Analysis: Viktor Orban is dismantling Hungarian democracy piece by piece - within the EU

The Hungarian autocrat creates new political courts system and attacks workers’ rights – while benefiting from influx of European capital

AS Brexit chaos continues in Britain, it's easy to miss the wider crisis afflicting European society.

Nowhere is this more obvious or alarming than in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban has for years pushed his opponents to the margins and eroded the space for dissent and opposition.

In the last few days, Orban has tightened his grip by establishing a new tier of political courts to defend his power, and launching a massive assault on workers’ rights.

What does this suggest about the direction of some member states of the EU, and how can the EU accommodate such drastic moves against democracy?

The godfather of the EU's far right

Orban is the most durable and successful of the new right figureheads in Europe. His model of so called 'illiberal democracy', or what Orban himself calls the "illiberal state", has inspired figures in Europe's new vogue of nationalist, authoritarian, xenophobic and populist right.

Since 2010, when he began his second term as Prime Minister (he had previously served between 1998-2002 before leading the opposition for eight years) Orban has increasingly consolidated power around him and an elite layer of society.

Orban is believed to be one of the wealthiest men in Europe, and has turned Hungary into an oligarchic fiefdom. His economic influence, and that of his family and closest cronies, extends over large parts of the economy, including companies establishing much of the national infrastructure. His network of middle men and financiers, the 'apparat', control huge swathes of the country's media, including hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations and a massive online presence.

It is partly this that has allowed him to coral half the votes in the country and around two thirds of the seats in the parliament, with a coalition between his Fidesz party and Jobbik, an even more hardline if smaller far-right party.

Orban presents elements of civil society and political opposition who manage to survive this suffocation as national enemies like wealthy philanthropist and liberal activist George Soros, whose organisations including a university have been chased out of Hungary under the now infamous 'Stop Soros' law.

The dialectic of neoliberalism and authoritarianism

Importantly however, Orban, like those who have sought to imitate him or adapt his form of politics to their own national context, is not anti-EU. Instead, much of his domestic appeal and also national economic strategy relies upon establishing a permanently antagonistic relationship with the EU.

He does this by making domestic reforms that the EU can criticise but will not block, and then attacking the EU as 'un-European' in front of the Hungarian people. In Orban's worldview, one carefully cultivated through his apparat, the Hungarian nation is fighting a battle against Islam and refugees, against the left, against 'globalism' and shadowy conspiracies like those of Soros, an apparently omnipotent threat.

But all of the far right's rhetoric of national rights and justice, and appeals to the working class and rural poor, are shown for what they are by Hungary's economic model. Al Jazeera has reported how European “companies expand operations in the country, thanks in part to low taxes and wages”, with the profits rolling into the hands of Orban and his friends.

However, Orban faces a problem. Free movement (and disgust at his regime) allows young Hungarians in particular to leave the country, creating a labour shortage. That's why new laws, including what the opposition are dubbing a 'slave law', have been introduced to give employers more rights to demand workers work more overtime and calculate overtime payments up to three years after the work is done.

The logic is a vicious cycle. European capital feeds financialisation and monopoly but also labour shortages, which the state makes good by cracking down on workers’ rights and political opposition, making market liberty and Orban's 'illiberal state' two faces of the same coin.

The priorty of the EU - capital before rights

The EU Parliament has voted to take some form of punitive action against Hungary as a member state, giving Orban yet another of his prized opportunities to assert his brand of racialised Hungarian-European nationalism. In a excoriating speech he slammed the EU as attacking both his nation and the decadence of an EU that doesn't know how to protect Europe's borders from the threat of dangerous foreigners.

So this is unlikely to hurt the far right in Hungary or beyond, simply re-presenting the world in terms they enjoy. And as his allies have pointed out, any sanctions are likely to be limited to the point of meaninglessness or may not even happen at all, as in 2013 after a similar controversy.

We’re long past the point of no return when it comes to salvaging the rule of law, but even so, the creation of this rubber-stamp court is alarming,” Mate Szabo, a lawyer and program director at Hungary’s Civil Liberties Union, told Bloomberg. “The EU has been totally unprepared to deal with it.”  

The EU’s response has been nowhere near as serious as that adopted by EU countries either facing down the EU's economic budget rules, as in Italy, where Matteo Salvini wants to boost public spending in a move that has drawn him into direct confrontation with the EU leadership but found him acclaim within Italy itself. 

Italy has suffered terribly in recent years from austerity measures, and its infrastructure is rapidly eroding. This has seen the rise of far right forces, including Salvini's Lega party. Racist violence has increased significantly in the country, but this is far less the concern of the EU leadership than the country's economic conformity.

Likewise It is of course not on a scale with the crackdown on Greece when the Syriza government tried to resist austere bailout terms imposed on the country by the EU leadership in 2015, when the country was threatened with economic meltdown by cutting off liquidity from the European Central Bank.

It's own contradictions cleaving it apart, the EU is heading in a very dangerous direction with Hungary at the vanguard of state’s trashing democracy while remaining within the EU club.

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