If the recent vote in European Parliament to pursue unprecedented action against Hungary’s breaches of the EU’s core values has already had an unfortunate side effect, it is the elevation of Viktor Orbán as a martyr and leader of nationalist forces in Europe.
According to The Telegraph, Orbán “issued a personal behind-the-scenes challenge to the French president Emmanuel Macron to contest the ideological future of Europe”. Even more preposterously, The Spectator’s Brendan O’Neill praises the Hungarian strongman for standing up “against the authoritarianism of the European Union, whose technocratic arrogance has now reached such dizzy heights that it presumes the moral authority to punish nation states for doing what their own people, the electorate, have asked them to do.”
Orbán, like Italy’s Matteo Salvini or Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński, does not have any constructive vision for the EU. Neither does Hungary – an economy with a per capita GDP of $14 thousand, rapidly shrinking population, and an addiction to EU cash, which is the main driver of public investment – have much geopolitical weight to throw around.
At home, Orbán has rewritten the electoral rules to give Fidesz a constitutional majority with less than 50 percent of the popular vote. He’s been busy dismantling checks and balances, attacking free media and judiciary, and created a corrupt state capitalist system, which has made a small circle of Fidesz-connected individuals astronomically wealthy (more on issues here, for example).
That otherwise intelligent people on the political right, including O’Neill or Margaret Thatcher’s former advisor John O’Sullivan, have deliberately blinded themselves to the true nature of Orbán’s regime will leave an indelible stain on the conservative and libertarian movement.
However, there is a reason why such blindness has spread – and it is the same reason why the vote last week has given a boost to Orbán’s stature in some circles. That reason is the conflation of Orbán’s genuine authoritarianism with a number of progressive grievances: Hungary’s treatment of asylum seekers, discrimination against Roma, and gender stereotypes.
“It’s a Christmas tree,” a staffer told me about the report on Hungary by Judith Sargentini, a Dutch MEP from the Green Left party, which formed the basis of the EP’s resolution. “It is a product of a dumb procedure and activist MEPs. You can’t write a coherent text when everybody wants to add something to it – and trust me, they all do.”
Among other things, the report criticises Hungary for failing “to adapt working conditions for pregnant or breastfeeding workers,” discriminating against the LGBTQI community, low unemployment benefits, and a short duration of time over which they can be collected.
To be sure, those are perfectly legitimate issues to raise. But similar criticisms can be addressed towards essentially any Central or Eastern European country, in or outside of the EU. Culturally, Hungary, Poland, or Bulgaria are not the Netherlands or Southern California. Pushing them too hard in that direction is bound to provoke pushback.
Conflating the two sides of Orbán’s regime also reduces the coalition of those willing to criticise the Hungarian government. Tories did not vote for the Sargentini report, and neither did a number of MEPs from the European People’s Party.
Most importantly, it allows Orbán and other aspiring authoritarians to change the conversation. Suddenly, the subject matter is no longer their purges of the judiciary, the mafia state, or the fact that it is impossible to find a single daily printed newspaper in the country critical of the Fidesz government. Instead, the topic is immigration, cultural progressivism, and the EU’s overreach.
It does not have to be that way. First, the EU has to take the principle of subsidiarity seriously. Given the cultural diversity on the continent and the divisiveness of such topics it is simply not appropriate for either the European Commission or the Parliament to pontificate on questions of gender, generosity of the welfare state, or workplace accommodations for breastfeeding workers.
In contrast, regardless of one’s ideology or partisan loyalties of any European, it should not be a controversial proposition that government-connected oligarchs ought not buy and shut down opposition newspapers, that judges who are not explicitly loyal to Fidesz should not be forced into early retirement, or that George Soros-funded NGOs should not be “swept out” of Hungary.
When such things do happen, the EU should be ready to act: stop the flow of EU funds, freeze voting rights in the Council, and envisage expulsion as a real option. The Union is a not a jail of nations, it is a club organised around some key political principles, including the rule of law. If Orbán and his electoral base don’t like those principles, they should go. But they should remember that winters tend to get cold in their part of the world.