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Hungary, European Democracy, and the Rule of Law in the Age of Geopolitics

By Maria Paula Angel Benavides

In an effort to foster open dialogue and address some of today’s pressing challenges, the Austro-French Centre for Rapprochement in Europe (Vienna), the French Institute of International Relations (Paris), the CEU Democracy Institute (Budapest), and the Political Capital Institute (Budapest) organized a panel discussion.

The keynote speech was delivered by Peter Balazs, Professor Emeritus of the Central European University, former European Commissioner and former Minister of Foreign Affairs in Hungary, while the panel included Jacques Rupnik, Research Professor at CERI-Sciences Po; Ursula Plassnik, former Ambassador and Austrian Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs; Zsuzsanna Szelenyi, Program Director of the CEU Democracy Institute Leadership Academy, former member of the Hungarian Parliament; and Peter Kreko, Director of Political Capital Institute. The discussion was moderated by Paul Lendvai, Head of European Studio at ORF, and columnist at Der Standard.


According to Dietmar Schweisgut, Secretary General for the Austro-French Centre for Rapprochement in Europe, who welcomed the participants, the fundamental objective was to address the current geopolitical age, with particular emphasis on the aggressive war waged by Russia in Ukraine. The intention was to establish a connection between this conflict and the themes of democracy and the rule of law.

The aforementioned war and other geopolitical developments have resulted in significant turmoil in Europe, compelling leaders to reevaluate various aspects of Europe's future. This process of reconsideration entails a critical examination of the balance of power in Europe, differing perspectives on Europe's geopolitical role, the reevaluation of the enlargement process, and the exploration of the concept of a European political community.


During the discussion, the panelists acknowledged that there has been a significant emphasis on security-related matters in recent times, which may have eclipsed other pressing issues. Prior to the war, subjects such as information dissemination, the rise of populism, authoritarian rule, democracy, and the rule of law within Europe itself were at the forefront.

Simultaneously, they also recognized that issues related to Hungary and the concept of conditionality as a recently introduced instrument have also been and continue to be relevant in this context.


Our geopolitical age and the changing dynamics

In today's rapidly evolving world, the geopolitical landscape is undergoing significant transformations. The recent aggressive actions of Russia, particularly its war in Ukraine, have raised questions about the prevailing world order. Peter Balazs aimed to explore in his keynote speech the geopolitical age we find ourselves in, the changing dynamics within Europe, and specifically, the situation in Hungary.

Russia's armed attack on Ukraine in February of last year marked a significant departure from the fundamental principles outlined in the United Nations (UN) Charter, he argued. This, coupled with Russia's earlier occupation of the Crimea in 2014, has

contributed to the erosion of the post-World War II system.

The period of relative peace that followed the war can be divided into three phases: the 30-year Cold War, a 15-year détente after the Helsinki Final Act, and three decades of a temporary unipolar world. During this time, tensions grew, new actors emerged, and conflict lines shifted.


The UN system established after World War II sought to ensure international peace and settle conflicts through peaceful means, he continued. It was underpinned by the balance of military threats and mutual nuclear deterrence. Interestingly, despite the dominance of the Eastern bloc, the political norms and practices of the UN reflected the values of Western democracies. The UN's influence extended beyond formal rules to the way conflicts were handled and discussed. Diplomats and experts from around the world adopted Western styles and behaviors, viewing the Western modernization model as a guiding star for their own development.

As he stated,

European democracy and governance based on the rule of law have long been regarded as a global model to be emulated. However, alternative modernization models have emerged in recent years,

challenging the transatlantic traditions. Countries like China and Russia have developed their own models of modernization, which prioritize economic progress over Western political and social elements. This shift has led to a reevaluation of Europe's position in the world.

The European Union has played a significant role in shaping the geopolitical landscape of Europe, he added. The EU's enlargement policy attracted countries from the former Eastern bloc, including Hungary, by offering access to its welfare zone and political decision-making in exchange for adherence to its rules. However, the EU's position in the world economy was overestimated, leading to missed opportunities for trade relations in Southeast Asia and Latin America. Furthermore, Hungary's perception of EU membership and the integration process has been influenced by economic realities and political disappointments, he argued.

As he said, Hungary's accession to the EU in 2004 marked a turning point in its history. However, the country has faced challenges in terms of adhering to EU norms and regulations, particularly in the areas of the rule of law and democratic governance. The Hungarian government, under the leadership of Viktor Orban, has faced criticism for its handling of EU funds and its approach to democratic principles. The EU has initiated rule of law procedures, but their effectiveness remains uncertain.

Hungary's political landscape has undergone shifts in recent years.

Orban's government has aligned itself with right-wing and populist movements, distancing itself from traditional European allies.

This shift, combined with Hungary's pro-Russia stance on the conflict in Ukraine, has strained its relationships within the Visegrad Group and other EU member states. The country's influence on the global stage is limited, and its strategic importance is questionable, he concluded.


A war next door

“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the basis of the so called Western system or of the universalism of Western values, of international values. It defines my personal picture, the idea I have of human beings and their aspirations,” Ursula Plassnik argued. As she stated, for her “they are the same, globally speaking. It is not a matter of political system. It is not a matter of West or East or South or North. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. That is the most powerful definition of a human person on our planet”

“It is a political guideline for the systems we want to imagine and we want to have in practice.

I do think that the European Union is doing a particularly brilliant job in trying to put this into place, in trying to make it real, to make it come to people in general. This is about people. We are talking about citizens. We are not talking about political systems so much,” she continued.


“It is a very different world where

a small government can make significant influence on its environment, on the European Union, even at the United Nations level, with a relatively straightforward bully attitude,”

Zsuzsanna Szelenyi argued, adding that “this is very successful. This government is there for 13 years now. It was reelected fourth time a year ago with ever larger support as before. And every four years this government is stronger and stronger, and it's also stronger at the international level. Hungary's politics, Viktor Orban's party's politics, broke significantly with the Euro-Atlantic commitment, what has represented the Hungarian foreign policy environment since 1989.”

“We are talking at a time where there is a war happening next door,” Jacques Rupnik said. “That is interesting,” he continued, “because

this war has been framed as a war of democracy versus Russian autocracy,

let's say, a very imperfect democracy, I would immediately add, and there would be a lot to discuss about that, but that's not the subject. But that's how it has been framed. This is how Europeans have tried to frame it, mainly East Central Europeans. Not all Europeans started with that. That is not how the rest of the world sees it. So when you refer to the time when universal principles have been established, after World War II, etc., what strikes me is that this framing of the war as a struggle for democracy is not shared by substantial part of what is called now the Global South.”

“I think that Europe will be able to stay united if it does not demand too much of financial sacrifices,”

Peter Kreko argued. “I would not say that it was not painful, but in terms of energy supply, in terms of economics, I think the last year proved to be easier than many thought. I think the real challenge could come if Ukraine's counter attack will not prove to be visibly successful. It can erode the support of many Western countries. If it does not succeed or if it does not take place, if Ukraine is not able to take back large chunks of its territory during this current counter attack, then I think it will erode the support of supplying Ukraine further.”

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