Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl once said that it was in Hungary that the first stone was removed from the Berlin Wall. This month marks 25 years since Hungary opened its borders to the West and set the reunification of Europe in motion.
Today, Hungary’s Government is turning its back on the West. In a recent speech, Prime Minister Victor Orban said he wants to build a 'spiritual Iron Dome' against foreign influence, break with the dogmas and ideologies accepted in Western Europe and instead establish an illiberal state. Liberal democratic states, he claimed, cannot remain globally competitive. The very week that the European Union was discussing sanctions against Russia for its violations of Ukrainian sovereignty, Mr Orban held up Russia as a success story.
Hungary’s journey towards becoming an illiberal state is already well under way. Since coming to power in 2010, the Hungarian Government has replaced heads of the judiciary and theatre and museum directors, tightened control over the media and changed the country’s election rules.
This year, the Hungarian Government has launched a crackdown on civil society. In the speech mentioned above, Prime Minister Orban attacked the Norwegian Government for funding Hungarian NGOs, claiming we are financing political activists to further our own interests. Police action has since been taken against the NGO fund supported by Norway. Similar funds supported by Norway exist in 15 other EU member states and are valued by NGOs and governments alike.
Norway’s support to Hungary is part of the € 1.8 billion contribution made by the EEA EFTA countries to social and economic cohesion in Europe. Hungary is now violating the terms of the agreement for these funds, most of which go to the Hungarian Government. In response, we have suspended all payments to the Hungarian Government, while maintaining the NGO fund.
While not a member of the European Union, Norway is closely integrated with the EU and deeply committed to the values that underpin European integration. These values are now being challenged by the Hungarian Government, a member state and a recipient of massive funding from the EU. Given this situation, I am puzzled and disappointed that a response from the EU institutions has been largely lacking. For decades, the EU has been the strongest impetus for democratic change and respect for human rights in Europe. As we approach the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the EU should demonstrate in no uncertain terms that it will not accept the re-establishment of an illiberal state within its borders.