The EU, we are told, is a shield against all manner of things. Against excessively affordable imports (don’t mention the benefits of more affordable food and goods), against war (don’t mention NATO), and simultaneously against dictatorship and the supposedly awful nature of voters.
The latter is a particularly strange combination. It’s certainly the case that the prospect of EU membership helped to guide and tempt various post-Soviet states out of tyranny and into more normal democratic politics. But at the same time, it’s implicit in the way the EU works that it believes it would somehow be too risky to entirely trust voters to choose their own futures. Why else would the Union’s “fundamental principles” involve forbidding a whole range of different policies, of left (nationalisations and large deficits) and right (border controls), statist (subsidies and protectionism) and liberal (unilateral or bilateral free trade policies)?
It’s a peculiar paradox that, while congratulating itself regularly on being a bastion of liberal democracy, the EU rests on a central principle of taking decisions out of the hands of the people, in order to protect them from themselves. That is weakness – at best it frustrates voters who rightly believe themselves more invested in their own lives and nations – but it can also be a danger, encouraging the growth of aggressively nationalistic politics.
That latter problem has grown and grown in recent years. While some worry about the impact of Brexit on the federalist project, in reality we are simply leaving in order to democratically self-determine our own affairs as a friendly neighbour to the EU. Brussels should be far more worried about some of those who are still in the club, whose intentions towards it could be far more challenging. Italy’s election was won by two very different parties whose main shared interests are a dislike of the EU and a tolerance for Vladimir Putin. The far right is now in coalition government in Austria. Poland is in outright conflict with the EU institutions. And now Victor Orban has won the Hungarian election.
Orban’s political trajectory (charted here by Andrew Gimson) has taken him from an anti-Communist dissident, to the Hungarian equivalent of a Cameroon liberal conservative, to a Putin-ish strongman character who spent much of the recent election campaign railing against Muslim migrants and George Soros (often through the medium of obvious anti-semitic tropes).
He is a deeply unpleasant character (whom Boris Johnson has just congratulated on his victory), and he has a seat at the top table of European politics. But the uncomfortable truth for Brussels is that the EU has helped to create and sustain him.
Their overweening habit of meddling in national governance riles people in many countries. Their recent push for member states to accept the resettlement of large numbers of refugees has outraged Hungarian society in particular. The Eurocrats’ open disdain for even the concept of nations or borders plays straight into Orban’s hands. If you want a measure of where the Hungarian electorate is on these issues,study not just Fidesz’s vote, but look at who came second in the election: not some Liberal Democrat-style pro-EU opposition, but the even further right Jobbik party.
These omens occupy the nightmares of the Guardian‘s leader writer today, and understandably so:
‘The EU was founded, in part, to eliminate the prospect of continental nationalism ever again achieving that murderous frenzy. But it is not easy for EU institutions to reassert that moral purpose when doing so looks like a repudiation of the democratic verdicts in member states. The nationalists’ idea of Europe is dangerous, and liberal politicians have been too complacent in thinking the Brussels-based institutional idea is a compelling alternative. The EU, as an idea and a set of rules, is indispensable as a bulwark against nationalism but not sufficient.’
If the EU not only fails to act as a “bulwark” against the views championed by Orban and others, but inadvertently facilitates them by its clumsy meddling, what does that mean for the project? For that matter, how can it deal with the risk that its paternalist, top-down structures might be influenced, or even dominated in time, by strongman leaders whose views it was supposed to snuff out? Orban often disagrees with the policies of the EU, but he would, I suspect, not be averse to keeping on its powers and institutions if they could be used to promote a very different, nativist, concept of Europe and Europeans.
Notably, Orban is not simply a bad smell forced into the Council chamber by Hungary’s voters; he and his party are still welcomed into the EU institutions as members of the EPP – the group that it was supposedly outrageous for the British Conservative Party to choose to leave. Brussels is in an uneasy marriage with him, and no-one knows where the relationship will go next.