As 2022 drew to a close, Hungary and the European Union made a modicum of progress in their long-running battle of wills. The (pro-Kremlin) Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán ended his opposition to sending European funds to support Ukraine in the hope of unlocking other withheld funding for his own government.

However, the funds depend on Orbán committing to rule-of-law reforms. And while promises have been made, Brussels refuses to send all the money – which amounts to billions of euros – until meaningful progress has been made.

Orbán appears to have little desire to change his ways but is feeling economic pressures at home . This immediate need to cooperate with the EU does not change Hungary’s position as the bloc’s problem child. And at this point, the years-long battle is feeding into a dangerous paradox that undermines the reputation of the European Union as well as Hungary.

Democratic erosion

Almost 25 years ago, journalist Fareed Zakaria warned that constitutional limits were being overridden by elected governments around the world and that serious consequences would follow. Zakaria cited countries such as Pakistan or Peru as case studies, but we might just as well examine European nations with the same fears in mind.

Recent research on democratic erosion offers a wealth of contributions. Scholars have identified what they call a third wave of “autocratisation”. Without any military revolts, violence or weapons, gradual changes take place.

Regular elections continue but opportunities for opposition parties to mount a meaningful campaign against the incumbent are gradually weakened. A recent study from political scientists in Sweden estimated that about 70% of the world’s population now lives in an autocracy – with six EU member states evaluated as autocracising.

Hungary joined the EU in 2004 as part of a wave of new members, and was long hailed as a success story of the bloc’s expansion (along with Poland). Yet legitimate governments in Hungary have since taken incremental steps towards authoritarianism.

In the modern era, autocrats aim to avoid international attention or attacks from the media while they quietly limit the freedom of civil organisations and control the resources of political parties. They learn from each other and copy reform initiatives that have already been successful in other countries.