Opinion: Orban remains leader of the intractable eastern EU

Hungarians have handed Prime Minister Viktor Orban another term in office. A major thorn in the EU's side, his democratically legitimized autocracy will now become even more attractive to imitators, says Volker Wagener.
Volker Wagener
Volker Wagener

What do Angela Merkel and Viktor Orban have in common? Only one thing: They're both embarking on a fourth term in office. Nothing else unites them. Not only are they at odds politically, Orban now has a decisive advantage over Merkel: He can govern without having to go through the tedious process of considering his coalition partners. Merkel will secretly envy him.

Actually, though, she should fear him. Orban's Hungary is the model for the revocation of the post-1945 liberal consensus in Europe. It is a democratically legitimized one-party state, somewhere between a flawed democracy and the autocratic behavior of Putin and Erdogan. An "illiberal democracy," as Orban calls it.

Read more: EU wants to hit Hungary's Viktor Orban where it hurts: The wallet

A political star of the East

Orbanism is also having an impact beyond his direct sphere of influence in his country of just 10 million people. Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party is copying its ideological brother and political twin as best it can; the Czech Republic and Slovakia also openly sympathize with the populist reorganization of the state.

DW's Volker Wagener

Together these four countries constitute the Visegrad Group; they are an anti-Brussels resistance cell, accusing the EU of dictating to them. As early as 2016, PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski was already saying enthusiastically of Orban, "We're learning from him." Hardly any other election in recent history in any of the smaller EU countries can claim to have such far-reaching significance for the relationship between western and eastern Europe. This is confirmed by Orban's martial predictions. The year 2018 will be "a year of big battles," he prophesied; now the 54-year-old is set to launch further attacks on Brussels.

The partial lack of understanding between the old and new EU is very problematic. The eastern countries simply cannot understand the multicultural zeitgeist in the western EU, let alone accept it. The west's point of view is that Orban's Fidesz party and Kaczynski's PiS are simply right-wing populists and badly behaved, ungrateful EU profiteers. These different perspectives in themselves already complicate matters.

Read more: Visegrad represents Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians and Poles

What is clear is that Orban represents the biggest challenge to the EU family since the start of the new era of eastward expansion. By EU standards, he is the pioneer of the one-party state. From a global perspective, he is in the ranks of the new proponents of dictator-style democracy — Putin, Trump and Erdogan. All are natural enemies of ideas that went unchallenged for decades and that characterized the internal cohesion of Europe: democracy, freedom of speech and of the press, and the rule of law.

Viktor Orban's most controversial migration comments

'Muslim invaders'

"We don't see these people as Muslim refugees. We see them as Muslim invaders," Orban said in a recent interview with German daily Bild newspaper. The 54-year-old prime minister of Hungary added: "We believe that a large number of Muslims inevitably leads to parallel societies, because Christian and Muslim society will never unite." Multiculturalism, he said, "is only an illusion."

Viktor Orban's most controversial migration comments

'You wanted the migrants, we didn't'

When asked by Bild whether it was fair for Germany to accept hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants while Hungary accepted none, Orban responded: "The difference is, you wanted the migrants, and we didn't." Migration, he said, threatens the "sovereignty and cultural identity" of Hungary.

Viktor Orban's most controversial migration comments

'Migration is poison'

It was not the first time the Hungarian leader has framed migration as a problem for his country. In 2016, he said that Hungary "does not need a single migrant for the economy to work, or the population to sustain itself, or for the country to have a future." He added: "for us migration is not a solution but a problem ... not medicine but a poison, we don’t need it and won’t swallow it.”

Viktor Orban's most controversial migration comments

'Importing homophobia'

Orban has repeatedly criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her decision to allow over a million migrants into Germany in the summer of 2015. Orban told Bild in early 2016: "If you take masses of non-registered immigrants from the Middle East into your country, you are importing terrorism, crime, antisemitism, and homophobia."

Viktor Orban's most controversial migration comments

'All terrorists are basically migrants'

Orban has also repeatedly criticized the EU for trying to get member states to share refugees based on national quotas. In a 2015 interview with POLITICO, he suggested the bloc's leaders instead focus more on strengthening the EU's external border. In the same interview, he said: "Of course it’s not accepted, but the factual point is that all the terrorists are basically migrants."

Viktor Orban's most controversial migration comments

'Parallel societies'

Orban has found allies in other right-wing governments in eastern Europe such as Poland that also oppose the EU's refugee policies. In an interview with Spanish TV channel Intereconomia in 2015, Orban raised fears about integrating Muslim migrants in the EU when he said: "What sort of Europe do we want to have? Parallel societies? Muslim communities living together with the Christian community?"

Orban's strength is the EU's weakness

The reason Orban's triumphal progress in his own country has been so successful for so many years is that the conservative parties in the EU Parliament in Strasbourg are politely standing by while he deconstructs the Hungarian state. The EPP (European People's Party), and in particular its biggest national group, Germany's Christian Democrats, needs the votes of the Fidesz party representatives. It doesn't want to risk the EU parliamentary majority tipping in the Socialists' favor. In short, the EPP is protecting Orban out of pure self-interest, so its lukewarm criticism is not credible.

EU west and EU east — a case for mediation

Nonetheless, if the EU wants to overcome its internal crisis, it will have to learn to understand. To understand that the recent past — the past people remember — was completely different in the East and in the West. There is a more pronounced inclination towards an authoritarian style of leadership in Poland, Hungary or Serbia because people are familiar with it from Soviet times.

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If it is popular again today, this can be explained by the loss of the nation-state identity for ideological reasons, which lasted until 1989. People in the east seem to feel a need to recapture a sense of homeland before they will be prepared to be absorbed by the EU group. And one explanation for the defensive attitude towards refugees — Muslims, to boot! — may simply be a lack of experience in dealing with foreigners. People who were brought up so differently to their counterparts in Munich, Copenhagen or Lyon have big problems with Westerners prescribing political correctness.

On the other hand, a contract is a contract. Hungary joined the EU; so did Poland. There are obligations associated with this. They knew the rules of the game. Maybe there's still time for mediation. After that, what applies in football must also apply here: In the case of a severe foul, the red card.