If Viktor Orban wins a fourth term as Hungary’s leader next year, the consequences for Kosovo’s EU accession hopes could be dire.
As Europe gears up for 2022, many of its citizens are getting ready for the polls. Throughout the upcoming year, elections will be held in France, Serbia, Portugal, Slovenia and Sweden, among others, and many of the continent’s leading political forces will be put to the test. At the same time, the ideological map of the European Union is again bound to shift – not least when the 27 Member States are still navigating the impact and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eyes are especially set on Hungary, where parliamentary elections will be held in the spring, and where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is seeking a fourth term in office. Having led Hungary uninterruptedly since 2010, Orbán and his Fidesz party have undermined liberal-democratic institutions, civil liberties and the rule of law in the country. The PM’s scapegoating of minorities, including refugees, Jews, and the LGBTIQ community, has further consolidated Hungary’s image as a Trojan horse inside the EU.
Domestically, the electoral race against Orbán is in full swing following the nomination of conservative independent mayor Péter Márky-Zay as the united opposition’s candidate for PM. The anti-Fidesz alliance, made up of over ten political parties and movements, has less than half a year to sow its campaign and reap victory in the polls. It needs to be successful. If Márky-Zay fails to win, a fourth term for Orbán could have dire consequences for the liberal-democratic camp of the EU.
One of the areas that could suffer important setbacks is the EU’s enlargement policy, but not in the way many might think. The process of EU enlargement to the Western Balkans is proving painful and thankless, and no significant progress has been registered over the past few years.
As time goes by, the six would-be members linger in an institutional limbo. Kosovo, a potential candidate country, has the extra burden of limited recognition and an unsolved relationship with Serbia, making its endeavours all the more complex. And, yet, the country has more to lose.
Hungary could hold the key to Kosovo’s accession, and its parliamentary election results could prove existential for its EU bid. If Fidesz wins again, the enlargement status quo, already unfavourable to Kosovo, would see even more at stake; Hungary could become Kosovo’s hardest nut to crack among all EU recognizers.
An Orbán-led Hungary following the 2022 election would likely have a destabilizing effect on Kosovo’s EU accession efforts. As things stand, Kosovo’s problems are all underpinned by Budapest’s warm relations with Serbia.
Hungary is a staunch advocate of EU enlargement, as its authorities have repeatedly stated, and is particularly supportive of Serbia’s fast-track accession. The Hungarian government does not hide its predilection for Belgrade, having made it explicit in a seven-point “proposal on the future of the EU” through full-page paid advertisements in daily newspapers in Spain, France and Denmark. “Serbia must be accepted as a Member State of the European Union”, the proposal preached.
Budapest and Belgrade are barely 400 km apart, a closeness that, conveniently, also plays out in the political realm. PM Orbán in Hungary and President Aleksandar Vučić in Serbia are two sides of the same coin in terms of the governance values that guide them and the ideological notions they embrace. The Hungarian government’s links with various Balkan autocrats, including Vučić, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik and North Macedonia’s former PM Nikola Gruevski, clearly evidence that Orbán is willing to grant political support only to equals. A stronger Vučić, backed by Hungary, will decrease the chance for political renewal in Serbia, which would not be good news for Kosovo.
Of concern also is the role played by the European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Hungarian diplomat Olivér Várhelyi. The Commissioner has openly favoured Serbia’s EU accession bid and pushed for accelerating the negotiations. News portal Politico reported a few months ago that Várhelyi’s cabinet tried to dilute or remove allusions to Serbia’s democratic shortcomings in official texts, to boost its progress along the enlargement road.
The independence of Várhelyi, who is considered an ally of Fidesz, in spite of not being a member, has been called into question ever since his nomination as Commissioner. Such signs of support for Belgrade’s EU process could come at a cost for Kosovo, which could see its own bid falter or weaken as a result.
The last concern, and perhaps the least contemplated one, is that Serbia’s de-recognition campaign could work in Hungary. Belgrade’s diplomatic endeavours against Kosovo’s statehood habe already resulted in a dozen of “de-recognitions” of Kosovo by African and Caribbean countries. For now, Serbia’s lobbying has yet to convince the authorities in Budapest, but the scenario should not be completely discarded in a post-2022 Fidesz-run Hungary. The prospects of a 16-year-long uninterrupted period in office, which Orbán could achieve should he win, would provide a platform to further strengthen his alliance with President Vučić. The Serbian right-wing political movement Dveri has already called on Hungary to withdraw its recognition of Kosovo.
At this point, less than six months ahead of the elections, expectations in Hungary are high. So are hopes. The victory of Péter Márky-Zay could provide a chance to realign Hungary’s engagement with the Western Balkans. Kosovo’s accession hopes could then enjoy the support of a liberal-democratic government in Budapest, which could potentially reverse the lenient approach taken towards Vučić’s Serbia. In 2022, therefore, it’s not only Hungary’s and the EU’s futures that are at stake – Kosovo’s are, too.