The hospitality offered by Hungary to a convicted criminal, and the failure of EU officials to speak in one voice, will inevitably decrease the appeal of the pro-European narrativeby Ljupcho Petkovski / December 21, 2018 / Leave a comment
In Hungary, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Budapest and other cities to challenge Viktor Orban’s illiberal policies.
The passing of the so-called “slave law”—which entitles employers to seek up to 400 hours a year overtime for their staff—and new laws placing the courts under government control has brought together a disparate coalition of Hungarian citizens in massive rallies.
This combination of constitutional and bread and butter political issues has led to far more domestic protest than previous Orban policies that have threatened liberal and democratic norms, from the hostile treatment of refugees to restrictions on press freedom to the clampdown on civil society.
The arresting images from the protests are in danger of obscuring two other recent events in Hungary that are just as significant but have received far less sustained international attention.
Firstly, The Central European University (CEU)’s recent move from Budapest to Vienna after repressive policies made its academic operations impossible was a first in an EU country. Secondly, the decision by Hungary’s government to offer shelter to a convicted criminal fleeing justice, the former Macedonian Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski. His asylum request, in a country known for the toughest immigration policies in the European Union, was accepted on a whim.
The EU’s response to the crises has been pitifully weak. The head of the European People’s Party (EPP), Manfred Weber, merely stated he was “disappointed.” This surely represents a toothless warning towards EPP members Fidesz and VMRO-DPMNE, the parties of Viktor Orban and Nikola Gruevski. On both issues, Macron and Merkel, usually strong defenders of European values, have mostly been silent.
What Gruevski’s escape made clear is the firmness of the illiberal alliance he has forged with Mr. Orban’s regime. Mr. Orban and Mr. Gruevski belong to a Janus-faced political class in new European democracies that want to make the most of the benefits of having close economic ties with the EU and the West, while pursuing policies that are ideologically closer to Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
The main difference between these two strongmen is the fact that Gruevski and his party are no longer formally in power.
It took years of grassroots mobilizations, political struggles and heavy EU and US diplomatic investment for regime change to take place in Macedonia’s nascent democracy. Gruevski’s sentence to two years jail time was part of a new independent judicial system and a sign to all Macedonians that crime and corruption warranted punishment.
Many in the region consider the recent political developments in Macedonia to be a blueprint for regime change in an area where the EU’s inability to formulate a coherent policy has left a vacuum which has been filled by alternative powers. This is why political strongmen in the Balkans fear Macedonia’s new political class and rejoice at the alleged incompetence of the Macedonian government.
Gruevski’s escape can therefore be seen as a blow to the democratic achievements of Macedonia. The country is in the middle of a painful and unpopular process of renaming itself “North Macedonia,” in order to end a decades-long dispute with Greece, which argues that “Macedonia” implies territorial claims to a Greek region of the same name.
This effort is portrayed by the political class as an evil that needs to be accepted for the sake of a brighter European future. But the resolution of the name dispute is the only good news coming from the Balkans in the last five years.
The hospitality offered by Hungary to a convicted criminal, and the failure of EU officials to speak in one voice, will inevitably decrease the appeal of the pro-European narrative. The drama is unfolding against the backdrop of return of geopolitics in the Balkans, whereby Russia has become increasingly assertive in its opposition to the enlargement of NATO. The destiny of a convicted criminal goes far beyond his personal drama; it symbolizes the future of a nation and of the region.
Traumatized by years of authoritarianism, political struggles, and being stuck in the waiting room for EU and NATO membership has scarred Macedonia—and we may become cynical, and critical, of the EU if Gruevski is not brought to justice.
Clearly condemning Mr. Orban’s apparent new policy towards asylum seekers, and bringing to bear concerted pressure over the Hungarian government, are the least the EU and the European People’s Party can do to improve Europe’s’ credibility. For the sake of law and democracy, which are founding European values, criminals should be brought to justice. The EU often preaches these values. In 2019, we need a greater effort to practice them.