Hungary Is Not a Colony
16. 8. 2012
Following the 2010 victory of the populist, right-wing Fidesz party that gave it a two-third supermajority in the national parliament, Hungary has become an enfant terrible in the eyes of most of its partners in Europe. Many observers still find it hard to understand how and why Hungary, which led the way during the fall of communism, and a former “best student” during accession to the European Union, has started to distance itself from common European values both in rhetoric and practice.
This development might be explained by noting that the leadership of Fidesz, a completely centralised political organisation, has changed their perceptions of European integration. Here, however, the analyst should be careful. The European agenda implemented by the current government is not independent from an increasing ambivalence among the Hungarian public toward the perceived advantages of EU membership. This shift started at the end of the last century, shortly after the collapse of the Kádár “soft” dictatorship.
Another problem is that it is hard to differentiate between the language used by the representatives of the government when they are trying to score political points and the true ideological perceptions of the Fidesz elite about the political environment around Hungary.
In other words, there may be a gap between what the leaders of the party say in public and how they think and talk amongst themselves. It could be that we will learn the truth only in the distant future when reading the memoirs of the top politicians of the present era.
Still, it is possible to understand how Prime Minister Viktor Orbán interprets the existence of the EU in general, and the union’s involvement in the domestic affairs of member states in particular. His twenty-year old political career (including a premiership in 1998-2002) has a mixed record of pro-EU, europessimistic and even anti-European statements. When he returned to power as the head of the new government in 2010, Orbán did not have a clear-cut European vision, but possessed at least three partly contradictory concepts.
Orbán’s understanding of Europe
First, he believed in the “Europe of the Nations”, meaning the member states, simply represent and defend their national interests, regardless of their lip service to the official idea of a united Europe. From this perspective, the EU is a battlefield amongst twenty-some countries, fighting against each other for more resources and influence. Under such conditions, Hungary should belong to long-term alliances of like-minded countries and establish ad hoc coalitions in the Council to achieve its national objectives. Federal ideas should not be taken seriously, as this rhetoric is just used to cover the true economic intentions of the wealthier member states.
Orbán’s second thought about the EU was that it is an arena for European political parties to carry on their domestic partisan competition. The position of Fidesz as a relatively numerous national delegation within the European People’s Party should guarantee that Orbán will be able to influence the decisions of conservative European leaders. A strong Europe is needed under the leadership of right-wing political forces in order to counter-balance the left-liberal-green political groups which have been too influential in forming the cultural characteristics of Europe.
Orbán’s third idea is that Europe is falling apart – or at least declining as one of the most important regions of the traditional West. In this international context, Hungary should look for new friends and markets outside Europe. In this necessary reorientation of the country, even the potential deconstruction of the EU is not too big a price to pay for this adjustment to a new world order. Hungary has become a member state of the EU only because of geographical reasons, but there might come a moment when leaving the European Schlamperei becomes a realistic opportunity.
EU Weakness Helps Orbán
In line with these beliefs, the Hungarian government enjoyed a free hand in reorganising the political system of the country not just because it had an overwhelming parliamentary majority and public support, but because the EU seemed to be toothless as a political union. Orbán and his advisers believed that the transformation of the constitutional regime - the big blueprint on national level - would not be challenged by the European institutions and member states, since they did not have the right to intervene in domestic issues. But half a year into Orbán’s premiership, the political world of the EU proved to be very different: the European political sphere reacted quite noisily to events in Hungary.
The Hungarian government was shocked when confronted with the extent of international criticism before Christmas 2010. In reaction, Orbán proclaimed that he was ready to defend Hungary (not the government or himself) against slander. In the European Parliament, he participated in a debate on the Hungarian EU Council Presidency. According to his own assessment, he successfully distributed “slight rabbit punches” to “fire-eater” MEPs.
Noisy offensive of a ‘courageous freedom fighter’
The government also launched a communications counter-offensive intended to champion a “freedom fight” against “colonisation”, hoping to neutralise the damage to Hungary’s international reputation and to minimise the domestic impact of such “insults” from abroad. The methods included the use of media controlled by the party to engage in the character assassination of critical journalists and opposition politicians. Meanwhile, the foreign ministry made speeches in Brussels that were delivered with a moderate tone, emphasising cooperating with the EU, even as top politicians at home railed against the EU.
Arguments were floated that Hungary was a pioneer in Europe, with its courageous and unorthodox political and economic policy decisions. These decisions, it was said, could not be comprehended by the West because the old part of the continent did not suffer under communism and had no understanding of Hungary’s unique history. The moral objections of critics were blunted by repeating the counter-charge that criticism from abroad reflected the double standards of the accusers.
Orbán’s negative feelings towards European integration were reaffirmed during this period. He proclaimed that he did not believe in the EU, only in Hungary, refusing to acknowledge the possibility of having both a European and a national identity. Orbán and his inner circle claimed that they were under attack from influential left-liberal circles. Many of their supporters swear that there is an international conspiracy against Hungary that includes the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the financial markets. In an interview, Orbán asserted that there is another, hidden Europe: a conservative, Christian majority which dislikes the concept of a homogenous continent.
Silent step back to normal
In contrast to Orbán’s visionary ideals, reality is more prosaic. The Hungarian government gradually stepped back and changed important laws in order to avoid total stigmatisation. This was necessary if for no other reason than to start negotiations with the IMF and the EU on an unavoidable request for new loans. Nevertheless, Orbán did not give up all his positions and still keeps important command posts on the battlefield. In spite of his ‘tactical peacock dance’, as he describes his own political manoeuvres, the Hungarian government has been discredited. Orbán, whose political moves are better described as an incoherent mixture of mission zeal, pragmatism and muddling through, finds himself isolated within the EU. He has not been invited to the capital of a member state, and no one has come to Budapest to visit him, since the Hungarian EU Council Presidency ended in the summer of 2011.
The recent scandal over the Romanian government’s recent anti-democratic measures has raised fears about the spillover effects of Orbánism in Europe. Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta has realised the danger of an analogy being drawn between his steps to diminish the strength of checks-and-balances in his country’s legal system, and how the Hungarian government degraded its own constitutional order. In order to mitigate the risk, Ponta stated that the only similarity between the two cases is that both leaders are named Viktor. This verbal demarcation line shows explicitly how much the Hungarian government has been marginalised inside the EU, two years before the next parliamentary elections.