Hungary’s relationship with the EU: Orbán’s soft Euroscepticism
Prime minister Orban has been on a steady collision course with the EU; however, he virtuously avoids direct crashes with potentially dire consequences. The Hungarian government leads the group of Eurosceptic “challenger governments” in the EU who directly contest the liberal underpinning of the European project, supranationalization of European integration, fundamental values and the rule of law (Hodson and Puetter, 2019). Under Orban’s leadership, Fidesz consolidated a Eurosceptic cleavage in the left/right spectrum in Hungary (Pisciotta, 2016: 2015) between the centre (“evil Brussels”) and the periphery (“sovereign Hungary”). Orban is not among the Eurosceptic hardliners who would propagate Hungary’s exit from the EU. On the contrary, he believes he can expand his vision of illiberal democracy, Christian traditional values and the concept of sovereign states from within the EU: “When 1 mention the European Union, I do so not because I believe that it is impossible to construct a new state built on illiberal and national foundations within the European Union. I think this is possible” (Orban, 2014). In the past eight years, several conflict lines between Hungary and the EU were opened on issues of rule of law, freedom of media, the independence of the constitutional court and the Central Bank and refugee relocation quotas. In some cases, the Commission launched infringement procedures (see Sedelmeier, 2014); however, Hungary’s compliance record amounts to nothing more than creative compliance, which means that Hungary “pretends to align its behaviour with the prescribed rule or changes its behaviour in superficial ways that leave the addressee’s original objective intact” (Batory, 2016: 689). The Orban regime stabilized the public perception that the government does not like being told by ‘Brussels’ what to do, and that it intends to stand firmly against supranational encroachments into Hungarian sovereign rights or other attempt to influence Hungarian policymaking from outside. Soft Euroscepticism and the negative attitude towards EU’s interference into domestic affairs are therefore expected to block external pressure from the Semester and reduce the possibility to use the EU as a reference for legitimizing domestic change.
At the same time, Hungary hugely depends on and benefits from EU funding. A study by K.PMG and GK.P found that Hungary would have grown by only 1.8 percent between 2006 and 2015 without EU funding, compared to the actual 4.6 percentage growth. Since many of the public procurement procedures for EU funds have been found suspicious of corruption by the Commission and Transparency International, it tells that the Hungarian regime has benefitted from EU funds, but that the EU has functioned as a tacit regime supporter by providing resources to the Hungarian elite (Bozoki and Hegedus, 2018: 1181). The regime’s reliance on EU funds could also be seen following the Council’s decision to suspend 495 million euros from the Cohesion Fund due to “failure to comply with the Council’s previous recommendations under the EU’s excessive deficit procedure” (Council, 2012d). Despite improvements in deficit rates, the Council was not happy with the unorthodox fiscal measures taken by the Hungarian government and opted for suspension. However, it was soon lifted as Hungary complied with the recommendation. Thus, opposite to Euroscepticism, Hungary’s high reliance on EU money could prove to be amongst the factors that facilitate external pressure.