As though they were emerging from a terrible nightmare, Hungarians are finally beginning to wake up. The spectacle of ten of thousands of citizens in the streets of Budapest on Monday 2 January to protest against the coming into force of a new constitution they judge to be anti-democratic amounts to a serious warning shot for Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Until Monday 2 January, the opposition had never succeeded in uniting sufficiently to be heard. Now it cannot overlooked.

In another notable initiative, 13 former Hungarian dissidents, some of whom, along with Mr Orbán, were in the vanguard of the fight against the communist regime, have signedan appeal to be submitted to European institutions on 7 January in which they point out that "Hungarian society is not only the victim of the current economic crisis, but also the victim of its own government."

According to writer György Konrád, former anti-communist dissident László Rajk, and former mayor of Budapest Gábor Demszky and the other signatories, this government "has snatched the democratic political tools from the hands of those who could use these tools to ameliorate their predicament."

The European Union (EU) finds itself in a delicate situation with regard to an enfant terrible which joined the community just seven years ago. However, it cannot remain indifferent to the practices of the Orbán government, which has undermined the plurality of voices in the media, and threatened the independence of the country’s justice system.

Austria remains a bad memory in Brussels

In the wake of vigourous protests in 2010, at the end of December European Commission President José Manuel Barroso addressed a letter to Mr Orbán — the second in two weeks — to warn him of the risks inherent in his policies. However, this warning has apparently had no effect, nor has another letter in the same vein from Hillary Clinton.

The EU still has the option of invoking article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, which states that member states which violate the the rules of democracy may be deprived of their voting rights. That said, any attempt to punish a democratically elected government will necessarily be fraught with difficulty — a fact highlighted by the campaign against Austria more than a decade ago, which remains a bad memory in Brussels.

In 2000, Europe reacted strongly to the inclusion of an extreme right party in the ruling coalition in Vienna, but ultimately took no action, having observed that its protests had no impact. The ground swell of support for the Hungarian opposition, civil society groups and intellectuals opposed to the government is important, because it will increase pressure on the EU, which wants to remain a community that is first and foremost united by democratic values.

Nor should Brussels compromise on the issue of the Hungarian government’s economic policy. Citing a curious nationalist credo, Mr Orbán appears to have decided that his country, which has been hit hard by the crisis, will be able to overcome its difficulties alone, and has refused to comply with conditions for EU and IMF aid. Both of these institutions have now suspended talks with Budapest. And rightly so: Europe should not offer funds to a country that makes a mockery of its rules.