Hungary: the bad boy of Europe?

Saturday 2 November, 12:0013:00, Garden RoomEye on the World

Over the course of the past nine years, a small nation of 10 million people has become the běte noire of the EU. The depiction of Hungary as a reactionary backwater or ‘heart of darkness’ has become the norm in West European media and political discourse in recent years. The country’s leader, Viktor Orban, is reviled as an authoritarian, bent on creating an ‘illiberal democracy’, which for his critics is a contradiction in terms. In the 2018 parliamentary election, Orban’s conservative-nationalist Fidesz party won a third consecutive landslide victory.

Since Fidesz returned to power in 2010, Hungary has been in frequent conflict with EU institutions over its economic policies, institutional reforms and political practices. In particular, the EU has fulminated that Orban has used his huge parliamentary majorities to weaken the independence of the judiciary, the central bank, the media and other civil society bodies and has contravened EU values in relation to human rights, free speech and protection of asylum-seekers. The EU has also criticised Orban for cosying up to US President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

In September 2018, the European Parliament voted to begin disciplinary action against Hungary under Article 7 of the EU treaties, which is designed to deter serious violations of European fundamental values. Such a move could lead to the suspension of Hungary’s voting rights within the bloc and/or fines, but so far the EU has held back from punishing Hungary. These admonishments do not seem to have dented Fidesz’s popularity at home.

Despite, or perhaps partly because of, the EU’s hostility, Fidesz has managed to retain the support of large swathes of the electorate. Fidesz has also benefited in recent years from a booming economy, fuelled by strong inflows of EU funds for infrastructure projects, tax cuts and large increases in minimum wage levels and social transfers. The fragmentation and ineffectiveness of the opposition has also boosted support for Fidesz. This is despite evident dissatisfaction with the government, for example over the new labour code and other measures, among sections of the population.

In this session, the sociologist, commentator and author Frank Furedi will discuss what has been driving the conflict between Hungary and the EU and what it tells us about today’s culture wars in Europe. In an era when few parties get re-elected, how has Fidesz managed to win three consecutive elections by a landslide? How can we explain Orban’s own political trajectory over three decades, from being a pro-EU classical liberal in the early 1990s to a traditionalist national conservative today? Can there be such a thing as an ‘illiberal democracy’? What are the differences and similarities between the political landscape in Eastern and Western Europe? Is there cause to be worried about Hungary’s authoritarian and illiberal turn? Why has the opposition to Fidesz in Hungary been so weak? Does Orban want to have his cake and eat it, rejecting the liberal values of the EU, but never advocating to leave?