EP Campaign in Hungary: Big, Bad Brussels Versus Plucky Hungarians

paolobarman via flickr // CC

The last days of the Hungarian EP election campaign were characterized by an ever-intensifying anti-EU campaign on government-controlled and fringe disinformation portals. The Hungarian government seeks a strong mandate to represent its interest in the European Union, so it shifted its campaign into avhigher gear for the last days.

Political Capital searched for the keywords “EU and election” in the Versus media monitoring tool. We selected 15 websites known for spreading disinformation in the Hungarian media space as our potential sources. These fall into four categories: portals under the influence of the ruling party (hereinafter referred to as government-controlled),1 alternative portals that generally support the Hungarian government,2 alternative portals with a neutral approach towards Fidesz,3 and leftist government-critical disinformation portals.4

Our search, restricted to the period between May 17 and 24, returned 178 results, including plenty of articles spreading clearly identifiable disinformation about the European Union, its institutions, or the so-called Brusselite elite. The articles were, in total, shared 48,760 times, according to Versus.

To be able to describe the campaign’s last week more accurately, we tagged the articles our query returned. Each article got one of six tags (we always used the tag that best described the core content of the text):

  • anti-EU: if a text disseminated factually incorrect information about the EU, its institutions or Brussels to describe them in a negative light;

  • EU-neutral: if an article described the EU neutrally, factually, which generally entailed news about the EP election process or Brexit;

  • EU-not relevant: if the article mentioned the EU but it was not relevant to the core message of it;

  • anti-left: articles that wrote in a negative tone about what the Hungarian government would consider a “leftist” actor – socialists, liberals, George Soros and even the EPP;

  • anti-right: articles that wrote in a negative tone about Eurosceptic forces (EFDD, ENF, GUE-NGL members, etc);

  • anti-government: articles that described the Hungarian government/ruling party in a negative tone.

f1Figure 1 Proportion of narratives in the total sample (178 articles between May 17 and 23)

Figure 1 shows that anti-EU narratives were the most prevalent, present in 40% of the cases, while anti-left tags were attached to 28% of all texts.

Therefore, the EU’s institutional system, Brussels, and the Brusselite elite were the main targets of the 15 portals under examination, followed by the so-called “leftist” political forces, the alleged “enemies” of the Hungarian government.

The aggravate number of articles describing the EU neutrally or speaking about a topic where the EU was irrelevant almost equaled the number of anti-left narratives.

f2Figure 2 Number of anti-EU and anti-left articles by day. *For May 24, we only have data until 11AM.

Figure 2 shows that the readers of these portals were subjected to a relatively constant anti-EU campaign, while articles attacking “leftist” forces were also constantly present. The really low number of articles in both categories on May 19 can be explained by the fact that it was a Sunday. Since Monday on the EP election week, we can observe a noticeable uptick in both anti-EU and anti-left narratives.

The Nihilist Pro-Migration Elite vs Reason

The Hungarian government made the “nihilist” and “unprincipled” Brusselite elite, which is allegedly trying to prove that Europe would fall without mass immigration. The majority of the websites under examination promoted the government’s narrative that the EP election campaign is centred around the fight of “pro-immigration and anti-immigration forces,” where the main goal is replacing the “inept” politicians leading the EU, “who are trying to force their bad political decisions based on ideological goals onto the member states despite the fact that their populations clearly said they want none of it.”

The opposing side, the side of reason, consists of forces that want a Christian Europe of nations. Some Eurosceptic Hungarian actors, like the head of the GONGO Center for Fundamental Rights, Miklós Szánthó, even claimed that the EP elections will be “an important battle in the prolonged war of civilisations.”

According to these manipulative narratives, the pro-immigration side is being helped by George Soros and his massive network: they have been interfering in elections to support liberals ever since 2006. Fidesz MEP and EP vice present Lívia Járóka said the EU is even financing “luxury NGOs,” which, Magyar Nemzet added, are supported by the American philanthropist.

These narratives miss a number of critical points.

First of all, the European Union and its institutions have never supported illegal immigration. Although the EU did not manage to overcome the migration crisis quickly and effectively, the number of registered asylum-seekers in the bloc fell to around 2014 levels in 2018.

The European Union has reached a deal on immigration management with Turkey and closed the Western Balkans route, strengthened Frontex to protect external borders and launched Operation Sophia to disrupt human trafficking networks; while the former leftist Italian government, which Budapest deemed pro-immigration, reached a series of deals with Libyan warlords to slash immigration via the Mediterranean sea. The fall in registered asylum claims are largely the consequence of these decisions.

Moreover, there is no proof that George Soros is supporting uncontrolled illegal immigration: in 2016, he advocated for establishing refugee centres outside of Europe, where asylum claims could be examined – a plan similar to what PM Orbán himself supports.

The Hungarian Ruling Party Surprised by the Contents of Treaties It Ratified

The “self-appointed Brussels elite” has apparently failed: the alliance of Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron and their bad political decisions endangered the entire continent, while laying the groundwork for the creation of the United States of Europe (USE).

The USE is a “superstate” that Brussels is building by encouraging immigration: multiculturalism destroys national identity and the Christian roots of member states, which opens the door for the EU’s imperialistic vision.

According to state secretary Balázs Orbán, to achieve its goal, the EP is working contrary to the popular will and “the Council of Europe makes decisions with a qualified majority instead of unanimity, which affects the cooperation of member states negatively,” which, in turn, proves that “Brussels is using the EU’s institutional system contrary to its original goals.”

According to Hungarian Parliament Speaker László Kövér, Europe is subjected to “ideological carpet bombing” and those wanting to build the USE “are promoting and encouraging anti-Christianity in the name of value neutrality, anti-nationalism in the name of multiculturalism, and anti-stateism in the name of globalism.”

Some conspiratorial sites went even further than government-controlled portals, stating that Europe is controlled by the “deep state” consisting of politicians, journalists and civil activists paid by the “invisible hand.”

The elite that failed to fix the EU’s problems includes the European People’s Party as well – the European party family that Fidesz has been a member of since 2000 and the EP group where Fidesz MEP József Szájer serves as a Chief Whip.

According to Miklós Szánthó, the EPP will have to decide after the elections whether it “formally joins the left-wing block in the Parliament or returns to its Christian roots.” The EPP and Manfred Weber both became targets of criticism after the conservative European group suspended Fidesz for its anti-Juncker electoral billboards.

Once again, the portals analyzed have missed some important points: first of all, rarely anyone in Europe is speaking about the USE and not even Merkel and Macron agree on what the future direction of the EU should be. Second, qualified majority voting in the Council of the European Union (not the Council of Europe, as Balázs Orbán said) was introduced in the Single European Act of 1986, well before Hungary joined the bloc.

The number of policy areas where QMV is used has been extended since, including in the Lisbon Treaty, which the Hungarian Parliament ratified first among all members states. The National Assembly did so nearly unanimously (including Fidesz MP’s votes). Thus, its existence can hardly come as a surprise to Hungary’s incumbent government.

Additionally, European institutions always have to act in accordance with the EU treaties – which are, once again, ratified by Hungary – because otherwise the given measures could be struck down by the ECJ.

Moreover, it seems unlikely that the European elite – including Manfred Weber – rejects Christianity. Weber in fact urged citizens to embrace the continent’s Christian foundations, while Frans Timmermans also believes in Christian values, although he interprets them differently than the Hungarian government does.

The EU Hates Eastern Europe, But Not Slovakia, Apparently

Disinformation portals have one additional problem, namely that the EU does not care about Hungarians: the portals under examination claimed that “some Germans and Austrians are more important to the EU than a thousand Hungarians.” This was the conclusion of disinformation portals after the European Court of Justice (ECJ) found that the Hungarian law terminating the usufruct of foreign landowners in the country was against EU law.

Disinformation sites claimed that the EU is working in an unjust manner and failed to adhere to its own rules in this case, which is the consequence of the West maintaining its “colonial” attitude towards nations that joined the EU after 2004.

The article brought up two similar cases, when the European Commission did not launch an infringement procedure (against Austria and Slovakia), but they did not link any communications from the EC or any accurate descriptions of the cases, so they are impossible to identify.

However, they failed to give any explanation why upholding the EU’s provision on the free movement of capital in this case constituted some sort of colonial oppression, and bringing up the (unidentifiable) Slovak case even undermines this argument, as Slovakia actually joined the EU in 2004.

The Scandals of the Rotten Elite

To show people how rotten the Brussels elite is, disinformation portals reported on a number of “scandals”: Lokál brought up the case of Karel Pinxten.

In July 2018, Pinxten, a former member of the EU Court of Auditors (CoA), was accused of having misspent EUR 500 000 on travel expenses.

At the time, OLAF handed over its findings to the CoA and Luxembourgian authorities. Lokál presented the case as proof that it is generally politicians whose careers die in their respective states who get appointed to top Brussels jobs. The portal claims that the bureaucrats in Brussels, since then, “laid the case to rest” in a cover-up. However, this is clearly false: the CoA has demanded Pinxten to repay EUR 150 000.

Meanwhile, criminal proceedings depend not on bureaucrats but on Luxembourgian authorities.

Disinformation portals also alleged that Manfred Weber is a corrupt politician who embezzled funds he received from the EU for renting an office and translating his campaign website, proven by the fact that the Hungarian translations are horrible on the website. The Lokál portal even brings numerous examples of failed translations; e.g., the sentence telling readers that the website receives funding from the EP.

However, the sentence on Weber’s website, once it is set to Hungarian, reads entirely differently and correctly. In fact, all the examples that these portals showed now read correctly on the campaign portal.

Predicting the End of the EU, But Coming Up Short

While some articles even predicted the end of the European Union as we know it, a leftist disinformation site started celebrating a “socialist spring” right after a Dutch exit poll found Frans Timmermans’s socialist victorious in the Netherlands.

However, neither populist forces nor the socialists are likely to make a breakthrough. It is likely instead that the EP elections will end with the victory of the EPP, although the S&D could end up rather close in the end. Overall, pro-EU forces will enjoy a clear majority.

Fidesz Will Get the Last Laugh in Hungary, But Its European Ambitions Are Over

Fidesz’s goal for the EP elections, based on the statements of the party’s politicians, is to help create an anti-immigration (i.e., Eurosceptic) majority in the EP, but this target was unrealistic from the very beginning.

However, the strong anti-EU disinformation campaign in the last week before the election shows that the ruling party really wanted to mobilize its voters in Hungary to carve out a large majority for itself domestically. This would help the Hungarian government and the ruling party on the European scene, as it could argue that it is representing the will of the citizens and it cannot act against the demands of the Hungarian population – the demands that Fidesz itself created through its disinformation campaign.

While the narratives on the portals we analyzed coincided with those spread by Eurosceptic forces all over the continent and these anti-EU campaigns seem to popularize Eurosceptics, it remains an open-ended question whether Fidesz will leave the EPP after the EP elections to sit in a Eurosceptic, populist parliamentary group.

1 Magyar Nemzet, Pesti Srácok, Lokál, Origó, Híradó, Magyar Hírlap, 888

2 Napi Migráns, Világ Figyelő, A Világ Titkai

3 Orosz Hírek, Moszkva tér, News Front Hungary

4 Bal-rad, Balra Magyar

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