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How the European Union Allowed Hungary to Become an Illiberal Model

Mr. Weber still regrets the loss of Fidesz. “On one level, it is a relief,” he said. “But Orban leaving is not a victory, but a defeat” in the effort to hold the center-right together as “a broad people’s party.”

It has helped Mr. Orban that the European Union has few and ineffective instruments for punishing a backsliding nation. Even the Lisbon Treaty, which gave enhanced powers to the European Parliament, has essentially one unusable tool: Article 7, which can remove a country’s voting rights, but only if passed by unanimity.

In 2017, Frans Timmermans, then the European Commission first vice president responsible for the rule of law, initiated the article against Poland. The European Parliament did the same against Hungary in 2018.

But both measures inevitably stalled because the two countries protect each other.

The treaty also allows the commission to bring infringement procedures — legal charges — against member states for violating E.U. law. But the process is slow, involving letters and responses and appeals, and final decisions are up to the European Court of Justice. Most cases are settled before reaching the court.

But according to studies by R. Daniel Kelemen of Rutgers University and Tommaso Pavone of the University of Oslo, the commission sharply reduced infringement cases after the addition of new member states in 2004. José Manuel Barroso, a former commission president, “bought into this to work more cooperatively with governments and not just sue them,” Mr. Kelemen said. Mr. Barroso declined to comment.

Attitudes have shifted. With taxpayer money at stake, the next seven-year budget in the balance and the disregard for shared values shown by Mr. Orban and Mr. Kaczynski on leaders’ minds, Brussels may have finally found a useful tool to affect domestic politics, with a mix of lawsuits charging infringement of European treaties combined with severe financial consequences.

A marker has finally been laid down, Mr. Reynders said.

The big moment comes this month, when the European Court of Justice issues its ruling.

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