Poverty In HungaryAfter joining the European Union in 2004, Hungary seemed to be on the path toward a more prosperous future. However, once Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán touted the idea of Hungary becoming an illiberal state, tensions between Brussels and Budapest reached new highs, threatening to destabilize the European Union with an autocratic member and potentially increase poverty in Hungary.

Orbán Erodes Democracy in Hungary

After first holding office from 1998 to 2002, Prime Minister Orbán returned as head of government in 2010, wanting to redesign governmental institutions. Orbán, a member of the Fidesz political party, subverted democratic norms and cemented one-party rule to ensure his assignment as prime minister and the supermajority of his party Fidesz.

In more than a decade since Orbán returned to the premiership, the Prime Minister and Fidesz have completely undermined Hungary’s democracy, erasing governmental integrity through the following methods:

  • Rewriting Hungary’s Constitution
  • Undermining the independence of the judiciary
  • Controlling media, including the Internet, television channels and even school textbooks
  • Gerrymandering to guarantee a Fidesz majority
  • Suspending civil society organizations

As a result of Orbán’s reforms, the think tank Freedom House demoted Hungary to the status of partly free, indicating that Hungary’s democracy is at the cusp of autocracy, according to E-International Relations.

Poverty in Hungary

Despite Hungary’s descent from a protected democracy, poverty under Orbán’s leadership is reaching new lows.

From 2015 to 2019, there was a 2.2% drop in poverty rates, leaving only 12.3% of Hungarians below the national poverty line. The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted this trend of alleviating poverty rates, but official numbers are not yet available, as per the World Bank.

Hungary Depends on EU Funds

As Brussels and Budapest continue to clash, Hungary may become subject to financial repercussions. As one of the largest recipients of EU funds, the landlocked nation may find itself in tough times if cut off from much-needed aid.

From the 2014-2020 budget, Hungary received €40 billion ($40.8 billion). In just 2018, Hungary received €6.3 billion ($6.43 billion) from the EU, almost 5% of the country’s GDP.  Without EU funding, the nation’s economic growth and ability to counter domestic poverty may stagnate or suffer.

Confrontations Between the EU and Hungary

Hungary’s turn against democratic norms puts it at odds with the European Union, prompting concerns about whether the EU should continue funding the nation as it refutes the multinational organization’s liberal democratic values.

Hungary’s violations of rule-of-law principles by undermining the country’s judiciary, education system and electoral integrity have prompted the EU to assess the best path forward to divert Hungary from autocracy, according to E-International Relations. In addition, the EU has accused Hungary of mishandling its funds, citing a lack of transparency and corruption (including 52 probes into misuse of funds) in how the nation utilizes EU funds.

In the past, the European Union has explored two main tools to handle Hungary’s disobedience: Article 7 of the Treaty of Lisbon and infringement procedures.

Under Article 7 of the Treaty of Lisbon, the EU can suspend certain rights of member states if a nation violates liberal democratic values, according to E-International Relations. However, this procedure requires a unanimous vote by all EU member states, rendering this feat impossible due to Orbán’s staunch ally in Poland.

The other main tactic the EU has tried is infringements procedures, which, simply put, is a legal action against an EU country that does not uphold EU law. In the past, infringement procedures in Hungary totaled €100,000 a day, according to E-International Relations. However, taking Hungary to court is time-consuming and potentially too ineffective to curb the nation from authoritarianism.

Brussels has resorted to withholding funds from Hungary within the past two years. The EU prevented Hungary from accessing more than €7.2 billion ($7.34 billion) from the bloc’s coronavirus response fund, citing ongoing breaches of EU law.

Now, as tensions rise, Brussels can leverage its conditionality regulation. This tool, which came into effect in January 2021, allows the EU to withhold money from its general fund from member nations for rule-of-law breaches. The European Union can prevent Hungary from accessing €40 billion ($40.8 billion) from its 2021-2027 budget if Orbán does not abide by the EU’s rules. This robust measure, which could push Orbán farther away from autocracy, may ultimately be detrimental to poverty in Hungary.

A Path Forward

As Brussels and Budapest continue clashing over democratic principles and funding, the future of poor Hungarians is in limbo. Financial penalties could prevent infrastructural development, welfare assistance and other critical programs that combat poverty, impeding the progress made under Orbán’s regime.

However, chances for a compromise remain hopeful. In June, Orbán stated, “Everything is ready for an agreement to be struck between the union and Hungary, which I think both sides need.”

With the two sides approaching an agreement and potentially unlocking withheld funds, Hungary could hopefully be on a path away from both autocracy and poverty.

In the meantime, non-government organizations are working to combat poverty in Hungary, with Habitat for Humanity Hungary being a notable example. Habitat for Humanity began its work in Hungary in 1996 and it helps supply homes for the impoverished. In 2019, Habitat for Humanity has helped more than 230 Hungarians, trying to minimize the number of people in poor living conditions.

Although the political situation remains precarious, there is still hope for the poorest Hungarians. Brussels and Budapest are inching closer toward an agreement, hopefully bringing more assistance to the poorest Hungarians shortly.

Michael Cardamone
Photo: Flickr

Healthcare in HungarySince the year 2000, Hungary has made strides to improve its healthcare system, which for decades has lagged behind the healthcare systems of other countries in the European Union (EU). Unequal issuing of medical equipment, the prevalence of smoking, drinking and obesity and an unstable political system have resulted in systematic healthcare issues in Hungary, which disproportionately affect citizens living in poverty. Here are seven facts everyone should know about healthcare in Hungary.

7 Facts About Healthcare in Hungary

  1. Hungary has one of the lowest life expectancies in the EU. In 2017, life expectancy in Hungary averaged 76 years, a four-year increase since the year 2000. Despite the improvement, the Hungarian life expectancy is still 4.9 years behind that of other Europeans. Hungarians have higher rates of risk factors, such as smoking, obesity and underage alcohol consumption than other countries in the EU, which can contribute to an early death.
  2. As of 2017, Hungary’s rate of amenable mortality is twice that of the rest of the EU. Amenable mortality refers to deaths from diseases and conditions that are nonfatal when given appropriate medical care.
  3. Socioeconomic inequalities in Hungary contribute to lower life expectancy. Lower-income Hungarians are more likely to report unmet medical needs than those with a higher income. Out-of-pocket spending in the country is double the EU average and medical care is most readily available to those who can afford to pay. Though access to medical care is not an issue across the board, lower-income Hungarians are 11 times more likely to complain of unmet healthcare needs.
  4. Healthcare in Hungary suffers from an unequal distribution of equipment. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Hungarian counties with the lowest health status tend to also have the lowest numbers of necessary medical supplies. The distribution of resources is concentrated largely in the capital of Budapest and the counties with the highest health status. The city of Budapest alone has 87% more doctors and 64% more hospital bed space than the rest of the country.
  5. Healthcare in Hungary does excel in some areas but still has systematic problems. In 2016, the Euro Health Consumer Index ranked the Hungarian healthcare system 30th out of 35 countries in the EU. Though Hungary does excel in infant vaccination and physical education, it has some of the EU’s highest waiting times for CT scans and a higher than average occurrence of lung disease, infections and cancer deaths. It also had the second-highest prevalence of bribery among hospital workers. Hungarian physicians are particularly susceptible to this form of corruption due to their low pay. Their acceptance of these so-called “gratitude payments” puts those who cannot afford to pay extra at a disadvantage.
  6. The World Health Organization (WHO) rewarded the government’s anti-tobacco initiatives. In 2013, the WHO awarded Prime Minister Viktor Orbán with its WHO Special Recognition award for “accomplishments in the area of tobacco control.” In recent years, the Hungarian government has developed anti-tobacco campaigns to quell the high percentage of smokers in the country. These reforms include changing the labels on tobacco products to include warnings of the potential side effects of smoking and banning smoking in public spaces. The country has also taken steps to ban advertisements for tobacco products and, since then, has seen a reduction of smoking-related deaths.
  7. Reforms to increase the healthcare workforce are in progress. In November 2018, the government rolled out a plan to increase physicians’ pay 72% by 2022, and, in early 2020, announced government scholarships for 3,200 people in order to bring more Hungarians into the understaffed nursing profession.

Healthcare in Hungary today is still behind many other countries in the European Union. Hungarians have lower life expectancies than other Europeans and the country is in need of more skilled doctors and nurses to properly treat all of its people. However, in recent years, the Hungarian government has invested more money to reduce the country’s high rates of smoking-related deaths and increase the healthcare workforce. Healthcare in Hungary has experienced a positive change in recent years and, with more investments in the healthcare sector, more necessary reforms can be made.

Jackie McMahon
Photo: Flickr