Why Viktor Orbán and his allies won’t win the EU elections

Right-wing populists think voters obsess about immigration. But that’s not the case.

Democratic politics need drama. Elections are a form of therapy session in which voters are confronted with their worst fears – a new war, demographic collapse, economic crisis, environmental horror – but become convinced they have the power to avert the devastation. “As the election approaches,” Alexis de Tocqueville observed during his travels across the US in the early 19th century, “intrigue becomes more active and agitation lively and more widespread. The entire nation falls into a feverish state … As soon as fortune has pronounced … everything becomes calm, and the river, one moment overflowed, returns peacefully to its bed.”

The fact that right-wing populists govern parts of central Europe has only strengthened people’s desire to emigrate.

If Tocqueville is right, then in front of our eyes the European Union is turning into a true democracy. Traditionally uneventful and boring, European Parliament elections are for the first time producing drama usually reserved for the national stage. With two months to go before the vote, a majority of Europeans share a sense that something important will happen, and that a special place in hell will be reserved for those Europeans who don’t bother to vote. But who will have benefited once the election campaign is over?

It’s too early to say. For the moment, politicians have managed to convince a majority of people that Europe stands on the edge of a catastrophe, but they have yet to convince them that citizens have the power to avert it. The gilets jaunes’ (yellow vests’) brand of anger is felt across many EU member states, but the upcoming European elections won’t be a repetition of the Brexit referendum, for a simple reason: no major populist party (of either right or left) today openly advocates exiting the union or the euro. Nor will these elections be a repetition of the second round of the 2017 French presidential vote won by Emmanuel Macron.

An opinion survey soon to be published by the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank and YouGov shows that Europeans aren’t neatly divided into pro-Europeans and nationalists. The survey depicts four different categories of citizens. First, the “desperados”: a combination of “those who fear the end of the world” and “those who fear the end of the month”. They’re convinced that both the EU and nation states are broken. Statistics show this is the largest group in many member states, but not necessarily the group that includes the most likely voters.

Next comes the “things are better than you think” group: voters who look around and tend to believe that, despite all their failings, both the EU and the nation states work. Then there are fervent Bruxellians: those who believe the EU works but their national governments are broken (mostly found in central and southern Europe). Finally, representing a tiny minority, there are diehard nationalists: those who believe the EU is the problem and the nation state is the solution. These four groups are very unevenly distributed among EU countries.

The fear many pro-Europeans hold is that the current polarisation of European politics will work to the advantage of the populist right, and that Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán will manage to turn these elections into a referendum on Brussels’ failure to deal with migration. But that fear is overblown.

Orbán’s intention to turn the elections into a referendum on migration simply won’t work for three reasons. First, while migration remains a serious concern for many voters, it is not the dominant concern in most countries. Orbán’s 2015 anti-migration message worked because people who’d never seen a refugee in their lives were watching daily TV reports of thousands of people crossing EU borders. That’s no longer the case.

The number of illegal migrants who have entered the EU in the past year is equal to the average number of tourists who visit Athens in a single day in August. Even in central Europe the migration theme has now lost its centrality. The survey shows that Poles, Hungarians, and Romanians are much more worried about government corruption than about a hypothetical influx of foreigners. And in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, voters primarily concerned with corruption are more likely to vote than those who fret about migration.

Contrary to widespread opinion, countries such as Slovakia, Poland, and Romania may well bring good news for pro-Europeans in these elections. Survey findings suggest Orbán has a weaker grasp on what issues truly matter today to central Europeans than the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk – a staunch critic of Poland’s nationalist government.

The second reason 2019 won’t be a repeat of 2015 is that in today’s Europe no major political party advocates open-borders politics. “The boundary is freedom in security,” Macron wrote in his recent letter to Europeans, calling for the creation of a European Council for Internal Security that would be responsible for “stringent border controls”. So the new consensus among progressives in Europe is that a well-protected border is “a vaccine against the epidemic of walls”, to quote the French thinker Régis Debray.

Third, Orbán’s migration-centred campaign will fail because of the best-kept secret in the EU today, which is that in central Europe and parts of southern Europe, anti-migration anxiety has less to do with immigrants than with emigrants. One popular joke in communist East Germany was that authorities feared the last East German heading to the west would forget to switch off the lights. Now that joke is back. Central Europe’s problem today is not much different from the one East Germany faced in 1961 when its government built the wall. An estimated 3.4 million Romanians left their country for western Europe in the eight years after the country joined the EU in 2007. And the number of Hungarians who have emigrated since Orbán came to power is now higher than the number who left after Soviet forces crushed the 1956 uprising.

The fact that right-wing populists govern parts of central Europe has only strengthened people’s desire to emigrate. The fear that haunts ageing societies in central Europe is that this generation may witness the day when the last young doctor and nurse pick up their suitcases and go. Depopulation and demographic decline are the true tragedy of central Europe.

So the greatest challenge in east-west relations within the EU is this: how to prevent mobility in Europe from being a one-way street from east to west, and how to compensate central European societies for their investment in the education of their nationals who then move to Germany or France. Yet that’s not a problem right-wing populists talk about.

This article was originally published on 20 March in the Guardian as part of its “Europe Now” series

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Chairman, Centre for Liberal Strategies

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