I spoke at an event in Budapest yesterday, one focused on the various problems facing the EU in regards to making sure that all of the countries within it abide by basic democratic standards. This is a topic that has particular salience in Hungary, a country whose prime minister, Viktor Orban, has been likened to both a Berlusconi style power merchant, and a Putin in waiting, dependent on who you speak to.
My experience of the whole thing, and I’ve been to Hungary a few times (although before this week, not for several years), is that Orban is more the former than the latter. Opposition parties aren’t openly suppressed – they don’t really have to be. When you control most of the media, it’s relatively simple to control the agenda.
These things, however, do conform to a slippery slope. On the panel was Balazs Orban (no relation), who works for a think tank closely associated with Fidesz (Viktor Orban’s party). Balazs was well spoken, clearly intelligent, and isn’t a propagandist – I felt he clearly believed in everything he said. However, his mindset on everything we were discussing was fascinating. He talked about how rule of law was a hazy and partially obscure concept – before giving a perfectly clear and precise definition of it. Rule of law is an incredibly easy thing to define, as it happens: the law applies to everyone equally, without bias, and no one is above it, regardless of wealth or political power.
Balazs also talked about human rights being an abstruse construct – which made me instantly consider the battle going on within our own Conservative Party at present. A lot of Balazs’ arguments would have provoked positive nods at a 1922 Committee meeting.
Hungary is an increasingly Eurosceptic country. During the Q&A, a woman asked what the point of making comparisons between Britain and Hungary were, given the two countries very different histories. I responded by saying that in spite of the UK being an island that has had pretty much the same form of government since the 17th century, while Hungary is landlocked, having had parliamentary democracy for the last quarter century only, the Eurosceptic arguments in both sounded remarkably similar. Loss of national sovereignty; incompatibility of 28 different ways of looking at the world. Of course, there were different arguments as well – as elsewhere on the continent, in Hungary the EU is seen as a market driven machine, which is why a lot of leftists and nationalists (in other words protectionists) tend to be against it, while those in favour of the free market are pro. This makes much more sense than what you have in Britain, where there’s mostly the exact reverse situation. The fact that socialists want Britain to stay in, while free market Tories argue for Brexit, demonstrates more than anything else the essential silliness of the discussion around the European Union being had in the UK. I can only hope it gets more coherent in the run up to the referendum itself.
I asked my friend, Csaba Toth (who kindly organised yesterday’s event), if he thought Orban would relinquish power freely if he was voted out. Csaba said he thought he would – but qualified this by adding that he had argued many times in the past in regards to things he said he couldn’t see Fidesz doing that they subsequently did. This made me think of the irony that while so many of Fidesz and the Tory right’s Eurosceptic arguments sound very similar, the Tories would use Orban and his strange cult of personality as a case in point as to why the EU doesn’t work. If I believed in God, I’d ask him to help us all. As it is, I can only ask that the people of Europe have the wisdom to see themselves through this particular storm we’re experiencing and stay in one piece.