Viktor Orban’s victory in the Hungarian elections on Sunday has sent shivers of revulsion through liberal Europe. The self-proclaimed illiberal democrat has won a fourth successive term despite the opposition uniting to try to defeat him. His conservative “alternative model” – pro-family, low tax and anti-migration – has been endorsed by a landslide. So has his controversial stance on Ukraine. The narrative that Hungarians would punish Orban for being too friendly towards Vladimir Putin has been proven not just false but fanciful. On the contrary, he successfully exploited genuine anxiety about the invasion spiralling into another world war.
I have spent the past few days in the country and, for the record, its response to the invasion is more nuanced than some have claimed. Budapest has been heavily criticised for blocking the transit of weapons across its territory to Ukraine. But Hungary supported EU sanctions and is also the second-largest recipient of refugees. At the weekend, I visited Beregsurány, a Hungarian border village transformed into a refugee centre. In the first few days of the war, locals rallied to make 10,000 sandwiches for fleeing Ukrainians. It is now the first port of call for those still pouring over the border – a place where they are greeted with a hot cup of goulash and a hug.
The tales of suffering and endurance that I encountered were stupefying, from a Ukrainian woman who suffered a total psychiatric breakdown after her husband was shot dead in front of her two children, to another who gave birth after travelling to Hungary for several days on foot. It was a sobering reminder that when we in Western Europe scrutinise the loyalties of our counterparts to the East, we do so conveniently far from the conflict.
Still, antagonism between the EU and Orban is only likely to intensify. Hungary’s Prime Minister clearly has no qualms about fuelling the tensions. His victory speech not only took aim at Brussels and the international Left – but even the Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky. The EU will be tempted to give as good as it gets: MEPs have already called for further financial sanctions to be imposed over rule of law concerns, and perhaps they will punish Hungary for pursuing discriminatory anti-gay laws under the thin cover of protecting children. Even more so now that Orban’s bid to gain leverage over Brussels on the issue has backfired. A national vote on Hungary’s “child protection” laws, held on the same day as the election, has been declared invalid.
The rivalry between the EU and Hungary is deep and existential. Budapest fundamentally offends the notion of an EU “civilisation” founded not on shared economic goals but the “universal” rule of law. Its social conservatism is so repugnant to Brussels that it has used Orwellian legal arguments to justify disciplining the country in a manner that grossly exceeds the EU’s constitutional remit. Orban’s big win is also an unwelcome reminder that the spectre of Trumpist populism still haunts the West. That appetite for an alternative conservative -populist model is not going away – and might even gain momentum as the geopolitical winds change.
On one level, the EU’s disdain towards Orban and his government is understandable. Conservative Hungarians can be worryingly flippant about the importance of checks and balances, and in favour of a strong executive (even if the EU’s definition of the rule of law, as we learnt through Brexit, boils down to the supremacy of EU law over national law and the rejection of the sovereignty of national parliaments). Mid-level corruption is endemic, particularly when it comes to contract tendering. And let’s not beat about the bush: Orban’s Christian-conservative party Fidesz treads a disturbingly fine line when it comes to stirring up anti-gay sentiment. The wording of Hungary’s referendum at the weekend insidiously conflated homosexuality with paedophilia.
None the less, the policy of morally isolating Hungary (and fellow outlier Poland) isn’t prudent and it isn’t working. Hungary shows no sign of wanting to leave the European Union, not least because it is a net recipient of the budget. Unless Eurocrats are seriously considering forcing Budapest out of the union, what are they planning to do? To live in a state of permanent conflict with a medium-sized member state? That would hardly seem to be in the interests of a body that continues to want to push its mantra of ever-closer union, even to create a common EU army.
Or will the EU finally recognise the need to be pragmatic, especially given that Hungarians show no sign of rejecting Orban’s approach? If anything, Western liberals might learn something from Budapest if only they could put aside for one minute the caricatures of a monstrous tyranny and a Russian Trojan horse.
This applies most obviously to the utopian schemes they have a habit of dreaming up. Hungary has legislated for net zero by 2050, but is seeking to achieve it without unnecessarily sacrificing living standards. Hungary’s conservative realpolitik might even be a useful counterweight to Western idealism in foreign policy. The Central European view that the liberal world order must be jettisoned in favour of ‘‘spheres of influence” is overly defeatist. Still the Hungarians are way ahead of us in grasping the dangers of romanticising the defence of Ukraine.
They appear to be much more honest with themselves about the fact that Russia may still triumph, through ever more indiscriminate and barbaric tactics. Perhaps this is because they are closer to the action. Or perhaps history has taught them to be cynical: after all, the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the USSR showed that Russia can prevail through evil acts – with the West unwilling to come to the rescue for all its rhetoric. However, the upshot is that, to my mind, they are far more realistic about what can practically be done for Kyiv and the dangers of over-promising.
It is often said – including by Putin – that the hopelessly divided West is doomed to terminal decline. To avoid such a scenario, the doctrines of liberal idealism must ultimately be reconciled with the realities of conservative populism. The first step is to make peace with Viktor Orban.