Hostility between west and east Europe values will be EU’s undoing, says JONATHAN SAXTY | Express Comment | Comment
Only recently the European Commission recommended €13.3bn of funding for Hungary be withheld owing to concerns about rule of law reforms in the country.
The official reason given by Brussels was a failure by the government of Viktor Orbán to enact what it sees as democratic and rule of law-based reforms. While the European Commission has endorsed Hungary’s Covid recovery plan, it wants Budapest to implement 27 “super-milestones”.
From Hungary’s perspective however, it did what was required with 17 reforms. Now, things may be turning in Budapest’s favour. France, Germany, and Italy – western European states on the other side of the EU’s cultural Iron Curtain – have called on the Commission to review its decision.
This week, the Czech Presidency of the Council of the EU requested a new assessment of the measures taken by Hungary. There is a sense in some quarters that the Commission had been disproportionate in its approach to Hungary. But why the seeming change of heart?
No doubt this reflects fears that the Commission could be pushing Orbán to take a more hard-line approach just when the EU needs a united front on Ukraine. For his part, the Hungarian PM can hardly be seen to back down either, having built his reputation as a defender of a sovereign nation.
Hungary recently vetoed an €18 billion EU aid package for Ukraine. While Budapest does not admit any link between this issue and Hungary’s access to EU money, there are suspicions in Brussels that Hungary is using the veto to get the EU to change its stance towards the conservative EU state.
This puts Poland – Hungary’s major ally among the more conservative central and eastern European states – in an awkward position. On the one hand, Warsaw is annoyed by Budapest’s more nuanced stance towards Ukraine.
On the other hand, Poland has its own ongoing battles with Brussels, and needs Hungary on side. With elections looming, many in Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party fear the EU is attempting to influence the Polish electorate by eroding public support for the United Right coalition.
Although western European nations might fear alienating Orbán because of the Ukraine conflict (Orbán does seem to have struck a more pro-Ukraine tone of late), in reality the gap between the two halves of Europe – one liberal and secular, the other conservative and religious – is probably now unbridgeable.
Although much is made of Hungary and Poland needing EU cash, in the long-term most EU states in central and eastern Europe are likely to become net contributors to Brussels.
Meanwhile, having never joined the eurozone, Hungary and Poland, as well as other countries in central and eastern Europe like the Czech Republic, could more easily extricate themselves from the EU than eurozone states like Italy.
This will be in the back of the minds of western Europeans when it comes to dealing with Orbán. That said, western European governments are also in a tricky spot: they cannot be seen to back down with the countries of central and eastern Europe having made such a point of pushing liberal values.
Neither Hungary nor Poland meanwhile can afford to be seen to capitulate to Brussels, and may accept weathering short-term economic pain. Budapest and Warsaw remain suspicious that all this talk about the rule of law is more about pushing western European values upon them.
Hungary may be confident that divisions within the EU are now working in the country’s favour, and playing the long-game – and a hard-ball one at that – is starting to pay off. But Brussels will not back down without a fight. The ongoing hostility between western and eastern Europe is far from over.