It’s becoming a habit. A year after protests were raised over legislation strengthening government control over the media, the Hungarian government of Viktor Orbán is again stirring up controversy in Europe. What has prompted the controversy is the entry into force of the country's new constitution, which comes just as the executive is amending the statutes of the Central Bank and reforming the electoral system, and as an opposition radio station is having its broadcasting frequency taken away.
As one year ago, while voices demanding sanctions against the authoritarian Viktor Orbán are growing, EU leaders have abstained from taking a stand. The Commission is “studying" the situation, and only a few MEPs are calling for a response from the European Union.
However, should Hungary be punished the way Austria was punished in 2000, when Jörg Haider’s far-right party entered the government? At that time Vienna’s fourteen partners broke off all bilateral contact and withdrew their support for Austrian candidates for positions in international organisations. But these measures were lifted after nine months, without having forced Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel to bow to the pressure. Austria’s extreme right stayed in the government until 2007.
Hungary poses a thorny problem. In many ways, the system that has been established – it can only be called a package of measures to promote the power of Fidesz, Orbán's party – strikes at the values underlying European integration.
The organised weakening of all the opposition forces, the cosying up to Jobbik, a far-right party that has its own militia, and the escalation of nationalism among the Hungarian minorities in other EU countries are sufficient reasons to call Budapest back into line.
However, respect for values and conformity should not be confused with consensus. Several elements of Viktor Orbán’s programme can be contested, condemned and fought, but they do fall within a range of political positions to be found in all European countries. The desire to retain political control over monetary policy, for example, is not the prerogative of Fidesz, and the role of the central bank is even at the heart of the discussions on the eurozone crisis.
The reference to God in the constitution, the rejection of homosexual marriage or the possibility of restricting the right to abortion are conservative positions; yet the first is found in Greece, the second in France (for example) and the third in Ireland, Malta and Poland.
If Europe wishes to keep Orbán’s Hungary within the European democratic ambit, it should not mistake its target or its method. If it does, it risks being drawn into two dangerous processes. The first would be to sanction Budapest with grand speeches and then have to backpedal, as was the case with Austria, or be forced to engage in an uncertain process of exclusion.
The second would be to set up a system of double standards by sanctioning Hungary for its government’s political stances, when other states are equally likely to be singled out. As reactionary as it was, Poland under the Kaczyński brothers was never ostracised by the EU.
The fact that Hungary is a linguistic and cultural island in the middle of Europe reinforces the dangerous dialectic between its tendency to see itself as a besieged fortress and the miscomprehension of its neighbours, who do not grasp all the terms of its internal debates. All the more reason for Europe to be vigilant, firm on its principles, but clear and measured in its actions.