Hungary presents Europe with an unprecedented case of chutzpah, through the arrogance of a politician who has found a way to defy rules and to bite the hand that feeds him.
Newly elected premier Victor Orbán has succeeded in achieving the two-thirds majority in the Hungarian elections and in consolidating his leadership of the so-called identity based rightist forces in Europe. Americans may be too absorbed by the tempestuous drama of the Trump presidency to worry about a small country in central Europe, a little cog in the scheme of continental confrontation that ranges from the aftermath of Brexit to the Russian role in the battlefields of Ukraine. Yet Hungary should be the matter of some concern to Americans for an important reason: the emergence of a defiant autocratic leader such as Orbán would not have been possible without a strong nudge from American Trumpism.
It will not fall to the United States to draw another red line, this time in Europe, but it is certainly imperative for the European Union to take a stand against the xenophobic course of Viktor Orbán and his nationalistic Hungarian Civic Union (Fidesz). It is a challenge that the European leaders cannot take lightly since the Hungarian leader undermines the fundamental values of the European Union by theorizing and practicing his “illiberal democracy”, with a high degree of chutzpah insofar as Hungary profits from generous assistance by the European Union.
In October 2008, the EU, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank pledged an overall amount of 20 billion euro in multilateral financial assistance to Hungary. Recently, however, Orbán has boasted that Hungary can operate without EU funds because “the economic engine is not EU’s money but the Hungarian workingmen.” While it is true that lately the Hungarian economy has been expanding (at the rate of 4 percent) the bottom line is that during the 2008-2013 EU budgetary period the Hungarian economy was kept alive by EU funding. In spite of that, Orbán maintains that EU funds are not a “present” and that in any case he is not afraid of the possibility of Brussels withholding funds because of concerns over the rule of law in Hungary. European laws do not allow such conduct, he stated, in a fit of audacity that borders on insolence.
Just one year after the election of French President Emmanuel Macron that gave an unexpected push to pro-European forces, the populist onslaught in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic has raised the ante. The electoral campaign in Hungary was fought and won in a “war against Brussels” and by an obsessive and apocalyptic campaign against immigration. The long shadow of Donald Trump and of his executive orders closing the borders to immigrants from Islamic countries have abetted and justified the rejection of Muslims and other refugees in Hungary. They have been depicted with deafening fervor as the enemy of Christian Europe, on the same level of financiers who “conspire” against the old continent in the name of a valueless multiculturalism. Such is the condemnation that targets the pro-democracy activism of the Hungarian born George Soros and by inference any liberal institution of the West that calls upon Hungary to respect the European project advancing the rule of law, pluralism, freedom of the press and free elections.
Viktor Orbán has an open road ahead to dismantling liberal institutions and strengthening his front, imbued with extreme sovereignty and the cult of identity. This conduct represents the negation of the traditional role of European parties that strive to harmonize the standards of freedom and democracy.
The other side of the ledger is that Orbán has exposed a substantial degree of weakness in the European Union itself, a persistent situation that cannot be discounted. The EU embraced the wrong economic policies that caused a useless austerity without any real prospect of redressing the underlying causes of the economic crisis. What is more evident now is that the EU failed to pay due attention to the illiberal practices and the authoritarian trend in central Europe, specifically in the countries that once were classified as Eastern Europe. Brussels tried to be firm by threatening measures against Poland for its violations of the rule of law but it did not carry through.
In the case of Hungary, it tried a form of wishy-washy appeasement with the Fidesz leadership, owing to the fact that Fidesz was a kind of protectorate of the European People’s Party (EPP), a center right group, the largest in the European parliament, comprising the conservative parties in Europe, including those of Marine Le Pen in France and Alternative for Deutschland.
The victory of the Hungarian right wing party is bad news for the European Union not just because it will bring about a form of dictatorship under democratic pretenses but for another grave consequence – the impact of a nationalist regime upon immigration on the continent. Orbán’s war on immigration, from the refusal to accept any new immigrants to the erection of barbed wire walls “a la Trump” at the frontier, means that his noxious doctrine dominates the political culture of Europe.
The time has come for the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and other principled European leaders to draw a red line, by instituting punitive measures against a government that increasingly adopts authoritarian measures and rejects the norms of solidarity upon which rests the unity of liberal democracies in Europe. Time will tell if these democracies will act, starting with a campaign to stop the Hungarian regime from taking advantage of European largesse while thumbing its nose at the European authorities. Even more important is taking action to stop other European governments – the forthcoming one in Italy is one of them – from following in Orbán’s footsteps.