BUDAPEST – When Hungary and Poland joined the European Union in 2004, after decades of Communist domination, their citizens thirsted for Western democratic standards and prosperity.
Yet 17 years later, as the EU ramps up efforts to rein in democratic backsliding in both countries, some of the governing right-wing populists in Hungary and Poland are comparing the bloc to their former Soviet oppressors — and flirting with the prospect of exiting the trade bloc.
“Brussels sends us overlords who are supposed to bring Poland to order, on our knees," a leading member of Poland's governing Law and Justice party, Marek Suski, said this month, adding that Poland “will fight the Brussels occupier” as it fought past Nazi and Soviet occupiers.
It’s unclear to what extent this kind of talk represents a real desire to leave the 27-member bloc or a negotiating tactic to counter arm-twisting from Brussels. The two countries are the largest net beneficiaries of EU money, and the vast majority of their citizens want to stay in the bloc.
Yet the rhetoric has increased in recent months, after the EU resorted to financially penalizing members that fail its rule of law and democratic governance standards.
In December, EU lawmakers approved a regulation tying access to some EU funds to a country’s respect for the rule of law. This is seen as targeting Hungary and Poland — close political allies often accused of eroding judicial independence and media freedom, and curtailing minority and migrant rights.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban called the so-called rule of law mechanism “a political and ideological weapon” designed to blackmail countries like Hungary that reject immigration. His Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki, called it “a bad solution that threatens a breakup of Europe in the future.”
The EU’s executive commission has also delayed payment of tens of billions of euros in post-pandemic recovery funds over concerns the two countries’ spending plans do not adequately safeguard against corruption or guarantee judicial independence.
In an interview Thursday with the AP, Hungary’s Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto was defiant, insisting that the withholding of EU funds would not compel his country to change course.
“We will not compromise on these issues because we are a ... sovereign nation. And no one, not even the European Commission, should blackmail us regarding these policies,” Szijjarto said.
This month, the EU Commission moved to force Poland to comply with the rulings of Europe’s top court by recommending daily fines in a long-running dispute over the country’s judicial system.
This prompted Ryszard Terlecki, deputy head of Poland's governing party, to say Poland “should think about ... how much we can cooperate,” with the EU and consider "drastic solutions.”
Terlecki later walked back his comments.
Hungary's Orban has repeatedly insisted that “there is life outside the European Union." Last month an opinion article in daily Magyar Nemzet — a flagship newspaper allied with Orban's Fidesz party — said “it’s time to talk about Huxit” — a Hungarian version of Brexit, the U.K.’s departure from the EU last year.
With the finance minister also suggesting Hungary might be better off outside the EU, Orban’s opponents worry he is actually considering that.
Katalin Cseh, a liberal Hungarian EU lawmaker, told The Associated Press it was “outrageous” that senior Fidesz politicians and pundits were “openly calling to consider" Hungary’s EU exit.
“They stand ready to destroy the single greatest achievement of our country’s recent history,” Cseh said.
But Daniel Hegedus, a fellow for Central Europe at the German Marshall Fund, says the Hungarian rhetoric could be “politically calculated leveraging” against the potential loss of EU funding.
“(They are saying), ‘If you don’t give us the money, then we can be even more uncomfortable for you,’” he said.
Recent surveys show that well over 80% of both Poles and Hungarians want to stay in the EU.
This seems to have had an effect on both governments.
In a radio interview last week, Orban said Hungary “will be among the last ones in the EU, should it ever cease to exist.”
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland's most powerful politician, said last week that the country’s future is in the EU and that there will be “no Polexit.”
Political analyst Jacek Kucharczyk, president of the Institute of Public Affairs, a Warsaw-based think tank, told the AP that while Poland’s ruling party invigorates its nationalist base with its feuds with Brussels, popular support for EU membership constrains its options.
“The result is a kind of balancing act,” Kucharczyk said. "Tough words about the EU and immediate and vehement denials that they want Poland to leave the Union.”
But Polish opposition leader — and former top EU official — Donald Tusk warned that allowing anti-EU rhetoric to grow out of control could unintentionally touch off an unstoppable process.
“Catastrophes like, for example, Brexit, or the possible exit of Poland from the EU, very often happen not because someone planned it, but because someone did not know how to plan a wise alternative,” Tusk said.
With Orban's party facing tight elections next year and Poland's governing coalition showing strains, battles with the EU can also serve purely domestic political purposes.
Hungary’s anti-EU rhetoric is likely a “test balloon” to gauge public support on how far the government can take its conflicts with the bloc, Hegedus said, and to garner support for the ruling party ahead of elections.
“I think they are framing this whole issue very consciously so that people will associate the European Union with rather controversial issues which are dividing Hungarian society,” he said.
Some European leaders have already run out of patience with both countries.
In July, the Commission started legal action against Poland and Hungary for what it sees as disrespect for LGBT rights.
In June, after Hungary adopted a law that critics said targeted LGBT people, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Hungary “has no business” in the EU, and suggested Orban activates the mechanism that precipitated Brexit.
Huxit would be "clearly against the will of Hungarian citizens, who remain staunchly pro-EU," Cseh, the European Parliament member, said. “And we will fight for our country’s hard-earned place in the European community with everything we’ve got."
Gera reported from Warsaw, Poland.