A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Enemies Within


Budapest and Warsaw have emerged as an illiberal front within the EU, and Brussels’ softly-softly approach seems to have emboldened Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński.

© REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

As it grapples with Brexit, the European Union faces another challenge in its east: two member states that are not leaving, but are increasingly unwilling to play by the rules. These are Hungary and Poland, with Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński at the helm. These two men are rolling back the gains of the countries’ paths to democracy after 1989, steadily undermining pluralism, checks and balances, and the rule of law. Orbán’s attack on the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest this spring is the latest embodiment of this tendency. This jars with the EU’s founding values, listed in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union, which include democracy as well as respect for human rights and rule of law. European officials are getting fed up; Budapest and Warsaw want EU money, but not its values, some of them say. Yet they are not sure how to proceed.

The parallels between Hungary and Poland are not accidental. In recent years, the hard right in both countries has embraced the legend of a historical Polish-Hungarian friendship. Hungarian nationalists attend the annual Polish Independence Day march in Warsaw; Polish nationalists have made pilgrimages to Hungary. Poland’s Law and Justice party (PiS), which has been in power since late 2015, has long admired Orbán for his ability to win elections and get things done. When PiS previously lost the parliamentary elections in 2011, Kaczyński told supporters that he was “deeply convinced that the day will come when we will have Budapest on the Vistula,” the river running through Warsaw.

The problem is not new. Orbán and his Fidesz party have been eroding democracy in Hungary since he became prime minister in 2010. Upon coming back to power, Kaczyński’s PiS set out to emulate his changes. Critics were quick to spot signs of Orbánization in Poland.

Breakneck Speed

PiS’s first targets – the constitutional tribunal and the public media – seemed to be straight from Orbán’s rule book, implemented at breakneck speed. The tribunal, which is supposed to strike down unconstitutional laws, was paralyzed. The public television broadcaster became a mouthpiece for the government. In Hungary, the pluralism of the private media has suffered too. Poland still has a vibrant, though highly polarized, media landscape, but liberal publications fear that PiS will try to suffocate them economically, citing Hungary as an example.

Hungarian and Polish leaders also share suspicion of NGOs, especially ones linked to George Soros, the Hungarian-American philanthropist. Orbán, himself a CEU graduate, has waged a long campaign against foreign-funded NGOs, accusing staff of harboring “paid political activists who are trying to help foreign interests here.” The Polish government has been working on plans to introduce a National Center for the Development of Civil Society, which would allocate state funds for NGOs. Organizations working on women’s and LGBT rights fear that it would help PiS redirect funds to conservative ones.

The result is that Budapest and Warsaw have emerged as an illiberal front within the EU, to use Orbán’s own phrase. PiS, which shares his hostility toward refugees and appetite for one-party rule, has done nothing to dissociate itself from these associations. One PiS minister told me that after “socialist democracy” in his youth followed by “liberal democracy,” he simply wants “democracy without adjectives.” More recently, one of his colleagues explained that there are different “flavors” of democracy across the EU, contrasting the one in, say, the Netherlands to that embodied by PiS.

Orbán and Kaczyński have gone so far as to call for a “cultural counter revolution” in the EU. Despite the difference in age and language, their joint appearance at a forum in the Polish mountain resort of Krynica last autumn looked like it had been rehearsed beforehand.  “There is a saying in Hungary that if you trust somebody, ‘you can steal horses together,’” said Orbán. At that, Kaczyński retorted that there is a “particularly large [stable] called the EU, where we can steal horses with Hungarians.”

The EU’s Dilemma

The growing illiberalism in Hungary and Poland has not gone unnoticed abroad. International human rights and press freedom defenders have sounded alarm bells. Freedom House, the American watchdog, entitled its 2017 report on democracy in the former Eastern Bloc “The False Promise of Populism,” singling out the situation in Hungary and Poland. Their example is a reminder that democratization is reversible, even in countries that are now members of the EU. Some observers fear that Orbán and Kaczyński will spur on populists in the region and beyond. In an interview with Polish daily Rzeczpospolita in the run-up to the French election, Marine Le Pen indicated that she views the duo as allies. “If I am president tomorrow, I will start a debate with Orbán on what seems impermissible in the EU,” she said. Kaczyński would receive the same offer, she added.

EU officials have been watching, too, unsure how best to respond. Brussels has long lost the leverage it had in the 1990s, when Budapest and Warsaw were prepping for membership. These days, it can fall back on the rule of law framework adopted by the European Commission in March 2014, in response to developments in Hungary and elsewhere. If dialog with the member state fails, there is the last resort Article 7 procedure, which can be activated if there is a “clear risk of a serious breach” of rule of law. At its most severe, it suspends a member state’s voting rights.

The past year has shown that the Commission is still learning to wield its new tool. The procedure was launched in January 2016 in response to PiS’s actions toward the constitutional tribunal. Since then, Warsaw and Brussels have been engaged in an awkward dance, adapting their steps as they go along. The Commission has trod carefully, fearful of provoking an anti-EU backlash in Poland. The Polish government has responded with more defiance, pushing on with its revolution at home, with no sign of slowing down.  Sovereignty is the mot du jour. In a speech in parliament after the Commission issued a negative opinion on the tribunal last May, Prime Minister Beata Szydło used the word 20 times in 23 minutes. Overall, Brussels’ hesitation has emboldened the leadership in Warsaw and Budapest, as the latest incident with CEU shows.

Orbán is in a better position than Poland’s leaders, though. For all his talk, he is well connected in Europe. His party is a member of the European People’s Party (EPP), along with Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker, and Angela Merkel. PiS, which is in the smaller European Conservatives and Reformists Party, cannot tap into this broad European network. PiS party chief  Kaczyński – he holds no office in the government – may be a skilled politician, but that stops at Poland’s borders. He rarely travels abroad and lacks Orbán’s charm. This difference was apparent as the European Parliament debated the situation in Hungary on April 26, 2017. Orbán, who had traveled to Strasbourg, defended his position articulately. It is difficult to imagine Kaczyński defending PiS’s actions like that.

Reluctance to Rock the Boat

In the Hungarian case, the EPP probably has the most clout. Stripped of its place in this mainstream political club, Fidesz would be significantly more vulnerable. There have been calls for the big European players in the EPP to put pressure on Orbán through credible threats. So far, though, they have appeared reluctant to rock the boat.

Meanwhile, as it focuses on Brexit, the EU may end up leaving the Polish government to its own devices. Warsaw and Brussels are playing a longer-term game. Some observers suggest that, rather than punish PiS, the Commission should simply wait for PiS to lose in elections, perhaps even in late 2019, when the next ones are scheduled to take place. This carries risks of its own, though. Even if the opposition wins then, PiS may have caused lasting damage to Poland’s institutions, which will take years to repair. Credibility may be difficult to rebuild, too, even with a new team in charge. Moreover, Warsaw’s growing isolation within Europe may have taken its own toll.

The past few weeks have highlighted cracks in the Polish-Hungarian friendship, which PiS banked on in the past. Its foundations were always shaky; the two countries differ on Russia, with Warsaw uncomfortable with Orbán’s chumminess with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Now the myth has been shattered by the debacle over Donald Tusk’s reappointment as president of the European Council in March. When the Polish government attempted to block it, Orbán sided with the other member states, unwilling to lose face himself.

Even if commissioners hold their breath on Poland, Europe will not. In the run-up to Brexit, EU leaders are mulling the bloc’s future. This may involve a version of the two-speed Europe, long feared by Poland, which, like Hungary, remains outside the eurozone. If PiS sulks, integration could continue without it. Polls in Poland since the Tusk debacle show the centrist Civic Platform (PO), his former party, catching up with PiS. This suggests that voters are realizing how badly PiS could damage Poland’s position in Europe and want to prevent it while they can.