Profile of EU member Hungary: Rebellion within the Union?

Landenprofiel Hongarije - Shaping Europe

Looking back at the 2019 European elections and looking ahead at the elections in June.

Country Analysis - Shaping Europe

Hungary is known for its thermal baths, Goulash and Europe’s largest festival, Sziget. However, it is also known for the prime minister’s difficult relationship with Europe and controversial legislation. This article provides an in-depth look at Hungary’s role in Europe. It looks back at the 2019 European elections and looks ahead to those in 2024.

Hungary in facts and figures

Population and economy

Hungary has just over 10 million inhabitants. The capital city is Budapest, where by far the most Hungarians reside. With a GDP of 17.6 thousand euros per person (2022), the country falls far below the EU average of 35.2 thousand euros per person.

A few years ago, Hungary was the fastest-growing economy in Europe. In 2023, however, the economy deteriorated significantly, mainly due to the cost of living crisis. Hungary suffered greatly from rising gas prices, partly as a result of sanctions against Russia due to the war in Ukraine. However, there has been some slow economic growth in the last quarter of 2023.

Hungary’s main sectors are heavy industry, energy, food, chemical, automotive and IT. The country hasn’t adopted the euro yet but uses the Hungarian Forint. In the past, Hungary stated that they had ambitions to adopt the euro, but that seems unlikely now, due to reduced enthusiasm about a common currency. This is partly because the country is generally less enthusiastic about the EU, which will be addressed later.


Hungary is a southeastern European country and is located in the area also called Central Europe. It has no access to the sea, but is landlocked by several other European countries: Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria. The country is mostly flat, but there are some mountains. Mount Kékes is the highest at 1015 meters. Important rivers are the Danube, Tisza, and Drau. Lake Balaton, located in the west of Hungary, is one of the largest lakes in Europe.


Hungary is a parliamentary republic where the prime minister (head of government) has executive power. The current prime minister is Viktor Orbán. The president is the head of state and performs more representative duties, this position is currently held by Katalin Novák. The electoral system is mixed. Part of the seats in parliament are divided among districts where each district elects one deputy. The remaining seats (93 out of 199) are distributed through proportional representation.

In 1998, the Fidesz party came to power under the leadership of Viktor Orbán, who then acted as prime minister for four years. Between 2002 and 2010, there were two independent prime ministers and a prime minister nominated by the Social Democratic Party (MSZP). In 2010, Fidesz returned to power, again with Orbán as prime minister. He has maintained his position ever since, as Fidesz also won the 2014, 2018 and 2022 elections. In the last election of 2022, Fidesz gained two additional seats. Still, Orbán seems to be losing support among part of the population, especially young voters from Budapest. 

EU accession

Hungary has been a member of the EU since May 1, 2004, at the same time as many other (mostly former Eastern Bloc) countries: Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. There was strong support for accession among the Hungarian population, as many as 83.76% of voters were in favor of accession (although only half of the population showed up to vote). 

However, Hungary’s accession and many simultaneous accessions were premature according to critics. At the time, there was a willingness to draw the former Eastern Bloc toward the West, partly for fear of the return of an assertive Russia. In retrospect, the decision to join the EU was hasty, according to these critics. The fledgling Hungarian democracy (whose first elections were in 1998) was not ready, the economy was still too unstable and the population had not yet been imbued with “European, democratic values”.

Asylum crisis, human rights and the Sargentini report

Much has happened under Viktor Orbán’s regime. In particular, there has been conflict over migration, asylum, and human and media rights. In addition, the country faced a migration crisis as many refugees entered Europe through Hungary. The latter drafted a strict anti-migration law to combat this and also passed some other controversial laws. Many of these, critics say, harm the freedom of the press, freedom of speech, LGBT rights and other fundamental rights. A particularly controversial law was the “Anti-LHBTI law” which prohibits schools from covering topics such as homosexuality and gender identity.

Based on these events, as well as other allegations such as corruption, an investigation was launched by the EU into Hungary’s violation of basic democratic values. This is known as the Sargentini Report, after Judith Sargentini, who, as a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) on behalf of the Greens, was appointed rapporteur for this investigation. Specifically, she investigated whether Hungary was undermining democracy and the rule of law. The report concluded that the rule of law is rapidly deteriorating in Hungary. Based on this report, the EP voted in September 2018 to apply Article 7. 

Article 7 gives the EU the right to respond in various ways when EU values are violated. These include values such as freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law and respect for human rights as listed in Article 2 of the EU. When basic values are in danger of being violated, preventative measures can be taken. There is also a sanctions mechanism for when serious and persistent violations of EU values have occurred. The member state concerned is then invited to respond to the decision. If the situation does not improve, a qualified majority can vote to suspend the member state. This also prevents the member state in question from voting again.

On September 15, 2022, the European Parliament declared that the situation in Hungary was so bad that the country was labeled an “electoral autocracy”. This means that elections are organized but democratic standards are not followed. Later that month, the European Commission proposed suspending the payment of €7.5 billion in EU funding to Hungary. Due to Hungary’s failure to make the demanded changes, the EU ultimately refused to disburse money to Hungary as long as these problems were in play. Last year, however, it did approve the release of an energy crisis recovery fund.

Defend Hungary Campaign

To defend itself against the accusations, Hungary mounted an extensive campaign called “Defend Hungary”. This included a naming and shaming campaign aimed at the investigators of the EU report and other “enemies of Hungary”. These enemies were named and shamed on posters distributed throughout several cities. Guy Verhofstadt (Liberal ALDE group leader in the EP), Judith Sargentini and George Soros (Hungarian billionaire and philanthropist) were made out as “enemies of Hungary”. The campaign also targeted Hungarians. Any Fidesz columnist or party member who supported the Sargentini report was accused of being a part of the ‘Soros Network’, or denounced as a villain and traitor. 

Hungary and Ukraine

In addition, Hungary is fairly unique within the EU in that it supports its neighbor Ukraine significantly less compared to other countries in the region. This is partly because Hungary relies heavily on Russian gas for energy supplies, but also because of close ties to the Kremlin. At the last EU summit in 2023, Orbán still blocked a decision to provide €50 billion in aid for Ukraine and a decision related to Ukraine’s accession to the EU. Moreover, a (leaked) letter states that the Hungarian government wants a discussion on the strategy towards Ukraine and that it considers the sanctions policy towards Russia ineffective. In the end, the decision around financial support for Ukraine was not blocked. Because of this attitude, some accuse Orbán of doing so-called “blackmail politics”, by which Hungary votes, sometimes alone, against a decision that requires unanimity because the country wants change in another area.

Fidesz in the European Parliament

Fidesz is the largest Hungarian Party in the National Parliament, in Europe they are represented in the European People’s Party (EPP). In 2018, there were also several voices within this group saying that Fidesz no longer belonged within this family. EPP amended its statutes to make it possible to expel an entire party from the group, previously it was only possible to expel an individual from the group. In 2019 Fidesz was suspended from the umbrella party and in 2021 Fidesz itself left the group. The Hungarian party is now not affiliated with a larger European group.

EP Elections in 2019

Hungary currently has 21 seats in Parliament. The campaign in Hungary was kicked off by Fidesz with a poster targeting Jean-Claude Juncker (then president of the European Commission) and George Soros. In it, the two were accused of aiming to weaken member states by handing out more migration visas.

Party Orientation European fraction Seats
Fidesz-KDNP Conservative Non Aligned. (Previously European People’s Party) 13
DK (Democratic coalition) Social-Liberals Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) 4
Momentum Centric Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) 2
MSZP- P Social Democratic S&D and the Greens 1
Jobbik Conservatives Non Aligned 1


According to several analysts, these elections had a major impact on the Hungarian political landscape. For example, the LMP, the Hungarian Green Party, did not enter Parliament. These results were closely followed, as national elections took place later in 2019.

Turnout in Hungary is lower than the EU average. Still, turnout in 2019 was a national record, 43.58% of eligible voters cast a ballot. This is in stark contrast to 2014, when only 28.92% of eligible voters had cast a ballot.

The upcoming elections

Whether turnout will increase for the upcoming elections remains to be seen. Municipal elections are also taking place on the same day. This may result in a relatively high turnout rate.

Fidesz began their campaign last October in a speech where Orbán called Brussels a “bad contemporary parody of the Soviet Union”. He did this during the commemoration of the Hungarian Uprising. He did argue, however, that unlike the Soviet Union, Brussels can still be changed. European security must then be better ensured. 

In the current polls, Fidesz also seems to be back on a big lead over the other parties. So far, Fidesz has not yet joined another European group. The question now is whether they will remain independent or join the Party of European Conservative and Reformists. This group is already rising in the polls even without Fidesz, but an additional party could mean a shift in the balance of power in the European Parliament. Much legislation could then be blocked, for example surrounding the Green Deal and European enlargement.

EU Presidency

What is also exciting is that Hungary will become EU president a month after the election. This means that the country will influence the political agenda and lead meetings of the Council of the European Union. The country will then also serve as host to an international summit and some informal meetings. Hungary may see this as an opportunity to pull itself out of isolation and raise its profile further as a challenger. 

Not everyone agrees with the future Hungarian presidency. Several MEPs stated that it is unthinkable. Under Article 7, the presidency could be denied, but the requested support is currently insufficient. For now, the presidency is still planned.

Anoek has a Master’s degree in International Relations and a bachelor’s degree in political science. She specialized, among other things, in global political economy and the role of China. She currently works as a consultant in the public sector.

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