"We called for a real commitment to the independence of the judiciary, a free press, and governmental transparency, because it's important not only for Hungarians... but... that we continue to exemplify democratic values and freedoms... for the benefit of our own people and for the transatlantic alliance, but also as examples for those who are struggling to define their own democracies now in the Middle East and North Africa."
Hillary Clinton (June 2011)
In 2010 Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orban, led his centre-right Fidesz party to a sweeping electoral victory, winning two thirds of parliamentary seats against a backdrop of both incumbent government corruption, and anxieties stemming from the current financial crisis. Armed with this powerful mandate, Orban's government has embarked upon a wide-ranging set of constitutional reforms that have blurred the rightful separation of powers and raised concern on both sides of the Atlantic.
Of the 200 new laws breathlessly passed since Mr Orban arrived in office, those that have garnered most international attention have included the forced retirement of 270 judges, new laws allowing greater state control of the media, and the political appointment of Fidesz party loyalists to positions controlling the judiciary and the country's central bank.
The President of the European Commission, Manuel Barroso has made it clear that such democratic curbs contravene the Copenhagen Criteria that define the basic political expectations incumbent upon EU members, and the Commission has this week launched legal action against Mr Orban's increasing centralisation of power. In addition to pressure from the US, further pressure has been exerted on Hungary by the IMF: Hungary, whose economy has recently received a further credit downgrade, is requesting a standby arrangement of some US$15.7 billion. Director Christine Lagarde has blocked negotiations until Hungary has exhibited tangible steps towards both ensuring macroeconomic stability, and "support for European authorities and institutions."
Two significant conclusions can be drawn from the diplomatic efforts made over the last seven months by the US, the IMF and more recently by the EU.
Firstly, it is clear that the European democratic model continues to be of great importance to the US. The US has a long, and sometimes bruising, history of striving to implant its own particular brand of democracy in various regions across the globe. The US doesn't only value European democracy because it functions as an additional "example for those who are struggling to define their own democracies now in the Middle East and North Africa", but because the democratic similarities between the US the EU make them natural allies in the United States' long term ideological foreign policy strategy. Whatever economic and security alliances the US is able to forge elsewhere, where else can the US turn to for such collective support in this regard? As the EU looks again at the shape of its future, and discerns a clearer collective identity, it would do well to bear this in mind.
Secondly, it is for the above reason that the EU should tread carefully as it approaches the current issues in Hungary. As Manuel Barroso said in a recent joint press conference with Mr Orban:
"It is not only the so-called "federalists" who want to see more economic governance and economic co-ordination in Europe...The markets are sending a very clear message that Europe must work in a more coordinated manner when it comes to economic and financial issues."
As the EU, and more specifically the Eurozone, attempts to streamline its collective decision making processes in the wake of its financial troubles, it must be seen to have developed the necessary structures to effectively hold its members to account. It has been fortunate that in addition to interventions from the EU, Hungary has also faced pressure from both the US and the IMF. The EU however should not come to rely on this external help. Not only must a strengthened Commission be ruthless in pursuing and halting Hungary's anti-democratic laws (as should be the case with all members), but it must also be able to ensure union-wide prudence in economic policy. If the EU fails to achieve this alone, it will not only lose credibility with markets, but will further erode its credability as a relevant collective voice at home and in the international arena.
Jack Bicker is an MA student in Philosophy of Public Policy at the University of London.