Message to EU meddlers: Hands off Hungary!
Brussels’ culture war against the ‘white savages’ of Hungary is destroying democracy and helping to boost reactionary right-wingers.
Thirty or 40 years ago, the way that the EU and the IMF are behaving towards Hungary would have been described as a classic example of neo-colonial pressure. Unlike Greece, Hungary is not simply being lectured about the need to sort out its economy – it has also been subjected to a veritable culture war. As far as the EU and the Western media are concerned, the real crime of the Hungarian government is not so much its inept economic strategy as its promotion of cultural and political values that run counter to what is deemed correct in Brussels.
The Brussels bureaucracy has long regarded Hungary as a society in danger of being engulfed by white savages. In 2006, when people in Budapest rioted against their corrupt government, the EU and sections of the Western media described the demonstrators as right-wing mobs posing a threat to democratic values. At the time, Brussels weighed in to support its man in Budapest, Ferenc Gyurcsany, the Socialist prime minister. The fact that Gyurcsany had lied to cover up the scale of Hungary’s massive budget deficit, and that he had admitted his dishonesty to some of his close colleagues, did not stop his mates in the EU from singing his praises. Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, president of the Party of European Socialists, was quick to rush to Gyurcsany’s defence, claiming he was the ‘best man to make the reforms that Hungary needs’.
What the Western media overlooked was that the corrupt Gyurcsany government was complicit in creating the conditions for mass demoralisation and cynicism. It was this EU-backed regime that did much to unravel and damage public life in Hungary. Gyurcsany’s humiliating electoral defeat in 2010, and the triumph of Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party, meant that the EU’s placeman was replaced by an autocratic nationalist and populist prime minister.
As has been widely noted by the media, the legislative programme of the Orban government is a product of autocratic ambition. Its economic programme is a confused mix of pragmatism and nonsense – privatisation of industry, slashing welfare benefits while nationalising people’s pension schemes, and so on. In the domain of politics, the Orban government’s key impulse is to centralise control over the key institutions of public life, including the media and the judiciary. The Orban government has also passed new electoral laws that seem designed to entrench its power for years to come. This authoritarian approach is justified by the government in the name of upholding traditional Hungarian values. The new constitution reads like a caricature of a 1930s Balkan autocracy. It is thoroughly anti-liberal (in the classical sense of that term) and appeals to the Christian heritage of Hungary, the family and the nation.
Critics of this illiberal constitution rarely acknowledge that, for all its flaws, it is the first Hungarian constitution to be enacted within a parliamentary framework after a free election. In other words, this constitution has been put together by a government with a massive democratic mandate. Moreover, the Western media overlook the democratic deficit that preceded the Orban regime – namely that the earlier constitution of Hungary lacked any democratic mandate. The pre-Orban constitution was enacted on 20 August 1949 as part of the consolidation of the Moscow-dominated Stalinist regime in Hungary. No one in the EU appears to think it odd that an undemocratically enacted constitution imposed on Hungary by a former superpower should be considered morally superior to one based on a democratic mandate.
But then, the EU itself has no inhibitions about imposing its values on to its target audiences. It, too, does not want its constitutional proposals held up to public scrutiny. Sometimes it rules by decree and refuses people’s requests to hold any referenda on EU-related matters, on the basis that the issues are far too complex for ordinary people to understand. Evidently, the EU commissioners have read their Voltaire. To recall – it was Voltaire who praised the Russian absolute monarch Catherine the Great’s invasion of Poland and celebrated her ability ‘to make fifty thousand men march into Poland to establish there toleration and liberty of conscience’. The EU does not have 50,000 men but it does have many other resources for executing its culture war. Voltaire was tragically mistaken in his belief that deploying coercion was a legitimate tool for forcing people to change their beliefs – but at least he actually believed in tolerance and freedom of conscience. In contrast, the EU technocracy has little time for genuine tolerance.
Moreover, a genuine democratic ethos is not something that the European Commission is particularly passionate about. Its offensive against the Hungarian government has little to do with defending democratic rights. When it finally decided to match its threats of sanction with action, Brussels appeared to be most concerned about the fate, not of Hungary’s electorate, but of its unelected central bankers, unelected judges and the technocrats who run the data-protection agency. On 17 January, Brussels dispatched three letters of formal notice, warning the Orban regime to alter or get rid of recently enacted laws which failed to guarantee the independence of these three institutions. It seems that Brussels technocrats, who cherish their independence from the electorate, are annoyed by the Orban government’s self-serving attempt to cut their colleagues down to size.
What’s next for Hungary?
Faced with enormous economic and political pressure from the EU and the IMF, it appears the Hungarian government is ready to compromise and is likely to alter legislation that undermines the independence of the central bank, the data-protection agency and the judiciary. However, such a compromise will neither solve Hungary’s domestic problems nor restrain the EU from continuing to wage its culture war against this nation.
The Hungarian economy is in dire straits and the Orban regime faces growing hostility from an increasingly desperate electorate. Numerous commentators have pointed out that as a result of the massive scale of economic dislocation and disquiet about the new draconian laws, the Orban government has lost some of its electoral support. The large anti-government demonstration held in Budapest in early January was presented as proof that the base of support for Orban has eroded.
The reality is that, at present, there is no credible democratic alternative to Orban. Opposition to the new constitution, and to the Fidesz regime more broadly, has been both opportunistic and incoherent. A placard on the January demonstration summed up the problem. Written in English, it said: ‘Hey Europe, sorry about my prime minister.’ Clearly, the author of this placard was not addressing the people of Hungary but rather the Western media. Similarly, a statement written by 13 former dissidents protesting against the Orban government’s actions was clearly intended for foreign consumption. It ended with the line: ‘The desperate situation of present-day Hungary should be a warning for all of us: if Europe is prepared to help Hungary, it will also help itself.’
Sadly, imploring Europe to help opponents of the Orban regime is really a statement of irresponsible impotence. Brussels has no political role to play in Hungary other than to use undemocratic coercive pressure against a freely elected government. Worse, by appealing to foreign institutions to sort out Hungary’s domestic problems, the opposition betrays the same democratic deficit that it claims to see in the Orban government. The most likely result of this call for help from Europe will be to reinforce nationalist resentment at external interference. At a time when a sense of national victimhood has widespread resonance, the opposition’s plea for external intervention is likely only to confirm this prejudice.
In the present circumstances, the main beneficiary of the Orban government’s difficulties is not the Socialist opposition but the very unpleasant xenophobic Jobbik Party. It is likely that Jobbik – ‘the movement for a better Hungary’ – now enjoys greater electoral support than the Socialist Party. Jobbik has succeeded in mobilising a significant section of the people who have lost out in the process of transition from the former Stalinist regime to the corrupt post-Communist one. Unlike the ageing constituency of the Socialist Party, many of the supporters of Jobbik are young and relatively energetic. Jobbik’s platform consists of a mixture of populist xenophobia – against Roma people and Jews – with a nineteenth-century reactionary embrace of parochialism and national self-sufficiency. However, when I talked to a group of Jobbik voters last October, what struck me was not their nationalist fervour but their powerful conviction that they had ‘lost out’, had been forgotten and treated with contempt by institutions they could not trust. They support Jobbik because this movement reminds them that they exist.
To a significant extent, the relative success of Jobbik is a legacy of the wasted years of the post-Communist era. During this time, successive governments refused to settle scores with Hungary’s Stalinist past. The new elite – which had strong links with the previous nomenklatura – had one priority: securing its self-interest. Its alliance with the EU technocracy helped to foster an illusion of a reforming prosperous liberal democracy… but as we now know, the reality was far more complicated.
The most useful contribution that Europeans can make to help Hungary is to resist the temptation to ‘help’. It is up to the people of Hungary to determine their political future and hopefully to embrace the values of an open society. Most important of all is the need to recognise the right of people to work out for themselves the norms and values they wish to live by. That’s why the advocates of EU cultural correctness need to be told: ‘Hands off Hungary!’