A swath of American conservatives have lionized Viktor Orban, but on Thursday, Europe’s elected parliament shined a clarifying light on the Hungarian tyrant, voting overwhelmingly to denounce the “hybrid regime of electoral autocracy” he has built through bigotry, corruption and contempt for democratic norms. That condemnation was too long in the coming and is unlikely to faze Mr. Orban. But the European Union’s executive arm has a better way to get his attention: cutting off Hungary from the billions of dollars in aid on which his regime depends. It is now preparing to do just that. Better late than never.
For a second-rate strongman, Mr. Orban, prime minister of a landlocked country with a population on par with that of Honduras, has punched way above his weight. Though Hungary is a member of the E.U. as well as NATO, he has stood apart as a stalwart ally of Vladimir Putin, the Russian dictator. And when he appeared last month before the Conservative Political Action Conference in Texas, he received a rousing welcome despite having warned days earlier that immigration threatened to remake Hungary into a “mixed-race” country — a remark that prompted the resignation of one of his top aides, who said correctly that it evoked Nazi dogma.
Better to have rogue regimes inside the tent of civilized nations — or so goes the argument according to which Europe has tolerated Mr. Orban’s transgressions since he assumed office in 2010, in his second run as prime minister. In fact, evidence for the civilizing influence of E.U. membership has been scant in Mr. Orban’s case. Over the past dozen years, he has established a regime, rooted in intolerance, intimidation and authoritarianism, that little resembles most of Europe. Posing as a self-styled enemy of “globalists,” he has forced through a new constitution and laws that marginalize opposition views, rig elections in his favor and put state-owned media outlets effectively under his control. In the name of “Christian values,” he regularly attacks LGBTQ people and immigrants.
Despite its descent into what amounts to a Potemkin democracy, Hungary has managed until now to forestall serious disciplinary consequences from the E.U., which wields a formidable power of the purse. Now the jig is up, or nearly so. Furious that E.U. funds have been used corruptly for years to fatten the wallets of Mr. Orban’s friends and political allies — which officials in Brussels delicately refer to as “rule-of-law problems” — the European Commission is preparing to withhold some $4.6 billion in already frozen pandemic recovery funds for Hungary, an unprecedented move. Beyond that, the commission could block billions more in covid-19 relief money by the end of the year, as well as a six-year, 22-billion-euro package intended mainly to modernize Hungary’s antiquated infrastructure.
Predictably, Mr. Orban has dispatched envoys to Brussels who have promised a strict new anti-corruption regime. But such pledges have turned out to be trickery in the past, with little effect on Mr. Orban’s deepening autocracy. Some European officials, notwithstanding previous hoodwinking, propose giving Hungary more leeway. That would be a mistake. For Mr. Orban, time should be up.