When future generations try to make sense of this turbulent chapter in European history, the name of Viktor Orban will loom large. For one thing, the Hungarian prime minister symbolises the sudden dramatic shifts we are seeing in Western society. Having started out as a democracy activist who dared challenge Communism, he has ended up, three decades later, as the influential architect of an illiberal form of populism that is infecting our continent like a virulent disease.
This is the man who set the template for Donald Trump, albeit without the tantrums on social media. Steve Bannon, the United States President’s repellent former strategist, even called him “Trump before Trump“. Since winning untramelled power in Budapest eight years ago, Orban has created the model for a new nationalism sweeping through Rome, Warsaw and Washington, with its admiration of autocrats, scapegoating of refugees, hostility to Muslims, attacks on globalisation and creeping erosion of checks on power.
Having just won another election, campaigning with a barrage of assaults on the Hungarian-born philanthropist George Soros that carried the sickening stench of antisemitism, Orban now seeks nothing less than the transformation of Europe in his image. We cannot say we have not been warned – since he is open about his intentions despite governing only two per cent of the continent’s population. The latest version of the speech he gives annually to young Hungarians at a summer camp in Transylvania sets out his vision of ‘illiberal democracy’.
This speech echoes Trump’s tropes with hostility to China, sympathy for Russia and savage attacks on elites (obviously ignoring the ones at home growing rich through closeness to his own Fidesz party). Orban poses as champion of traditional Christian identity and values, demanding rejection of ‘the ideology of multiculuralism’, an end to ‘open society Europe’ and curbing of ‘the Muslim influx’. He even parrots those tedious claims about censorship and political correctness thwarting debate of immigration, ignoring how this issue dominates headlines.
Orban scorns the elites in Brussels. But unlike his populist pals in Britain, he does not seek exit from the club, nor its demise. This would be even crazier than Brexit, since Hungary receives more European Union cash per capita than any other member, accounting for much of its public investment. This flow of funds provides the bedrock of his economic success and often ends up in the hands of friends. So, instead, he wants control. He is calling for his allies to “concentrate with all our strength” on next year’s European elections – not least by continuing to weaponise migration, despite the big drop in new arrivals this year.
Orban uses refugees and religion to accuse his opponents of undermining Hungary’s cultural identity. He has passed a barrage of hostile measures including criminalising those who help undocumented migrants win asylum and shackling NGOs, while his party even appoints theatre directors to guard against any subversion.
Now he wants to dominate the European stage, claiming next year’s elections are critical. “We must demonstrate there is an alternative to liberal democracy: it is called Christian democracy,” he told the crowd of young Hungarians. “We must show the liberal elite can be replaced with a Christian democratic elite… Liberal democracy is liberal, while Christian democracy is, by definition, not liberal: it is, if you like, illiberal.”
This is a declaration of war on human rights, minorities and tolerance. Orban and his fellow travellers admire autocracies in China, Russia and Turkey. They want border fences and conformity, not civil rights and refugees. They believe majorities can trample over minorities, whether on moral issues such as protecting people fleeing conflict or social issues such as non-traditional lifestyles. The results can be toxic; just look at the hideous treatment of Roma communities in Hungary and now Italy. Or indeed, those migrant families ripped apart at US borders.
This is all part of the current struggles over identity and race, wrapped up as ever in complex issues such as economic dislocation, social exclusion and technological advance. Just as those areas of Britain most alarmed by immigration are often ones with fewest migrants, this challenge to core values comes from Europe’s most ethnically homogenous area. Foreign citizens make up less than two per cent of the Hungarian population – which is, ironically, less than numbers emigrating over the past decade from a rapidly ageing society with low birthrates.
This assault from the east, stoking fears of minorities and outsiders to mask cronyism and domestic decline, comes as Western societies bicker over diversity and integration. Orban is joined in battle by Bannon with a new foundation aiming to forge a far-right alliance to cause maximum disruption in Brussels and Europe. “He’s a hero…the most significant guy on the scene,’ said Trump’s former strategist while touring Europe recently. Bannon is a man, remember, who also told far-right French activists that accusations of racism should be seen as ‘a badge of honour.’
Having presided over a slide towards authoritarianism at home, Orban wants to “wave goodbye to liberal democracy” in Europe next year. So how will progressive forces respond to his paranoid politics, especially since this comes at a time when leading nations such as Britain and Germany are obsessed with internal issues and riven with their own divisions along lines of age, class and region? So far, the omens are not good; Orban’s party is still allowed to sit with the main conservative group in Brussels, for instance, while he was permitted to wreck efforts to solve the migration crisis by rejecting a plan to assist frontline states by sharing refugees.
We are witnessing a fight over Europe’s identity as a bastion of decency, birthplace of democracy and home of human rights. Orban rules a small land with a fractured history, but he presents serious challenge to our values with his crass illiberalism, majoritian popularism and an ugly brand of nationalism. Liberals of all colours need to rediscover confidence and remake their creeds for the modern era. Yet what tragic irony if ideals forged in wake of terrible war, then exported eastwards after the defeat of communism, should rebound by corroding our own democracies.