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The European Union Reaches Its Breaking Point

In a surprise decision on Wednesday, the European Parliament decided to trigger a procedure to sanction one of its member states: Hungary. The battle for the future of Europe is on.

With nine months to go until European Parliament elections, some rifts are showing on the continent’s political landscape. One thing is definite: immigration will be at the forefront of the upcoming debates. Look for that issue to divide the progressives, who want to further the centralization of the European Union, from the populists, who oppose more power being sent to Brussels.

Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron identified two countries as obstacles to further European integration: Poland and Hungary. Since then both have only become more vocal in their opposition to the Brussels bureaucracy. It must be said that the conservative majorities in those Central European countries have opposed the EU on grounds of culture, heritage, and tradition much more so than the Euro, big government spending programs, and tax harmonization. In fact, Hungary and Poland both feed enlarging welfare states with little concern for the sustainability of their spending, so their common ground with American conservatives exists mostly on social values.

Macron’s aggressive rhetoric towards Poland and Hungary had deteriorated their relationship with Europe’s ruling elite even before he took office. And his is, by every measurement, the EU’s strongest voice [1]. Macron has suggested reform plans for the Union that would increase the budget and capabilities of Brussels and deepen the rift between those who believe in centralization versus those who advocate national rights.

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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, on the other hand, believes that the EU has been plotting against European values and culture. He has specifically targeted the permissive immigration policies of German chancellor Angela Merkel and billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros, widely known for financing left-wing NGOs in both Europe and the United States. For this purpose, the government itself has launched public billboard campaigns [2] with the words “Don’t let George Soros have the last laugh.” (While it is true that Soros stumped for Hungary to accept more migrants, those migrants are already voting with their feet, essentially using the country as a passageway to Germany.)

The European Union has been critical of Orbán because, among other reasons, in its attempt to root out what it calls “foreign interference,” Budapest has cracked down on civil liberties. NGOs receiving money from outside of Hungary face significant challenges, including the government’s so-called “Stop Soros” bill, which imposes a 25 percent tax on foreign donations to NGOs that back migration. Mind you, such a bill would also affect American organizations were they to try to host lectures in Hungary. NGOs marked as a “national security threat” can be outright outlawed. The idea that there is a right to free expression, both with speech and money, doesn’t find friends in Budapest at the moment.

Before the Hungarian parliamentary election on April 8, Orbán was sharpening his populist tone to secure another absolute majority in parliament. With regard to his ideological opponents being funded by Soros, he said this:

We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.

change_me

Such rhetoric has no place in the realm of liberal democracies. And that probably doesn’t bother Orbán, who in 2014 said that he wanted to create an illiberal state [3].

So Hungary definitely has its problems. But the procedure initiated by the European Parliament is unlikely to make anything better.

Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty (which has governed how the EU functions since 2009) allows the European Parliament to launch a procedure against a member state that doesn’t fulfill the criteria that it initially agreed to when it joined the EU. Once triggered, the European Commission investigates the situation. The European Council (which represents the member states of the EU) then votes on whether to strip the country of its voting rights within the council. The proposal can only pass if countries vote in favor by a four-fifths majority (Hungary cannot vote on its own behalf).

The fact that Article 7 was triggered at all shows the EU’s distrust of Hungary, which will only alienate Budapest all the more. If the European Union wanted to diffuse Hungary’s fear of foreign interference by showing that immigration from outside the EU would remain a competency of member states, it could do so by simply reaffirming that principle. Brussels isn’t doing that because it is currently under pressure by Italy, which wants to redistribute migrants across Europe. That will leave Hungarians who believe in cracking down on freedom of association and free speech to prevent foreign interference feeling vindicated.

What does all this mean? The European Union is at a breaking point.

Emmanuel Macron is touting his ambitious reforms for the future. Angela Merkel is in an internal political row over immigration that will lead her to resist those reforms. The Italian government is demanding deep changes on immigration and threatening to defund the EU. And Central European nations are increasingly skeptical of the centralization of powers in Brussels. All of this is happening alongside Brexit, scheduled for March of next year, and negotiations for the accession of Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania, and Serbia, which are all unfit to join according to the EU’s own observers.

Instead of dealing with these issues in a rational manner and considering that, yes, the EU just might have too much power, and, yes, it should reduce its competencies in different areas and affirm national rights, Brussels is now looking to exclude its own members from major decisions. The debate is moot because anyone who dares to disagree is called a racist and a nationalist, including those with legitimate concerns about the behavior of both the Hungarian government and the European Union.

The EU has declared war on Hungary for all the right and all the wrong reasons. It can only win it if it allows member states to debate openly.

Bill Wirtz comments on European politics and policy in English, French, and German. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The Washington Examiner, CityAM, Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Die Welt.

61 Comments (Open | Close)

61 Comments To "The European Union Reaches Its Breaking Point"

#1 Comment By M. Orban On September 19, 2018 @ 2:26 am

@Red6020,
I agree, Lenny is wrong. Hungary couldn’t destroy western democracy even if she wanted to. She simply flaunting the bylaws and conventions at the margins, mostly for domestic effects.
Orbán is a master politician and knows his constituency. His strongman image play well in Hungary and fits the “good king/good czar” messianic tradition of those parts.

#2 Comment By Daniel McAdams On September 19, 2018 @ 10:19 am

I don’t understand why TAC features a mainstream media writer to do a piece on Hungary. First, the analysis is terrible and the author does not understand Hungary at all. But most importantly, if TAC readers want to see the mainstream media spin on Hungary aren’t there already many publications they can go to (like the ones this author normally writes for)? Isn’t TAC supposed to be different?

#3 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On September 19, 2018 @ 10:34 am

I think that Eastern Europe has the right of it. They’re memory of totalitarianism is fresher and more real than that of the spoiled Western countries. I also wonder what happened to the 1960’s movement of the left that was so pro self government for the third world former colonies. I guess that’s only for countries who are non-white.

It’s less about totalitarianism, and more about national sovereignty. As Branko Milanovic pointed out a while ago, the revolutions of 1989 weren’t really about liberal democracy, or even really about capitalism. To the extent people wanted those things, they wanted them instrumentally. What they really wanted was freedom from foreign domination via the Warsaw Pact. Today the primary foreign hegemons are the US and the Western European powers, and in resisting their agenda, Eastern Europeans are more or less doing (in their opinions) the same thing they were in 1989 or for that matter in 1945.

If not at least by identifying his influence, how else are people supposed to fight a foreign multi-billionaire who has said he thinks he’s the messiah and thinks it’s his job to tear down borders

Exactly.

To all those people who are troubled by Orban’s rhetoric about crafty enemies who speculate, don’t work, and have no homeland, I’m just going to point out: if this reminds you uncomfortably of yourself, I’d suggest the problem is with you, not with him.

The reason phrases like this were classically used in polemics against the Jews was because Jews were tarred (unfairly) as being cosmopolitan, nationless, deracinated, usurers, speculators, unwilling to labour, and so forth. The answer to that kind of argument is to point out that these negative traits aren’t, in fact, typical of Jews: it’s not to try to suggest that they aren’t negative traits to begin with.

I can see why that Orban quote about a hidden, international enemy would be troubling 100 years ago, when it would have transparently referred to the Jewish people, but that just doesn’t work given that Israel has existed as a Jewish homeland for 70 years and Orban himself is quite friendly

Exactly: if nothing else, the existence of the state of Israel should end the idea that the “men without a country”, “rootless cosmopolitan” kind of rhetoric is necessarily directed against Jews. In reality, people who want a borderless world and who oppose ethnic tribalism on principle are a much bigger existential threat to Israel as a nation state than people like Orban, or really even people like Jobbik.

#4 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On September 19, 2018 @ 10:42 am

This is the signal for the Visegrad group to step away from the EU.
The real costs of membership now exceed the benefits, and the gap is growing every day.

Agreed. Other countries should leave too- in my opinion the EU as it currently stands is a much greater negative than a positive. But it’s especially important for the Visegrad nations to leave, because they value the ethnic and demographic makeup of their countries much more than, say, the English or French do, and these are exactly the sorts of things that being part of the EU (as it exists today) threatens.

It’s also worth pointing out that the costs and benefits of EU membership, for a country like Hungary, are not as simple as “benefits economically, costs in terms of culture & ethnic identity”. The economic benefits are much more dubious than that. As Thomas Pikkety recently pointed out, the flow of money from East to West (in the form of returns on western-owned capital) are much greater than flows from West to East in the form of transfer payments. Eastern Europe largely experiences a neocolonial relationship with the west, like the relationship of Latin American counrties with the United States: much of their economies are owned by western businesses. Eastern Europe also suffers massively from mass emigration to western countries: the fact that so many Poles, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Lithuanians, Eastern Germans, etc. are working in the west has been terrible for the economies of those countries and regions.

Eastern countries really need to leave: not only is it the principled thing to do, but as you point out, the costs outweigh the benefits more and more every day.

#5 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On September 19, 2018 @ 10:46 am

You can what you want about the Soviets, but they never EVER demanded that Hungary open its borders against its will to hordes of unwanted 3rd world economic migrants….

Agreed. I’m pretty favourable to communism, but even if you’re not, it must be acknowledged that the Communists never posed an existential threat to Hungary in the same way that a world of open borders would. A Hungary run by Communists was still discernably the same nation as it had been in 1920 or for that matter would be in 2018. A Hungary populated by a different mix of ethnic groups would be a very different proposition.

Liberalism is a much bigger threat to Hungary today than Communism ever was, and they’re quite right to resist it.

#6 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On September 19, 2018 @ 11:02 am

I also wonder what happened to the 1960’s movement of the left that was so pro self government for the third world former colonies. I guess that’s only for countries who are non-white.

I think I’m fairly consistent here in that I’m 1) in favour of third world decolonization and opposed to neocolonialism, 2) opposed to supranational organizations like the EU, and especially opposed to the efforts to impose liberal values on the nations of the east.

National sovereignty needs to be defended whether the nation ivolved is in Latin America, Eastern Europe, West Africa, East Africa or Asia.

As for being on the left vs. right, I’d suggest this isn’t a very useful way of thinking about modern day politics: we need more dimensions to understand politics, probably the “Open vs. Closed” axis to go along with the “Capitalism vs. Communism” left-right axies, and probably a “Religious vs. Secular” third axis as well. One’s view about the EU, liberal democracy, ethnic tribalism, etc. is mostly unrelated to one’s view about the optimal economic system, and so it’s deeply misleading to try to combine them in a kind of left vs. right schematic.

People in Eastern Europe and other postcommunist countries who are sympathetic to, e.g. large welfare states and state control of the means of production tend to be more skeptical of mass immigration, liberal democracy and the EU, not less so. (That’s to say, the kind of people who liked communism back in the day tend to favour the ethnic nationalist parties today).

#7 Comment By mike On September 19, 2018 @ 11:47 am

Hector St Clare
Great point.
I hate communism deeply. It is an existential threat to culture and civilisation.
However, there is another system which is even more evil and destructive – in the long term.
In our times, we witness all around us demonstrations of the genocidal nature of liberal democracy.
In that system, the State is empowered and incentivised to replace classes of people who it identifies as opponents.
When a government is unsatisfied with its people, it replaces them. (In a sane civilised society, it works the other way round.)
The lesson is: Do not throw out Christian aristocracy and Rule-of-Law unless you have got something better (or at least tolerable) to replace them.
The defeat of European aristocracy and the collapse of the British Empire have been a pure catastrophe for the world.

#8 Comment By mrscracker On September 19, 2018 @ 11:59 am

The reason phrases like this were classically used in polemics against the Jews was because Jews were tarred (unfairly) as being cosmopolitan, nationless, deracinated, usurers, speculators, unwilling to labour, and so forth. The answer to that kind of argument is to point out that these negative traits aren’t, in fact, typical of Jews: it’s not to try to suggest that they aren’t negative traits to begin with. ”

***************
Historically though, Jews were denied certain positions & occupations & were restricted to where they could live. I think even marriage was denied Jews at one time in Austria.
So they did fill other niches in society in order to survive.

#9 Comment By DR On September 20, 2018 @ 6:07 am

Love the EU or hate it, the last 100 years show that having no union _of some kind_ in Central Europe spells troubles for the stability of the continent.

By the way, I’m almost entirely sure that even the Hungarian right is pro-EU as it gets. Without access to European market for Hungarian businesses and workers, standard of living in Hungary would take a significant hit. Just look at the numbers, it’s a semi-developed country of less than 10 million people.

#10 Comment By David West On September 20, 2018 @ 8:39 am

”We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.”

Erm, remind me what’s wrong with this passage?

Are you really that supine that you can’t even name international finance as a grave threat to all countries?

Or, is it because Jews are grossly overrepresented in that sector and while everything can be ‘too white’, nothing can be too Jewish?

#11 Comment By Alex (the one that likes Ike) On September 20, 2018 @ 11:28 am

To support Hector’s point, that’s not even solely about Eastern Europe now. Habemus Italiam with its syncretic left-right coalition, and now the already mentioned EU poobahs constantly habent fits about it.