Hungary is Germany's 'China problem' — and Biden should take note

Hungary is Germany's 'China problem' — and Biden should take note
© Getty Images

We should be worried. The German-brokered Comprehensive Agreement on Investment between the European Union (EU) and China makes German industry happy, but its vagueness and concessions on “labor standards,” meaning human rights, will have long-term negative consequences, including a devastating impact on Europe’s chances to be a value-based, geostrategic player, beyond investment and trade. 

In the arguably most significant clash of our lifetime, between our liberal and democratic way of life and authoritarianism, Europe just dealt a big blow to the common Western efforts to push back on Chinese (and Russian) efforts to disrupt our democracies. It seems that for Germany and the German-led EU, business is more important than values or the integrity of the West. Perhaps Chinese leader Xi Jinping enchanted his European counterparts with promises about climate change mitigation. But the climate is not more important than freedom and democracy. And the timing could not be worse — just before the change of guard in Washington, and while Chinese activists who speak out for freedom are silenced and imprisoned

Unfortunately, one should not be totally surprised. The way that Germany has dealt with democracy in Hungary should have been the “canary in the coal mine.”


A few years ago, as the first signs that Hungary, a NATO ally and EU member, was moving toward a new kind of illiberal autocracy and about to become a challenge to NATO and the EU — and perhaps even a threat to the West’s integrity — a friend of mine asked a high-ranking official who is close to the leadership of the ruling Christian Democratic Union of Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, about their intentions to stop this. The response was surprising: “Hungary is not important.” Another friend got the same answer a few months ago, this time from someone in Germany’s Social Democratic Party. There may be a consensus in Germany that Hungary is on the periphery, that it is not an important country, but I disagree. 

Germany should care about Hungary, whose backsliding from democracy should have been seen as a small first sign of “cancer” within the EU. Left untreated, it will metastasize and then will be treatable only by drastic — even life-threatening — means. But for Germany, there are historic reasons to care as well. 

In 1944, toward the end of World War II, Germany occupied Hungary and swiftly deported a half-million Hungarians to the Nazi death camps, killing artists, engineers, entrepreneurs, doctors, teachers and many others and dealing a devastating blow to Hungary’s Western-oriented pillar. Some of its best and brightest citizens were lost. Hungarian society’s “immune system” was tragically damaged and, to this day, has not recovered. The wound will not heal for a long time still.

In the summer of 1989, even in the face of a possible Soviet invasion, Hungary, at the time still a Warsaw Pact country under Soviet domination, decided to open the border between Austria and Hungary for East Germans to be able to flee to West Germany. It was a small but critical moment in the process that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, paving the way for German reunification. Hungarians never expected gratitude in return for this selfless act. It seems that has been forgotten; it seems the Marshall Plan has been forgotten. Many of Germany’s elites must have short memories, with exceptions proving the rule. But be aware: Today, more and more Hungarians think about the past.

Unfortunately, when Germany — Europe’s undeniable leader — is faced with the choice between support for freedom and democracy or its economic interests, it repeatedly chooses the latter. Germany bears some responsibility for the near-collapse of democracy in Hungary, the creation of a de facto one-party state by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the reversal of the once most hopeful democratic transition in Central Europe, by its unwillingness to use its power and influence to intervene. 

Hungary has become a mere assembly line for the German auto industry, which has an outsized influence on politics in Berlin. Orbán’s style of illiberal governance apparently suits them fine: Don’t rock the boat, they argue. They interfere on behalf of Orbán in Berlin in critical moments. The EU-China agreement likely is music to Orbán’s ears, as he looks to China and Russia as the alternative to the West. Even before the EU-China deal was signed, Orbán’s government made public its strong support for establishing a Hungarian campus of China’s Fudan State University. Central European University, an American institution, was chased out of Hungary just a year ago. The similarities are striking: The EU’s China policy, like its policy on Hungary, is defined in Berlin by German industry.

The “compromise” a few weeks ago between the EU, Hungary and Poland to delay a clause that would make some EU funds conditional upon rule-of-law criteria was a lost opportunity to help establish a level political playing field in Hungary. It was a win for Orbán, and it will be mired in legal interpretations. It is too little, too late. The EU, once again, appears to have helped cement Orbán’s power and economic influence. He retains total command of the media, the legislature, the judiciary, and is sliding toward Russia and China. The compromise was a Neville Chamberlain-style effort to avert a small battle, which will not prevent a war.

The way that Germany looks upon Hungary’s democracy problem could be considered Germany’s “China problem” in a nutshell. The incoming Biden administration, in its efforts to rebuild transatlantic relationships, should take note.

Andras Simonyi, Ph.D., lives in Washington and is the former Hungarian ambassador to the United States and to NATO. Follow him on Twitter @AndrasSimonyi.