‘We want to be one of the five best countries in the EU in 2030.’ – Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, November 2018
A question mark has increasingly hung over Hungary’s democratic reputation in recent times among a section of the media in Europe, as well as among many political opinion leaders. While the country stood pars pro toto among the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe during the push for freedom, democracy, and Europe during the transformational years of 1989–1990, after a decade and a half of European Union membership, an extensive process of disillusionment has set in on both sides. There is no question in Hungary as to whether the country should be a member of the EU. Approval rates are still high. There is, however, a considerable need for debate about what kind of partnership the EU should be.
Many Hungarians are increasingly concerned about a development which would be detrimental to them, which would jeopardize the life plans that they have made and the ‘European way of life’ they envision. They are struggling in particular with an EU that they see as seeking to restrict the personal freedoms and national sovereignty it cost them so much to regain, and to be highly patronizing towards the population. Representatives of Western European countries in particular, by contrast, regard Hungary’s actions as incomprehensible, and not in line with their own values. They therefore react to those actions with a lack of understanding. This attitude frequently finds expression in a general allegation that politics in Hungary no longer aligns with ‘European values’. The discrepancy in perspectives makes it necessary to seriously address the ‘phenomenon of Hungary’ in order to understand the motives and goals of its political leadership in a Europe that is becoming increasingly complex. The question arises as to whether Hungary, with its idiosyncratic politics, might not be able, nonetheless, to make a constructive contribution towards an EU engaged in a process of change and renewal.
Hungarians’ history, language, and mentality
Many observers in Western Europe find Hungary’s culture of remembrance unduly pronounced. They are disconcerted by the robust anti-communism that is a legacy of Hungary’s experiences of dictatorship, and by the general status of history in public life. That said, public and political debates in other countries in Central and Eastern Europe are characterized by a living image of history, strong national identity, and a tenacious narrative about the role of the state, citizens, and the nation. A sine qua non of being able to shape Europe together is therefore to accept this framework, as it arises from historical circumstances. The ability to understand a country means getting under the skin of its population across the entire spectrum— getting acquainted not only with naked facts but also with attitudes, sensitivities, mentalities, modes of conduct, and recurring patterns of action. This is the only way in which understanding and communication can be promoted. Policymakers in particular need to be able to appreciate this fundamental societal understanding in their day-to-day work, to respect it and to implement it in a measured way in their political leadership, decision-making, and communication. A foreign observer must therefore be aware of and understand these factors when expressing an opinion on a country, its people and its politics. This is a difficult task. Given Hungary’s peculiar historical experiences, its different discussions, its diverging political culture, its unique language, and its modes of communication, which are not always easy to follow, as well as what we might call the country’s ‘soul’ of which Western European observers are often almost entirely ignorant. Gaining an understanding of these circumstances demands constant attentiveness, as well as a willingness to immerse oneself in the country.
The land of ten million freedom fighters
A well-known Hungarian politician is said to have remarked that Hungary was a difficult country to govern, as the country comprised ten million freedom fighters
A well-known Hungarian politician is said to have remarked that Hungary was a difficult country to govern, as the country comprised ten million freedom fighters. This description characterizes a fundamental feature of Hungarians, namely a constant struggle and rebellion against threats that frequently came from outside. Deeply rooted in the country’s history is a popular belief that the Hungarian people are best left to their own devices. Under communism people resorted to cunning and skill to outsmart the authorities. This background helps us to understand aversions, and in some instances loudly- voiced reservations, against ‘decisions from above’ or ‘decisions from outside’. This also goes some way towards explaining why measures from the EU are seen through the lense of national sovereignty, and as impositions to be resisted. There is a temptation to jump to the conclusion that the other side is pursuing devious aims and has malign, ulterior motives. This attitude has become pervasive, given that the average Hungarian has a reflexive wariness of anything that might endanger his or her freedom: an inconvenient tax, an unpleasant duty, a rule that is regarded as nonsensical. But beyond these small-scale struggles for freedom, there is a world that Hungarians are willing to defend. Outside threats are immediately recognized and repelled because of our historical heritage—a reflex which many in Europe have perhaps lost. Hungarians are marked by a seismographic sixth sense for everyday changes in the world. Their historical experience has taught them to recognize dangers early, and to choose the right time to take action in order to defend themselves against them.
Hungarian refugee policy as a bone of contention between East and West
Virtually no other topic has defined the debate in Europe in the past decade as much as international refugee and migration movements. The heightened interest in the EU electoral campaign and the rise in voter turnout indicate that Europeans have at least partly attained a common public awareness, and perhaps a shared identity, in this regard. Even enthusiastic proponents of the concept of European unification could presumably not have imagined that this process would be fuelled by such a contentious issue as refugee and migration policy. As recently as early 2015, political commentators would hardly have thought it possible for Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in particular to play a central role in these debates, or that he would be elevated to the role of ‘antagonist’ to Angela Merkel at the height of the refugee crisis.
Many other issues played a role, most with deep historical roots. Foreign rule, invasion, and occupation have been the recurring events of Hungarian history, and have invariably entailed widespread suffering. First, there was the Mongol invasion, then 150 years of Ottoman occupation, followed by the ‘liberation’ and simultaneous assimilation of the country by the House of Habsburg. For almost two centuries, Hungary was divided into three, with the Turks occupying the central part,1 the Habsburgs in the north and west, and the autonomous Principality of Transylvania in the east. Separated from Europe, a very special kind of Hungarian spirit developed in Transylvania, where Calvinism and local identity played a key role. The focus here was on defending and maintaining the embattled remnant of Hungarian statehood against interlopers, occupiers, plunderers, absolute monarchs, and rich foreigners: Cum Deo pro Patria et Libertate was the motto of the Transylvanian freedom movements. The role played by the Reformation cannot be overstated in this context. It therefore also comes as no surprise that the Reformed Church of Hungary, though modest in terms of its membership (accounting for roughly 20 per cent of religious Hungarians) continues to play such a significant role in politics and public life down to the present day, reaching into government circles. After the traumatic experiences of the twentieth century, with the mass-murdering Nazi ideology and the catastrophe of the Second World War, followed by decades of tyranny under the communist regime—secured by the ‘Red Army temporarily stationed in Hungary’—the long-awaited Hungarian dream of freedom, national identity, and self-determination was finally realized in 1989.
The migrant flows of 2015 were not the only decisive factor shaping Hungarian migration policy
Against the background of this historical experience, Hungarians therefore react in their own way to the challenges of the ‘modern migration of the peoples’. The defensive strategy that was adopted by the political leadership on the issue of migration has been broadly endorsed across the country’s political spectrum. One aspect which amplifies this trend is the view taken by many Hungarians that the EU constitutes a new ‘empire’, with its capital in Brussels. Many Hungarians find themselves unable to accept the fact that sharing sovereignty at the European level ultimately leaves it up to bureaucrats in Brussels to decide with whom the country’s population is to share space. The Hungarian government has repeatedly stressed that it accepts the national migration policy of any EU member state. Nonetheless, in reaction to the immigration experience of Western European countries in particular, the governing coalition decided to implement its own migration policy. The Hungarian argument is that this should in turn be accepted by the other EU states.
Not only did German–Hungarian relations hit rock bottom in 2015, so did relations between Hungary and the EU. Hungary’s political leadership inadvertently set itself up as a counterpoint to the ‘welcome culture’ in Germany, or was pushed into such a position. By shoring up its external Schengen border, Hungarians proved that it was possible to carry out the duty to protect national borders, in line with Hungary’s definition of sovereignty. No one in Hungary anticipated the societal and political dynamic that led to a ‘welcome culture’ in Germany in the late summer of 2015. After a hiatus in the reception of refugees, the German government however rediscovered an approach which was also acceptable to other European countries, including a refugee agreement with Turkey, a ceiling for refugees, and a political consensus that ‘2015 must not happen again’. The reception, and above all the distribution of refugees and migrants, however, remains a difficult question for Europe, to which it has not yet been possible to find a generally accepted answer.
Being in the right and obtaining justice are two entirely different things. This is a concept which Hungarians too have come to understand in the years since 2015. Other countries have pursued Hungary’s strict border policies and its rigid rejection of illegal migration, but their actions were judged in a different way. Even as foreign minister, the future Austrian Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was consistent in his attempts to close the Balkan route, and yet it was not he but Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán who bore the brunt of massive attacks by the proponents of porous external EU borders. The Hungarian government became increasingly aware of this fact. It took on the role, stepped up the rhetoric even further, and declared itself the defender of the walls of Fortress Europe, the guardian of Europe, or indeed the guarantor of the Judeo-Christian world order. As a consequence of the migration crisis, polarization in Europe deepened, as did in particular the contradiction between East and West. Since then, discussion has focused on the hypothesis of Krastev andHolmes that the ‘light has failed’.2 It appears that the political radiance of the West has faded considerably, and that the countries in Central and Eastern Europe are orientating themselves more closely towards their own traditions, beliefs, and national identities.
The joint narrative of Central and Eastern Europe
They want to live the way they have lived up to now, and to develop their societies on this foundation. They accept the types of societies that exist in the old EU member states, but for their part, they are asking the European club to show greater respect for their ideas. Many felt that it was akin to a change in basic European procedures when the mandatory distribution of refugees was adopted in the EU with a qualified majority in the autumn of 2015. It is a truism that the EU has developed further since the major round of enlargement, which took place in 2004. Many Central and Eastern Europeans are however increasingly wondering whether they are still able to live their lives in a self-determined way in their countries, or whether the Brussels institutions have largely taken over. Against this background, the question of self-respect has increasingly arisen in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Hungary, and Slovakia. The desire to rely more on one’s own strengths has continually increased.
People in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have very similar attitudes towards history, culture, and politics, including their rejection of mass immigration
People in these countries are realizing with dismay that their own self-determination in Europe cannot be taken for granted, although no one would question the principle that decisions about how life is to be lived in, for example, Germany, are for Germans to make. The ‘new’ EU member states can still hear the echo of the words of French President Chirac that these countries had ‘missed a good opportunity to simply hold their tongues’.3 Bringing Europe back together here, creating trust, and shaping ‘politics on an equal footing’ will be just as much of a challenge for the 2020s as finding the right balance between East and West, North and South, small and large.
As distinctive symbols, the arguments currently being put forward in Hungarian politics are at times lonely voices in the desert, and encounter indignation and mistrust among many in Europe. But these political decisions are largely based on simple, fundamental convictions relying on the will of the majority: not more immigration, but less. Not fewer children, but more. Not a ban on detached houses, but support for home ownership. Not a welfare state, but a society built on work. Not high but low taxes. Not redistribution, but investment in growing prosperity. Not marriage for all, but marriage between men and women. Many of these goals are also shared by citizens in other countries within the region. That this kind of policy meets frequently with rejection in today’s Europe also stems from the fact that these topics coincide with debates going on within other countries on the future orientation of society.
Hungary and Visegrád
The Visegrád Group, which was founded on 15 February 1991 by what at that time were still only three countries, consists today of four countries: Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Its historical forerunners can be found in the treaty concluded between three kings in the Hungarian town of the same name in the autumn of 1335. At that time, the kings of Poland, Hungary, and Bohemia agreed to expand their trade and military relations, and also to take joint political action. The group established thirty years ago initially pursued the goal of supporting one another on the path towards joining Euro-Atlantic structures. After successful integration, the project was at risk of going adrift in terms of its content. Then things changed. The massive upheavals of 2015 showed once more how important it is for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to speak with one voice. In political terms, they share a common outlook, beyond party politics, given that they have had governments of different party affiliations since the late autumn of 2015. With a consistent policy particularly with regard to migration and the conservation of the continent’s Christian values, they are playing an ever-growing role in the polyphonic European concert. They have become a power factor, not only politically, but also economically.
The V4 countries currently see themselves as forming a dynamic region in Europe. As early as 2015, the volume of their trade with Germany was 50 per cent greater than that of Germany with France. This figure had increased to as much as 70 per cent by 2019. They reject state debt policy, and have learned from their historical experience that they cannot spend more than they earn.
They are formulating demands in an increasingly self-confident manner, and hope to become, together with Germany, the driving force of an EU that is renewing itself. They are in agreement with Germany on fiscal and climate policy, a sustainable, innovative, high-performance economy and rapid digitalization, as well as the expansion of military capabilities, including within the European alliance. The V4 have transformed into a region willing and able to stand on its own two feet, and able to courageously make a contribution to Europe. ‘Unity in diversity and diversity in unity: This is the secret of Europe’, as Prime Minister Orbán stated in February 2021 on the occasion of the celebrations marking the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the alliance of the Visegrád Group. He called for strong nation states with political decision-makers who have the courage to address uncomfortable issues as well. Recognizing the potential of the V4, and putting this to greater use in order to shape the future of the continent, is one of the major challenges of German policy before the 2021 Bundestag elections.
This article was not intended to clarify the subtle ramifications of Hungarian policy towards Europe, or to subject some EU policies to criticism, or even assessment. Rather, it aims to show a view of Europe which is not sufficiently well known in Europe today. Hungary has its long-established roots in Europe. It very much pains Hungarians that Western critics repeatedly question this.
The decision to cast this country’s anchor in Europe was taken for Hungary by Saint Stephen more than one thousand years ago
This decision remains the guiding line for Hungarian policy on Europe. The Hungarian government continues to envision a ‘Europe of nations’, and the vast majority of Hungarians wants to remain in the EU. They want democracy, rule of law, prosperity, and security, based on a pluralist value system. It is above all the nuances which make the difference in Europe. It is tolerance of and respect for these differences, the expression of different opinions in combative but respectful debate, with courage and a brave spirit, and facing up to the urgent questions of the future, that should mark Europe in the 2020s.
The Hungarian Prime Minister said several years ago: ‘We used to think that the future was Europe, but we know today that we are the future of Europe.’4 In this sense, Europe should be re-thought from a living centre and reinvigorated. Hungarians are ready for this.
1 In Budapest’s villa district there is a steep, winding street called Törökvész út or ‘Turkish Peril Street’, only one kilometre away from the restored tomb of Gül Baba, a Turkish poet and companion of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, which Viktor Orbán and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reopened in October 2018. This is no contradiction whatsoever to Hungarians who know their history.
2 Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, The Light that Failed: Why the West Is Losing the Fight for Democracy (Pegasus Books, 2020).
3 Oana Lungescu, ‘Chirac Blasts EU Candidates’, BBC News (18 February 2003), http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/2774139.stm.
4 ‘Full Speech of V. Orbán: Will Europe Belong to Europeans?’, Visegrád Post (July 24 2017), https:// visegradpost.com/en/2017/07/24/full-speech-of-v-orban-will-europe-belong-to-europeans/.