During parliamentary elections on Sunday last week, Hungary’s right-wing populist leader, Viktor Orban, won a fourth consecutive term, with his ruling Fidesz party bound to take two-thirds of the seats in the Hungarian National Assembly.
The re-election of the self-touted “illiberal” leader will have ramifications that transgress the domestic realm. Orban, who has overseen the erosion of democratic institutions in his country, has been referred to as Moscow and Beijing’s “Trojan horse” in Europe.
As an EU member state, Hungary under Orban’s rule can effectively paralyze the bloc’s efforts to effectively build up its resilience and target authoritarian threats.
This state of affairs has potential consequences for EU-China relations, defined by an increasingly wide normative gap between the two sides. The recently concluded EU-China Summit clearly demonstrated that the impasse in relations between Brussels and Beijing persists, further elevating the importance for Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) to maintain positive ties with Budapest.
The results of the election, which extended Orban’s mandate through 2026, should be a wake-up call for Brussels, whose maladroit efforts to curb democratic backsliding in Hungary have borne little fruit.
Orban has openly flirted with China’s authoritarian political and state-driven economic model, which is clearly contradictory to the EU’s commitment to promote the universality of human rights. His quest to “build an illiberal state that rests upon national foundations” within the EU appears to be appreciated by the Chinese elites.
One of the first congratulatory calls for the Fidesz government came from Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅), who extolled Hungary’s persistence in “preserving its independent choice of development path.”
The Sino-Hungarian bonhomie has affected the EU’s ability to effectively address authoritarian threats. There is an increasing number of voices across European capitals who assert that dealings between the EU and China should proceed only in a “27+1” format.
Yet, as decisions pertaining to the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy require unanimity, Hungary’s vetoes derailed the consensus on the bloc’s China policy. Budapest blocked multiple EU statements criticizing China for its actions related to Hong Kong and the imposition of the National Security Law, in the South China Sea and atrocities against Uighurs.
In her inaugural State of the Union address, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called for the use of “qualified majority voting” in areas pertaining to the EU’s security policy and its Common Security and Defense Policy, including sanctions and human rights.
EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Josep Borrell, who is also the commission’s vice president, aptly asserted that such a voting scheme “would offer an escape from the paralysis and delay of the unanimity rule.”
As Europe is confronted with authoritarian threats originating from China and Russia, extending qualified majority voting to the EU’s main framework for collective external action would be a prudent move toward greater resilience of the bloc.
Amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s increasingly bellicose posture in East Asia and beyond, the EU’s ability to develop weltpolitikfahigkeit, or the capacity to play a role as a union in shaping global affairs, should not be held hostage to the whims of a populist authoritarian demagogue.
The Hungarian election ought to serve as a stimulus for a renewed conversation about the importance of qualified majority voting to ensure the effectiveness of external actions of the EU in an increasingly hostile and unstable global climate.
To a certain extent, Orban’s rejection of European integration and universalism also has a bearing on the bloc’s relationship with Taiwan.
Promotion of migrant rights and LGBTQI+ inclusion are featured prominently on the human rights agenda of the European Economic and Trade Office in Taiwan. This is consistent with the modus operandi of the EU, which seeks to position itself as an ideational actor — or a “normative power” — that diffuses norms in the international system.
Yet the effects of this exercise in ideational diffusion are limited when they do not gain sufficient political and pragmatic backing from member states. Thus, democratic backsliding and erosion of minority rights in EU member states, including Poland and, most prominently, Hungary, undermine the efforts and credibility of the EU’s external actions.
Specifically with regard to minority rights, it is important to underscore that anti-immigration policies, paired with anti-Semitic and Islamophobic rhetoric, as well as homophobia and incitement of hatred against LGBTQI+ people have been some of the hallmarks of Orban’s 12 years in power.
This month’s election happened concurrently with a referendum that asked voters to weigh in on an anti-LGBTQI+ law inspired by Russia’s “gay propaganda law,” and reminiscent of “don’t say gay” legislation introduced by Republican lawmakers in the US.
Additionally, during last year’s vote on the European Parliament’s first-ever standalone report on EU’s relations with Taiwan, the 12 Hungarian members of the European parliament representing Fidesz failed to participate in the vote altogether — despite their presence in the chamber.
Hungary was the recipient of a staggering 89.8 percent of Taiwanese investments in the EU in 2020, which demonstrates that despite political roadblocks, Taipei still considers Budapest a feasible partner.
By flatly ignoring the issue of Taiwan-EU cooperation through a refusal to vote at all, Fidesz’s members effectively failed to meet their responsibility to represent Hungary while undermining its interests.
Accomplished Polish-American political scientist Adam Przeworski famously defined democracy as “a system in which parties lose elections.”
In Hungary, gerrymandered districts drawn after Fidesz’s victory in 2010 continued to dismantle media freedom and pluralism, a process decried by Reporters Without Borders as an “information police state.”
Meanwhile, electoral clientelism, including economic coercion involving threats from non-state actors, has rendered the Fidesz hegemony particularly difficult to dismantle.
Even though a united opposition presented Orban with the first viable electoral challenge in 12 years, the system facilitated Fidesz’s fourth consecutive electoral victory.
While Budapest continues on the path of euroskepticism and illiberalism, the EU needs to urgently address the challenges of institutional resilience and capacity to act globally. In the increasingly polarized global system, the EU should continue to bolster the projection of its geopolitical power as well as its support for liberal democratic values.
However, to realize this aim, the EU needs to build up its resilience to endogenous impacts, including democratic backsliding and subjugation of domestic policy priorities of its member states to authoritarian countries’ designs.
Marcin Jerzewski is a research fellow at the Taiwan NextGen Foundation and an analyst at the European Values Center for Security Policy, Taipei Office.
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