By Christopher Pratt
Image Credit: Independent UK
The European Union (EU) is under threat. Although it has accomplished so much since its humble beginnings in 1951 as the European Coal and Steel Community, the international powerhouse of the EU is contending with a rising wave of populism sweeping across the continent. Brexit is an excellent example of the potential impacts populist politics can have on the stability of international organizations like the EU, but it is not the only example. In fact, 25% of national parliamentary votes cast in Europe in 2018 went to populist political parties, according to The Guardian.
The current situation in Hungary poses one of the biggest challenges the European Integration Project has had to face yet. When the COVID-19 pandemic exploded across the world, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán wasted no time in orchestrating the passage of a bill that allows him to hold office indefinitely while also giving him the power to bypass parliament in addressing the crisis. This includes the suspension of parliament as well as the enactment of harsh penalties for journalists that are deemed to be disseminating “fake news”. He claims that the bill was created in the interest of national security, but no other liberal state has felt the need to respond to the pandemic in this fashion. A further concern is warranted when one learns that Orbán was an active campaigner for the former socialist-communist party of Hungary before the fall of the Iron Curtain. He has also admitted, in a 2014 speech, his aspirations to build “an illiberal state, a non-liberal state.” Additionally, from the moment Orbán and his conservative right-wing Fidesz-KDNP political union gained power in 2010, they have been challenging the independence of the Hungarian judicial system, limiting the power of their opposition in parliament and consolidating the media into a state-owned powerhouse they control.
It does not take much research at all to see why the problem of Hungary could be a threat to the democracy-promoting, internationalist EU. Unable to properly sanction the rogue government for essentially opposing the EU’s founding ideologies (Poland’s populist government has been clear it will veto any proposed sanctions), the EU faces a predicament that is only complicated further by its history. The Treaty of Versailles is often cited as being a contributing factor to the outbreak of World War II, and the Treaty of Trianon (1920) is Hungary’s Treaty of Versailles. The Treaty of Trianon forced the Austro-Hungarian empire to sign away over 70% of its territory in defeat, and some citizens of present-day Hungary would like to return to the historical “good old days”. Catering to these desires, PM Orbán held a commemorative event in June 2020 that sought to remember some 12 000 municipalities that used to belong to the Hungarian empire; Orbán has also made it possible for anybody with Hungarian ancestry to be granted Hungarian citizenship and has pushed for various anti-immigration policies, which seek to discourage migrants while promoting a Hungarian monoculture. Although the level of tension in Hungary remains well below that of pre-World War II Europe, there are disturbing parallels that can be drawn between Imperial Germany led by Hitler and Populist Hungary led by Orbán.
The European Integration Project started with the goal of preventing war from ever breaking out again on the European continent, and though many decades have passed by in which that objective has been tremendously successful, its importance is once again resurfacing. In a world where globalization is facing severe challenges, the EU must carefully choose its response. On the one hand, the European community cannot allow aggressive nationalist states to go about their business unchallenged, and on the other, the EU has just lost the UK, a valuable member state, because it was perceived to intervene too much in domestic affairs. I believe the EU needs to take a stance and fight for liberal democratic values. Alternate world players, such as China, are gaining influence through global development projects and trades, and this underscores the importance of democratic nations promoting liberalism as a viable and positive governance system. The EU needs to demonstrate to Poland and Hungary that the erosion of liberalist values will not be tolerated and that Europe is against the oppression and extreme nationalism that has ravaged the continent in the past.