For Viktor Orbán, the pandemic has offered an opportunity to undermine the European Union and curry favour with Hungary’s authoritarian allies.
While Europe and most of the world is locked in a desperate battle with a virus which has already claimed the lives of well over two and a half million people, Hungary has been waging a war against multiple adversaries. The coronavirus is just one of several targets.
Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has insisted that ‘[h]uman lives and health stand above politics’ and that ‘[i]t’s irresponsible to turn vaccines into a political issue’. Yet it’s hard to resist the conclusion that his administration’s handling of the pandemic has been shaped by political considerations as well as informed medical opinion.
Orbán has an acrimonious relationship with the European Union, which he routinely castigates for its purportedly liberal asylum policies, support for multiculturalism, failure to uphold ‘Christian’ values and federalist tendencies. To the dismay of the Netherlands and others, Orbán, along with the government of Mateusz Morawiecki in Poland, fought efforts by the EU to introduce meaningful sanctions for member countries which violate the rule of law.
For their part, the European Parliament and several members of the European Commission have criticised Hungary for traducing the union’s core values, while the European Court of Justice has declared Orbán’s assaults on the Central European University and on Hungarian non-governmental organisations unlawful.
As early as December 4th last year, Orbán condemned the EU for unacceptable delays in the rollout of vaccines by pharmaceutical companies with which the commission had negotiated contracts. With heavy sarcasm, he told Kossuth Radio: ‘The gentlemen over here [in Brussels] spend all their time in political debates about the rule of law.’ Although he was unable to offer any evidence, Orbán also cast doubt on the integrity of western pharmaceutical companies whom he accused of pursuing their own interests at the expense of ordinary people.
In what was widely seen as a further attempt to undermine the credibility and cohesion of the EU, Hungary became the first member state to order additional quantities of vaccine directly, rather than relying on supplies purchased centrally by the EU. With a population of fewer than ten million, Hungary bought five million doses of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine and two million shots of Russia’s Sputnik V—on top of the 12 million doses it had already contracted to purchase through the EU.
Inoculation of Hungarians with the Russian and Chinese vaccines began in February—despite neither drug having been approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and in the face of significant public resistance to Sinopharm, in particular. Pensioners and others, faced with a rapidly worsening pandemic, were left having to choose between accepting the only vaccine on offer or waiting indefinitely for an alternative, such as Pfizer or Moderna, which had been thoroughly tested. Hungary’s former chief medical officer, Ferenc Falus, described the government’s conduct as ‘abusive’.
It would be naïve to imagine the purchase of Russian and Chinese vaccines was simply a pragmatic response to an unprecedented crisis. Under Orbán, Hungary has increasingly aligned itself with Russia and China—neither of which is troubled by his enthusiasm for ‘illiberal democracy’, mounting evidence of systematic corruption or his government’s assaults on media pluralism, human rights and the rule of law. By contrast, the EU and the centre-right European People’s Party—the largest bloc in the European Parliament—are exasperated by the wayward behaviour of Orbán and his party, Fidesz. To avoid the humiliation of formal exclusion, Fidesz MEPs recently left the EPP.
Orbán has long claimed that the EU is sclerotic and ‘ruled by the spirit of bureaucracy’—in contrast to China, which he believes is destined to become the pre-eminent global power. Acquiring the Chinese vaccine allowed him to curry favour with Beijing, while simultaneously undermining confidence in the EU’s ability to handle the pandemic.
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For the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, too, sale of its vaccine to an EU member state offered prestige as well as profits. And any ensuing damage to the EU’s reputation and cohesion represented an additional gain for Orbán’s ally in Moscow.
The manufacturers of Sinopharm have still to request EMA approval, while the agency was unable to begin testing Sputnik V until early March because it had not been presented with sufficient data. Encouraging results of Phase III tests may now expedite its approval.
Orbán’s decision to purchase Chinese and Russian vaccines in advance of EMA endorsement—and before Phase III trials had been completed—was disturbing, although the government in Budapest seemed to regard bypassing the EMA as a matter of national pride: ‘Hungary is neither a half-colony nor a colony. We can make our own decisions,’ the state secretary, Tamás Menczer, declared in January.
Under a government decree adopted on January 28th—apparently intended to facilitate the introduction of the Chinese vaccine—medicines can be granted permission for emergency use in Hungary provided they have already been authorised in at least three countries, one of which is an EU member or candidate, and the medicines have been administered to at least one million people. Previously, new drugs could only be given temporary authorisation for emergency use if they had been examined by the National Institute of Pharmacy and Nutrition and were already in use in a European Economic Area member.
In effect, the decree replaces rigorous scientific review by an independent body of experts with a simple bureaucratic procedure which is ultimately subject to political oversight. ‘The Hungarian [scientific] authorities have been degraded to the status of a rubber stamp,’ Dr Tamás Svéd, secretary of the Hungarian Chamber of Physicians, complained.
The EU’s response to Covid-19 can hardly be described as an unqualified success. With the pandemic raging in Slovakia and Czechia, the governments in Bratislava and Prague have followed Hungary’s example, ordering vaccines from Russia and China respectively. But the timing of Orbán’s negotiations with Moscow and Beijing, for the supply of vaccines, suggests that the decision was politically driven and that there may have been other motives as well.
Orbán’s claim that the purchase of the vaccines was necessary because of failures by the EU and western pharmaceutical companies is difficult to sustain in view of the fact that Hungary has opted to take up little more than half of the US-developed Moderna shots available to it under contracts negotiated by the EU, offering mutually contradictory explanations for its decision.
At the same time, Hungary has not made effective use of the shots already supplied to it, performing worse than any other EU member in terms of the number of doses it has administered as a proportion of the vaccines it has received. In recent days, disturbing reports have emerged suggesting that Hungary purchased the Sinopharm vaccine at an inflated price and that a potentially significant part of the proceeds went to Danubia Pharma, a local wholesale drug company, whose true owners remain unknown.
Orbán’s handling of the pandemic may come at a heavy cost to the health and wellbeing of Hungarians.