Europe has tools to stop Hungary’s toxic ruler. It’s time to use them.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest on April 3. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters) Opinion by the Editorial Board April 5, 2022 at 4:44 a.m. Taiwan Time The right-wing nationalist strongman who runs Hungary has prevailed in an election so blatantly slanted that the vote can hardly be considered fully democratic, let alone free and fair. Prime Minister Viktor Orban celebrated his farcical victory Sunday, in which his opponent was hamstrung by gerrymandering and all but excluded from state-run television, by taunting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, whose courage stands in stark contrast to Mr. Orban’s puffed-up grandiosity. Europe, specifically the European Union, has been grappling with the problem of Mr. Orban for years; his victory will give him a fourth consecutive term, and a fifth overall. That problem is getting worse. Lately, Mr. Orban, long enamored of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has welcomed preposterous Hungarian media content that blames the West for the war in Ukraine, falsely accuses Mr. Zelensky of crimes and portrays Russia’s scorched-earth assault as defensive. His position has infuriated not only Western European governments but also Poland’s populist leadership, which until recently was closely allied with Mr. Orban, as well as neighboring Central European countries such as Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Fortunately, Europe has acquired better tools to deal with the problem of Hungary — and of Mr. Orban. Hungarians are entitled to elect the government they want, but they should know their choice carries consequences. It’s not only that Hungary has become a semi-pariah state within the European Union or that liberal democracies — the ones whose values Mr. Orban disdains — will tut-tut at his penchant for using immigrants and LGBTQ people as political punching bags. It’s also that Mr. Orban’s contempt for the niceties of pluralism, tolerance and democracy, as well as his indulgence of a blood-spattered dictator in Moscow, runs the risk of savaging Hungary’s economy. Mr. Orban has convinced many Hungarians of the opposite — that by shying away from condemning Mr. Putin’s aggression, Hungary safeguards its supply of cheap Russian energy. Yet the economy of this country of fewer than 10 million also depends heavily on European largesse. In the E.U.’s current budget period, which ends in 2027, Budapest is eligible for more than the $45 billion it received in the most recent five-year budget. By continuing to antagonize Europe and subvert European principles, Mr. Orban jeopardizes that cash flow. That’s especially true since a ruling in February by the European Court of Justice that for the first time empowered the European Commission to withhold aid from countries that thumb their noses at democratic practices. Hungary is the worst offender. Under Mr. Orban, it has gained notoriety for spying on and harassing journalists who have the temerity to do real reporting on government malfeasance; forcing once-independent media outlets and universities to become part of the government’s propaganda apparatus; and twisting voting rules to tilt elections in favor of the governing Fidesz party. There is no compelling rationale for the E.U. to continue underwriting that assault on its values, nor tolerate a country that is now, in the midst of a horrific war, effectively acting as a fifth column within the bloc. It is time for the European Commission to act.