The following is an original draft of an essay I did for the European Liberal Forum book, “Member State Violation Against Democratic Principles – What Can the EU Do?”, detailing my experiences in Budapest in the summer of 2015. As 2016 commences, I thought I might share it with you.
In June of 2015, I was invited to Budapest to speak on a panel. The topic was based around the changing nature of the EU; as I live in a country currently in the throes of its own European inspired existential crisis, the chance to do so in Orban’s Hungary was irresistible.
Budapest is a city that I had plenty of prior experience with. I used to go there semi-regularly in a former life, when I did some work for some production companies that used central Europe as an inexpensive place to shoot films. Prague was the centre of it all, but Hungary was burgeoning. This was almost ten years ago, so I couldn’t tell you what state Hungary’s film industry is in these days. I’m far too out of the loop on such things now.
But I hadn’t been to Hungary in a very long time prior to this June, and certainly not since Viktor Orban had managed to regain the premiership of the country. Back in the middle of the last decade, when I used to hang around the fabulous bars of Pest, hoping my fading media career would kick into gear some way, somehow, Orban was in opposition and during some of my visits I recall that he was fighting for his political life. Perhaps that partially created the monster he became post-2010 election: sometimes near-death in politics can make someone realise just how precious power is, and how easily it can slip away from you.
I was curious to see just how repressive Budapest felt post-2010. Some things I had read about Orban’s Hungary gave the impression that it was on the verge of becoming almost as bad as some central Asian, post-Soviet dictatorship; other things I had perused downplayed sharply how much Orban’s shall we call them, curbs on democracy are really felt in every day life. All I can say is that on arrival there I found the Budapest I remembered, only somewhat more westernised and slightly more expensive. I spent a lot of time on that June visit with outspoken liberals and no one seemed to really watch what they were saying (I tried to think about having the same conversation in Azerbaijan for comparison and couldn’t get there). It seemed like the cool, liberal place I’d found it to be a decade back – on the surface anyhow.
Which is not to say that the reign of Fidesz hasn’t made its mark – or that its rhetoric isn’t extremely dangerous. Two things really stand out for me about that day in early June I spoke in Budapest: one was the magnificent heat. Summer hadn’t quite taken off in England in the same way as you get on the continent at that time of year, and walking across the Danube in 35-degree sunshine was glorious. The other thing is a man named Balasz Orban, who was a co-panellist that day, and what he had to say. He has no relation to the prime minister of the country, or so I’ve been told, despite him working for a think tank attached in some way to Fidesz. I was so glad that Balasz spoke at the event. For had he not, my understanding of what’s going on in Hungarian politics in the middle of 2015 would have been so much the worse for it.
The second most remarkable thing about what Balasz had to say that day was how closely it resembled Putin’s way of talking about the world; the most remarkable thing being that Balasz seemed to genuinely believe every word he was promulgating as opposed to simply parroting propaganda. He spoke of rule of law and human rights as if they were fuzzy concepts; things intellectuals had been trying to come to grips with for centuries with no luck. Everything was relative in other words, and one man’s liberal democracy was another man’s dictatorship. It is all completely subjective, according to Balasz – and by extension I assume Fidesz – within the “logic” employed (the quotation marks inserted there since, hey, what the hell if everything is becoming subjective here anyhow).
Human rights – where they should begin and end at least – is admittedly an area of some debate. Some on the Left in Britain think that welfare should be a human right, regardless of whether someone has ever worked a day in their lives, which is not a mainstream position in the UK. However, rule of law is so simple a concept I could explain it to a three-year-old. In fact, I recently have done just that: my daughter is three and she got it immediately on first explanation, no problem. You have a set of laws, created and modified by a democratically elected parliament. Once enacted, they apply to everyone equally, including the lawmakers themselves. That’s it. That’s what rule of law means. It is in no way a hazy or subjective concept. Balasz tried to tell the assembled crowd that had gathered (which I should note here looked very much like such a group would had we held it in London: a mixture of public affairs people, people who work for politicians, press and some elderly people who had nowhere else to go who then proceeded to dominate the Q&A with long speeches) that for instance, China has a very different concept of rule of law than the west does. Yes, Balasz, that’s because China doesn’t have rule of law; quite intentionally in fact. The Communist Party is in control of the country and all its resources and thus, by definition, that includes its entire people. So in other words, if someone calls a house a car that does not make it so. Some things in life are subjective and some simply are not. If the laws can be bent by the most powerful within a system in an overt way, that means rule of law does not exist within the system in question.
Ah, but the Balasz Orban’s and the Putinistas of the world will reply with the following: don’t the rich and powerful subvert the laws of their countries throughout the world, including the western ones? This is the true genius of Putin or at least of whomever around him came up with this concept and convinced him it was a good idea: the notion of moral and legal relativism. You know how it goes: Russia sneaks tanks into Ukraine, but how is that worse than the US invading Iraq, right? It has allowed Putin to infiltrate left-wing thinking in the west remarkably successfully. In fact, it’s in countries like Hungary, countries which experienced Soviet repression first hand, where such a thing runs up against push back.
So if that is the case, why is Orban still prime minister of Hungary? We live in times in which the predominant feeling, across pretty much the entirety of the human race, is fear. Everything feels like it’s on shaky ground – people sense it is better to stick with the devil you know, regardless of the problems that presents. Change has become terrifying. In Britain, we saw that play out in the 2015 general election. Parts of the country where the Tories were thought to be fading saw an increased Conservative vote share. The unknown of an indecisive Ed Miliband being propped up by the Scottish National Party was enough to drive the voters (in England anyhow) into the arms of David Cameron ever further.
Looking finally at Hungary since I spoke there in June, we have since had the refugee crisis, one that was particularly acutely felt in that part of Europe. Orban’s reaction to the whole thing was appalling to me, and indeed I’m sure for all European liberals. His Islamophobia seemed like something most of us hoped seemed from some other bygone era – in Europe at least. And yet I have no doubt it probably struck a chord with large sections of the Hungarian public (even if some of those in said sections probably wouldn’t say so out loud in public, but I’m only hazarding a guess here). Again, a large group of Syrians coming into the country all at once did almost certainly scare a lot of people, and Orban’s reactionary rhetoric was possibly soothing to many. It’s like with Farage in the UK: even though most people talk about how awful he and his views are, 28% of the voting public cast a ballot for UKIP in the European parliamentary elections in 2014. So someone’s buying it, in other words.
I’ll conclude by saying that I fear greatly for the future of the European project and by extension, Europe itself. What I find most odd about the age we live in is that even though fear is the predominant emotion, people still take the relative peace and prosperity we have in this continent for granted and thus tend to discount just how large a part the EU plays in all that. Despite fearing change enough to keep electing people like Viktor Oban, in other words, we seem to be willing to make the largest change imaginable, the disintegration of the entire European project, a genuine possibility.