Playing Hardball with Hungary

The EU’s disgraceful attempt to bring PM Orban to heel.

Criticize the government of Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary since 2010, all you like. But the European Union's despotic and disgraceful attempt to bring him to heel, which came to a head with a vote in the European Parliament on September 12, has nothing whatsoever to do with the purported “erosion of democracy” in his country.

First, let it be said that the vote itself was a result of a report by Judith Sargentini, a Dutch MEP who belongs to her country's GreenLeft Party. In the report, Sargentini accused Hungary of “a serious breach...of the values on which the Union is founded,” namely “the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.” She proceeded to reel off dozens of complaints about the way things work in Hungary.

For example: “Patriarchal stereotyped attitudes still prevail in Hungary with respect to the position of  women in society.” (Well, yes, compared to the Netherlands.) She accused Hungarian authorities of prejudice against Roma, or gypsies, because an inordinate percentage of gypsy children are placed in special-education classes. (She gave no indication of entertaining the possibility that the children in question might actually require such classes.) Another grievance was the domination of Hungary's media by pro-government voices. (As if you couldn't say the same thing about the media in much of Western Europe.)

Sargentini also cited Orban's supposed interference with academic freedom. In fact, when Orban took power, many of Hungary's universities were so insular and ill-managed that the government had to step in and appoint competent rectors; meanwhile some of the new colleges that sprung up in post-Communist Hungary were shady, unaccredited foreign rackets that required oversight and regulation. Last month, the Hungarian government proposed a ban on gender studies, arguing that they were valueless on the job market. You may regard this either as an inappropriate violation of ivory-tower autonomy or as a sane and practical response to inane developments in higher education.

Sargentini further charged that “anti-Semitism in public spaces” is a major problem in Hungary – a claim that utterly contradicts the testimony of many observers, such as David P. Goldman, who after a recent visit to Hungary testified that it may be “the safest country in Europe for Jews.” In any event, given that the inexorable rise of Muslim Jew-bashing in Western Europe has resulted in a growing exodus of Jews from countries like France and Germany, the report's singling out of Hungary for criticism on this score seems, shall we say, a tad misplaced. (Recall that it was Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic that blocked the EU resolution condemning the U.S. for moving its embassy to Jerusalem.)

All in all, Sargentini's report was a spectacularly slippery and presumptuous document – in part a condescending catalogue of objections to the kinds of cultural differences among nations that the EU is manifestly determined to eradicate, in part a singularly shifty attempt to single out Hungary for social problems that actually exist to a far more grievous extent in Western Europe. Peter Szijjarto, Hungary's foreign minister, said it was full of “unjustified, untruthful accusations.” Among Sargentini's gripes was that Orban has sought to cut off funding by the Norwegian government and other foreign entities to various Hungarian civic organizations. One of the recipients of this foreign aid has been a Hungarian green party. Orban's position on this one seems fair enough: why should he let other countries subsidize his political opponents? Another group that Sargentini chides Orban for opposing turns out to be a George Soros operation. Indeed, the key piece of Hungarian legislation that prohibits NGOs from helping migrants in Hungary is called the Stop Soros Law.

And this, as it happens, points directly to what the EU is really upset at Orban about. Soros has, for whatever reason, spent a great deal of his vast fortune on a multi-pronged effort to abolish the nation-state and to fill the West with immigrants from the Muslim world. He's a major-league booster of the EU and of its insane refugee policies, and as a native Hungarian he's especially exercised over Orban's refusal to heed EU directives requiring Hungary to accept Muslim migrants. It's this battle, in fact, that has been at the very center of Orban's fraught relations with the EU. Like the leaders of Poland and the Czech Republic, Orban is fully aware of the apocalyptic horrors that mass Muslim immigration has unleashed upon Western Europe, and he refuses, quite simply, to inflict the same havoc upon his own people – who, overwhelming supportive of this position, have voted his party into power three times in a row.

No, Orban isn't perfect. But under him, Hungary became the first country in Europe with a government office dedicated to addressing the Muslim persecution of Christians. He has argued that Europe should put its energies into helping those persecuted Christians rather than aiding their Muslim persecutors. (The EU criticized him severely for this breach of its “values.”) In a 2016 speech, he made clear his contempt for the way in which Angela Merkel, by opening her nation's gates to the refugee hordes, put German citizens in danger. This is, in short, a man who's serious about taking care of his country and its people. Like Trump, he actually puts that first. In the view of the unelected EU technocrats, the proper reaction to such a head of state – someone who obeys the popular will rather than orders from Brussels, and who cares more about the welfare of his people than about the superstate – is obvious: he must be crushed.

Hence the Sargentini report, and hence the September 12 vote, by a margin of 448 to 197 (with 48 abstentions), to trigger a so-called Article 7 procedure, under which Hungary could end up losing its EU voting rights (the final decision rests with the European Council). Prior to the vote, on September 11, Orban gave a speech in the EU Parliament in which, acknowledging that he knew it was about to cast a vote against his country, he expressed bitterness at its members for denouncing Hungary, which has belonged to “the family of Christian European nations for a thousand years” and which “rebelled and took to arms against the biggest army in the world, the Soviet Army.”

Castigating the EU Parliament for thinking it knew better than his own country's voters, and asserting that Sargentini's report contained no fewer than “thirty-seven serious factual misrepresentations,” Orban vowed that “we will protect our borders and we will decide whom to live together with. We have built a fence. We have stopped illegal migrants, hundreds of thousands of them. We have defended Hungary and we have defended Europe.” Hungary, he declared, “is not going to be a country of migrants.” Rejecting what he called “the threats, the blackmailing, the defamation by forces supporting immigrants and migrants against Hungary and the Hungarian people,” he proclaimed that “Hungary will not accede to this blackmailing. Hungary will protect its borders, stop illegal migration, and will defend its rights if necessary.”

It was a stirring declaration of national self-determination – the sort of thing to which Europe has, to put it mildly, grown unaccustomed. In response, Frans Timmermans, an EU official whose title is (no kidding) First Vice-President of the European Commission and European Commissioner for Better Regulation, Interinstitutional Relations, the Rule of Law and the Charter of Fundamental Rights, delivered a tart, imperious little lecture whose obvious purpose was to put Orban in his place. This moved Nigel Farage to point out how absurd it was that Orban, who had been elected multiple times by his country's voters, should be lectured on democracy by Timmermans, who had never been elected by anyone. Farage called the Article 7 vote a “show trial,” an “updating” of “the Brezhnev Doctrine of limited sovereignty.” Máté Kocsis, the EP parliamentary leader of Orban's party, Fidesz, said that if Europe doesn't protect itself, it'll be a “continent of immigrants.”

A friend of mine in Hungary put all this into neat perspective. Most Hungarians, he told me, enjoy the ease of travel within the EU and the Brussels cash that pays for new highways and the like. But otherwise they don't particularly care about the EU. As for Orban, he's “a flawed and tired leader, and has done more than enough dumb things to justify attacks”: his “court packing and attitude towards the press” haven't gone over terribly well; corruption is at “Italian levels.” But “at least he is a leader.” Under him, the economy is strong. And – imagine being able to say this! – “we do not have any migrant issues. The guy built a fence way before others realized the magnitude of the problem. What would we rather have? An 'illiberal' fence or the problems associated with illegal migration we see every day in Sweden, Germany, and elsewhere? I personally think that before other EU member states go around beating up on their partners and ask us to accept conditions endangering our own people, they ought to protect the lives of their own women and children.”

No, sane and sensible Western Europeans may not like everything about Orban's Hungary. (Even my friend in Hungary feels that it's time for Orban to go.) But whatever Hungary's present failings, it has something that their own countries, however lovely and liberal and loyal to EU “values,” do not. It has a future.

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