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COMMENTARY

EU's Eastern challenges highlighted by Hungary election

HUNGARY is preparing for a landmark election on Sunday that is expected to see eurosceptic, illiberal Prime Minister Victor Orban returned to power for a fourth term. While challenges to Brussels are often seen through the prism of Western European states, Mr Orban's expected re-election is considered significant because he has helped lead the Visegrad group of ex-Communist states in opposition to the EU in what has been called potential "East-West rift".

For instance, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic (whose collective population is around 65 million) met in Budapest in January to agree joint positioning pushing back at proposals being floated for more post-Brexit integration among the EU-27. Speaking on behalf of the four nations, Mr Orban - who US President Donald Trump has said is a "strong and brave person" - asserted that "Europe needs a new blueprint".

While increasing euroscepticism is now prevalent over much of the EU, what is striking about Hungary and Poland, in particular, is the rise of right-wing populism with leaders forcefully promoting values that often clash with standards promoted by Brussels on democracy, the rule of law and wider freedoms.

Indeed, some six decades after the Treaty of Rome, which was one of the EU's founding treaties, European Council president Donald Tusk has highlighted the challenge from some Eastern EU states as one of those facing Brussels which are now, collectively, "more dangerous than ever". Mr Tusk, who served as Polish prime minister from 2007-2014, has identified three key challenges "which have previously not occurred, at least not on such a scale" that the EU must tackle to survive, let alone thrive, going into the future.

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While the first of these relates to the external environment outside of Europe, Mr Tusk highlighted two other dangers relating to the rise of anti-EU, nationalist sentiment across the continent, plus the "state of mind of pro-European elites" which he fears are now too subservient to "populist arguments as well as doubting in the fundamental values of liberal democracy". The latter is especially relevant to Hungary and Poland in the eyes of many in Brussels.

Take the example of Hungary, a country with a population of around 10 million, which was at the forefront of Europe's migration challenges in recent years. There are growing concerns in Brussels that the nation, under Mr Orban, is following a so-called Russian or Turkish model by weakening democratic norms, including clamping down on press freedoms and international NGOs.

On the migration front, specifically, the country experienced in 2015 some 174,435 asylum requests, many from Middle East migrants, with 425 getting a positive response from Budapest. In 2017, the number was reduced to 3,115 asylum applications with about a third getting the green light.

Yet, despite this drop-off, the prime minister recently told an election rally that "external forces and international powers want to force all this on us with the help of their henchmen here in Hungary ... They want to force us to give up voluntarily over a few decades to strangers arriving from other continents who do not … respect our culture, our laws and our way of life".

EXISTENTIAL CHALLENGE

Poland, with a population of around 38 million, has also faced the ire of Brussels which took the unprecedented step in December of triggering so-called Article 7 - which can lead to imposition of sanctions, including relating to a country's EU voting rights - over Warsaw's controversial judicial reforms. The latter include measures to lower retirement ages for judges, give new discretionary powers of the president to prolong the mandate of Supreme Court judges, and reduce the independence and legitimacy of the Constitutional Tribunal.

Developments in Hungary and Poland have given rise to concerns in Brussels over the degree to which the Visegrad countries - in the context of their shared concerns over immigration - could function as a more coherent "challenger" bloc at such a crucial moment in the EU's history. Yet, for as much as the four countries have common concerns, their interests are by no means identical.

Last year, for instance, Slovakia and the Czech Republic disagreed with Poland and Hungary over new EU cross-border labour rules. The former endorsed a French-led proposal opposed by Warsaw and Budapest, bringing out in the open tensions within the four.

This underlines the fact that the Visegrad group has - since its establishment in 1991 - served as more of a diplomatic network than a clear and coherent political bloc. While the four have long had common objectives, including initially becoming EU and Nato members, their priorities are not always the same as they compete for external political preferment and investment.

Nevertheless, Mr Orban's expected re-election will only add to the Eastern challenges Brussels now faces. Hungary and Poland, in particular, have potential to be persistent thorns in the side of the EU adding to the internal and external threats that may ultimately become - collectively - an existential challenge to the future of the union.

  • The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics