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Orban Isn’t the One With a Democracy Problem

The E.U. loves to attack Hungary yet it conceals its own "democratic deficit" and history of ignoring popular votes.

The American right has the hots for Hungary and Matt Yglesias can’t figure out why. The former Vox writer took to Twitter the other day to warn that conservatives’ new goal is apparently “to make America more like this much poorer, rinky-dink little country in Central Europe.” True to form, Yglesias then posted a graph showing that Hungary’s per capita GDP—and I do hope you’re sitting down for this—is smaller than America’s.

It’s true that conservatives here in the United States have been taking a curious look at Hungary. Tucker Carlson last week broadcast live from Budapest, while TAC‘s own Rod Dreher has long (and with reservations) held up Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban as a bulwark against woke radicalism in Europe. Yet however you feel about Orban, Yglesias’ criticism falls wide of the mark. Conservatives aren’t gazing east because they want to lop off half their own country’s economic output; they’re doing so because they’re interested in Budapest’s pro-family statecraft, resistance to wokeness, and commitment to national traditions, all of which they’ve lately found lacking here in America.

There’s plenty to quarrel with there. Yglesias might have pointed out, for example, that less “rinky-dink” and more progressive nations like Norway and Sweden also have the kind of generous pro-child policies that conservatives praise in Hungary. I myself have serious doubts as to whether government programs can arrest falling birthrates, while TAC contributor Will Collins, who lives in Hungary, has questioned the entire idea of a Christian revival in Eastern Europe. Is the average Hungarian really heading to mass on Sunday? Or is it just a state mirage, limited to the statute books and slogans at the airport? These are questions worth asking.

But the idea that they can be reduced to lines on a GDP flowchart, that a nation is chiefly the sum of its economic parts, that you shall know them by the size of their houses, is so ridiculous as to come off as neoliberalism in caricature.

Another oft-heard knock against Orban is that he’s destroying liberal democracy in Hungary. Critics point to his closing of a George Soros-funded university, his packing of the courts, his government’s consolidation of control over the media, and his alleged strong-arming of elections. Again, there are points to be made here. According to a Eurobarometer survey from last year, 87 percent of Hungarians are worried about corruption in their government, well above the European average. The European Union, meanwhile, has expressed “serious concern”—bureaucratese for “brace for war”—over the supposed erosion of democratic standards in Hungary.

But the involvement of the E.U. also raises an important question: democratic compared to what?

If the European Union is worried about backsliding democracies, it should start by taking a look under its own hood. The term “democratic deficit” is chiefly used these days to describe the lack of buy-in to the E.U. among the peoples of Europe. Elections to the European Parliament, the E.U.’s legislative branch, generally draw smaller shares of voters than national elections—43 percent of Hungarians voted in their 2019 MEP contests, for example, compared to an average national turnout of 61 percent. And even if you concede that the E.U. legislature enjoys popular legitimacy, you’re still left with the fact that the superstate’s real power lies in its unelected executive, called the Commission. The European Parliament isn’t even allowed to propose legislation; it can only vote on bills that the Commission sends its way.

And that Commission has been relentlessly extending its own competencies. Hundreds if not thousands of new regulations are passed down in any given year without consent from national legislatures. The latest plan is for a European military, which no less than Angela Merkel endorsed back in 2018. And while such an army would no doubt claim that it was defending democracy, the E.U. has a bad habit of ignoring the spirit of elections that don’t go their way. When the Irish in 2008 voted in a referendum to reject the Lisbon Treaty, a new constitutional charter for the E.U., European authorities erupted in contempt and insisted that ratification continue anyway.

A second referendum, held in Ireland the following year, saw the Lisbon Treaty pass. But the democratic deficit is still glaring. The charter that existed before Lisbon, the European Constitution, was rejected by referenda in France and the Netherlands, both of which were viewed as votes of no confidence in the union overall. (After that, every country except Ireland put the Lisbon Treaty to a parliamentary vote rather than consult the voters directly.) Britain famously opted to leave the E.U. in 2016; two years later, French President Emmanuel Macron admitted that France probably would have voted the same way. Norway has rejected E.U. accession in two different referenda; it remains outside the bloc today.

Euroskepticism does appear to have waned since the shockwave of Brexit. But it’s still an open question as to just how much popular support this sprawling, anthem-blaring, sovereignty-gobbling mega-state really enjoys (that’s especially true following the bloc’s calamitous Covid-19 vaccine rollout). Asking as much can yield an uneasy silence, which is why E.U. elites still haven’t made good on their millionth threat to “deal with” Hungary, lest they trigger a national backlash. It’s also why “Europe” has so little moral authority when it comes to Orban. The real mantra in the E.U. is not “liberal democracy,” but “ever-closer union,” one of the superstate’s foundational principles whereby more and more power is supposed to rise away from peoples and national governments and into Brussels. Democracy is thus not an end to itself but useful only insofar as it consolidates authority.

We live in strange times when elites claim to be democrats yet ardently support a project that’s making power more distant from 450 million people. Whether we can learn anything from Viktor Orban is up for debate. Whether we can from the E.U. shouldn’t be.