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What should the EU do about Hungary’s illiberal turn?

Perle Petit

Date: 04/11/2022
Since 2010, Hungary’s government has followed a clear and deliberate trajectory away from EU democratic principles, turning the country into the first illiberal state in the Union. Before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Hungary’s illiberal turn remained relatively self-contained at the national level. Since the start of the war, however, this illiberalism has spread to the international arena, dramatically impeding EU institutional decision-making processes.

Despite the urgency of the matter, the EU’s failure to address the country’s democratic decline has been evident. The EU institutions need to address the national and international impact of Hungary's flouting of democratic norms by proposing both short- and long-term solutions. To do so, the institutions should take the following actions:

  1. The EU Commission should stand fully behind the triggering of the rule of law conditionality mechanism against Hungary and insist that the country implements all proposed remedial measures in a legislatively binding way. A periodic review system must be put in place to avoid any reversal of these measures or manipulation of independent public bodies in the coming years.
  2. The rule of law conditionality mechanism should be triggered against other infringing countries, to demonstrate a zero-tolerance approach to democratic backsliding.
  3. The suspension of EU funds should be harmonised across different funding schemes. In this way, the Commission can avoid becoming compromised by disconnected conditionality mechanisms.
  4. Increased capabilities and powers should be conferred to independent EU organisations, such as the European Anti-Fraud Office and the European Public Prosecutor’s Office. These should review the strength of democratic institutions in backsliding countries and provide recommendations for reform.
  5. The institutions should look into the regional disbursement of EU budgets, bypassing central governments to allocate funds on a regional basis.
  6. The Council should consider replacing the unanimity rule with qualified majority voting to render EU decision-making processes more effective and to prevent single member states from holding EU decisions ‘hostage’.

As Hungary’s leadership shows no signs of changing course, the EU should change tactics to actively preserve and protect democracy within its borders. The EU institutions should use the full toolbox at their disposal to halt Hungary’s illiberal turn, restore the independence of democratic institutions, and take long-term steps to prevent any further backsliding within the Union.

Read the full paper here.
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