Orban’s ‘Slave Law’ Misstep Gives Europe an Opening

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Has populism in Hungary overreached? In recent days, tens of thousands of Hungarians have taken to the streets to denounce the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. His Fidesz party won two-thirds of the seats in parliament earlier this year — but a new policy on overtime, denounced as a “slave law,” seems to be uniting the country in opposition. This misstep could make it easier for Europe’s leaders to apply pressure in support of democratic norms, something they’ve struggled to do up to now.

Orban has consolidated control of the country’s media, attacking opposition parties and stifling free speech. This makes the protests all the more surprising. The law that provoked them allows companies to increase workers’ overtime from 250 to 400 hours a year. But the protesters have also denounced the government’s assault on the rule of law, including the use of questionable administrative courts (with judges picked by Orban’s justice minister) to handle political corruption cases.

The sidelining of Hungary’s independent judiciary was partly aimed at furthering a scheme to take over the country’s free press. This was accomplished when pro-government businessmen handed over full ownership of at least 500 news outlets to a foundation run by a group of Orban’s cronies

Equally alarming is the closure of Central European University’s Budapest campus. Orban has actively promoted anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about the American institution’s founder, George Soros — a native of Hungary who has not set foot in the country in years — and pushed through a law requiring foreign universities to open campuses in their home countries, or be shut down. Though CEU complied with the law, the Orban government refused to certify it. Earlier this month the university decided to move to Vienna.

The EU’s attempts to rebuke Orban haven’t worked. In September, the European Parliament voted to begin disciplinary procedures against Hungary’s government. Whether Hungary has committed a “serious breach” of the EU’s values must be determined by the European Council, made up of governments of the member states. The Council could strip Hungary of its voting rights, but Poland’s government has said it will veto any such sanction on Hungary. The EU has let the process stall.

Europe certainly doesn’t need another bitter squabble among member states, but failing to respond to Hungary’s illiberalism is short-sighted and dangerous. Orban’s anti-democratic governance and unwillingness to confront rising anti-Semitism are too serious to ignore. Orban’s miscalculation — more than 80 percent of voters object to the new overtime law, according to one poll — may create an opening to try harder.

Europe should finally act to make distribution of cohesion funds (Hungary one of the biggest recipients) contingent on adherence to the rule of law. It should also make clear that it’s willing to strip Hungary of its vote on the European Council. If Orban doesn’t relent, the European People’s Party, the biggest bloc in the European parliament, should expel Fidesz ahead of next year’s European elections.

Suddenly, Hungary’s citizens are saying they’ve had enough. Europe should say the same — and mean it.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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