At yesterday’s European Council meeting, it was Dutch prime minister Rutte who grabbed everyone’s attention by suggesting that member state Hungary be kicked out of the EU. An echo of a vintage Rutte moment, when he told migrant children to “sod off” to another country if they did not want to fit in. Attention-grabbing seems to have been the goal. Right after all the camera’s had Rutte’s sod-off moment on record, he proceeded by going into all the caveats and admitting that he couldn’t throw a country out.
EU member states can leave the EU only if they choose to. Rutte is well aware of this, although Dutch television viewers may not. They may be under the impression that their prime minister is doing his utmost to punish the Hungarian government for its flagrant disrespect for the rule of law and democracy. The reality is, that there are a host of boring and realistic measures that could have been undertaken to penalise the transgressions of Orbán’s regime.
Thanks to Rutte’s cri de coeur, nobody is talking about this continuous dereliction of EU values by the European Council. These values are written down in the European treaties, and it is up to EU institutions to uphold them. That includes the European Council. Mark Rutte, a veteran Council member of eleven years, and his colleagues have not only chosen to not uphold EU values. They have actively obstructed any action from other EU institutions.. Most recently, by blocking the application of Rule of Law Conditionality rules to Hungary’s EU subsidies.
For as long as Rutte has been a member of the European Council, Orbán was allowed to continue his authoritarian project with impunity. This is not to say that Rutte didn’t care. It is to say that Rutte didn’t care enough. For instance, when the choice is between values and a rebate for the Netherlands, he will choose the latter and he has done so in the past. Other government leaders have their own reasons for tolerating Orban’s behaviour, but there is one thing that unites all of them. One thing that they find even more horrifying than the threat Orbán poses to the democratic rule of law; it is giving the EU the power to act against member state governments.
This attitude has hurt Hungarians first and foremost. Kicking them out would hurt them even more. Because you will not only kick out Orbán. You will kick out LGBTQ Hungarians too. And the entire opposition, now polling at 50%. You will kick them out and lock them up in a second Belarus right in the heart of Europe. Let us not go down that path. Hungarians are Europeans; Hungary is one of us.
Make no mistake. A lot of people feel the same way about Orbán as Mr Rutte does. I’d love to see him kicked out of the prime minister’s office with a cardboard box of personal belongings. By which I don’t mean all the state assets Orbán has seized for himself and his cronies. It is good that Mr Rutte voiced this sentiment, and did so again behind closed doors. But it would be much better if these words were followed by action. Boring, realistic and methodical action that punishes authoritarianism and allows democracy and the rule of law to flourish. Start by targeting the thing Viktor Orbán loves most; his wallet.