Angela Merkel, Berlin, Brexit, Brussels, capital punishment, death penalty, Europe, European Union, Fidesz, Fortress Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Grexit, Hungary, Jean Claude Juncker, Jobbik, migration, President Vladimir Putin, Putin, Russia, Viktor Orban, Vladimir Putin
Believe it or not, there is more to the European Union than the recent elections in Britain and London’s erratic and volatile relationship with Brussels.
The EU is also not just about the dire financial and economic straits in which Greece finds itself — and unrelenting speculation about whether or not Athens is ready to exit the troubled Eurozone.
In addition to fears of a Brexit and Grexit, Berlin is mired in a new spying scandal which threatens to engulf German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
And, of course, the EU is under attack over its less-than-impressive response to the humanitarian tragedy unfolding on its southern shores as hundreds of refugees and economic migrants drown even as they seek to enter “Fortress Europe”.
The EU’s southern and eastern neighbourhoods are in turmoil. Relations with Russia remain tense and EU governments have no influence over events in the Middle East.
These and other troubles facing the 28-nation bloc capture the media spotlight and lead to endless hand-wringing over the EU’s future.
All of these troubles deserve attention. But, interestingly, neither the media nor EU policymakers appear to be paying serious attention to a country — Hungary — whose leaders appears intent on defying many of the key values — human rights, democracy and tolerance — that the EU holds so dear.
It is an important paradox. The EU wields enormous power over countries which are seeking membership of the 28-nation club. But once a so-called “candidate country” joins the Union, Brussels loses much of its influence over the future direction of a “member state”.
This is exactly what has happened with Hungary and some other “new” EU countries which joined the Union earlier this decade.
Before it entered the EU club, Hungary had to meet very strict criteria on issues like democracy and adherence to the principles of a market economy. Human rights standards had to be adhered to. Every move made by the government was scrutinised and judged.
No longer. Hungary is now accused of a host of sins — and while Brussels often chides and scolds, it has little — actually it has NO — power to change the course of events in the country.
There is no doubt: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is the bad boy of Europe. He cultivates close links with President Vladimir Putin at a time when the rest of the EU is seeking to distance itself from the mercurial Russian leader.
Putin’s visit to Hungary earlier this year was widely seen as a defiance of the EU’s decision to keep cool diplomatic relations with Russia.
More controversially, Orban has sent shock waves across the EU by insisting that the bloc should protect its borders against immigration by using military force because it doesn’t need new migrants.
While other EU leaders in Brussels struggled to come up with a coherent plan to stem the tide of immigrants seeking shelter in Europe, Orban urged tougher measures.
“Europe’s borders must be protected. We cannot be like a piece of cheese with holes in it so that they [immigrants] can be crossing in and out. Serious police and military steps must be taken and also steps that they remain at home,” he said.
Going even further, Orban said the Hungarian government wanted to be able to detain all those who cross borders illegally, something that is only allowed in exceptional cases under EU law. It also wanted to have migrants work to cover the costs of their accommodation or detention in Hungary.
In a questionnaire to be sent out to eight million citizens over 18 years of age, Hungarians will be asked to answer 12 questions on whether “the mismanagement of the immigration question by Brussels may have something to do with increased terrorism”.
“The questions are leading and manipulative,” according to Dutch MEP Sophie In’ t Veld who said the whole questionnaire was “horrible”. Her colleague Cecilia Wikstrom, a Swedish liberal MEP, said it showed how Orban is distancing Hungary from Europe and “transforming Hungary into a mini-Russia”.
There are suggestions that Orban, whose Fidesz party has seen a plunge in polls recently, is seeking to embrace issues championed by the far-right Jobbik party, the largest opposition force in Hungary.
Hungary’s EU partners are equally vexed at the prime minister’s statements in favour of re-introducing the death penalty.
Orban “should immediately make clear that this is not his intention. Would it be his intention, it would be a fight,” EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has warned.
Budapest has since then retracted Orban’s statements, saying it has no plans to restore the death penalty.
Worryingly for Brussels, Orban has also staged an autocratic crackdown on the nation’s press, which the independent watchdog Freedom House now ranks as only “partly free”.
While the EU has so far managed to keep Hungary in check, the country is a worrying example of how things can go very wrong in the heart of Europe and the European Union.
EU officials and members of the European Parliament rant and rave about Hungary and Orban but the stark truth is that while the EU wields a huge stick before a country joins the club — demanding changes in government rules and regulations and overall conduct — its influence dims once a country becomes a member.
So, while the talk in Brussels is understandably about Britain, Greece and Germany, it is time that EU leaders exerted some real pressure to bring Hungary in line with Europe’s standards of conduct.
It’s about consistency, coherence in the EU and above all making sure that Europe practices what it preaches to the rest of the world.