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Hungary's Viktor Orban launches anti-EU campaign

November 25, 2023

The Hungarian prime minister has kicked off a new "national consultation" to garner popular support for his anti-EU rhetoric. He has also proposed a "sovereignty" law that could further serve to crack down on dissent.

Viktor Orban against a black background
Viktor Orban has said Hungary is not the 'black sheep' of the EU but the 'first swallow'Image: Beata Zawrzel/ZUMA/picture alliance

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban had been less visible of late, with the wars in the Middle East and Ukraine claiming public attention in the EU.

Having already lost political support in central and southeastern Europe over the past few years, the Hungarian government lost its most important partner in Eastern Europe when Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party failed to win enough of the votes in the October election to form a new government.

But the man that some of his critics have described as the "troublemaker of the EU" and creator of an "illiberal" state is once again living up to his reputation.

This week, he addressed a letter to European Council President Charles Michel in which he indirectly announced that he would veto the opening of talks about Ukraine's eventual accession to the EU.

At the same time, the Hungarian government has launched another of what it calls "national consultations," surveys to solicit support from the population, alongside a large-scale nationwide billboard campaign.

This time, the survey is largely directed against Ukraine but also against the EU's migration policies. On top of that, Orban hopes to tighten the repressive screw against political opposition with a new "sovereignty" law.

Orban's anti-EU rhetoric increasingly radical

The EU seems to have grown tired of trying to curb Orban's belligerence, even as his rhetoric has become increasingly radical.

He has compared the EU's rule of law proceedings against Hungary to when the Soviet army brutally crushed the Hungarian revolution in 1956. He has also accused "Brussels bureaucrats" of wanting to impose "Muslim invaders" on Hungary, as well as "LGBTQ ideology."

The rhetoric of the latest "national consultation" is not dissimilar. The questionnaires sent out to all Hungarian households contain leading questions and answers that people can tick to give their opinion.

One question pertains to the increase of "aggressive LGBTQ propaganda" targeting children, and suggests the EU wants to relax child protection laws. Those answering the survey can decide whether they think it is a good idea or not.

Brussels has not put forward such a proposal. But in 2022, the European Commission did sue the Hungarian government over a law, which effectively equates "LGBTQ propaganda" with pedophilia and prohibits the dissemination of content about homosexuality and transsexuality to minors.

In July 2023, a bookstore in the Hungarian capital, Budapest, was fined the equivalent of around €32,000 (about $36,000) because it had displayed a graphic novel about a love story between two boys.

Leading questions on 'migrant ghettos'

Other topics are being presented in an equally suggestive and distorted way in the "national consultation." Hungarians are being asked whether they want the "migrant ghettos" that Brussels is supposedly planning to create in Hungary, or whether they are in favor of the EU funding Palestinian terrorists.

In a section about Ukraine, people are asked to agree on whether Ukraine should become a member of the EU, suggesting the war-torn state would receive a large proportion of the bloc's funding. People can tick whether they are for "peace" or for "more EU funds on the battlefield." They can also agree to a proposal that Hungarian farmers receive more protection, or decide against imports of genetically modified grain from Ukraine. Another question gives respondents the option to agree that Hungary should receive more funds from the EU before Ukraine receives further support from the bloc.

Lucrative deals with Russia

In almost all of his weekly speeches on Hungarian public radio, Orban has accused the West of being to blame for Russia's war against Ukraine, and of not wanting to end the bloodshed. He has called for a normalization of relations with Moscow and the lifting of EU sanctions against Russia.

Hungary is currently the only EU state working on major projects with Russia during a time of war. In mid-November, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto and Aleksey Likhachev, the head of Rosatom, Russia's state nuclear power company, signed a schedule to expand Hungary's Paks nuclear power plant.

Law protecting 'national sovereignty'

The proposed "sovereignty" law that would offer more ways of stifling dissent also seems to be modeled on similar Russian legislation. Scheduled to be debated in parliament next week, it could pass.

In this case, the law would criminalize all foreign funding for political parties and election campaigns. It would also provide for the creation of a "sovereignty protection office," which would monitor whether parties, civil society organizations and individuals have violated Hungarian national sovereignty.

The office would receive almost unlimited access to data pertaining to organizations and individuals it investigates. It would then issue "sovereignty reports" that could form the basis of investigations and criminal proceedings. Observers warn this could be a far-reaching tool to harass and wear down critics.

The term "national sovereignty" is not clearly defined in the bill, nor is what might constitute a violation. The draft text is so vague that media outlets which receive donations from abroad could also be criminalized.

Russia's 2012 'foreign agent' law has been used to ban civil society organizations and to criminalize individuals. In June 2020, a similar law in Hungary that required private organizations to describe themselves as being "foreign-funded" if they received a certain amount of donations from abroad was declared unlawful by the European Court of Justice. The proposed "sovereignty" law would be an extended, more extreme version. 

Poland, Hungary oppose EU migration policy reforms

Orban: Hungary is not the 'black sheep' of the EU

There have already been protests against the proposed legislation in Hungary. In a joint declaration, the country's leading civil society groups accused the government of trying to "silence all critical voices." The wording of the law was accused of being deliberately vague so that people could be targeted arbitrarily.

Prominent lawyers have said the draft is unconstitutional and incompatible with EU law, a statement that Orban has not disputed.

Announcing his strategy at a recent conference in Switzerland, he declared that in the EU, "Hungary is not the black sheep but the first swallow."

This article was originally written in German.

Headshot of a smiling man with glasses and blond, curly hair
Keno Verseck Editor, writer and reporter