The European Union’s Houdini

As has been rightly pointed out by Jacques Rupnik, the European Union as a liberal, elitist, supranational project is a perfect target for populist nationalists since it represents a combination of important grievances. This has been mirrored accurately in Hungary where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán depicts himself as the only defender of national identity and sovereignty against “external threats”. Due to the nature of his regime, the latter has to be rhetorically present permanently. Hungary is a unique case because Orbán’s government has spent an unprecedented amount of public money on numerous billboard and media campaigns, national consultations and even a referendum targeting Brussels, which is allegedly working on undermining its national sovereignty.

This is nothing, however, like the Brexit campaign. The main goal of the Hungarian Prime Minister is not to abandon integration, but to legitimize his regime and change the nature of the European Union. In contrast to Western European liberalism, he wishes to turn the EU towards a politics built on preserving religious and national self-identification, in which societies would be based on ethnically homogenous, Christian, traditional values. This is embedded in a wider discourse on sovereignty based on the notion that there is a potential conflict between the Hungarian nation and the dangerous, decadent West advancing in the wrong direction.

Migration helps Orbán transform the political system

While Orbán is depicting himself as the anti-Merkel of Europe saving Christianity by protecting traditional values from multiculturalism and immigration, he seeks to create conditions for cementing his authoritarian regime on the EU level. He has been using migration as a pretext for consciously transforming his political system by relegating human rights and procedural norms, considered to be at the foundations of liberal democracies, to secondary roles. While the current macropolitical environment helps him in depicting himself as the defender of white, Christian Europe, with this anti-immigrant stance becoming one of the mainstream positions in European politics, Orbán is nonetheless walking a slippery slope. Due to the economic burdens arising from Brexit and the migration crisis, the EU is facing one of the biggest budget reforms in its history which could harshly affect Hungary for two main reasons. According to the Commission’s proposal, not only would less subsidies be allocated to Hungary but payments could also be tied to rule of law-related requirements.

The main goal of the Hungarian Prime Minister is not to abandon integration, but to legitimize his regime and change the nature of the European Union.

Orbán, who used to try to calm the intra-European People ́s Party (EPP) tensions generated by illiberal state-building and systemic corruption, is now open about the possibility of potential blackmail. In his latest speech at Băile Tuşnad, he emphasized that 2019 should be a turning point in the integration involving replacing the current, “European elite from ’68,” and allowing people more closely aligned with Fidesz’s politics to take over control. Orbán, who often draws a parallel between the Western intelligentsia from 1968 and the administration in Brussels, has built up a conspiracy theory that the elites in question are implementing the Soros-plan, which revolves around bringing as many Muslims as possible to Europe, rendering it impossible for parties founded on Christianity to win an election in the future.

The EPP is not able to insert influence on Orbán

He has highlighted the fact that he is ready to leave the largest European parliamentary group if they do not stop criticizing the Hungarian government. He has derived his potential for blackmail from the shift in German and Italian domestic politics to the right and the strengthening of anti-immigration, anti-EU European parties. Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant, parties will presumably be strengthened further, and he continues to base his strategy on the assumption that the EPP will not be willing to sacrifice its Fidesz delegation of 12 MEPs.

With Orbán quickly curbing judicial and academic independence and criminalizing humanitarian help and homelessness it has become apparent that the European People’s Party is not able to exert an influence on him.

With Orbán quickly curbing judicial and academic independence and criminalizing humanitarian help and homelessness it has become apparent that the European People’s Party (EPP) is not able to exert an influence on him. Orbán’s party has also hinted that expelling Fidesz would have serious consequences for the entire EU as they would accept Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s invitation to join his planned Eurosceptic, anti-globalist, anti-immigrant platform, a group called “The League of Leagues,” which would render the EU inoperative, by vetoing, for example, the EU budget. It might not be worth it, however, for Orbán to join a platform where Salvini would advocate the mandatory relocation of refugees and Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) would claim a smaller EU budget after 2020, these both being issues which are not in the core interest of Fidesz.

A destructive strategy to achieve different goals

While Orbán is pushing to become a relevant figure on the international level by showcasing himself as a successful model and reformer of conservative (what he himself defines as “Christian democratic”) politics, primarily by adopting topics from the far right, Hungary has a limited influence within the Council. That is why he has vetoed EU decision-making on migration, increasingly frequently, doing so in the name of protection of national sovereignty and its anti-EU freedom struggle.

The root of the conflict is that the government objects to all proposals that are aimed at managing as opposed to entirely stopping migration. Moreover, Orbán has extended his anti-West freedom struggle to the multilateral level by withdrawing from the Migration Compact of the United Nations, which means that Hungary is on its own weakening the uni ed EU position for negotiation. This is particularly crucial with the EU having assumed the central force for developing countries both symbolically and literally after Donald Trump’s removal of the United States from the talks.

Apart from advocating a “Europe of nation-states”, Orbán is planning to continue his destructive, anti-EU strategy, in order to achieve another two goals: undermining the legitimacy of EU institutions and obstructing them from operating successfully, especially in the field of home and justice affairs. His tactic has been to try to iron out its rule of law conflict with the EU in the form of separate infringement procedures and other legal procedures while transforming the political system to centralize power and weaken checks and balances. Although the Hungarian government has retreated on a number of issues, for instance finally respecting the judgment of the Court of Justice of the European Union on the early retirement of judges, the damage was already been done before the verdict was given. Fidesz’s goal was achieved as they have been able to get rid of most of the head judges of courts and replace them with loyalists. In the case of the Orbán regime, which is firmly based on the informal exercise of power, the EU has had a limited leverage thus far given that most of the legal and political practices of the community were designed for formal institutional issues.

Edit Zgut

is a Hungarian foreign policy analyst based in Warsaw. She earned a degree in the Faculty of Social Sciences at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest. Prior to joining Political Capital Research Intitute, she worked as a foreign policy journalist and editor at many Hungarian media outlets, among others at Heti Válasz, a political weekly. Her main fields of research are illiberal tendencies in the Visegrad countries, Hungarian foreign policy and the institutional architecture of the EU. She is a political commentator frequently appearing on domestic and international media.

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