Political Lessons for Central Europe from Orbán’s Hungary

15. 3. 2017

Fidesz did not start out as an anti-EU party and it still is not one, albeit it has strong reservations about some of the policies of the EU. In many respects, it is the EU that has changed.

There are several ways of interpreting the patterns of Hungarian politics since 2010 and they are wildly contradictory. On the part of the Western and local left, there is thoroughgoing rejection, as much moral as political. Whatever Viktor Orbán’s government does, in this view, is inherently abhorrent. For those who espouse this view, it is a naturalized fact—“fact” would be more correct—that the political system in Hungary has become, is becoming, or is moving towards authoritarianism. The Hungarian left consistently uses the word “regime” to characterize the Orbán government in the full knowledge that, in the currently accepted political vocabulary, the word regime usually applies to dictatorships. For some, Hungary is simply inexplicable, at best something like a consensual semi-democratic system. To my knowledge, no one has as yet claimed that the Fidesz government was not elected democratically and that it will not cede power if it should be defeated, but that appears to make no difference. Then there are those for whom Hungary and what goes on there are inexplicable and, hence, not worth bothering with.

Despite the flood of negative criticism from virtually all the Western media, the most recent period has seen the beginnings of a more positive evaluation of Orbán and Fidesz. This is overwhelmingly tied up with the migration crisis, but a part of it can be attributed to the position that Hungary has adopted towards the EU Commission, a stance that strongly stresses member state sovereignty and is very hostile to the enlargement of the EU powers “by stealth”—lopakodó is the Hungarian word and it incorporates the concept of “stealing” much like the English does. Actually, this push to enlarge powers is overt and in the public sphere, but is hardly ever understood by the media, which is why such moves arrive abruptly. A case in point is the Rule of Law Framework activated by the Commission against Poland in January 2016; it had, in fact, been on the books since March 2014, but had remained buried in obscurity because the Brussels media failed to notice it.

The positive evaluation of Orbán mentioned above, where he can be considered a trail- blazer, though probably not a role-model, can be assessed through an analysis of five areas— migration, the relationship between the EU and the member states, “illiberalism,” the position of the Visegrad states, and leadership.

First, however, I want to offer an analysis of the broad context within which the Fidesz government has been operating, and this requires a few words on how the criteria of evaluation come into being. Basically, this is a question of the legitimation of knowledge, what information is deemed acceptable (and by whom), how political judgments are formed, what assertions are converted into accepted, naturalized facts.

What should have emerged from the foregoing is that the gap between representation and reality of Hungary is substantial and growing. This deserves a short assessment. The liberal consensus that emerged after the collapse of Communism, with the so-called “end of history,” rapidly captured the post-Marxist elites, so that by 2010, when Fidesz gained a two-thirds majority, these elites implicitly saw themselves as the vanguard of history and understood their role as hegemonic. A cogent piece of supporting evidence is the equally rapid spread of the expression “the wrong side of history.” A moment’s thought will demonstrate that this is no more than a spatial metaphor, that history does not have sides, for if it did, would it not also have a top and a bottom, an inside and an outside? Nonetheless, the phrase was and is useful to legitimate the morally, politically, and economically superior values of liberalism against all challengers.

It is at this point that Foucault’s power/knowledge equation became applicable to the liberal elite, even while (ironically) a part of their world- view, the deep suspicion of the state and state power, was inherited more from Foucault than anyone else. In short, what the liberal elites arrogated to themselves was the hegemony of the production of knowledge and its legitimation. I used the words “vanguard” and “implicit” in the above. Both, I would suggest, are applicable. The members of the elite consensus are remarkably intolerant of challengers, whether from the left or the right, precisely because of the self-attributed vanguard quality and implicitly because it is preferable to keep it opaque rather than transparent, for that way it remains difficult to challenge (as I am doing). Obviously this is not a vanguard in the strict Leninist sense; it is satisfied with hegemony and is not, to the best of my knowledge, planning to establish Gulags.

A further irony is that the consensus places transparency well in the foreground of their values—virtues, but will seldom apply it to its own axiology. The standard technique is to ignore critiques and if that fails, to denounce them as populist, xenophobic, or just coming from the wrong side of history. Being the vanguard of history further means that one does not have to bother with one’s own contingency, which then impacts on the values, rights, aspirations of those outside the consensus—they are on the wrong side, so there.

It is worth noting here that the hegemony of the liberal consensus is beginning to be questioned by parts of the left. Austerity, inequality, stagnation can be seen as the triggers. There are some signs that a section of the socialist left is coming to question its absorption by liberalism and is looking for a path that confronts inequality, community, and responsibility (Streeck).

This was the background against which the success of Fidesz has to be understood. How was it possible for a center-right party to gain a two-thirds majority, when it was self-evidently on the wrong side of you-know-what? So, denounce it. The Süddeutsche Zeitung did just that, even before the Fidesz government published its program. And the attacks have continued and do so to this day. This negative climate has obviously influenced Fidesz and Orbán himself. On the face of it, it is possible to argue that Fidesz had the choice to back-pedal or tread water, but the situation in Hungary was so dire after the disastrous left-liberal governments of 2002-2010, that urgent action was essential. Worse, the policies of these governments were unquestionably liberal, so that a radical, non-liberal alternative was the only feasible strategy. This was what the Fidesz government pursued.


If one were to try and identify a turning point in the assessments of the Fidesz government, both at home and abroad, it was unquestionably the 2015 migration crisis. Hungary lies athwart the south-north migrant route to Germany and, abetted by human smugglers, around 400 000 persons (of varied backgrounds) marched through Hungary as if it were not there, as if this was a non-country, just an empty territory. Hungary has obligations under the EU’s Dublin regulations to register everyone crossing a Schengen frontier, which Hungary’s southern border with Serbia is, and to protect that border against breaches. The migrants paid no attention to this whatsoever. The presence of the migrants—technically illegal immigrants unless they registered—was amplified by the none-too- Fidesz-friendly Western and Hungarian opposition media, notably in showing pictures almost exclusively of women and children, even while three-quarters of the migrants were young adult males. This was recognized as manipulation on an industrial scale. The government had to act and chose to build a fence along the frontier—the foresaid media invariably described it as a “razor- wire” fence, to communicate its fearful quality. The construction of the fence brought a torrent of criticism, from Western politicians, as well as media. The Hungarian answer was and is: “Dublin and Schengen, do you have an alternative?” The reluctant acknowledgement was: “No, but we still don’t like the fence.” So damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Not surprisingly, complaints of double standards began to fill the air.

As it turned out, it was one thing to be generally in favor of the migrants, as much of the Western opinion seemed to be, and something else to be dealing with the real, living migrants. Angela Merkel’s Willkommenskultur was well received at first, but this welcome started fraying at the edges under both the immense strain that the arrivals were placing on the German administration and public services, as well as the behavior of (some of) the migrants themselves. At this point, the tension between liberal individualism and collective representation became acute—a few negative cases were enough to raise questions over all migrants and Muslims especially. The collective representation issue also applied to Hungary, of course. Was the government representative of all Hungarians? This was not a distinction that many stopped to make.

While Western opinion formers were generally uneasy-to-hostile regarding the Fidesz government, in the Visegrad countries Orbán’s stance was well received. Indeed, the Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico went out of his way to praise Hungary, which is quite extraordinary to anyone who knows how sensitive their relations have been. The Polish and Czech governments were likewise content with the role that Hungary was playing. Note that this is a very old historical topos shared by all the national mythopoeias of Central Europe, that they constitute the bastion of Europe against the invaders from the east. There is some historical truth in it.

In the contexts of the migrants, there were several further turning points. The slaughter of 130 people in Paris in November 2015 undergirded the proposition that some of the migrants were terrorists, something that the liberal consensus systematically denied. Much of public opinion concluded otherwise. Orbán’s position on this was that those arriving fell into three separate categories—asylum seekers, economic migrants, and fighters. This categorization was not widely accepted, understandably from the perspective of the consensus as it was a form of knowledge production that went against the hegemony. But the New Year’s Eve clashes in Cologne can be seen as a sea-change, above all because it clearly showed the attitude of some Muslims towards women; matters were made worse by the cover-up by the local authorities. There was an underswell of anger in Germany that heavily eroded the Willkommenskultur and certainly once or twice there were demonstrators carrying pro-Orbán placards.

Orbán basically represented the polar opposite of Willkommenskultur, so that the range of opinion on migration stretched from Orbán to Merkel. This was in itself significant, because Orbán was inside the tent, in the European People’s Party (unlike Marine le Pen or Geert Wilders), so that he offered an acceptable alternative to Merkel’s “let’s have everyone come to Germany” policy. It is worth adding here, possibly essential to add here, that for all practical purposes Merkel has imposed a policy on the EU without consultation, so that Orbán’s “no” to uncontrolled migration was a clear, incontrovertible alternative.

This did not make him universally popular. There were repeated demands from the center- left voices for the EPP to expel Fidesz. Evidently they recognized that Orbán’s alternative was a dangerous one—dangerous because it resonated with sections of public opinion, because it was a frontal challenge to the hegemony of the left, and because it represented a conflicting moral value—that of the right to choose something other than what was approved by the consensus.

The European Union

Fidesz did not start out as an anti-EU party and it still is not one, albeit it has strong reservations about some of the policies of the EU. In many respects, it is the EU that has changed, accepting and adopting many of the assumptions of the liberal consensus. In this sense, the agenda of European integration has been captured in such a way as to exclude some (not all) of conservative and Christian Democrat thinking. The discourses of human rights, rule of law, or checks-and-balances have weakened state sovereignty, and the market-liberal assumptions of the Commission had an equivocal effect on the economies of the former communist member states.

The first Orbán government (1998-2002) negotiated much of the accession agreement and was committed to membership. Some doubts set in when, with Fidesz in opposition, the Commission passed lightly over the excessive deficits of the left-liberal governments and looked the other way when the demonstration on the 50th anniversary of the 1956 revolution was dispersed with brutality by the then government. There was a general sense that leftwing governments were treated much more gently than rightwing ones.

In 2010, after winning the election, Fidesz discovered that the economic and financial situation was considerably worse than it had understood (more creative accounting by the left) and asked the Commission for an easing of terms, of the 3 percent limit. This was rejected. Austerity was the order of the day, forcing the government to cut back and, at the same time, impelling it to recover its independence through growth. As Orbán repeated more than once, Hungary nearly went the way of Greece and would have thereby lost its sovereignty. This unexpected rejection was, I rather believe, a shock to Fidesz and was inexplicable other than as a double standard, inasmuch as the pre-2010 governments were let off much more lightly.

The conflict with the Commission continued and here we have the evidence of Helga Wiedermann to rely on. As head of the economic minister’s cabinet, she saw the conflict from a close perspective. Wiedermann argues that the financial commissioner, Olli Rehn, a Finnish liberal, sought to impose an austerity policy on Hungary, which the government was entirely unprepared to accept. Instead of restrictions, the government planned to impose taxes on banks, telecoms, and other large-scale enterprises (usually foreign-owned). This was a heresy and set a very bad example from the viewpoint of those affected and had to be stopped; “stopping” would include the toppling of the Fidesz government. The Commission appeared to be ready to go along with this. There were major battles at Ecofin meetings, which did finally allow Hungary to go its own way, including ending excessive deficit procedure.

But Ecofin was not the only battleground. The Western media and the left in the European Parliament opened another front, with evident help from the Hungarian opposition. Predictably the media focused on the Hungarian Media Law which they presented as the de facto introduction of censorship. In reality, the Media Law was based on the practice of various other EU countries, but the attacks ignored this and sketched a picture of extreme restrictiveness. Interestingly, there was never any attempt to follow up what effect the Media Law actually had on the freedom of expression. It was simply taken for granted that matters were dreadful. The Commission, for its part, repeatedly scrutinized Hungarian legislation, on the media and other issues, and generally found that there were no major infractions. Problems were mostly sorted out through infringement procedures and dialogue, much to the detestation of the left.

The European Parliament as a battleground had two dimensions. There were repeated hearings about Hungary (I took part in six or seven of these representing the Fidesz MEPs) and what I still find fascinating is that counter-arguments were ignored. Habermas was proved wrong, sometimes you cannot achieve much through rational discourse, but then you cannot really argue with a hegemony. The other dimension, to simplify the story somewhat, was the contest over human rights and rule of law in the civil liberties committee (LIBE). This culminated in the report presented by the leftwing Portuguese MEP, Rui Tavares, which catalogued all sorts of major and minor malfeasance by the Fidesz government. At the same time, the utter unwillingness of the left to listen and discuss matters rationally was brought home to Hungarian viewers, many of whom watched the plenary debates streaming online. This had the unintended consequence of delegitimizing the European Parliament as far as center-right opinion in Hungary was concerned.

Against this background, it is hardly surprising that Hungarian relations with the EU— and only insiders make the distinction among Commission, Council, and Parliament—should have become deeply envenomed. Hungary has repeatedly insisted on the primacy of state sovereignty, unless powers have been transferred, and is a strong supporter of intergovernmentalism. Attempts have been made to paint Hungary into the Euroskeptic corner, but this is inaccurate. Hungary will not leave the EU, but wants to see an EU that is more responsive to the aspirations of the people of Europe rather than to the left-federalism of EU insiders.


It is hard to think of another word that resonated so strongly and so negatively as illiberalism, the word used by Orbán in his speech to the summer university at Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tu.nad in Transylvania (26 July 2014). Given the notoriety of the speech, it’s worth looking at both the text and the context of what Orbán said. Here are some of the key passages:

“a race [is] underway to find the method of community organization, the state, which is most capable of making a nation and a community internationally competitive”

“[There is no necessary connection between a liberal state and economic success.] The stars of the international analysts today are Singapore, China, India, Russia and Turkey.”

“[what we are] trying [is] to find the form of community organization, the new Hungarian state, which is capable of making our community competitive in the great global race” [and] “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” [emphasis added]

It should be evident enough to anyone prepared to make the effort that the context of “illiberal” was specific to economics and, to some extent, ethics. Two things are crystal clear. Illiberalism does not mean the elimination of fundamental, democratic rights. And the mention of the economic success of the authoritarian states listed does not mean that they are examples to be followed—no, they are there to illustrate the thesis that liberalism is not a necessary condition of economic success, something very different.

It is probably too much to expect liberal commentators to take the trouble with complex (well, not that complex) textual analysis and, hence, to offer a balanced account of Orbán’s speech. From one perspective this is understandable, that of symbolic. To anyone inside the liberal mindset, the thought that the prime minister of a democratic state could actually mention word illiberal, let alone say that this was the method he was following, was worse than anathema, it was an abomination. In this regard, the reaction to illiberal was emotional, not rational, near hysterical and amidst the noise, it became impossible to discuss it sine ira et studio.

What the debate might have focused on is whether liberalism and democracy are eternally yoked, in other words, can there be non-liberal democracy? (Ober) Christian Democracy, Social Democracy, Conservativism have all existed, but have they been dispersed by liberal democracy? Has there been a quiet Hegelian sublation? Understandably, those in the consensus just do not want to go there and ask questions about democracy and liberalism. And it is worth adding that there are those in the EPP who accept the hegemony of liberalism over democracy. No wonder, then, that Orbán’s use of “illiberalism” caused such overreaction. It threatened every holy cow in sight and beyond.

The V4

We can set to one side the debate (in which I too have participated) as to whether there is such a thing as Central Europe. The Visegrad states recognized a certain set of shared interests and have constructed a fairly loose set of institutions to represent them. The V4 meet regularly at various levels, their governments coordinate positions at times regarding the EU, they have summits, a presidency, and even a fund. All the same until the migration crisis, the V4 was never a very intense form of coordination. It was and is intergovernmental and basically does what its leaders are ready to accept, a kind of lowest common denominator. Some of the cooperation depends on there being like-minded governments in power and, indeed, to personal relations, giving V4 activities a certain contingent quality. The migration crisis, however, has found a notably high-level agreement among the four leaderships and their public opinions—they do not want migrants, above all they do not want the Commission to be able to impose compulsory quotas, however low. It is the compulsory element to which they are opposed.

This common position has various elements. Self-evidently, V4 opinion formers have looked at the success/failure of the integration of the third world migrants, especially Muslims in the West, and have concluded that they want no part of it. Actually, all four countries have very small Muslim communities, but these are marginal to the argument. The hard reality is that Muslim migrant communities do not integrate well, that they have become the source of home-grown jihadi terrorism, and that even when members of a community are well integrated, their loyalty will often be to the community rather than to the state of which they are citizens, meaning that they could well act as a safe haven to terrorists. The overall popular attitude in the V4 is that it does not want migrants, full stop. In parentheses, it is also true that very few migrants want Central Europe, they want to get to an idealized Germany or Sweden.

The argument from values is straightforward. If a country wishes to receive migrants and to be multicultural, that is fine. But by exactly the same token, if a country does not want to be multicultural, that should be assessed in the same fashion. Then, there is the argument from history. The 45 years of Communism have marked these countries deeply; they felt that they were written off by the West (we can all recite Yalta, 1956, 1968, 1980) and hence that the West owes Central Europe, if nothing else, parity of esteem. I myself would add another argument from history, one that is seldom recognized. All the states of the region were part of at least one empire and are in that sense post-colonial, but the West has never accepted this proposition. Equally, Central Europeans have no post-colonial guilt and are, therefore, much less sympathetic to the mess made by colonial empires (e.g. Sykes- Picot). A third argument is from economics. These are significantly poorer countries than those of the West, so receiving migrants would be an added burden. A fourth argument turns round the Western attacks on some of the Central European states over human rights, notably the situation of the Roma. If human rights in these states are in such terrible condition, why does the West want send migrants there?

All these and other points have become fused into a single stance of resistance, symbolized by Orbán. He is seen as standing up for Hungary and thereby for Central Europe as a whole. The other V4 leaders have broadly endorsed this, with greater or lesser enthusiasm. Hungary joined Slovakia in appealing against the compulsory quota to the European Court of Justice. Together with the Czech Republic they voted against the quota at the interior ministers’ meeting (Poland voted to accept, but that decision was that of the previous government). I am not suggesting that all this was a single-handed achievement of Orbán, but his strong stance has given the V4 an issue around which they can cohere, despite differences over, say, Russia.


It is always hard to see political figures in perspective. President de Gaulle was widely excoriated in his lifetime, but these days he is greatly admired (Fenby). In the same sense, it is both difficult and premature to offer an assessment of Orbán’s role as a leader. It is clear enough to anyone who has listened to him (as I have) that he is a compelling public speaker, that he has charisma, and that he has the political courage to raise issues that most others leave well alone (e.g. “illiberalism”), even if some would call it foolhardy. He has also shown political skill in recognizing that the migration issue was a major opportunity structure that affected the whole of Europe and that he himself could play a Europe- wide role by adopting it in the forthright fashion that he has.

To this should be added, in the context of leadership, his formulation and use of the phrase “ballot box revolution.” By gaining a two-thirds majority, the road was open to launch a major transformation of Hungarian politics. The nomenclature inherited from the communist period had found a new lease of life under the leftwing governments and its style of rule was decidedly top down. Orbán swept this away, starting with the new constitution, the Basic Law, and instituting reforms in virtually all areas of public life. He further brought in a different discursive system with emphasis on nationhood (including the ethnic Hungarian communities in the neighboring states), the family, tradition, and giving the symbolic Brussels an undeniably negative value. “Illiberalism” fits nicely into this discursive system. Arguably in broad historical terms Orbán’s project was to relaunch an authentically Hungarian form of modernity, one that was broken by the collapse of historic Hungary after 1918. This project, especially once its boldness became evident, attracted widespread condemnation in the West, but resonated with much of Hungarian opinion. The proposition that there is not a single liberal modernity (as insisted on by the consensus), but can exist in various national forms has far-reaching significance well beyond Hungary.

Jan Patočka once wrote about the Great Czech and Little Czech traditions, meaning that occasionally small nations have the chance to play a major role on the European stage. There is no Hungarian equivalent, though as Milan Kundera pointed out, “In November 1956, the director of the Hungarian News Agency, shortly before his office was flattened by artillery fire, sent a telex to the entire world with a desperate message announcing that the Russian attack against Budapest had begun. The dispatch ended with these words: ‘We are going to die for Hungary and for Europe.’”

Orbán has certainly made statements that can be read as a claim to be doing something analogous: to save Europe from liberalism and the liberal elites who are pushing Europe towards the abyss. It goes without saying that there are many who are incensed by the very idea of Orbán personally or Hungary generally doing any such thing—so much should be more than evident from the foregoing. All the same, I think it is safe to say that when the history of post-1989 Hungary comes to be written a generation from now, Viktor Orbán will be one of its protagonists. Maybe this will be true of Europe too.

György Schöpflin

was born in Budapest in 1939 and lived in the UK from 1950 to 2004. He worked at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (1963-1967) and the BBC (1967-1976) before taking up university lecturing at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London (1976-2004), including as Jean Monnet Professor of Politics and Director of the Centre for the Study of Nationalism. His principal area of research is the relationship between ethnicity, nationhood and political power, with particular reference to post-communism. Professor Schöpflin was elected a Member of the European Parliament for Fidesz-Hungarian Civic Union, a member of the Group of the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats) in 2004 and re-elected in 2009 and in 2014.

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

These web pages use cookies to provide their services. You get more information about the cookies after clicking on the button “Detailed setting”. You can set the cookies which we will be able to use, or you can give us your consent to use all the cookies by clicking on the button “Allow all”. You can change the setting of cookies at any time in the footer of our web pages.
Cookies are small files saved in your terminal equipment, into which certain settings and data are saved, which you exchange with our pages by means of your browser. The contents of these files are shared between your browser and our servers or the servers of our partners. We need some of the cookies so that our web page could function properly, we need others for analytical and marketing purposes.