Speaking at the inauguration of a Middle Eastern Studies Institute near Budapest on 8 April, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban linked Europe’s migration emergency with a sort of civilizational clash. Although Hungary has almost no immigrants, Orban has taken the opportunity to frame himself as a kind of paladin in the defence of Christianity in Europe against Islam. A couple of days before, he had, once more, similarly criticized Brussels elites for their immigration policies and EU Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos, who like Orban, belongs to the European People’s Party (EPP), for his alleged “population replacement programme”.
This comes as little surprise, as Orban has constantly been a champion of demagogic, illiberal, far right, and anti-EU politics. Yet the paradox is that in late March, EPP MPs approved the suspension of Orban’s Fidesz party in the European Parliament. Their assembly decided to “punish” Orban for his earlier campaigns against U.S. philanthropist George Soros, the European Commission President Juncker (an EPP politician), as well for his attacks on EU immigration strategies and his labeling of critics as “useful idiots”.
Following this decision, Fidesz cannot vote on EPP decisions, run for internal positions and attend their meetings. European Commission Vice President Jyrki Katainen — another powerful EPP member — claimed to be “happy and satisfied” that the grouping was layout out “what is acceptable and what is not” within the EU context.
EPP’s hypocritical relationship with Viktor Orban
However, the political saga surrounding Orban is far from over. A few days later, the Hungarian politician restarted accusing the EU elites of living in a “bubble” and having no touch with “reality”, while urging his fellow citizens to vote in the EU elections because they have to “show Brussels that what happens in Hungary is what the Hungarian people want.”
The problem is that some fellow EPP politicians still wink at his defense of Christianity or share his anti-immigrant views. At the Budapest migration conference (22–24 March), former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, praised Fidesz, noting that “if somebody wins the election three times in a row in an unstable world, they deserve respect”. Hungary is “also a democratic country”, he added. At the same conference, Jaime Mayor Oreja, a conservative figure who hold senior positions in both Spain’s governments and the EPP, suggested how alongside migrants, the EU’s problems were its “countless institutions” and the decline of its Christian principles.
Given this, Fidesz’s suspension was then only a simple tactical move to postpone any decision until after the EU election and avoid repercussions in Central and Eastern Europe. Before the voting in the EPP’s meeting, the leader of the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) wrote a letter calling on the parties “to avoid a split in the EPP family”. For him, “it was Juncker who as president of the European Commission should in principle stay out of pure party politics but who nevertheless publicly called for Fidesz to be expelled”.
Rather than a straightforward expulsion, however, the EPP’s usual hypocrisy prevailed. Orban, in fact, started undermining democracy as far back as 2011. Hungary’s most recent Constitution, approved by his party in 2012 without any real public discussion and involvement of the parliamentary opposition, was a step back in the process of modernization that the country had taken since the collapse of the communist regime.
Ethno-nationalism. The Hungarian emblem against minorities.
Once considered a positive example of transition from dictatorship to a democratic system, Hungary is becoming an emblem of regressive policies and ethno-nationalism and a place with a peculiar understanding of media freedom, plurality and balance of powers, in which silencing of the media and cultural opposition are becoming the norm.
The Constitution is problematic in several respects. It undermines the autonomy of the Constitutional Court. It embodies principles harking back to the interwar years. This was an era when the nation also experienced ultra-nationalist politics, while anti-Semitism was sadly not confined to a fascist fringe minority. This peculiar historical linkage is symptomatic of Fidesz’s current ideology. Christianity is part of a specific and traditionalist idea of society, where Hungarian people are considered a homogenous unit.
Ethnic minorities and LGBT individuals are not necessarily tolerated, while Islam and (more covertly) some Jews such as Soros are clearly the novel enemies. The Prime Minister has consistently called for the protection of his people from such alien cultures as well as EU “interference” in national politics and legislation. This anti-democratic move has basically been facilitated by Fidesz’s demagogic campaigns against enemies real and imagined.
Electoral calculations to control EU institutions
Returning to the European dimension, Hungary’s illiberal regime has been able to flourish also because of the EPP’s blinkered politics over the years. In the end, they supported a movement at odds with their own values out of political expediency. As a party grounded in the Christian Democratic tradition — and which has greatly contributed to the European integration process since the early 1950s — the EPP has marketed itself as a political group against the threat of “populism and political radicalism”.
According to their manifesto, they believe in a pluralist democracy, equality, freedom, and human dignity. Most importantly, this is, in their words, also valid “for those of us who believe in God as the source of truth, justice, good, and beauty, as well as those who do not share this [the Christian] faith but respect the same universal values”.
The truth is far less noble: the group has done nothing to substantively challenge the authoritarian and non-liberal tendencies promoted by some of its party members. Instead, what we see is that electoral calculation and a strategy to control all EU institutions have prevailed over the future of the same Union. In other words, rather than overtly challenging or expelling Orban’s party, many “moderate” politicians from the most powerful EU force, the EPP, preferred to keep in their ranks a champion of anti-Europeanism and resurgent nationalist, xenophobic stances.
Photo: EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP
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