In Hungary, Social Conservatism and Authoritarianism Aren’t the Same

The European Parliament needs to start condemning Orban for the right reasons.

By Dalibor Rohac, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Viktor Orban gestures during a debate about Hungary as part of a plenary session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on September 11, 2018. (Frederick Florian/AFP/Getty Images)
Viktor Orban gestures during a debate about Hungary as part of a plenary session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on September 11, 2018. (Frederick Florian/AFP/Getty Images)

Here’s a plea from the right: We should all stop helping budding authoritarians by conflating cultural liberalism with democracy. There’s a difference, after all, between a conservative vision for society and autocracy. And if we treat them as the same thing, it only shrinks the coalition of those willing to resist authoritarianism. Nowhere is this clearer than in Europe, where the European Parliament is debating a new report and a draft resolution on the rule of law in Hungary. It was compiled by Judith Sargentini, a Dutch parliamentarian from the GreenLeft party.

Instead of limiting itself to a detached, value-neutral assessment of the gradual erosion of checks and balances in Hungary, attacks on the country’s free media and judiciary, and rampant cronyism in which European Union-funded government contracts have made oligarchs connected to Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s party, Fidesz, astronomically rich—all of which are very real and very concerning—the report mixes in several sections on social issues. Hungary’s electoral system, which essentially guarantees a two-thirds majority in parliament for Fidesz, is covered but in just a few bullet points. The report could have also spent pages more on the corruption that has surrounded the use of EU funds that Hungary receives; a two-year investigation by the EU’s anti-corruption agency, OLAF, found irregularities in 35 projects in Hungary between 2011 and 2015. On all of those fronts, valid criticism should be and is addressed at Orban, cutting across partisan and ideological lines.

But the report’s author also attacks Orban on an issue for which he has overwhelming domestic support: the country’s draconian immigration and asylum policies. Criticism is directed at the country’s July 2015 decree “designating Serbia as a ‘safe third country’” to which Hungary can turn back asylum-seekers as if that decree were materially different from the deal struck between the EU and the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016, which traps Syrian asylum-seekers in Turkey. Indeed, it isn’t that different from the overall approach adopted by the European Council in June this year.

And there is more. Hungary has not complied, the report states, with an EU directive that requires employers “to adapt working conditions for pregnant or breastfeeding workers.” Worse yet, its “constitutional ban on discrimination does not explicitly list sexual orientation and gender identity” and “its restrictive definition of family could give rise to discrimination as it does not encompass certain types of family arrangements, including same-sex couples.” At times, the document reads as if written by one of Hungary’s own left-wing opposition parties: “[M]easures taken to reduce the maternal mortality have been insufficient,” “minimum amount of old-age pensions is inadequate,” “maximum duration of payment of jobseeker’s allowance is too short,” “minimum amount of rehabilitation and invalidity benefits, in certain cases, is inadequate,” and “it has not been established that there is an adequate supply of housing for vulnerable families.”

The point is not that those are unimportant or illegitimate issues to raise. There is definitely a time and place for a discussion of Hungary’s immigration policies, its treatment of sexual minorities, or the generosity of its welfare state. And hardly anyone can disagree with the statement that Hungarian “Roma continue to suffer systemic discrimination and inequality in all fields of life,” which is a true and inexcusable blemish on the country’s reputation.

However, a report on the rule of law and poor health of Hungary’s democracy is not the place to delve into such issues. Some are artifacts of Eastern Europe’s relative economic backwardness and apply to most countries in the region. The monthly jobseeker’s allowance in Romania, for example, amounts to barely over 100 euros, a fraction of that in Hungary. But more importantly, the rationale for enforcing common standards for, say, the generosity of social safety nets across the EU has been always flimsy. Reasonable people in different European countries can disagree over that question. Where they should not disagree is the basic parameters of their political systems, summary firings of judges, or the fact that there is no daily printed opposition newspaper published in Hungary at the moment.

The mixing of the two issues, social conservatism and authoritarianism, could prevent the EU from addressing Hungary’s most serious problems. Many in the European Parliament—including within the European People’s Party (EPP), the parliamentary group that includes Fidesz alongside Europe’s leading center-right parties, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union; and among the more hard-line European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR)—would acknowledge that Hungary has been sliding toward authoritarianism since Orban’s victory in 2010.

The Sargentini report goes beyond the resolution on Poland that the European Parliament adopted in November 2017 since it calls on the European Council to create and execute a formal procedure for dealing with Hungary’s rule of law infractions under Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union. Unlike in Poland’s case, where the governing Law and Justice party is a part of the ECR group, Fidesz’s EPP membership places center-right members of the European Parliament in a tight spot. Simultaneously, the report also offers them an easy way out by mixing hard facts about Hungary’s ailing democracy with a liberal social agenda.

Effective pushback against authoritarianism, which is a problem in both Hungary and Poland, requires a truce over partisan lines on the highly contentious issues of immigration, culture, and values. The EU ought to follow the principle of subsidiarity scrupulously to ensure that Brussels is not seen in the conservative societies of Eastern Europe as a left-wing ideological project that seeks to impose norms and policy practices that would never command popular support in those countries. If it does not, it will give credibility not just to demagogues such as Orban but also to those who see Moscow, not Brussels, as the true defender of Europe’s Christian heritage.

The Sargentini report offers an important lesson for the United States, too. What makes Donald Trump’s presidency potentially dangerous is not that the president has nominated conservative judges on the Supreme Court and clamped down on immigration, legal and illegal. Rather it is the president’s authoritarian instincts: his desire for loyalty from civil servants, his disregard for the norms surrounding his office, his disdain for free press, and his admiration for brutal dictators around the world.

Hungary and Poland are not becoming the Netherlands or Denmark anytime soon—and if they do, it will not be thanks to resolutions in the European Parliament. Unless observers accept that fact and focuses its energy on the more existential of the two fights going on in Western societies, it will become complicit in the rise and entrenchment of authoritarian populism on both sides of the Atlantic.

Dalibor Rohac is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he studies European political and economic trends. He is also a research associate at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies in Brussels and a fellow at Anglo-American University in Prague. Twitter: @DaliborRohac