By George Friedman
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was re-elected prime minister for a third consecutive term on April 8, winning a two-thirds majority in parliament. We normally don’t write on elections, on the premise that politicians are trapped in the impersonal forces of reality and therefore personalities matter little. This election is somewhat different because it shows that the forces that want to reorganize Europe are strong and growing stronger.
Orban was one of the first major European leaders to challenge the premise of the European Union. His argument was that national sovereignty took precedence over EU governance. He challenged German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s use of the term “liberal democracy.” She claimed that liberal democracy was not simply a mode for determining government policy, but that the policy itself ought to be liberal, in the conventional use of the term. For Orban, the foundation of liberal democracy was national self-determination through elections. He challenged her with the term “illiberal democracy.”
Orban violated European political orthodoxy and thus was treated as an outlier. Early in his second term, which began in 2010, I argued that he was not an outlier but a forerunner. In my view, the European Union was losing legitimacy in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The motto of the Maastricht Treaty, which created the EU, was “Peace and Prosperity.” After 2008, peace remained but prosperity in much of the EU had vanished. If prosperity was the EU’s goal, post-2008 Europe had clearly failed.
As a result, other anti-EU parties would arise in Europe, and as they did, the European Union would weaken. The EU became more aggressive toward challenges to its authority. Poland and Hungary have become its two main targets. Both have governments with substantial public support, and both reject the right of the European Union to demand that they shift domestic policies toward a more liberal path.
This was a collision of two fundamentally different concepts of what the EU should be. For Orban and other euroskeptics, the EU was a treaty organization whose core was free trade. Sovereignty remained with the member states, and elections were to determine their policies. The pro-EU side argued that the bloc was more than just a European NAFTA; it was a moral project designed to create a single European political culture, and the right to national self-determination was fulfilled by the officials selected by the elected leaders to represent the countries’ interests in Brussels.
This debate reached its sharpest point over the question of immigration. The European Union wanted all member states to accept a certain number of Muslim refugees. Orban refused, and he did so in a way that challenged the foundation of the EU, arguing that Hungary had a national identity and culture that had to be preserved, and it could not withstand massive immigration. Brussels’ position was that the primary identity of all EU members was their European culture, and that that identity could support the migration.
Orban was condemned for his position and labeled an ultra-nationalist and, implicitly, an outlaw of the EU. But he refused to budge. Over time, his position has grown stronger with the rise of nationalist and anti-EU forces throughout Europe, including in Germany, where a euroskeptic party surged to third place in last year’s federal election, significantly weakening Merkel. The process of challenging the European center began with the course Orban set early on.
Defeating Orban was seen as important for reversing the tide of anti-EU parties. When a candidate from Fidesz, Orban’s party, lost a mayoral race in late February, it raised hopes among Europeanists that Orban might be fundamentally weakened or even forced out of office. Instead, Fidesz secured a fairly robust victory, indicating that there has been no weakening of the nationalist stance. And this is the important point. Powerful forces in the EU want to make an example out of Hungary and Poland, imposing pain on them to deter anti-EU voters. But the EU has a rule of unanimity. Major measures like punishing a member state require unanimous votes. Under the current circumstances, Poland can veto actions against Hungary, and vice versa. The need for unanimity is a fundamental weakness of the EU. No one was prepared to give up complete sovereignty to Brussels, hence the need for unanimity in action.
This makes the EU’s threats hollow, and the empty threats only encourage the nationalists’ rise. The European Union is far from shattered, but the forces that want it to be nothing more than a free trade zone (or that don’t want a free trade zone either) are growing. The pro-EU group had hoped that Orban’s defeat could end the process he began. It didn’t happen.