Populism in a crisis: how is covid-19 impacting Poland and Hungary’s relationship with the EU?

General Politics

Despite the EU’s best efforts, the controversial political agendas of Poland and Hungary have seemed unstoppable, until now. Recent covid-19 outbreaks are forcing both countries to redirect their time and budget away from their long-term Eurosceptic political plans and towards tackling the health crisis. But is either government actually delaying their populist agendas, or are they advancing their existing plans under the guise of tackling the virus?

In Poland, contentious judicial reforms are now on hold. The EU had attempted to pressure Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party to cancel a disciplinary board hearing to decide whether Igor Tuleya, a judge well known for his criticism of the government, could be jailed as part of a wider crackdown. But, despite an April ECJ ruling against Poland’s judicial reforms, it was covid-19 that forced PiS to delay the hearing indefinitely. The virus is also forcing the government to consider postponing this year’s presidential elections or justify why the vote should go ahead.

Likewise, in Hungary, populist rallies and reform programmes have been replaced by more immediate concerns. Prime minister Victor Orbán’s right-wing government is now trying to reassure its citizens that it can competently handle the simultaneous health and economic crises.

But neither government is truly saying goodbye to its ambitions. Instead, each is reframing the covid-19 crisis through a Eurosceptic, nationalist lens. Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, stated that the EU has not contributed a “single cent” to fight the outbreak and that individual countries are now the only force genuinely capable of tackling this crisis. Whilst Orbán has repeatedly blamed foreigners, particularly non-EU immigrants, for the spread of the virus and used the current crisis to block entry to asylum seekers’ camps.

Poland is also using covid-19 to achieve one of its long-term aims, undermining the EU’s climate change efforts and creating permanent protections for its domestic coal mining. The climate minister, Michał Kurtyka, has repeatedly said that, in the wake of covid-19, the EU should scrap its climate goals and the carbon trading market – an effective tax on coal plants – should be removed. Poland’s stance, if left unaltered, could signify the end of a fragile EU consensus on climate goals which would be detrimental to wider climate and sustainability issues.

In late March, Hungary’s parliament went a step further by granting near unlimited authority to Orbán and his government. The new law, which has no time limit, allows Orbán to rule by decree and introduces custodial sentences for anyone spreading information deemed to be both untrue and a hinderance to the government’s response to the pandemic. Whilst officially this new law will only be used to tackle covid-19, it would be surprising if Orbán did not use this opportunity to push through legislative changes which will help the ruling Fidesz party achieve its political agenda.

The EU is now trying to stop both countries from contradicting the bloc’s law or harm European values - it has already condemned Hungary’s recent actions, whilst 13 member states issued a joint statement that indirectly criticised Orbán’s actions in decreasing democratic oversight. However, it will be hard for Brussels to disentangle anti-democratic rhetoric and policies from either countries’ genuine efforts to limit the impact of covid-19. For example, most member states have closed or restricted their borders out of genuine concern for citizens, but, with a consistent rhetoric, this same act could also be used to promote an isolationist, anti-migration attitude.

The only real leverage Brussels has is economic. Like all member states, Poland and Hungary are now releasing large sums of money into their economies in an urgent attempt to stem the pandemic’s economic fallout. This level of sustained, unplanned expenditure means that both countries will need EU financial support more than in the past. The EU could, therefore, caveat any future monetary aid on both Hungary and Poland realigning with EU values and law. However, despite the opportunity, it is unlikely that the EU will attach too many strings, or it could face accusations of over-politicizing financial aid and a resulting backlash across the bloc.

Like other member states, both Poland and Hungary are trying to handle simultaneous health and economic crises in a way that causes the least harm for their citizens, whilst also employing strategies to avoid blame and come out of the present circumstance as a capable and competent government. But unlike other member states, both countries are receiving the ire of the EU for explicitly overlaying their efforts to handle these crises with a political agenda that openly contradicts the bloc’s values and partly blames Brussels for the current situation. Whether Poland or Hungary can continue on this path of politicising their agendas with increased EU pressure or growing virus numbers will depend both on Brussels and other member states.


The views expressed in this note can be attributed to the named author(s) only.