Many political scientists assert that Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán is an autocrat and point to Hungary as a prime example of democratic erosion. Orbán’s article “Samizdat 16” published on January 28, 2022, confirms these characterizations. In it, Orbán accuses the EU of trying to “federalize Europe” and calls on other Member States to take action. “Samizdat 16” should raise alarm bells not only for political scientists but also for EU officials and citizens. Why? Because Orbán’s rhetoric indicates that he may be gearing up to further consolidate his power in Hungary. “Samizdat 16” also raises important questions about the dangers of EU expansion in a time of democratic erosion across Europe.
Orbán is a clear example of an autocrat engaging in democratic erosion. The VDEM electoral democracy index highlights Orbán’s impact on Hungarian democracy: since 2009, the country has declined from a rating of .86 to .47 out of 1 (high electoral democracy). This slide towards authoritarianism coincides with Orbán’s actions since he returned to office in 2010. Since then, he has bought out independent media, redrawn parliamentary districts to his party’s (Fidesz) advantage, befriended fellow autocrat Putin, and packed the Prosecution Service, Ombudsman Office, Central Statistical Office, State Audit Office, and Constitutional Court with Fidesz allies and sympathizers.
Capturing should-be neutral arbiters or “referees” of a state is a practice commonly used by autocrats. Courts and other neutral arbiters are a natural check on executive power.  Controlling these institutions allows autocrats to cement their power while maintaining a “veneer of legitimacy and legality.”  When courts and judges act in autocrats’ and their party’s favor, they imbue the autocrat with legitimacy. Modern-day autocrats would much rather have the courts and other referees on their side than challenge them overtly. Overtly challenging neutral arbiters alarms citizens and foreign governments, leading to protests and sanctions.
It is no wonder then that Orbán is so threatened by the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Unlike Hungary’s courts and their judges, these referees are out of reach. Orbán’s inability to influence the ECJ has resulted in challenges to his power. Orbán wrote “Samizdat 16” in response to a preliminary legal opinion by the advocate general suggesting the ECJ dismiss Poland’s and Hungary’s challenge to a new “conditionality mechanism” that financially punishes EU Member States that violate EU’s democratic rules.
In “Samizdat 16,” Orbán argues this conditionality mechanism threatens Hungary’s sovereignty. He is not wrong. Financially coercing or incentivizing Member States to abide by EU rules does challenge their sovereignty. Taken at face value then, Orbán seems the hero, defending his country and peoples’ sovereignty. This is exactly how he wants to appear.
One key difficulty with recognizing autocrats and separating them from democratic leaders is that they often employ similar rhetoric and tactics. Autocrats often utilize rhetoric heavy with democratic ideals, invoking the rule of law, constitutionalism, and sovereignty. Orbán’s rhetoric fits this theory exactly. He argues the EU has “undermined bastions of national sovereignty” and that Member States and their citizens should be the “lords of the future of European integration” rather than the ECJ. He further accuses the EU of undemocratic practices such as “blackmail” and “depriv[ing]” Member States of their “fundamental rights.” Orbán ends by calling other Member States to act against the EU’s “stealthy expansion of powers [to] protect their rights.”
Orbán is clearly using sovereignty and the defense of democratic principles as a guise to hide his frustration with the EU’s challenges to his autocratic power. Ironically, the accusations he makes of the EU—having the “voice of Jacob, but the hand of Esau”—describe himself and the stealthy tactics he has employed to erode Hungarian democracy. While Orbán may be right that the conditionality mechanism is a threat to Member States’ sovereignty, its aim is clearly to promote democracy and prevent democratic backsliding. It is much less likely, given the lack of precedent, that the EU is trying to maliciously federalize Europe in a multi-state power grab as Orbán suggests.
Defense of democracy is often used by autocrats like Orbán as a pretext or excuse for its subversion. When Orbán rewrote Hungary’s constitution to his advantage in 2012, he justified it was necessary to eradicate the influence of communism. After all, the original constitution was written in 1989, soon after Hungary transitioned from Communism. In practice, rewriting the constitution was key to cementing his and Fidesz’s power. It appears that Orbán may be gearing up to further consolidate power now under the guise of fighting for Hungary’s sovereignty. The international community must be ready for his next move.
Autocrats often use crises—real or fabricated—to consolidate power. And there is precedent when it comes to autocrats using the expansion of intergovernmental entities like the EU to justify consolidating and even expanding power. Putin, Orbán’s close friend, has used NATO and EU expansion to justify his continuing aggression toward Ukraine. Like Orbán, Putin views the expansion of these intergovernmental entities as a threat to Russia’s security and sovereignty. And like Orbán, Putin clearly has ulterior motives: maintaining and consolidating his autocratic power.
Orbán and the EU have been engaged in a democratic tug-of-war since Orbán rewrote the constitution in 2012. The EU has been so far unsuccessful in preventing democratic erosion in Hungary; its warnings and prescriptions have been left unheeded. Yet it continues to try to curtail Orbán, quite possibly playing directly into his hand. If Orbán needs a crisis, an existential threat to complete his autocratic consolidation of power in Hungary, the EU is on the precipice of providing him just that.
The EU must take Orbán seriously. While his grandiose rhetoric is clearly posturing rather than genuinely democratic, Orbán’s threat that Member States must band together to “act” against EU power is real. The EU must reevaluate its practices when faced with democratic erosion in so many Member States. Is expanding influence and power truly the best course of action in preventing democratic erosion? Or does it merely add fuel to autocrats’ fires? Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018).  Ozan Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Iowa Law Review 100, no. 4 (May 2015), 1673-742.  Nancy Bermeo, “On Democratic Backsliding,” Journal of Democracy (Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press 2016), 5-19.  Ellen Lust and David Waldner, Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding (Washington, DC: USAID, 2015), 1-15.