In 1849, in the face of invasion at the hands of Western imperial powers, the Hungarian Parliament became the first in the world to enact laws guaranteeing what we now know as “minority rights.” Allowing minorities to use their mother tongue both in their communities and at the local governmental level and emancipating the Hungarian Jewish community, Hungarian nationalists sought to defend Hungarian sovereignty by creating a liberal Hungary. Asserting self-determinative agency after 140 years of limited sovereignty, Hungary’s nationalist dialogue continues to bring liberalism to the fore. This time, however, long-time Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is leveraging nationalist rhetoric to instead tie liberal policy to weakness, flouting European Union-proposed migrant quotas as he leads Hungary to become what he has described as a “Christian, illiberal democracy.”
While the two strategic political schema lie antipodal, they draw popular legitimacy from the same historic mainstay—a yearning for Hungarian sovereignty. The European Union specifically, and status-quo West more broadly, would do well to keep this in mind when acting vis a vis the Orbán administration.
While ideologically concordant with the recent Populist boom in other Visegrad countries and the West more generally, Orbán is no new political actor. Entering the national consciousness in 1989, when he demanded Soviet evacuation at the reburial of executed Hungarian leader Imre Nagy, Orbán has represented the Alliance of Young Democrats (Fiatal Demokraták Szövetség), or Fidesz, party for much of Hungarian democratic history. Orbán has presided over the party’s platform shift from classical liberalism to center-right populism, and has led it in both majority and opposition capacities throughout the 21st century. Just as with much of his Central European ilk, Orbán’s combative populist rhetoric has drawn the ire of Western EU leaders, who have seen such fervor erode Union legitimacy. This was particularly evident during the recent European migrant crisis, during which Hungary received the highest number of asylum applicants as a percentage of population, with 17.7 asylum seekers per 1,000 inhabitants in 2015, straining infrastructure and native sentiment. What is new however, is the extent to which Orbán is leveraging unprecedented formal power and a growing popular mandate to erode internal liberal institutions like courts and the media.
While Orbán has long been a thorn in Brussels’ side, the continental community has often responded with silence, maintaining a steady stream of economic support despite Budapest’s increasingly obtuse Eurosceptic rhetoric. However, this noncommittal stance may no longer be adequate. The Fidesz regime has tightened its grip on media, cultivating state-control over mainstream media outlets and vilifying media critics as minions of Orbán’s bete noire, billionaire George Soros. It has subverted electoral processes by introducing single-round balloting and redrawing constituency boundaries, diluting opposition voting power by dividing districts with leftist majorities and combining them with those containing right-leaning majorities. Perhaps most worryingly, it has cultivated significant top-level corruption, particularly in tax administration and public procurement, which the Business Anti-Corruption Portal, a European Commision-supported watchdog, has cited in its conclusion that corruption in Hungary has now reached levels high enough to “represent a significant risk to business.”
Some actors within Brussels have in turn called for concrete action in response, most recently a European Parliament committee recommending in April in a draft report that the EU should ‘launch a sanctions procedure against Hungary because of a ‘clear risk of a serious breach’ of the bloc’s basic values, likely referencing those recently recently articulated to include “democracy and the rule of law.” However, many EU member states are reluctant to prosecute what they see as domestic affairs, and so such motions are unlikely to invoke an unprecedented Article 7, which allows for sanctions and suspension of voting rights against member countries that are found to violate human rights. Instead, Brussels’ formal action has been limited to online remonstrations, with former Belgian Prime Minister Guy and EU group leader Guy Verhofstadt condemning Hungary on Twitter saying that “There is no place in our Union for countries … who reject our shared values,” its approach may be in need of overhaul. It’s clear that this strategy is woefully insufficient—Brussels needs to formulate a substantial course of action that is both viable and impactful.
Brussels has long regarded Orbán as an enfant terrible who could be dealt with, yet thus far he has masterfully manipulated EU action to consolidate power. Seeking to delegitimize EU criticisms of his attack on civil society, Orbán has promulgated a conspiratorial image of a Brussels seeking to limit Hungarian sovereignty, leveraging unpopular immigration edicts to do so. Unwilling to concede the enormous salutary effect EU investment has had on the Hungarian economy, Orbán has instead cast the attendant economic growth as the product of his own policies. The effects of this strategy are clear; Orbán has recently secured a third Ministerial term by a landslide vote and is supported by a Fidesz party with great enough majority to legislate and alter the national constitution unopposed. He now has consolidated enough power to concretize eurosceptic rhetoric, wrest Hungary from the European Union’s legislative purview, and turn the country into something like the Christian, illiberal nation his rhetoric describes.
Nevertheless, dismissing all of Fidesz’ policies as authoritarian would be a misstep. The status-quo West is no longer in a position to maneuver using heavy-handed Enlightenment rhetoric. Orbán has consolidated too much power, and such language relies on ideological presuppositions not universal across Europe. Instead, it should better understand the way in which national self-determination provides a historical basis for illiberalism and act according to a distinction between truly undemocratic policies and those that are instead, as Orbán terms them, merely illiberal.
At first glance, Orbán’s rhetoric is entirely misplaced. He advocates for a Christian Hungary, yet while a majority of Hungarians are Christian, many fewer are devout. Only 10% of Catholics, the dominant Hungarian christian faction, regularly attend Sunday Mass. Many more acknowledge their religious identity as pertaining more to a national tradition than to the spiritual realm. Herein lies the heart of rhetoric concerning a Christian Hungary: Hungarian historiography ties the Hungarian state’s founding with the baptism and coronation by Holy Crown of King Steven I. The zenith of Hungary’s power historically lies in the late Middle Ages, while under a Christian monarchy which lasted until the 1500s, when Muslim Ottoman Turks crushed the Hungarian Crown at the battle of Mohacs. Christian statehood is inextricably tied to Hungarian power — using the term not only offers a historically-coded way to invoke nationalism, but also evokes a dog-whistle equivalence between immigration and Ottoman invasion to boot. We should recognize that Orbán’s Christian Hungary’s support lies not in the genuine religiosity of his people, but in a popular nationalist psychic response.
The call for illiberalism strikes a more poignant chord. At the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, the Entente West stripped 72% of Hungary’s land and 68% of its people as punishment for a war fought largely in Austria’s interest. Decades later, Hungary was invaded politically and militarily by an oppressive Soviet State which justified its dominion with musings of fulfilling History’s mandate. Now, vis a vis a West recently led by a man who condemned illiberal policies as being on “the wrong side of history,” it’s hardly surprising that Hungarians find themselves skeptical of their interest in a worldwide liberal project. A country whose sovereignty was long suppressed under the pretext of ideological mandate, Hungary’s national story is not receptive to the kind of rhetoric now directed at the Visegrad nations. As long as Brussels condemns Budapest for transgressions against “shared values,” the illiberal impulse and Orbán’s platform will grow strong.
Recognizing that the main thrust of Orbán’s popular mandate lies in a need for secure Hungarian national sovereignty, the EU should act accordingly. It should limit moralizing, ideological rhetoric and, with current political gravity in mind, look to compromise on non-crucial issues which pose the greatest barrier to a amicable relationship with Hungary. Certain illiberal Hungarian policy points such as legislation aimed at increasing native birthrates in lieu of relying on immigration to stifle population decline may be ideologically unsavory, but the West should recognize that allowing for such dissent may be necessary to preserve crucial liberal institutions in Hungary like an independent press and free elections. If the West remains stalwart on immigration, it faces an uphill battle which only lends strength to the platform of a political entity looking to erode the only Western institutions in the way of its joining the authoritarian ranks of Turkey and Russia. If instead it takes a measured response — like adding stipulations of institutional transparency to economic investment agreements and allowing Hungary to forgo certain liberal policies if it agrees to corruption reform and auditing procedures — it can preserve an economically successful, democratic Visegrad nation to anchor the group in the West.