloyal. Orban hasn’t troubled to conceal his disdain for the West and admiration for strongmen like Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His stated goal is to create a “Christian democracy” that rejects “liberal methods and principles of organizing a society.”

Most ominously, Orban has sought to export his vision. He has campaigned for hard-right populists in Slovenia and enlisted cronies to buy controlling stakes in foreign media outlets that push his anti-immigrant agenda.

Orban’s willingness to flout democratic norms and meddle outside Hungary's borders has caused consternation in western European capitals, but little formal resistance. Orban’s party, Fidesz, belongs to a center-right coalition in the European Parliament that also includes German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, which has helped to insulate Hungary from pressure.

That could change on Wednesday, when the European Parliament is expected to vote on whether to open a disciplinary process, known as Article 7, charging that Hungary has violated the EU’s principles of “the rule of law and respect for human rights.” The parliament approved similar measures this year to protest moves by Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party to undermine the independence of Poland’s courts. 

A parliamentary rebuke of Orban is certainly justified. It would bolster the EU’s credibility and send a signal to future autocrats who might test the bloc’s commitment to its founding ideals. And it would provide at least a moral boost to Hungary’s beleaguered opposition.

That said, the EU’s power to alter the internal policies of member states is limited. Even if he loses the Article 7 vote, Orban is unlikely to back away from his most noxious laws, just as Poland’s PiS has kept up its campaign to eviscerate the country’s judiciary. If Poland and Hungary continue to ignore warnings about their behavior, the European Council could strip them of voting rights, but this would require unanimous approval — all but inconceivable, since Hungary and Poland would protect each other. Triggering such a clash with Eastern Europe's populists could escalate into another Brexit-style debacle, or worse.

Rather than isolating Poland and Hungary, Brussels should focus on containing their influence. The European Commission should adopt a proposal to tie future EU budget appropriations to governments’ adherence to the rule of law. It should empower the Agency for Fundamental Rights, a non-political board of experts that already works closely with member states to promote human rights, to take an active role in monitoring violations of democratic standards.

The continent’s biggest democracies, France and Germany, should also increase financial assistance to civil-society organizations and independent media in areas where free expression is threatened. The Trump administration, unfortunately, won’t be any help: The State Department announced that it is canceling a $700,000 program to support non-government media outlets in Hungary.

Orban and his allies are betting that they can push the boundaries of acceptable norms and still reap the full benefits of belonging to the EU. It’s time to disabuse them.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg View editorial board.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.