Ironically, it has taken the resignation of a Hungarian MEP after he was caught fleeing a party described by its organiser as a gay orgy to highlight the growth of illiberalism in Europe.
Jozsef Szajer apologised for breaking Covid-19 restrictions by attending the gathering of roughly two dozen men, and said drugs found by police belonged to someone else.
The incident would probably have remained a topic of gossip in the Brussels bubble and a national story in Hungary were it not for the details of the career of the man concerned.
Szajer, a staunch ally of right-wing nationalist prime minister Viktor Orban, famously drafted Hungary’s new constitution on his iPad – a reactionary document that vowed to protect “the institution of marriage as between a man and a woman” and “the family as the basis of the survival of the nation”.
The constitution became the basis for laws eroding the freedoms of LGBT people and was the background to a culture war crusade against anything identified as “too gay”, with targets ranging from a children’s book and a Coca Cola advert to Eurovision.
The sheer hypocrisy turned what could have been a minor political scandal into an international story, and one that has turned the spotlight on Hungary at a time when it is locked in conflict with the EU.
In recent weeks Hungary and its ally Poland have mounted a last-minute blockade of the bloc’s €1.85 trillion budget and landmark recovery fund, risking an abrupt halt in funding of EU programmes from January and a deepening of the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
If no deal is reached, only permanent funding systems such as payments to farmers and international aid could continue – and on a reduced basis. Money for the Covid-19 response, Erasmus exchanges, climate change subsidies, infrastructure projects, and Horizon research among others would abruptly dry up.
Rule of law
Budapest and Warsaw acted in protest against the EU’s new rule-of-law conditionality: a proposed change under which funds could only be given out to countries that respected democratic EU values. The governments of Hungary and Poland – both accused of democratic backsliding and interfering with the independence of the judiciary – suspected a trap.
The fact that this showdown has been put off to this moment of drastic stakes is a reflection of shortsightedness in the EU’s major powers and substantial naivety.
In hindsight, something like rule-of-law conditionality for funding should have been in place long ago, and agreed when anti-democratic forces were weaker. But in the 1990s and 2000s, EU-builders were too convinced of the unstoppable march of progress to consider what could happen if a member state became a dictatorship, with EU money used to keep a grip on power.
When Hungary joined the bloc in 2004, Orban was seen by Europe’s centre-right parties as something of a golden boy: a charismatic anti-Soviet campaigner turned reformist.
The membership of his Fidesz party within the European People’s Party gave him access to leaders such as France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany’s Angela Merkel and their networks – along with their long indulgence and apparent sanction – at a time when the right-wing group contained so many heads of state it dominated EU decision-making.
Heart of power
The allure of that strength in numbers kept Fidesz at the heart of EU power, and Orban indulged long after his illiberal turn emerged a decade ago. The changing fortunes of Europe’s right-wing – populists and extremists increasingly outperforming more traditional centrists and shifting the EPP’s centre of gravity east – made him ever harder to confront. The Slovenian prime minister Janez Jansa, who embarrassed Europe by congratulating Donald Trump after the US election while criticising vote-counting and the “mainstream media” for indicating the result was going the other way, has vowed to split the EPP if it moves to expel Fidesz from its ranks.
But the fact that the EU’s economic stability is now at stake, and the twist of fate that exposed Orban’s point man in Brussels at this critical moment, have combined to create a sense that Fidesz has become too politically costly to ignore.
As though tasting blood in the water, a group of 30 EPP MEPs, including the five Fine Gaelers, published a letter calling for the expulsion of the head of the Hungarian delegation Tamás Deutsch for comparing the rule-of-law conditionality to Nazi and Soviet oppression. Simultaneously, the European Commission laid out how the 25 EU states that do support the recovery fund could go ahead with it – without Poland or Hungary.
Fine Gael passed on the opportunity to join 13 of their fellow EPP parties in calling for the expulsion of Fidesz earlier this year. They may soon have another chance.