October 24, 2018

“Hungary Will Not Change, Europe Must Change”

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán giving a speech at the European Parliament on 11 September, a day before the vote on measures against Hungary.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán giving a speech at the European Parliament on 11 September, a day before the vote on measures against Hungary.

Viktor Orbán seems to be going beyond simple political change in Hungary

The European Union is trying to discipline Hungary the hard way but Prime Minister Viktor Orbán believes this is revenge for Hungary not wanting to be a country of immigration. Orbán says that Hungary will not change; it is Europe that needs to change.

On 12 September 2018 the European Parliament adopted a resolution that has been called historic, when it approved the so-called Sargentini Report. The report by Dutch Green MEP Judith Sargentini severely criticised Hungary, where Orbán is already in his third term, for disregarding the EU’s fundamental values, such as democracy, equality, the rule of law and human rights. The approval of these conclusions is considered historic because this is the first time the EU has seen a member state as a threat to the Union’s shared values. Based on this resolution, the EU may trigger sanctions against Hungary under Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, an article that has sometimes been referred to as the “nuclear option”. It is now possible, at least in theory, that Hungary will even be deprived of its right to vote on common decisions.

The European Commission initiated the same proceedings against another member state, Poland, in late 2017. The reasoning included weakening the independence of the judiciary.

The decision on Hungary was adopted in the parliament by 448 votes to 197, with 48 abstentions. The message is exceptionally strong because more than two-thirds of MEPs were in favour of sanctioning Hungary.

The vote of the centre-right EPP group, to which the ruling Hungarian populist conservative party Fidesz belongs, was divided. The group’s leader, Bavarian Christian Social Union member Manfred Weber, has been considered a defender of Orbán in the EPP, but this time he voted against him. Weber is running to be the next president of the European Commission and will be fighting for the EPP’s candidacy at a meeting in Helsinki in November 2018. Nevertheless, Fidesz has not been thrown out of the EPP yet. The EU has tried to discipline Hungary a number of times, but several things have remained unchanged in practice. The September decision is a sign that the European Parliament has had enough. Its proposal now goes to the Council, comprising member states. If the Council finds that Hungary has seriously infringed the EU’s fundamental values, it may trigger Article 7. The Council requires a four-fifths majority to trigger the article.

Should the Union implement the measures, it has two options for reprimanding Hungary. The easier way is to start with preventative measures, which could be, for example, to reduce financial support. The EU has serious suspicions that Hungary is misusing the subsidies it receives, distributing these, for example, to Orbán’s close associates. Cutting subsidies would weaken Hungary’s economy, which has grown by 3–4% in recent years, much to people’s satisfaction.

Hungary could also be punished with severe measures, for example depriving it of its right to vote on common decisions. For this to happen, EU member states must be unanimous. Poland announced after the parliamentary vote that it would use its veto to impede punishing Hungary. Poland and Hungary have supported each other in previous disagreements with the EU.

Whichever option the EU chooses, it is difficult to predict how the process will develop. It will in any case be long and complicated, with no certainty about the final outcome. In addition to Poland, several Central European countries, such as Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, have announced their support for Hungary.

Fines or Imprisonment for People Helping Immigrants

The European Parliament’s decision was a major blow for Orbán, although he was clearly prepared for the result of the vote. Orbán is known as a radical opponent of the EU’s immigration policy and claims that the EU is plaguing Hungary because of its anti-immigration attitude and harsh border policy.

Since his third electoral victory, Orbán has appeared more confident and louder than before. He did not show any willingness to compromise before—or after—the parliamentary vote. According to him, Sargentini’s report is also a matter of “narrow-minded revenge because Hungary is defending its borders and refusing to accept illegal immigrants”.

Orbán’s administration deems the European Parliament’s decision “legally invalid” because absentees were not taken into account when votes were  tallied and, therefore, there was not a two-thirds majority supporting the report. Hungary has threatened the parliament with legal action.

Orbán’s party Fidesz and its smaller partner, the Christian Democratic People’s Party, have ruled Hungary since 2010 and they have, in effect, unlimited power to amend the country’s constitution, for example. The government received a new mandate in April 2018 by winning a two-thirds majority in the country’s 199-seat parliament. Hungary has been a constant headache for the EU during nearly all Orbán’s time in office. There is a long list of problems and these are mentioned in Sargentini’s report: they include the independence of the judiciary, corruption and conflicts of interest, privacy and data protection, freedom of expression, academic freedom, freedom of religion, freedom of association and the rights of minorities, immigrants and asylum seekers.

In June 2018, Orbán’s government amended the constitution again to toughen immigration laws. Populating Hungary with “aliens” is now unconstitutional. The so-called “Stop Soros” laws entered into force in August, meaning that people who have helped asylum seekers could be fined or imprisoned if those who have arrived in Hungary are not entitled to protection.

This package of laws hinders the activity of civil groups that support immigrants, such as the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. They must pay a 25% tax on funding received from the state; Hungary allegedly needs the revenue to cover costs related to refugees. In reality, however, the inflow of arrivals has dried up because Hungary has blocked the so-called Balkan route by constructing a fence on its southern and south-western border after the migration crisis erupted in 2015. The conditions for granting asylum were also toughened, so that it is now essentially impossible to gain asylum.

Orbán’s election campaign in the spring targeted liberal civil society and the Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros. Orbán has accused the Hungarian-born Soros of inducing mass immigration and attempts to Islamise and thereby destroy Christian Europe.

The Open Society Foundation founded by Soros has funded liberal civil activity from Hungary since the late 1980s. During Orbán’s term, Soros has been made out to be an antagonist who manipulates the entire EU. In August 2018 the foundation closed its office in Budapest and moved its staff to Berlin, explaining the departure from Hungary as being due to “the increasingly repressive political and legal environment”. The foundation’s representatives said they were no longer able to ensure the safety of its staff.

Common Beliefs and Social Practices

Prime minister Orbán’s political power reaches almost every aspect of Hungarian society. But this does not seem to be enough for him, and it is believed that he is planning a “coup d’état” that will also affect culture, education, people’s choices and even their private lives.

Orbán presented his vision of the future in a speech in Băile Tușnad, the area of Romania inhabited by ethnic Hungarians, in July 2018. “We really need to adopt a spiritual and cultural approach,” he said. “A political system is usually determined by rules and political decisions. An era, however, is more than this. An era is determined by cultural trends, collective beliefs and social customs. This is now the task we are faced with: we must embed the political system in a cultural era.”

Băile Tușnad (Tusnádfürdö in Hungarian) is a town in eastern Transylvania with a population of barely 2,000, 90% of them Hungarian. Until the 1920 Treaty of Trianon it belonged to Hungary. Orbán’s Fidesz has been organising a “free summer university” there since 1989, and Orbán has used this to announce his policies for the future. His 2014 speech gained international attention because he declared himself a supporter of “illiberal” policy and opposed to the pluralist and liberal democracy represented by the EU. He mentioned Turkey and Russia among his role models.

So, what does this adoption of “a spiritual and cultural approach” mentioned by Orbán mean?

A foretaste had already been offered before Orbán’s speech in the summer. Orbán would not be satisfied with turning Hungarian society upside down only by amending laws and the constitution. He wanted to start an entirely new era, based on Christian and conservative family values, and wipe away the liberalism he has labelled as left-wing or even a continuation of communism.

In June 2018 the government’s most important mouthpiece, Magyar Idök, wrote that the Hungarian State Opera’s production of the musical Billy Elliot “promotes homosexuality and could turn children gay”. The popular musical is about a working-class boy who wants to become a ballet dancer, and the State Opera has performed it in Budapest to more than 100,000 people since 2016.

“Promoting homosexuality cannot be a national objective in a situation where the population is already aging and decreasing, and our nation is threatened by foreign [Muslim refugee] invasion,” Zófia Horváth of Magyar Idök wrote, explaining her decision.

The scandal created by the article caused a fall in ticket sales and ultimately the opera cancelled the 15 shows scheduled for the summer. The opera’s management also announced that the theme of the forthcoming season would be Christianity—as the government wanted it to be.

A month later, Magyar Idök targeted an exhibition in Budapest of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s work. Kahlo died 64 years ago but still the colourful life of the painter, her sympathy for communism and especially her relationship with Russian revolutionary Lev Trotsky seem to be taboo for the Hungarian government. “This is the way communism is promoted using state money,” was the headline of the article in Magyar Idök. “You won’t believe it, but Trotsky has emerged in Budapest again, this time from Frida Kahlo’s bed.”

Orbán Dares to Put Pressure on His Own People

The Billy Elliot and Frida Kahlo cases are extreme examples, but very characteristic of the current spiritual state in Hungary. All national cultural institutions in the country are headed by Orbán loyalists, but the government does not hesitate to pressure its own people, as shown by the Billy Elliot case. Cultural trends, social practices and common values are already taught in school. The government nationalised the two largest textbook publishers in 2014. An eighth-grade history textbook hints that prime minister Orbán considers asylum seekers a threat to Hungary. “The cohabitation of different cultures could indeed be problematic,” it says.

The academic freedom of universities is also under threat. The government decided to stop funding the gender studies programme at the national Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) because the subject was based “more on ideology than science”, and those who graduated from the programme did not have anything to do in today’s Hungary.

There is a gender studies programme at the private Central European University (CEU)—funded by George Soros—which has been in the crosshairs of the Hungarian government since the winter of 2017. The future of the international CEU, where English is the language of tuition, is still unclear because the government has not signed the contract negotiated with the university. The CEU’s plan B is to move all its studies to Vienna if the contract is not concluded before the end of the year.

Shared beliefs also include emphasising Hungary’s Central Asian origins. Finno-Ugrian has become the seal of Bolshevik propaganda, because Hungarians are the descendants of noble warrior people such as Huns and Scythians, and Turkish is their common related language.

Hungary Will Not Leave the EU

The pro-government media in Hungary paints a picture in which Hungary, under Orbán’s rule, is fighting the EU in the name of self-determination. The message is simple: Hungary will not change; it is the EU that must change. According to Orbán, Hungary is not leaving the EU or the EPP; it intends to fight for support from new groups in the parliament in next spring’s elections.

Orbán went to the core of the EP election campaign in a radio interview on 28 September. “We must change European politics,” he said. “Today the supporters of immigration in both the European Parliament and the Commission have an overwhelming majority. … There are countries [whose] leaders are somehow trying to steer themselves over from their former pro-migrant position towards government policy seeking to restrict migration. … But the European people want their leaders to come clean on whether they see migration as something good … or something bad.” Steve Bannon, former campaign manager for Donald Trump, has promised to bring together nationalist and anti-immigration parties in Europe before the 2019 European Parliament elections. Bannon considers Orbán a role model and hero, the original Trump—i.e. Trump before Trump.


Translated from Finnish by Erkki Bahovski


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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