Hungary’s Refugee Referendum Is a Referendum on Europe’s Survival

Viktor Orban’s anti-Merkel crusade will never carry the EU as a whole. That may be the point.

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - FEBRUARY 02:  German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (R) speak to each other following talks on February 2, 2015 in Budapest, Hungary. Merkel is on a one-day visit to the Hungarian capital in a trip that includes meetings with government leaders, discussions with students at Andrassy University and meetings with local Jewish leaders. Merkel's visit was preceded the day before by demonstrations against the Orban government.  (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - FEBRUARY 02: German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (R) speak to each other following talks on February 2, 2015 in Budapest, Hungary. Merkel is on a one-day visit to the Hungarian capital in a trip that includes meetings with government leaders, discussions with students at Andrassy University and meetings with local Jewish leaders. Merkel's visit was preceded the day before by demonstrations against the Orban government. (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

This Sunday, Hungarians are being asked to participate in what most observers consider a somewhat mysterious, or perhaps outright meaningless, referendum. The question posed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s right-wing government is: “Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the [Hungarian parliament]?” A majority for “no” is widely expected, but such a result could neither reverse the September 2015 decision reached by EU member states to resettle asylum-seekers nor could it have any direct legal consequences in Hungary itself.

There is no mystery, however, about what the referendum can do for Orban, or his broader political project, which has earned the cooperation of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The referendum simultaneously distracts from Orban’s domestic problems and allows him to solidify his stature as a kind of anti-Angela Merkel on the European stage: a moral leader who defends Europe’s “national Christian culture” against the civilizational threats of a “Muslim invasion.” The referendum has also been designed to bolster Orban’s vision for an EU of re-empowered nation-states and peoples who “dare to speak up” against Brussels.

Orban’s vision is of a union in which every government that finds itself on the losing side of a collectively binding decision will call for a national referendum to strengthen its position for the next round of negotiations. It is a vision of a union destined to disintegrate.

Consider, first, some basic facts about Hungary and refugees. The total number of asylum-seekers who might have been resettled in Hungary under the agreement reached last fall is 1,294. Not a single one has arrived, nor are any ever expected to. According to many observers, this month’s European summit in Bratislava, Slovakia, has made last year’s resettlement deal a dead letter.

But those facts might not be sufficient to calm what Ivan Krastev has called the “demographic imagination.” Hungary has long suffered from fears of national extinction, which sometimes take the shape of anxieties about declining birthrates, other times fears of being a small nation with a non-Indo-European language in a sea of Slavic tongues. And then there are the memories of the country’s loss of independence to the Ottomans, Habsburgs, and Soviets, successively.

Various fears are now being projected onto Middle Eastern refugees, who are described as both a civilizational and a quasi-military threat. Orban and his propagandists have spared no expense — the referendum and its campaign will cost close to $40 million — and pushed every emotional button to make Hungarian citizens hysterical about Muslims. According to a government minister, Janos Lazar, nothing less than the nation’s “long-term survival” is at stake, if Hungary fails to keep its “demographic unity.” He also claimed that “the country’s unity can only be preserved by the referendum; Brussels is only afraid of the people and will only bow to the will of the people.” (If this rhetoric sounds reminiscent of a certain U.S. presidential candidate, that is no coincidence. Orban effectively endorsed Donald Trump this year while Lazar accused President Barack Obama and “certain American groups” of wanting to dilute Europe with Muslims.)

The October referendum follows what has turned out to be a highly successful political script for Orban once already. In the spring of 2015, the government had initiated a nonbinding “national consultation” on “immigration and terrorism.” The questionnaire mailed to 8 million citizens urged them to agree with, for instance, the view that “mismanagement of the immigration question by Brussels may have something to do with increased terrorism.” Billboards went up all over the country featuring reprimands to asylum-seekers such as, “If you come to Hungary, don’t take the job of Hungarians!” (These were all in Hungarian, prompting the question of where on the “Balkan route” refugees could have taken crash courses in one of the world’s most notoriously difficult languages.)

The campaign worked wonders for Orban. No longer was the focus on his government’s increasing number of corruption scandals or on the fact that, according to many estimates, about half a million Hungarian citizens have left the country in recent years — thereby causing an acute labor shortage — because economic prosperity at home increasingly depends on political connections. Most important, Orban stole the thunder of the far-right Jobbik party, which had come to seem a real electoral threat to the governing Fidesz. There was no way for anyone in Hungary to credibly claim they were more nationalist — or, let’s be clear, xenophobic — than Orban. This year, Orban’s government has treated citizens to a glossy brochure with a map of Western European “no-go zones” allegedly controlled by migrants (including in Paris and London, which led to a protest by the U.K. Foreign Office) and billboards with slogans such as, “Did you know that since the beginning of the migrant crisis, more than 300 people have been killed in terrorist attacks in Europe?” or “Did you know that Brussels wants to resettle illegal immigrants equivalent to the size of a Hungarian city?”

Orban’s erection last fall of a fence along the border with Serbia and later with Croatia had a welcome side effect for him. The fortification of Hungary’s part of the EU’s external borders allowed him to present himself as a practical problem-solver on the European stage, and ever since he has launched further policy initiatives, including the creation of a “European army” and the establishment of a giant camp for refugees in Libya.

More important still, he seized the occasion to offer an ideological alternative to what he saw as the “liberal blah blah” that in his mind had been dominating Western politics. He had always styled himself as simultaneously a plucky underdog (at one point trying out the formula “plebeian democracy” to describe his regime) and a man with wider horizons who could interpret, if not necessarily shape, world history. Every so often, he would deliver speeches mixing secondhand political science and philosophies of history. In the summer of 2014, for instance, he announced that the liberal era was over and that his own ominously named “System of National Cooperation” could prove the model of a new “illiberal state.”

Such professed illiberalism has been quickly dismissed by Western observers. Yet one should not underestimate the challenge posed by Orban and his ideological followers. The fact that he started out as a liberal critic of state socialism — supported by a scholarship from George Soros to spend time at Oxford University — strengthens his credibility, rather than undermining it. Whether his turn to nationalism and religious piety in the mid-1990s was due to strategic party-political calculations or not, the fact remains that, like many authoritarians in 1920s Europe, he can say Central Europe tried liberalism — and it simply didn’t work.

Or, rather, experiments in liberalism resulted in a triumph of individual liberty that practically translated into moral relativism and mindless consumerism; it also justified an economy in which multinationals and footloose finance capital are always bound to win. This anti-liberalism promoted by former liberals justified the semi-authoritarian Central European regimes of the 1920s, which had a limited amount of competition among political parties, but where power never really changed hands. In the 1920s, just as now, anti-liberalism was supported by many national churches, which put national belonging above Christian ethics. Today, it is also easily compatible with a broader Western search for “post-liberalism” in the wake of the financial crisis.

Emboldened by favorable comments from fellow conservatives such as in the German Christian Social Union (the Bavarian section of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union), Orban has now embarked on nothing less than a “cultural counterrevolution” in the EU. At a joint appearance with Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of Poland’s very conservative governing party, Orban announced that Brexit offered a “fantastic opportunity” for the Visegrad countries — Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic — to launch such a counterrevolution (which might be supported by a special English-language news channel for the “V-4”). Orban boasted that, unlike other politicians in Europe, he and Kaczynski were far-sighted: Indeed, they diagnosed nothing less than a “crisis of consciousness” and warned of a “civilizational catastrophe” if a Brussels dominated by what Orban describes as “nihilists” is not kept in check. (The prime minister’s theory is that “nihilists are in the minority in society, but they have long ago taken over the European elite.”) An overwhelming “no” result in the referendum is supposed to equip Orban with a “sword” with which he can then fight a “life-and-death battle” in Brussels.

Not even in the worst moments of the U.K. debate about whether to stay in the EU or go did one hear this kind of rhetoric. Orban and, to a lesser degree, Kaczynski — who has not yet managed to weaken checks and balances and take over the media in the way the Hungarian leader has — have created a political world where they can have it both ways: They manage to be both inside and outside the EU at the same time. They are among the largest beneficiaries of EU subsidies and yet flaunt common EU rules and, whenever it suits their domestic needs, try to whip their publics into anti-Brussels and anti-foreigner frenzies. Other European politicians have reacted helplessly in response. In September, Luxembourg’s foreign minister called for Hungary to be expelled from the union. He should have known at least that there is in fact no legal way for a member state to be kicked out; at most, a government’s voting rights in the EU can be suspended. And there is little evidence that after Brexit’s enormous blow, EU leaders want to reinforce a sense that the union is disintegrating. So they would rather tolerate what, in the case of Hungary, is in effect a far-right regime that organizes hate campaigns against Muslims.

Irrespective of EU leaders’ desire to minimize open conflict — which was very evident at the Bratislava summit — it is clear that the EU is becoming ever more fragmented. There remains the conflict between a fiscally conservative north and a south that sees the salvation of the euro in more growth (a coalition currently led by Matteo Renzi of Italy). Now there’s also the battle between a more liberal west (Germany and some of the Nordic countries) and a stridently nationalist east, led by Orban and Kaczynski, who essentially promise that most social and political problems can be solved by ensuring cultural homogeneity. In theory, a multiplication of conflicts could make trade-offs possible, such as a loosening of austerity in exchange for a country’s stronger engagement in addressing the refugee crisis. Western European leaders may imagine that the continent’s overlapping crises will permit the conflict with their eastern neighbors to be papered over, by affording room for political trade-offs. Yet it is hard to see how politicians who are committed to promoting not just national interests but nonnegotiable national identities could enter into meaningful compromises.

It is very unlikely that Orban’s vision of a renewal of “national Christian culture” will carry the day in Europe as a whole. But achieving disunity might already be enough. Budapest has forged a new alliance with Moscow in recent years, and it is well-known that Putin has a heightened interest in a divided European continent. Orban has hinted that he has a larger plan to re-empower nation-states in the union.

For now, he mostly has to worry that the required 50 percent turnout might not be achieved on Sunday. Hence his government is doing everything possible to make sure the referendum can be presented as the people’s great revolt against Brussels: Municipalities that do not deliver the right results have been threatened with adverse consequences, and ministers are scrambling to paint horror scenarios about immigrants being sent by Brussels into “every Hungarian settlement.” In terms of historical importance, this referendum isn’t Brexit. But it shows much more clearly than even Brexit what a darker, illiberal European future might look like.

Photo credit: CARSTEN KOALL/Getty Images

Jan-Werner Mueller is a professor of politics at Princeton University and also a visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna. His latest book is What Is Populism?

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