Hungary has been an impressive economic success since it joined the EU in 2004. But the 15-year marriage now seems in trouble after the EU initiated an Article 7 procedure against the country, citing Hungary’s – or really PM Orbán’s — ever-tighter restrictions on free media, judges, academics, minorities and rights groups, which in the opinion of the EU does not conform with the rule of law, weakens democracy and does not conform with EU values. A divorce is increasingly likely and we could see Hungary take steps to follow the UK out of the EU by end of 2020.
There is endless irony here: a major portion of Hungary’s economic success since 2004 comes from EU capital transfers. One estimate from KPMG estimates that EU membership’s net effect on Hungarian growth was at some +3.0% of GDP per year, but despite this high correlation the government in Budapest is seeking confrontation with Brussels whenever possible.
The pushback from Hungary’s leadership is that the country is only protecting itself: mainly protecting its culture from mass immigration. Plus, they maintain that it has a right to decide for itself. But an open economy with insular governance, immigration and press rules? It’s an unsustainable status quo, and the two sides will find it tough to reconcile in 2020 as the Article 7 procedure moves slowly through the EU system.
PM Orbán is even openly talking about how Hungary is a ‘blood brother’ with the renegade Turkey as opposed to a part of the rest of Europe, a big shift in rhetoric that has not gone unnoticed in Hungary — as well as among bureaucrats and politicians in Brussels.
That this change of tone coincides with EU transfers all but disappearing over the next two years is hardly surprising. But it will leave Hungary’s currency, the forint (HUF) on the back foot and take it to a new, much weaker level of 375 in EURHUF terms as the markets fear the disengagement or reversal of capital flows as EU companies reconsidertheir investment in Hungary.