How to Break Up Europe’s Axis of Illiberalism
If the EU really wants to punish Poland, it should turn up the pressure on Hungary.
Western observers tend to conflate Europe’s two leading proponents of right-wing populism: Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, and the chairman of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
Kaczynski has long promised the advent of “Budapest in Warsaw,” an allusion to Orban’s model of “illiberal democracy” that the Hungarian leader unapologetically touted in a 2014 speech. And in 2016, both leaders proudly announced a “cultural counterrevolution” within the European Union.
So when the EU turned up the heat on Warsaw in late December, Orban unsurprisingly pledged to “defend Poland,” implying that he would veto the threatened introduction of EU sanctions against the Polish government. But that outcome is far from certain.
For now, Kaczynski and Orban may be able to ensure their impunity, as long as each vetoes sanctions against the other. But there are ways to drive a wedge between them. Indeed, if politicians in Brussels and beyond want to stop being outplayed by the Polish and Hungarian governments, they must first understand the strengths and vulnerabilities of each leader and grasp the fundamental differences between their respective countries.
In Hungary, unlike in Poland, the concentration of political power has been accompanied by a remarkable concentration of wealth. Orban’s closest friends and those with whom he has built the Fidesz party are now among the richest people in Hungary. Thanks to state contracts, the mayor of Orban’s native Felcsut, a childhood friend of the prime minister, jumped to number five in last year’s list of the wealthiest Hungarians. Other apparent beneficiaries of Orban’s rule include his friend Istvan Garancsi (with a fortune that has tripled since Orban came to power in 2010) and Istvan Tiborcz, who is the prime minister’s son-in-law. In Poland, the government is not conducting this kind of large-scale transfer of public assets to the private bank accounts of Kaczynski’s entourage. On Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, Poland was still ranked a respectable 29th as of 2016, while Hungary was further down the list at 57th in the company of Malaysia, Romania, and Cuba.
Orban’s illiberal democracy has already been legitimized in Hungary, whereas Kaczynski’s system has not gained comparable support in Poland. Orban does not need to violate the Hungarian Constitution because he has a much larger support base than Kaczynski has ever had. This is the best explanation for why the EU is ready to use Article 7 against Poland’s government, but not against Hungary’s, which has advanced much further in entrenching its illiberal project. Fidesz’s standing in the polls has even reached 70 percent. In Poland, a similar result is unimaginable; Law and Justice’s popularity peaked at 47 percent, and in elections it has never garnered more than 38 percent of the vote.
Orban also has a much better foundation for arousing nationalist sentiments. Hungary has a large — and widely vilified — Roma population of between 450,000 and 1 million and this community is projected to reach about 15 percent of the country’s population by 2050. Hungary also lies in the middle of the refugee path through Europe, a fact that Orban ruthlessly exploits to arouse anti-migrant sentiments. Poland, by contrast, remains the most homogenous country in Europe, without any significant ethnic minorities to speak of, aside from the recent inflow of Ukrainians. Orban also has a diaspora that he can rally; he can potentially count on millions of citizens of Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Serbia who have Hungarian ancestry and could become an electoral gold mine for Fidesz. It is easy to kindle nationalist sentiments among this demographic, and it’s no coincidence that Orban has introduced legislation that bestows significant benefits on Hungarians living abroad.
Finally, Orban can blackmail Brussels by appealing to EU fears of his far-right adversary, the Jobbik party, which he claims to be keeping at bay. The Hungarian opposition is hamstrung by virtue of the fact that it is politically polarized — the two largest parties accuse each other of being “communists” (in the case of the post-communist Hungarian Socialist Party) and “fascists” (Jobbik). This division guarantees that the opposition can’t challenge the ruling party.
Yet despite all of Orban’s success at entrenching his power, Hungary remains much more economically dependent on the West, and that gives the EU leverage. The Hungarian economy depends on exports, while the Polish economy draws on both exports and domestic consumption. Poland’s domestic market is several times larger than Hungary’s, because its population is four times the size. But Hungary needs Europe.
It’s no accident that Orban visited his close ideological allies among the leadership of Angela Merkel’s sister party, the Christian Social Union, in the German state of Bavaria last week. Germany is Hungary’s largest economic partner, accounting for close to 30 percent of exports, and as many as one out of every three new Hungarian jobs is created by a German company. That means Germany could exert significant pressure on Hungary in a way that it could not vis-à-vis Poland.
Most importantly, Orban is an ideological opportunist, while Kaczynski is sincere in his beliefs. Orban launched his career by expelling the Russians from Hungary in 1989; today, he is one of the most pro-Russia politicians in the EU. Kaczynski’s career has also taken many twists and turns, but he nevertheless displays devotion to a vision of Poland rooted in the country’s history that is difficult for many Western observers to understand. He subscribes to a certain kind of noble-class conservatism, which ultimately led to Poland’s dissolution in the 18th century.
Poland was reduced from near-superpower status to a Russian protectorate because the country’s political elites destroyed their own system from within. In the 16th and early 17th centuries, Poland was the largest country in Europe, the most tolerant, and the most democratic — even if political participation was limited to the nobility. The requirement that legislation be passed unanimously meant that the nobility soon became a political instrument in the hands of oligarchs, who themselves became instruments of Russia and Prussia, ultimately tearing their own country apart.
Poland is once again going in a dangerous direction. The country is turning inward and isolating itself internationally. It is ceasing to be a tolerant country, it is withdrawing from foreign affairs, and it is at risk of shedding experienced members of its diplomatic corps. The ruling Law and Justice party is pushing for a law in Parliament that could lead to the firing of about 100 diplomats who worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs prior to 1990 on the grounds that they are sympathetic to communism. There is a risk that the foreign service could become a tool of the ruling party.
Whereas Kaczynski is a fanatic, Orban is merely a cynic. For Kaczynski, pragmatism is a sign of treason or weakness; for Orban it is the essence of politics. Pragmatic leaders generally don’t go against their own interests, and they never commit political suicide.
For this reason, Kaczynski shouldn’t count on Orban’s assistance when Brussels tightens the vise. Indeed, if Hungarian obstructionism threatens the flow of EU funds to Budapest, Orban will have no interest in defending Poland. The EU’s Article 7 doesn’t pose a threat to him. He hasn’t been punished yet, and no one is going to punish him retroactively — especially if he gives up his support of Kaczynski in return for his own political safety. After all, he already betrayed his Polish “political brother” once by refusing Warsaw’s wishes and helping elect Kaczynski’s erstwhile domestic archrival, Donald Tusk, to a second term as president of the European Council.
Orban cannot be defeated in Hungary, and Kaczynski cannot yet be defeated in Poland. But Brussels could break up their alliance when it grasps that Kaczynski will not budge, but Orban can be bribed.