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"Hungarian error" of EU and its risks for Ukraine

Author : Georgiy Kuhaleyshvili

The decision on sanctions against Hungary could adversely affect the authority of the EU among other member states and lead to undesirable consequences for Ukraine
21:37, 18 September 2018

Reuters

The culmination of the difficult relations between Hungary and the EU was the recent decision of 448 deputies of the European Parliament to apply sanctions against this country. Budapest can be deprived of some of the rights of member countries, such as voting rights in the European Council or funding from the organization's budget. Sanctions are planned to be introduced in accordance with Art. 7 of the Lisbon Treaty in 2007 because of violation of freedom of expression, academic freedoms, independence of the judiciary, electoral system, inappropriate treatment of ethnic minorities, refugees, migrants, and also on suspicion of corruption by the Hungarian authorities. Ironically, the sanctions were supported even in the parliamentary group "European People's Party", which includes the "Fidesz" party of the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. For restrictive measures to take effect, they must be supported by 72% of the EU member states.

In Hungary, listed problems really take place. In 2015, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker jokingly called Viktor Orban a "dictator" for his statement of intent to build in Hungary an illiberal state on national foundations, like in Russia and China. Having an absolute majority in the parliament, the Fidesz party made amendments to the country's Constitution, which allowed strengthening the control of the executive power over the courts, mass media, banks, and depriving more than 100 religious groups of the status of "churches." About 60% of the information resources of Hungary belong to businessmen associated with the Fidesz Party, there are dismissals of opposition-minded officials, journalists. The party "Fidesz" promised to watch nongovernmental organizations that support migration and impose 25% duties on foreign grants. Orban threatened to close the Central European University of American billionaire George Soros. According to the Council of Europe, local Roma people are faced with discrimination in everyday life, employment, education and health, despite the fact that Hungary adheres to the policy of equality of all ethnic groups. The government of Orban is suspected of misuse of funds allocated from the EU budget.

EU sanctions against Hungary may adversely affect the credibility of the organization among other member countries. Orban and his entourage present the decision of the European Parliament as revenge for the fact that Hungary refuses to host up to 1,300 Muslims on its territory and become a country of migrants within the framework of the European Commission's plan to resettle 160,000 refugees from the camps of Italy and Greece. It seems that the transition from diplomacy to sanctions against Hungary is an act of despair for Europe because of the inability to negotiate with Orban. After winning the parliamentary elections in the spring of this year, the Fidesz party will remain in power for another four years. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that for a long time he had no hope of persuading the Hungarian prime minister to abandon his tough policy. According to the leader of the European People's Party, Manfred Weber, the results of the vote in the European Parliament indicate that patience towards the Hungarian government is already over. With the threat of sanctions, the EU hopes to intimidate the Hungarian authorities.

In the case of Hungary, the European officials made a serious miscalculation, as it was in situation with Poland. In December last year, the European Commission raised the issue of imposing sanctions against Poland because of judicial reform. The Polish parliament, dominated by the ultra-conservative Law and Justice party of Yaroslav Kaczynski, passed a law requiring 2/3 of the majority in the Constitutional Court to challenge the compliance of the adopted laws, whereas previously there was a simple majority. Like the Hungarian authorities, the Polish government opposes the deployment of refugees on its territory and the EU's open door policy. However, sanctions against Poland were never introduced, as only a few European states supported this idea, including Germany, France, the Benelux countries and Northern Europe. Lithuania and Hungary expressed solidarity with Poland. It is impossible to impose sanctions against an EU member state so easily, as this decision should be approved by the parliaments of most member countries.

Sanctions may not occur in the case of Hungary. Warsaw refused to participate in the sanctions against Budapest. It is doubtful that the decision of the European Parliament will be supported in Italy, where the coalition of Eurosceptic and populist parties "League of the North" and "Five Stars Movement" is in power. A deputy from the League of the North party, Mario Borgesio, said that Italy fully supports Hungary in its opposition to the EU on migration policy issues. Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini supports Orban. Even in Germany, which adheres to the policy of "open doors", there is no unambiguous attitude towards Orban. Berlin does not like Budapest's reluctance to receive refugees. However, German Chancellor Angela Merkel opposed the proposals of her Christian Democratic Union members to exclude Fidesz from the European People's Party and impose sanctions against Hungary. Popular in Hungary Fidesz is a partner of the Christian Democratic Union in the elections to the European Parliament in May 2019. At the moment, the sanctions against Hungary are supported by Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as Jeremy Corbin, leader of the opposition Labor Party in the UK.

In this situation, Orban feels himself on the top. Before voting in the European Parliament, he said that the Hungarians would defend their borders and decide on their own with whom to live. He also said that the EU is trying to squeeze out a whole nation from a family of European nations. Despite all the disadvantages of Orban, he managed to unite the Hungarian society around the refugee problem. In the last parliamentary elections, the majority of Hungarian voters voted for Fidesz (44.87%). The Hungarian prime minister simply reacts to the requests of his constituents. More than 70% of citizens are in favor of closing the borders for migrants. More than half of the Hungarians believe that under cover of refugees, terrorists may be hiding. Hungarian society perceives refugees and migrants from Muslim countries as a threat against the background of terrorist attacks in Britain and other European countries.

The European Union demonstrates its weakness in the conflict with Hungary and Poland, looks like a paper tiger, unable to influence anything. Brussels discredited itself in the eyes of the member countries with its distrust of national governments, a desire to impose its will from a position of strength. Distracted by the ideology and the problem of the migration crisis, the leadership of the European Union in the spirit of socialism is trying to comb all the member countries with the same brush, ignoring their interests. For Budapest and Warsaw, not by hearsay familiar with the socialist model of development, the dictates of Brussels differ little from the line of behavior dictated by Moscow during the Cold War. Migration policy and judicial reforms do not overlap with issues of European security and economic integration, for the development of which the Common Market was originally created. By their actions against Hungary and Poland, European officials undermine the authority of the EU.

Risks for Ukraine

If Orban starts playing the "Russian card" to blackmail the Europeans, then this could turn out to be negative for Ukraine. Relations between Kyiv and Budapest are complex because of disagreements over last year's law on education in Ukraine, which provides for the full teaching in Ukrainian in all educational institutions of the country, including in the Transcarpathian region, where the Hungarian minority lives. Now Hungary is using the language issue to blackmail Ukraine. Budapest blocks negotiations between Ukraine and NATO. In August, Orban said he did not believe in the realism of our aspirations to join the EU and NATO, and Russia's goal is to preserve Russian influence in Ukraine. Also at a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Hungarian prime minister stressed that anti-Russian sanctions equally harm Russia and Hungary and because of them opportunities are lost.

Orban can begin to speculate by lifting the anti-Russian sanctions and rapproching with the Russian Federation to make Europe nervous. As an aid to rapprochement with Russia, Hungarians can mitigate or cancel sanctions. Say, once in Brussels they do not want to reckon with the opinion of the Hungarian society, then Budapest will not observe the all-European unity in foreign policy. Anti-Russian sanctions are one of the most characteristic examples of the unity of the EU member states in international relations. Despite the fact that 80% of Hungarian exports go to the EU, the Russian "Gazprom" provides over 81.5% of the needs of the Central European country in natural gas. Part of the Hungarian business is focused on the Russian market, and for the years of sanctions it lost $ 6.5 billion. Ukrainian diplomats cannot easily convince their Hungarian counterparts not to turn sanctions into an instrument of pressure on the EU.

American interests

 In theory, authoritarian tendencies in Hungary alarm the United States. The Fidesz Party has become an obstacle on the path of exporting democracy and the American neoliberal development model to Central and Eastern Europe. The late Republican senator John McCain once called Orban a "neo-fascist dictator." In November 2017, the Hungarian authorities accused the US of interfering in the election campaign after US diplomat David Kostelanchik announced that his country would allocate 700 thousand dollars for the development of independent media in Hungary. However, you should not make hasty conclusions that the States will necessarily support the EU in the conflict with Hungary.

The Trump administration is interested in establishing contacts with similar in spirit and approach European conservatives like Orban. Trump and Orban are made from the same material: both stand for tightening migration policy, both politicians have complicated relations with the European Union. In US-EU relations, there are conflicts due to the US increasing duties on European steel and aluminum, their withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the demand to increase defense spending. Trump needs his "people" in Europe, and the Hungarian prime minister actually proved that he is suitable for this role. Orban supported Trump's victory in the US presidential election in 2016, and in December 2017 blocked the EU's decision to condemn the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

For the sake of strengthening relations with Hungary, Trump appointed Ambassador his old friend, businessman David Kornstein, to the post of ambassador. Earlier, the US embassy was headed by Democratic Party member Colin Bell. According to Kornstein, Trump thinks Orban is a very strong leader. During a telephone conversation Trump called on Orban to strengthen the southern borders of Hungary. These are fences with surveillance cameras that were built by order of Orban on the border with Serbia and Croatia to contain the flow of refugees and illegal immigrants and were criticized by the EU (like the Trump wall project on the border with Mexico). In 2015, the territory of Hungary was crossed by about 400 thousand refugees on their way to the countries of Western Europe. Good relations with the US are of interest for Hungary in conditions of confrontation with the EU.

Hungary is interesting for the American company ExxonMobil as a route for the sale of natural gas from the Black Sea shelf of Romania (involved in its development) to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Until 2020, it is planned to build a gas pipeline based on the unfinished Nabucco pipeline, which will connect the Black Sea gas fields of Romania with Hungary, Bulgaria, Austria. Hungary will be able to buy 4.4 billion cubic meters of Romanian natural gas per year and reduce dependence on blue fuel from the Russian Federation. If the North-South gas pipeline project is implemented within the Eastring project, Hungary will be able to transit natural gas to Slovakia. By its actions, the European Union has created factors for the rapprochement of Hungary with the United States, which have similar approaches to solving the migration crisis.

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