Who Should Punish Orbán?

Vincent van Gogh: Corridor in the Asylum // Public domain

Hungary has been fined an unprecedentedly large amount for the severe violation of EU law over the rights of asylum seekers. However, this is not about Hungary’s stance against the oppressive EU as the Hungarian governing party Fidesz wants to depict but about the party coming at odds with its ever-swaying populist positions. Yet the Hungarian voters, rather than EU activists, should punish the Hungarian government.

Hungarian PM, Viktor Orbán is a shrewd politician. He is a master in retaining power by whatever means necessary, often taking a leaf out of Putin’s playbook or that of like-minded autocratic aspirants. The recipe for success is quite simple: create an enemy or several enemies who threaten “us,” create an “us” versus “them” narrative, pretend to be the only force capable of defending against “them,” and repeat that anyone who disagrees with “us” is automatically with “them.”

In Hungary this “them” consists of several groups, all reinforcing each other in a web of conspiracy theories belched out in abundant quantity by government-controlled media and quango organizations. These enemy groups are migrants, the EU, George Soros, the gay lobby and, most recently gaining in prominence, the US and the NATO allies. According to government propaganda, “they” want a war with Russia, changing the sex of young children and making them homosexual, persecuting Christians, and forcibly settling anti-Christian immigrants in Christian countries. Soros masterminds all this.

Thus, when the European Court of Justice fined Hungary €200 for serious violations of the law that continue even after repeated warnings, and an additional €1 million for each day of non-compliance, Hungary’s propaganda machine sprang into action. Orbán, speaking to his voters, claimed that he would make the EU suffer more than us and that the people in Brussels want to settle migrants to Hungary without the nation’s consent.

There are several obvious inaccuracies about this. The EU is not a separate entity, but something Hungary and a lot of Fidesz MEPs are an organic part of. The EU does not want to forcefully settle migrants in Hungary, at least not under the laws Hungary is violating, but only wants Hungary to allow asylum seekers to have proper procedures for their asylum request. These claims Hungary can reject but due process must be granted. Despite what Orbán says, there are no talks about illegal migrants, but those who apply for asylum through legal means.

Moreover, the Hungarian government is trying to solve the pressing problem of labor shortage by supplementing the dwindling workforce with foreign workers, whom the government propaganda will not call migrants of course.

The EU laws are voted on in the European Parliament where Hungary has representation, so the laws Hungary is not complying with were enacted through a process Hungary was part of. Rather ironically these laws were debated in the EP when Fidesz was already in power in Hungary, and perversely 3 of Fidesz’s MEPs came to praise the text during readings in the legal procedures in 2013.

Fidesz is a populist party, which by nature says what people want to hear. When it contradicts the laws they passed, their super-majority can easily change the rules. This is not the case in the EU, so the Hungarian government is at odds with its former position and now has to pay stellar amounts of fines for not complying with something it not only participated in but applauded.

The problem is that Fidesz has such a strong propaganda machine that they can turn this against the EU. Every financial repression due to the action of Fidesz will come to haunt the EU. The Hungarian citizens might suffer, but through propaganda, a large portion of them will end up blaming Brussels rather than the Hungarian government, whose popularity will be further entrenched as the only force to protect people against the EU.

There should be fines for violations of laws, but there should not be any activism from the EU. Ultimately it is up to Hungarians to hold their governments accountable, to call out its populist hypocrisy, and to stop the democratic decline and the erosion of the rule of law. This is what democracy is about, and should not be decided over the heads of governments but through grassroots means.

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Mate Hajba
Free Market Foundation