Otherwise, the constant declarations of fidelity to certain universal values from the European People’s party (EPP) grouping will be worth less than the paper they’re written on. And the political family of German chancellor Angela Merkel, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, European commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and European council president Donald Tusk, to name but a few, will look like a gaggle of temporising appeasers.
Hungary is famous for its salami, and Orbán is a master of salami tactics. The term originated with the Hungarian Stalinist leader Mátyás Rákosi, who said in the 1940s that he would cut off non-communist parties “like slices of salami”. Now the anti-communist Orbán is slicing away liberal democracy inside an EU member state. Each slice is skilfully cut so thin that his European partners don’t think this one, on its own, is cause for more than loud grumbling.
As I saw on a recent visit to Budapest, the country no longer has the pluralistic media you need for liberal democracy, while the independence of the judiciary has been eroded, as it has more recently in Poland. Even as Orbán tries to take down the Central European University (CEU), founded by George Soros, he is also preparing a squeeze on all NGOs, and proposing to pack refugees and their families into containers, in violation of international humanitarian law.
I write as someone who stood on Heroes Square in Budapest in June 1989 and watched with admiration as the then little-known 26-year-old Orbán electrified the crowd with a call for Russian troops to leave Hungarian soil. (Now he is one of Vladimir Putin’s best friends inside the EU.) I remember too how the bright-eyed, seemingly idealistic young Oxford Soros scholar Orbán sought me out in my rooms at St Antony’s College to talk about democracy. (Now the Soros scholar wants to shut down the university founded by Soros.) Back then Hungary, along with Poland, led half of Europe towards freedom. Now Hungary, along with Poland, leads the nationalist populist march away from freedom.
And with what poisonous language. In his state-of-the-nation address earlier this year, Orbán denounced “the globalists and liberals, the powerbrokers sitting in their palaces … the swarm of media locusts and their owners”. And he spoke darkly of “large predators swimming in the water … the transnational empire of George Soros”. Scorning Merkel to her face at the EPP’s congress in Malta this spring, he said migration had “turned out to be the Trojan horse of terrorism”.
As for western interventions in the Middle East: “All I’m saying is, if we kick an anthill we should not be surprised if the ants overwhelm us.” The system he is erecting in Hungary is not yet fascism – unlike him, we should be careful in our choice of words – but this language, describing a Jewish billionaire as a predator and reducing human beings to “ants”, is fascistic.
And what reaction do we see from the leaders of Europe’s centre-right, who rightly claim to be the heirs of the Christian Democratic founding fathers of the European Union? They wring their hands. They grimace. They make stern phone calls to their friend Viktor. They flutter and they tweet. “Freedom of thinking, research and speech are essential for our European identity,” tweeted Manfred Weber, head of the EPP group in the European parliament, adding “@EPPGroup will defend this at any cost”.
At any cost, that is, except losing the 12 loyal Fidesz MEPs who give the EPP a clear majority over the other major political grouping, of the centre-left, and therefore also first dibs on top jobs. So instead they pass the buck to the European commission, which is due to discuss Hungary’s higher education law and other anti-liberal measures today. But this is not just a question of EU law; it is a question of fundamental values, values we share with many others around the world but call in shorthand European values. That question is not for the commission to answer, but rather for every European politician who proclaims those values.
You can watch online how EPP stalwart Juncker, looking like a man who has just enjoyed a good lunch, waits to receive heads of government at an EU summit in Latvia in 2015. “The dictator is coming,” he quips, and then greets Orbán with a jovial “dictator!”, hearty handshake and pat on the cheek. In the Europe of today, that “hello dictator” moment is no longer a joke. It is the face of past appeasement. And it is the sound of party political interests and friendships – Orbán is a loyal EPP member, and a talented schmoozer – being placed before values. What kind of example does this give to young Europeans?
CEU is a Hungarian-American institution, so the United States is also directly involved. It seems Orbán may have reckoned this move would grab the attention of Donald Trump, whose election he welcomed, whose hostility to Muslim migrants he shares – and whose support he wants to aid his own re-election next year. In fact, the US administration and Republicans in Congress have responded with strong criticism. What an irony it would be if Trump were to prove more outspoken in the defence of European values than Tusk.
After Easter, there will be a plenary discussion of Hungary in the European parliament, then a meeting of EPP national leaders at the end of the month. So now is the time for us, the people of Europe, to cry out to the leading figures of the EPP.
To Spanish prime minister Rajoy: have you forgotten what fascism sounds like? To Irish prime minister Enda Kenny: do you honestly think we should be so indifferent to the fate of “far away countries of which we know nothing”? To Grzegorz Schetyna of Poland’s Civic Platform: how can you fight Orbánism in Poland while embracing it in your own European party grouping? To Bavarian CSU leader Horst Seehofer: do you really want to be seen as Orbánism’s useful idiot? To Merkel: doesn’t this man stand for everything you stand against?
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.