Viktor Orban is perhaps the most provocative leader on the continent of Europe. He is also regarded by his opponents, notably in the EU, as one of the most dangerous.
For the Hungarian Prime Minister flatly rejects all attempts by Brussels to share out migrants among the member states, and insists the EU is “an alliance of nations”.
In a recent interview with Bild Zeitung in Germany he described migrants seeking to enter the EU not as Muslim refugees but as “a Muslim invasion force”.
If Orban were speaking only for Hungary, he could be dismissed by Brussels as a minor embarrassment. But Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia together form the Visegrad Group, a substantial bloc of like-minded nations in central Europe, formed in 1991 just after the fall of communism, and named after the Hungarian castle where in 1335 Charles I of Hungary, Casimir III of Poland and John of Bohemia met to discuss the opening up of new trade routes.
Central Europe is being reborn, and when, as sometimes happens, the Visegrad Group issues statements along with Croatia and Slovenia, it stretches all the way from the Baltic to the Adriatic.
One cannot help recalling the British belief that by widening the EU to the east, we would acquire allies who would help us to defend national sovereignty. That opportunity existed, but there has yet to be a British Prime Minister who would be happy defending national sovereignty in Orban’s terms.
If you read only one of Orban’s speeches, make it the one he delivered in July 2014 to a Hungarian summer school held in a small, predominantly Hungarian town in Romania.
Orban had just won his second general election in a row, and his tone is triumphant, trenchant, provocative, arrogant, humorous, vengeful and candid.
He celebrates having won a two-thirds majority thanks to the votes of Hungarians living outside Hungary’s present borders, which he describes as “a noble form of revenge” against his political opponents, who tried to prevent the admission of these voters; and he goes on:
“Thank you to everyone whom it concerns; to Providence, to the voters, to Hungary’s legislators and at such times we must also thank those who turned against us and provided an opportunity for good to win the day regardless, because after all, without evil, how could the good be victorious?”
Where, except in Ulster, did you last hear a British legislator thank Providence? Orban goes on to observe that the three great 20th century events in Hungarian history were the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 (under which two-thirds of Hungary’s pre-First World War population and territory were lost); the communist takeover at the end of the Second World War; and the fall of communism in 1990.
On all three occasions, it was clear at once that “a whole new future” had begun. But “at the time of the great Western financial collapse in 2008”, it was not immediately clear “that we would be living in a different world from now on”.
But he notes (this is in 2014) that “Singapore, China, India, Russia and Turkey” are thriving. And he claims that in Hungary too, things have changed, and since the crisis of 2008, western liberalism is no longer seen as the way to do things:
“Meaning that, while breaking with the dogmas and ideologies that have been adopted by the West and keeping ourselves independent from them, we are trying to find the form of community organisation, the new Hungarian state, which is capable of making our community competitive in the great global race for decades to come.”
That may sound, to British ears, a bit opaque, but he soon declares (while recognising that this is “categorised as blasphemy by the liberal world”), that
“a democracy does not necessarily have to be liberal. Just because a state is not liberal, it can still be a democracy… What this means is that we must break with liberal principles and methods of social organisation, and in general with the liberal understanding of society…
“the Hungarian nation is not simply a group of individuals but a community that must be organised, reinforced and in fact constructed. And so in this sense the new state that we are constructing in Hungary is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state. It does not reject the fundamental principles of liberalism such as freedom, and I could list a few more, but it does not make this ideology the central element of state organisation, but instead includes a different, special, national approach.”
Orban adds that he intends to do this within the EU:
“When I mention the European Union, I do so not because I believe that it is impossible to construct a new state built on illiberal and national foundations within the European Union.”
There is plenty here to shock anyone who regards the word “liberal” as in all circumstances a word of praise.
Oddly enough, I do not think the late T.E.Utley, the blind sage of the Daily Telegraph, would disagree with very much of what Orban says, though being an English Tory rather than a Hungarian patriot, Utley discussed the importance of the nation and of Christianity in an altogether less pugnacious tone.
But in the United Kingdom, we have not emerged within living memory from Soviet occupation. In Hungary they have.
Orban, born in 1963, leapt to prominence in 1989 by calling for free elections and Soviet withdrawal, during a speech delivered at the reburial of Imre Nagy, executed by the Soviets after the failed uprising of 1956.
At this point, Orban could clearly be identified as a liberal, allied with other reform-minded students in what became Fidesz, the party he still leads. He even won a scholarship from the Soros Foundation to study political science at Pembroke College, Oxford.
After a few months he broke off his studies in order to return home and in 1990 win election as an MP. After the general election of 1994, in which Fidesz gained only seven per cent of the vote, he decided to take the party in a much more conservative direction, and four years later it won almost 30 per cent of the vote.
From 1998, when he was only 35, to 2002, Orban served his first term as Prime Minister, behaving often in an aggressive and high-handed manner.
In the year 2000, Fidesz joined the European People’s Party, of which it remains to this day a member, and was thrown out of the Liberal International.
It is notable that British Eurosceptics found the EPP intolerable, and secured a promise from David Cameron that British Conservatives would leave it.
But Orban was mentored by Helmut Kohl, and always remained close to the former German Chancellor, who indeed used himself to speak of the importance of keeping Europe Christian.
Orban lost the election of 2002, was out for eight years, but swept back into power in 2010 and is at present clear favourite to win the next general election, to be held in April.
His style of politics relies heavily on finding enemies against whom to protect the Hungarian nation. In 2015, when the migrant crisis was at its height, he erected a fence over 100 miles long to stop refugees crossing from Serbia into Hungary.
The EU bureaucracy, with its supranational claims, is a godsend to Orban, who is fond of declaring: “We do not want to live in an empire again.”
But he is more pragmatic than he looks. He does not want a Hungary without allies, and is a sedulous evangelist.
At the start of this month, he reminded a conference of the Christian Social Union, Angela Merkel’s Bavarian allies, of their long relationship with Hungary, stretching all the way from the family of the first Hungarian Christian royal family to the Audi factory in Gyor, and declared:
“You should continue to look upon me as captain of Bavaria’s border stronghold. Bavaria’s southern border lies at the Serbian-Hungarian border, and when we protect that border, we also protect Bavaria.”
In a few days’ time, the Hungarian Prime Minister will visit Sebastian Kurz, the new Chancellor of Austria. Orban has naturally welcomed the success of the Right in the Austrian elections:
“Austria is an example of the fact that democracy is working in Europe, and that it is inconceivable for politicians to refuse to act according to the will of the people for a prolonged period of time with relation to important issues such as migration.”
Orban’s provocations have not gone unnoticed in the West. Senator John McCain once accused him of being “a neo-fascist dictator” who was “getting into bed with Vladimir Putin”.
Nearer to home, Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies at Oxford, was more precise in his terminology, but no less indignant:
“The system he is erecting in Hungary is not yet fascism – unlike him, we should be careful in our choice of words – but this language, describing a Jewish billionaire as a predator and reducing human beings to ‘ants’, is fascistic.”
That protest came after Orban had picked a fight with George Soros, and with the Central European University in Budapest, founded and endowed by Soros.
Orban expresses outrage that liberal-minded foreigners such as Soros, who are intent on helping rather than hindering refugees, should subsidise NGOs which oppose Hungarian government policy.
But one may note that the Central European University is still open for scholarship in Budapest, and has received innumerable expressions of support.
Orban claims his is a “plebian” party, and although his father was an entrepreneur, the family is not from the Hungarian gentry or intelligensia. He is obsessed by football, and told two Guardian journalists who recently managed to interview him at the stadium he has built in his home village:
“Football is a strange combination of being free and being a soldier. You have to be in the squad, but it’s also creative. Because this is the dilemma of all modern societies: to be organised and to be free. On the pitch I can find it, in politics it’s more difficult.”
John O’Sullivan, who edited a volume of essays about Orban’s second term, remarks that “the death of liberal democracy in Hungary has been greatly exaggerated”.
He agrees with the novelist Tibor Fischer, a friend of Orban and contributor to the book, that the Hungarian Prime Minister is
“a formidable character: a natural leader, determined, far-sighted, ruthless at times, charming, eloquent in a combative way, all in all a kind of human bulldozer in politics… Time and circumstance, however, have revealed another quality, one dangerous in a political leader. He is intellectually adventurous. He gets bored by having to stick to the same political ‘line’ day after day. He wants to explore new ideas. He is prepared to take some risks in doing so. He likes spontaneity. He speculates in public. And, of course, he gets into trouble…”
In O’Sullivan’s view, Orban is an opponent, not of liberalism, but of “undemocratic liberalism”, which takes decisions that are beyond the control of elected parliaments.
It seems to me, coming new to Orban studies, that he has the wonderful but perilous quality of not being boring, and that it is likely he will be corrupted by wielding so much power for so long.
But to dismiss his ideas simply by denouncing him and his followers would be foolish and disreputable. The liberals tried that with Brexit, and it did not work. Nor was it very successful against Donald Trump.
Orban recognised early in his political career that people tend to love their own country, are not always prepared to take instruction from liberals claiming to be in possession of universal wisdom and virtue, and may in fact decide to vote conservative.