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Orban Renewal In Washington

Hungary's prime minister comes calling at the White House

The president received Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban at the White House today. CNN shows why the mainstream US news media simply cannot be trusted at all to report fairly and accurately on European politics to the right of the UK Tories and the Christian Democratic parties of the continent:

“Far right” — that’s the smear US and UK media apply to all European populist politicians and parties, as if they were all fascists. There is plenty to criticize in these politicians and movements, but the standard left-liberal view that they are fascists is not only stupid, but it’s simply wrong. You will not understand European politics if you rely on the US and UK mainstream media to explain this to you.

Here’s something that’s a lot more useful. It’s Christopher Caldwell’s Claremont Review of Books essay about the meaning of Orban. It’s well worth your time. Here’s how it begins:

No English-language newspaper reported on it at the time, nor has any cited it since, but the speech Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán made before an annual picnic for his party’s intellectual leaders in the late summer of 2015 is probably the most important by a Western statesman this century. As Orbán spoke in the village of Kötcse, by Lake Balaton, hundreds of thousands of migrants from across the Muslim world, most of them young men, were marching northwestwards out of Asia Minor, across the Balkan countries and into the heart of Europe.

Already, mobs of migrants had broken Hungarian police lines, trampled cropland, occupied town squares, shut down highways, stormed trains, and massed in front of Budapest’s Keleti train station. German chancellor Angela Merkel had invited those fleeing the Syrian civil war to seek refuge in Europe. They had been joined en route, in at least equal number, by migrants from Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. For Hungarians, this was playing with fire. They are taught in school to think of their Magyar ancestors as having ridden off the Asian steppes to put much of Europe to the torch (Attila is a popular boys’ name), and they themselves suffered centuries of subjugation under the Ottomans, who marched north on the same roads the Syrian refugees used in the internet age. But no one was supposed to bring up the past. Merkel and her defenders had raised the subject of human rights, which until then had been sufficient to stifle misgivings. In Kötcse, Orbán informed Merkel and the world that it no longer was.

Orbán was preparing a military closure of his country’s southern border. That Europe’s ancient nation-states would serve in this way as the first line of defense for the continent’s external borders, such as the one between Hungary and Serbia, was exactly what had been assumed two decades before in the founding treaties of the European Union, the 28-nation federation-in-embryo centered in Brussels and dominated by Merkel’s Germany. But sometime after Hungary joined the E.U. in 2004, this question of Europe’s borders had become complicated, legalistic, and obscured by what Orbán called “liberal babble.” Orbán now had to make a philosophical argument for why he should not be evicted from civilized company for carrying out what a decade before would have been considered the most basic part of his job. His Fidesz party had always belonged to the same political family that Merkel’s did—the hodgepodge of postwar conservative parties called “Christian Democracy.” Now, as Orbán spoke, it was clear the two were arguing from different centuries, opposite ideologies, and irreconcilable Europes.

“Hungary must protect its ethnic and cultural composition,” he said at Kötcse (which more or less rhymes with butcher). “I am convinced that Hungary has the right—and every nation has the right—to say that it does not want its country to change.” France and Britain had been perfectly within their prerogatives to admit millions of immigrants from the former Third World. Germany was entitled to welcome as many Turks as it liked. “I think they had a right to make this decision,” Orbán said. “We have a duty to look at where this has taken them.” He did not care to repeat the experiment.

Migrants kept coming, and the European mood shifted. In Germany, Alternative for Germany (AfD), a party founded by economists to protest European Union currency policy, shifted its attention to migration and began to harvest double-digit election returns in one German state after another. The Polish government fell after approving a plan to redistribute into eastern Europe the migrants Merkel had welcomed. But if any European politician symbolized this reassessment, it was Orbán. Signs appeared at rallies in Germany reading “Orban, Help Us!” His dissent split Europeans into two clashing ideologies. With the approach in May 2019 of elections to the European Union parliament, the first since the migrant crisis, Europeans were being offered a stark choice between two irreconcilable societies: Orbán’s nationalism, which commands the assent of popular majorities, and Merkel’s human rights, a continuation of projects E.U. leaders had tried to carry out in the past quarter-century. One of these will be the Europe of tomorrow.

Caldwell’s discussion of the deep antagonism between Orban and George Soros is illuminating. Bet you haven’t read anything like this in the mainstream media:

Soros personified opposition to the nationalist outlook Orbán had wished for in his 2015 Kötcse speech. In the wake of Merkel’s invitation to migrants in 2015 Soros published a plan to bring a million refugees a year to Europe and distribute them rapidly among neighboring countries for settlement. The plan would, Soros wrote, “mobilize the private sector,” but only to run the project, not to pay for it. The funding of it would be done at taxpayer expense, through a €20 billion E.U. bond issue. Orbán published a six-point plan of his own, focused on keeping migrants out. Soros complained that it “subordinates the human rights of asylum-seekers and migrants to the security of borders.” That description was exactly accurate —provided one understands human rights as global philanthropists, political activists, and the United Nations have defined it in recent decades. But there is a competing understanding of human rights in the old law of nations, which makes any right to immigrate dependent on the consent of the receiving nation.

Against the counsel of his advisers, Orbán provoked a clash between the two men and the governing principles each embodied. He passed a “Stop Soros Law” that criminalized offering material support to promote illegal immigration, and banned the sort of refugee resettlements Soros had urged. The government began harassing the CEU by punctiliously enforcing regulations that had heretofore been ignored. As the 2018 election season heated up, anti-Soros ad campaigns began running on billboards and streetcars.

Orbán was very worried about the role of foreign money in his country’s politics. Some have mocked him for this. But obviously, when the most powerful country on earth has just brought its democracy to a standstill for two years in order to investigate $100,000 worth of internet ads bought by a variety of Russians, it is understandable that the leader of a small country might fear the activism of a political foe whose combined personal fortune ($8 billion) and institutional endowment ($19 billion) exceed a sixth of the country’s GDP ($156 billion), especially since international philanthropy is (through the U.S. tax code) effectively subsidized by the American government. An early version of the Stop Soros law proposed taxing foreign philanthropies.

In smaller countries, the political nature of NGOs’ agendas was not as apparent when liberal governments were in power. It became obvious when a nationalist government ruled, and NGOs came to help (or to stand in for) opposition parties, the way the judiciary did in Italy and the United States.

Read it all. There’s so much more there, including clarifying information on allegations of anti-Semitism, and also on how ultimately, big corporations may well take Orban down.

Bottom line: Viktor Orban is a much more complex and interesting figure than Americans know.