The Dahrendorf Forum Holds Workshop: ‘Authoritarian Tendencies in Hungary? The role of the EU and Germany’

On Wednesday 3 April 2019, the Dahrendorf Forum hosted a workshop discussion on Hungary’s authoritarian tendencies and the role of the EU and Germany in mitigating them at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.

The panel consisted of Márta Pardavi, Co-Chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, Daniel Hegedüs, Rethink CEE fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and Orsolya Schwabe from the Free Hungarian Embassy in Berlin. The event was chaired by Bernhard Knoll-Tudor, Director of Executive Education at the Hertie School of Governance.

Panelists first outlined the challenges facing Hungary. A ‘closing civic space’ has restricted the opportunities for expression of public figures and everyday citizens alike. Media independence has been weakened, giving the government a near-monopoly on the political narrative. Checks and balances within the government have been dismantled. These developments have increased reliance on NGOs, but the government has cracked down on those as well, such as the 25 percent tax on any organisation that discusses immigration.

The difficult choices facing the European Union and Germany in confronting these troubling developments were then discussed. While the decision of the European People’s Party to suspend Hungarian President Victor Orbán’s Fidesz party was praised, the consensus was that the move was insufficient. Panellists agreed that a greater political will is required to reverse democratic backsliding in Hungary. Only once the political will has been mustered can successful legal solutions be implemented; beginning with a narrowly legal approach was deemed unlikely to succeed.

The panel agreed that both ‘sticks’ and ‘carrots’ were needed to deter autocracy in Hungary. While the Hungarian government is likely to respond to policies like conditionality in EU budgets, financial punishments alone will not be enough to foster a healthy democracy. Building up a healthier media environment and extending connections to western European nations were suggested as possible avenues to encourage pluralist values.

One audience member asked how it was possible to alter the media landscape in Hungary. Although rural regions would benefit from a more diverse circulation of print journalism, this was considered an unlikely solution. Instead, the increased presence of foreign media and greater pressure on state-funded media monopolies—which may run afoul of EU state-aid rules—were floated as potential solutions.

Many members of the audience wanted to know whether progress in Hungary is actually plausible. Panellists remarked that Orbán’s system of ‘vertical dependencies’ inhibited domestic reform, and that it would be difficult to summon the necessary political will in Brussels. However, by setting the foundation for reform, a shift toward greater openness in the long run may be possible.