Hungary, Brexit and the General Crisis of Europe   Leave a comment

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The last time Europe was beset by a ‘general crisis’ was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The crisis began with the Protestant Reformation in the territories and city states of the Holy Roman Empire and ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 after a Thirty Years War in which the population and economy of almost the whole continent was ravaged by civil conflict. Westphalia set the ground-plan for the reconstruction of Europe based on nation states. It is possible to suggest that Europe is beginning to emerge from a period, since 1848, when nation states became empires, destroyed once again from civil strife within the continent, and that we are now reaching the end of another century and a half which will culminate in a new system of international relations, replacing a system of balancing power between nation states with a less precarious and more permanent form of federalism. It is  the argument over exactly which form this new supra-national system should take which is provoking so much friction across the continent at present, but this continuing ‘crisis’, with its demographic and economic dimensions, should be viewed in the context of the long-term development of modern continental affairs, rather than that of short-term global developments, including that of globalisation itself. That is why both the ‘Brexiteers’ and other western European nationalists and the ‘Visegrád’ pan-nationalists of central Europe are misinterpreting recent events and allowing themselves and their countries to be dragged back into a reactionary authoritarianism which, in the longer term, will be unable to defeat modern liberal democracy.

008Viktor Orbán, as a Young Liberal, addressing the crowds at the reburial of Imre Nagy in 1989.

I have been forming this view for some months now, since even before the shock referendum result in Britain of 23rd June last year. It was therefore interesting to read a piece by the Hungarian premier, Viktór Orbán, in the bi-monthly journal, Hungarian Review. In a speech made some months earlier in Transylvania, Orbán had coined the phrase illiberal democracy to describe his vision of the resurgent nation-statism which he wished to see established, not just in Hungary, but throughout central Europe. This concept, I argued with friends and colleagues, was illogical and contradictory, since democracy can only ever be ‘liberal’ in its application and, likewise, liberalism can only ever express itself in democratic forms.

In his article, Orbán claims that the EU is faced with a series of unexpected crises of the Euro, illegal migration, and geo-politics that threaten it with disintegration. These crises began, he argued, not with the reintegration of central-eastern from 1989-2004, but in the rejection of the Maastricht Treaty by referenda in France and the Netherlands, the treaty which would have established a new Constitution for Europe.

He links the Lisbon Treaty, the global economic crisis and financial ‘meltdown’, to the ‘geopolitical conflict’ in the Ukraine in 2014 and the ‘migration’ crisis of 2015, as a narrative of failure by ‘the European elite’, not including himself or his governments, to guarantee uninterrupted, even growing, prosperity for all its citizens. This failure, he argues, culminated in the British referendum, signalling a major juncture: the EU is losing a member for the first time – a loss that may well be the harbinger of eventual disintegration. The leap from here from established fact to prophetic hyperbole is worthy of a prophet crying in the wilderness. Only the former UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, has made so fanciful a claim with such glee. This brings him to the crux of the matter:

Instead of tackling these problems in an effort to play its proper role internationally,… the EU seems to be content to wallow in self-tormenting recrimination, evidenced by its recent controversial attacks on Hungary and Poland.

Although Orbán acknowledges that the Union is made up of 28 member states, and that the European institutions are intended to advance cooperation among them, he believes that the European Union consists of institutions, and that member states only exist to support their operations. Yet only this last weekend, the UK was given the strong message that its ‘Brexit’ negotiations were primarily a matter for the member states, and that they remained united, and would remain united, on the terms on which the UK would be released from its Treaty obligations with all 27 of them. At the same time, a debate on Hungary’s suspension in the European Parliament left Orbán battered and isolated by criticism of his recent violations of European civil rights through his Education Act and other actions. It was reported that only Nigel Farage came to his defence, a sign of isolation in itself, though I have been unable to find any detail of such a speech.

It is therefore unsurprising that, of all the European institutions singled out for attack by Orbán, the most democratic one, the Parliament, is foremost. Boosting its role, he claims, impaired the operative efficiency of Europe’s institutions instead of enhancing it as intended. Of course, we all know that good democratic process takes time, and that debates and conversations can be difficult in a democratic institution, especially one in which heads of government can be challenged according to European and international law in a way in which their own sovereign Parliaments are unwilling or unable to do. At home in Hungary, Orbán has used every possible means to avoid confrontation with both legitimate opponents and critical friends on his own benches.

His secondary target is the European Commission, which he claims has recast itself as a political actor contrary to its original role as “the guardian of the treaties” as enshrined in the EEC Treaty itself. In this respect, he might attract considerable support across the member states, were it not for his belligerent dismissal of the Commission as a political committee, or Politburo, which usurps the function originally delegated by the Treaty to the European Council, the chief assembly of European heads of state and government. Yet he himself acknowledges that the Council retains the power to determine the EU’s future political course as its prerogative. He also admits that what he objects to is that when, as was the case on the mandatory migrant quota, the overwhelming majority of countries agree on an issue, the minority of countries should have the right to veto its operation, rather than the principled agreement being passed to the Commission for implementation. Rather than accepting that for democracy to work, minorities must sometimes give way, Orbán insists that the tiny minority of states who object to the migrant quota system should be able to obstruct the whole, urgent process. Again, in the most belligerent of terms, he attacks the Commission’s involvement as amounting to the self-promotion of a non-elected European institution to a political role, which in turn aggravates a crisis of democracy and legitimacy within the Union.

Of course, his representation of the Commission is deliberately misleading, since all national ‘executives’, with the exception of Presidents, are indirectly ‘elected’ or appointed by heads of state and heads of government, and not directly elected by a general franchise as in the case of MP’s or MEP’s in the legislature. In a democratic system, Government at any level does not work without a separation of powers along these lines, as Orbán might have learnt had he spent longer doing his George Soros-sponsored PPE course at Oxford. Yet even in referring to the decision of the European Council, he questions the legitimacy of a two-third majority vote. Presumably, he would only accept the decision if it had been made on a unanimous basis. In other words, he wants the right to veto any measure which he considers to impinge upon questions representing vital national interests for Member States. The fact that his own government in Hungary has made constitutional changes affecting the fundamental rights of its citizens on the same two-thirds basis, does not seem to have impinged on his own thinking, however.

As a demographic historian, it is unclear to me as to how the questions representing vital national interests of member states could be said to have been impinged upon by what Orbán refers to the crisis of illegal immigration. In the first place, inter-continental human migration such as that we witnessed in Europe in 2015, albeit on a massive scale, has always been as much of a ‘fact of life’ as human reproduction. In fact, the extent of any movement into or from a given geographical area is calculated by relating the natural increase or decrease in the population to overall population increase or decrease. At present, Hungary is experiencing net emigration as a result of the high levels of internal migration within the EU which have characterised the period since its accession to the EU in 2004. Even so, despite the large numbers who entered the country in 2015, this trend has continued, because most of those seeking to enter the ‘inner core’ of the Schengen area through Hungary’s eastern border with Serbia, have shown no inclination to settle in Hungary. Their presence in the country, although placing considerable temporary demands upon its infrastructure, has been simply a matter of transit to western European countries, especially Germany and Scandinavia. Yet the Fidesz government immediately recognised a means to propagandise against what it already viewed as liberal, western European values, even though Germany helped it to cope with its state of emergency by opening the German borders to the refugees from Syria.

Of course, it was impossible to assess the status of those entering Hungary, since, fearing that they would be returned to camps in Turkey or other Balkan countries, the vast majority of them refused to be moved to temporary holding camps where they could be registered as asylum seekers. So, although the UNHCR and other NGO’s estimated that upwards of 70% of them were genuine refugees, the Hungarian government referred to them as ‘illegal migrants’. Although this term was technically accurate, it resulted from the failure of international refugee management which was based on the notion that the refugees would be content to remain indefinitely in poorly equipped and overcrowded camps in neighbouring countries to their war-torn homelands. In addition, large numbers among the ‘migrants’ were from countries like Afghanistan, where outright war had ended, but where major civil insurgencies made normal life impossible. Those fleeing these countries were, and still are, seeking to secure their lives as well as better standards of living. Eye-witness accounts of Hungarian aid-workers working among the refugees along the transit route continues to confirm this confused picture. Some of this aid was provided by NGOs sponsored by George Soros, but much of it was directed through church organisations, hardly antagonistic to the government. Despite this, the contradiction between their reports and the government propaganda was what led to Orbán’s renewed hatred for Soros’ activities in Hungary.

In any case, although the EU became responsible for those crossing into its central territories, the problem did not originate in the EU, nor was it ever the EU’s exclusive responsibility. Refugees have been the responsibility of the League of Nations’ Refugee Agency  since the 1920s and the UNHCR and, with the exception of Greece, none of the Balkan countries were, or are, EU member states. Greece, besides having its own economic problems, mostly quite unique in character, also possesses a coastline border which is impossible to control people-smuggling. This was also the case with the African refugees arriving on the Mediterranean Italian islands. Nonetheless, whatever the rights and wrongs of the ‘exodus’ of 2015, none of the governmental or inter-governmental agencies come out of it with any great credit. None of them were prepared for such a huge tide of human souls to be cast upon them, but it was necessary to respond in humanitarian terms to a major humanitarian crisis which, despite its longer-term origins, had distinct short-term causes and catalysts.

Most historical migrations have resulted from a complex of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors, in this case further complicated by the use of new technologies among the migrants. Neither their possession of such devices, nor the relative wealth of those able to make the journey and pay the traffickers, should blind us to the primary factors in their migration. Yet, for example, the behaviour of a small number of them in Köln and elsewhere on New Years’ Eve, and the one terrorist attack proven to be carried out by an asylum seeker, acting alone, have been ruthlessly exploited by Hungarian politicians and media who want us to believe that all migrants pose a threat to our safety and security. That is how Viktor Órban has persuaded his own people, formerly one of the most hospitable in Europe, that there is an issue of national security at stake over the question of ‘migrant quotas’.  In reality, there is no security threat to any of the twelve national governments who have signalled their objection to the Commission’s proposal to revise the Directive. In recent months, the terrorist attacks which have occurred in London, Paris and elsewhere in Europe have proven to be of a ‘lone wolf’ nature, unrelated to known terror networks, and not carried out by migrants or asylum seekers. Neither have there been repeats of the kind of behaviour in Köln which, while unacceptable, have been characteristic of migration streams in the past, where individuals or groups of young men are detached from their normal familial and communal networks.

Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the EC, delivered his first State of the Union Address 2015

Next, Mr Orbán makes some ridiculous claims about the slighting of the UK in the election of the Commission President, which, he writes, played a great part in making the majority of the Brits fed up with the European Union. In reality, the opposition of the then British government to the election of Jean-Claude Jüncker (above) was rather the result of the Conservative Party’s decision, when in opposition, to break with the mainstream European People’s Party in favour of membership of the more right-wing grouping in the European Parliament. When he became PM, David Cameron was therefore obliged to oppose Jüncker’s presidency, which left him somewhat isolated when, in 2016, he came to negotiate his package of reforms in the run up to the referendum. Had Cameron remained, like Orbán, in his natural liberal-Conservative alliance, he might have avoided becoming prisoner to his own right-wing, got a better package from Brussels, especially on migration, and  thereby secured his majority in the referendum campaign. There might be a lesson there yet for Orbán and Hungarian conservatives to learn. In any case, there is little evidence to show that J C Jüncker’s election was of any great concern to anyone outside the British Conservative Party’s right-wing.

Putin and Orban Budapest2

On the subject of Brexit, Orbán adds that most people believe that the United Kingdom will suffer from Brexit. He was kind enough to David Cameron to issue a statement on the eve of poll hoping that it would vote to remain. It’s not clear what effect this had on the British electorate. Nigel Farage’s speech in the European Parliament about EU money wasted on dog-training schemes in Hungary had got more attention the year before. Almost a year later, the hard economic data is beginning to show that the UK is already beginning to suffer from Brexit, though not on the scale that George Osborne and other sooth-sayers had predicted in their ‘project fear’ campaign which produced such an angry reaction. The truth is that the British voters, whether pro-Remain or pro-Brexit always knew that there would be a cost to leaving: no rebirth without pain, as Orbán puts it. But he admits to being unworried about us, since we are the most seasoned democracy in Europe, a nuclear power, a member of the UN’s Security Council, and the fifth largest economy in the world. He adds, the British will find themselves sooner than we think. Maybe. But I’m not that worried about the British either, though I regret the isolationist image that they seem once again content to send to the continent. That’s what worries me more – the loss of influence in the process of European reintegration which we had in the 1990s, and which Hungary led. I worry about the British Council’s role and the future of English language teaching and learning, together with all the opportunities for inter-cultural exchange which membership of the two countries in the EU enabled. I worry about my son’s university place with the attempts to close down the Central European Union and Hungarian students again priced out of higher education in the UK, even those, like him, who were born in Britain. Yes, I also worry for those who have gone to the UK to work in the Health Service or in the hospitality industries. Most of all, I worry for the whole of central and eastern Europe with the ascendancy of Putin and Erdogan in the east.

Viktor Orbán is forging ahead

Yet, by his own admission, Orbán is only worried about the fight against the EU as an institution which seeks to replace the nation-state. He is driven not by the healthy resurgence of national identity and patriotism in Hungary, but seeks to pervert it into an authoritarian ‘nation-statism’ which belongs to the Horthy Era in recent Hungarian history, if not to the late nineteenth century, when the country was finally emerging from its first general crisis. If he were to put his faith in a more confederal states of Europe, I would have greater confidence in his attempt to get us to subscribe to the principle of “unity in diversity”, which I always have done, provided it is balanced by “diversity in unity”. We must pool our resources and share our sovereignty if we are to face the challenges of the twenty-first century. We cannot afford to go back to the perpetual competition between nation states which led to the second general crisis of totalitarian empires at war and proxi-wars from which we have spent the last generation emerging.

Orban in Brussels2

Orbán’s basic concept and strategy for European unity starts from his observation that the EU is wealthy but weak. This, he suggests, is the worst possible combination… one that is acutely vulnerable to the single greatest threat confronting Europe – and Hungary. It is a threat, he claims, which is undermining his country’s financial stability and its precarious achievement in modernising the economy. Nowhere does he mention the ongoing role of EU funds in enabling this transformation, funds without which, according to many economists, the country would have been bankrupted in the early part of his ‘reign’. These funds continue to be ploughed into higher education in a desperate attempt to stem the flow of young Hungarians to more prosperous parts of Europe. In the meantime, salaries and wages, even those offered by foreign companies, continue to stagnate and, for all the weakness of the Eurozone, there is little prospect of Hungary joining it at current rates of exchange. Private funds are being wasted on pet projects on a massive scale. In one three km stretch of Budapest, three new football stadia have been erected within the last few years, perfectly reflecting the PM’s obsession with the sport which is not shared by his people, those who do share it preferring to watch Barcelona or Real Madrid on their flat screens at home.

If the EU is wealthy but weak, Hungary is both poor and weak, with its wealth increasingly concentrated in the hands of an ever-decreasing oligarchy. The hard-working middle classes are reminded that they have his government to thank for its national foreign policy (influence over its neighbours in and surrounding the Carpathian basin with Hungarian minorities), its restoration of law and order, its public safety against terrorism and its national culture that has slowly begun to flourish again after the long years of Communist sterility. The threat to all this comes, not from within, which has seen Hungary under his watch being returned to being one of the most corrupt nations in Europe, but from outside, from mass migration and its ‘mismanagement’ by the institutions the European Union. He spends most of the rest of his article setting out his view of this issue, before returning to Brexit. I have dealt with what I regard as his distorted view of the principles of migration and asylum above. On the significance of the Brexit vote, he draws these conclusion that until it happened…

… there used to be little doubt that the European Union was a major actor in global politics, capable of influencing developments not only back home but in remote corners of the globe. The secession of the UK marks the end of that era. The EU’s influence is even weakening closer to home, as it is apparent in the conflict in Ukraine. 

Yet, for all that we might worry about the effect of Brexit on European integration, the early signs are that it will, paradoxically, strengthen the Atlantic Alliance which Hungary was so proud to become a member of earlier this century, before it joined the EU. Yet it seems to be Hungary and others among the Visegrád countries which are deliberately seeking to undermine the efforts of NATO to deal with Russian aggression in the Ukraine, in concert with the EU, and in its sending of clear signals to Putin about the independence of the Baltic states within the NATO-EU ‘umbrella’, which, as he rightly admits, Hungary has benefited in the recent past, especially during the wars in former Yugoslavia, but to which it contributes very little. By contrast, the recent deployment of troops and hardware to the region by the UK government are a sign of its continuing commitment to European security in the face of Russian threats. The Hungarian government will have to make up its mind in the near future whether it wishes to continue its commitment to NATO, as well as to the EU. To many western observers, it seems that it wants to keep the resources from the west and east alike, but does not want to keep up its commitments as a member of these ‘clubs’.

Source: Viktor Orbán (2017), Hungary and the Crisis of Europe, in Gyula Kodalányi (ed.), Hungarian Review, Volume VIII, No.1, January 2017. Budapest: Danube Institute.

  

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