The tense relations between Hungary and its EU neighbors reached a new low last week as the heads of the EU member states met in Brussels. The root of the disagreement is a new Hungarian law banning the “portrayal and promotion of gender identity different from sex assigned at birth, the change of sex and homosexuality” in educational materials and in advertisements directed at persons under 18. There is no question that a Democratic U.S. administration faces a strong urge to intervene in favor of social tolerance and respect for sexual minorities. But in this case, staying out is the better plan.
Leading the criticism of Hungary has been Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. “It is my intention, on this point, to bring Hungary to its knees,” Rutte said. “They have to realize they are either a member of the European Union, and so a member of the community of shared values. . . . Or get out.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly scolded Hungary, saying there can be “no compromise on human dignity,” while Slovenian and Polish leaders backed the Hungarian strongman, Viktor Orbán.
In contrast, the Biden administration, although it harbors no affection for a government that openly weighed in in favor of Donald Trump’s re-election and flirted with conspiracy theories, has had a remarkably muted reaction, with public displays of disagreement limited to a short statement of “deep concern” issued by the U.S. Embassy in Budapest and reiterated by the State Department’s spokesperson.
The Biden administration is right to keep a low profile in this case. There is no question that the law, likened already to Russia’s (much broader) legislation against “gay propaganda,” is terrible. However, this is a battle that needs to be fought in Hungary by Hungarians. Inserting the transatlantic relationship, or the EU—as a number of European leaders have done—onto the frontlines of an intimately domestic battle is bound to have unintended consequences. For one, it risks eroding the steadily high support that the EU enjoys in Hungary, despite the vocal nationalism of its government. It also makes it harder for outsiders to keep Orbán accountable on issues that are of direct consequence to the EU or U.S. foreign policy.
Most importantly, the timing is politically delicate: Hungary is gearing up for a critical election next year, in which an extremely diverse coalition of parties has a real chance of driving Orbán out of office—an outcome that would be in the interests of both the United States and the EU.
To defeat Orbán’s party, Fidesz, it is imperative that the anti-Orbán coalition remain as broad as possible. One of the implicit purposes of the “anti-pedophilia bill” was to drive a wedge through the camp of Orbán’s opponents. Alas, most of them have taken the bait. One of the parties of the anti-Orbán coalition, the formerly neofascist, now center-right Jobbik party, supported the legislation. As long as Jobbik is needed to get Orbán out of office next year, it is simply political malpractice for other Western governments to elevate the issue.
Moreover, whatever its second-order effects on tolerance toward sexual minorities might be, the legislation in question is a Hungarian matter. If subsidiarity means anything, it is that what is taught in Hungarian schools and how public service broadcasting is regulated is a matter of domestic policy. The EU itself is a project of economic integration and political cooperation—not a state-building project involving a cultural homogenization of Europe. As such, its proponents have to accept the fact that not all European societies are bound to embrace the expansive views of social tolerance and openness prevalent in Western Europe.
Even if Fidesz’s social conservatism verges on bigotry, that has very little bearing on other EU countries. In fact, much as in the case of the 2018 expulsion of Central European University from Budapest, if the new legislation accelerates the exodus of the urban and educated youth, Hungary’s loss will be its neighbors’ gain.
Finally, the over-the-top rhetoric from EU officialdom, not matched by any actions that the EU can reasonably take, erodes the bloc’s credibility—in the eyes of both Hungarians and their Western critics. Contrary to what Rutte suggests, the EU does not have any legal instrument that would enable it to kick out a rogue country—just like NATO has learned to live, for better and for worse, with Erdoğan’s Turkey (and Orbán’s Hungary) in its midst. Likewise, as long as Orbán still has one or two allies in other Eastern European capitals, the EU’s system for penalizing member states that violate the rule of law will be a dead letter.
That does not mean that the EU is completely helpless. Purely on the grounds of safeguarding the integrity of the EU’s financial resources, for example, the bloc missed a real opportunity to cut off countries facing severe rule-of-law issues from the Next Generation EU (NGEU), the €750-billion post-pandemic recovery package adopted by the EU last year. Hungarian and Polish threats to veto NGEU were hollow, as the remaining member states could have just moved ahead with the program without the countries under the rubric of “enhanced cooperation,” which allows coalitions of member states to roll out their own initiatives. Unfortunately, Merkel was not interested in a confrontation with the region’s budding strongmen (Orbán and Poland’s Andrzej Duda) and essentially capitulated to their demands, weakening the rule-of-law conditionalities entailed by NGEU.
To be sure, there are still ways to turn off the spigot of European taxpayers’ money to Orbán’s regime. European institutions should not be afraid to use them, particularly in light of the grotesque corruption involved in the disbursement of EU funds.
However, that is a different issue altogether from what is an inherently domestic controversy over a domestic policy matter. It is a sad testament to the priorities of Western Europe’s political class that it took a petty piece of domestic legislation, and not the long list of Budapest’s previous transgressions—from authoritarian practices and erosion of the rule of law to its cozying up to China and Russia—to finally stand up to Orbán.
Of course, the United States shares many of those concerns, particularly over Beijing’s rising influence in the region. Yet U.S. leverage over Orbán is limited, especially in comparison to that of European institutions. If the EU’s leadership cannot stop itself from embarking on a pointless progressive crusade, the Biden administration is doing a service to the cause of European democracy by keeping its powder dry.