Viktor Orbán clearly sees the erosion of the West, but it is unclear where the new ideas will come from. Can Central Europe reverse the historical dynamic of being the subaltern and instead be the role model for a renewal?
In the midst of a crisis, it is hard to see the whole picture. We can identify elements of it, but the risk that later events will marginalize them is considerable. Some crises, especially, if they are concentrated in time, are easier to assess, but this absolutely does not apply to the world transformed by COVID-19.
Its beginnings are a classic illustration of the butterfly effect. A hitherto unknown virus starts out from Wuhan, a previously almost entirely unknown Chinese city, and turns the world upside down. A small, local cause has global consequences. These are—in no particular order—political, economic, cultural, social, demographic, etc., the list is endless. And, to introduce another aspect of complexity, many of the changes brought about by the coronavirus are irreversible. By way of example, the value chains on which much of Europe’s economy relied cannot be restored to the status quo ante. This further means that the economic thinking that underlay this, the so-called ‘just-in-time’ approach, in other words not having large inventories, is now seen as very high risk indeed. Most likely, very few countries will allow their health services to become as run down as they were in, say, February. Surplus and redundancy, previously seen as costly and irrational, will now be a necessity.
To bring things down to earth a bit, it is worth looking briefly at the impact of the virus on the European Union and then to focus on Hungary. To say that the EU was entirely unprepared for the crisis is close to the truth; indeed initially it looked as if the EU failed to understand what impact a pandemic would have. From a Brussels perspective, the problem was that health is a member state competence and as an institution, a health crisis was largely outside its field of knowledge, despite earlier epidemics like SARS, H1N1 or Ebola. Memories of the 1918 Spanish flu, with at least 50 million deaths, were thin, as was the aetiology.
Slowly the EU began to shift gears. It was taken aback that member states acted without much regard for the EU; lockdown was brought in rapidly by the member states—faster in some countries than in others—in order to slow down the infections. So no easy travel for the EU, although commercial traffic was maintained. In a word, no Schengen, no tourism and a serious threat to the Single Market, properly seen as the EU’s jewel in the crown. To make this proposition clearer, the Brexit talks (yes, Brexit has yet to go away) have been foundering on the EU’s utter determination to maintain the integrity of the Single Market, code name ‘level playing field’, at whatever the cost, even if that would result in a no-deal outcome.
‘The Road to Damascus’
It took some weeks into the COVID crisis, but eventually, the EU acted to help restore the badly hit economies of its member states, although even here serious difficulties arose as to how much of this should be by way of loans and how much through grants, not to mention the contested formula according to which the support is to be distributed (the decision is not final at the time of writing). To confuse matters, while the EU’s €750 billion packages is nominally separate from the negotiations on the EU’s next budget—the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) in EU-language—it faces a parallel problem, that some member states, the so-called ‘frugal four’ are extremely reluctant to participate at all. There are, after all, limits to EU solidarity.
How Hungary fits into all this is another, in some ways a highly controversial matter. The Hungarian government began to take seriously the possibility of COVID in early March. The data on mass infections from Italy and Austria was increasingly difficult to ignore. On a personal note, I flew from Budapest on 1 March and was very much aware of lurking dangers, so I stayed as far from other people as I could while changing planes at Frankfurt. I spent the lockdown in Tallinn.
The Hungarian government had to face multiple problems. Health provision was not in a good state, neither as far as personnel or infrastructure was concerned nor regarding the general health of the population (obesity, diabetes, co-morbidity), with an ageing demographic to exacerbate matters. Second, emergency provisions could be declared, but only for two weeks, in the first instance. This lay behind the government’s decision to ask parliament for extended emergency powers.
The Hungarian government had to face multiple problems. Health provision was not in a good state, neither as far as personnel or infrastructure was concerned nor regarding the general health of the population.
The opposition, mindful of the crisis, was more than halfway ready to vote in favour, yes, in favour of the Fidesz government that it had excoriated for a decade. Fidesz, on the other hand, had to be persuaded that this apparent road to Damascus was sincere, which became all but impossible when Hungarian civil society and the leftwing media cried ‘betrayal’, accusing the opposition of getting into bed with Fidesz.
A Low Level of Mutual Trust between the Government and the Opposition
The sticking point was that the government sought emergency powers without an exit clause, meaning no time limit. Parliament would remain in session, as would the constitutional court, but the level of mutual trust between government and opposition was and is so abysmally low that, even in an unprecedented national emergency, agreement proved impossible to reach.
If this can be termed a thoroughly regrettable state of affairs, then the response from outside Hungary added to the government’s determination to press ahead with the ‘no time limit’ provision. There were howls of outrage from the Western left to add fuel to the fire, with accusations that Hungary had become a dictatorship. The European Parliament scheduled a debate on Hungary—let me add here, actually in the midst of the pandemic—and simply ignored data from Hungary that contradicted its predetermined positions. The Hungarian opposition could have helped to restore at least a sliver of trust by distancing itself from the chorus of condemnation, but it did nothing of the kind, on the contrary. The European left simply refused to believe that the Fidesz government would ever give up the emergency powers and looked out of the window when it duly did so in June.
All this requires some background. Why have political affairs in Hungary reached this breakdown? Why has this polarisation emerged at all, even if polarization between ‘left’ and ‘right’ (to use conventional language) is present in so many EU countries, not to mention the United States?
The Hungarian case has its own specificities, some going back to before 1914, some to the legacy of communism and, equally, to the particulars of the exit from communism. Before the First World War, Hungary was faced with the same dilemma that every late modernizing society has encountered—when modernizing, what should the models be? That of the successful West or could there be a local model of modernity? Or how much of each? There is no easy answer, but the issue can readily result in polarization around fears of colonization versus fears of ‘perpetual backwardness’.
A Strong National Narrative
As far as Hungary is concerned, the repeated cultural traumas of the twentieth century (Trianon, the destruction and invasions of the Second World War, communism, 1956 and the economic collapse of 1990 onwards) have underpinned a strong national—what some call a ‘nativist’—narrative. In summary, this constitutes the Fidesz argument, that Hungary has to be strong and modern in the Hungarian way, not according to the obligatory models of the West. The argument has been greatly strengthened by the manifest failures of the imported model after 1990. Market freedom resulted in GDP shrinkage and unemployment, then after the left’s victory in 2002, the self-styled liberal system ended with a near-collapse of the state and massive indebtedness.
These factors are a necessary condition for understanding Fidesz’s visceral response to EU and liberal formulae. These failed badly in the recent past, so why should they work now? Indeed, the so-called unorthodox economic strategy of the post-2010 period produced very respectable growth figures, at a time when the economies of the West were in the doldrums. And equally, the dominant liberal political systems were looking increasingly threadbare. At this time (June 2020), the ripples of the Black Lives Matter protests, a notable symptom of the dysfunctions of the West, have yet to make an impact on Hungary, but the country’s unresolved Roma issue could ignite something similar.
With this background, it becomes easier to understand Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s pessimism about the West. In his speech on 6 June at Sátoral-jaújhely, he stated, “The world is changing. The changes are tectonic. The United States is no longer alone on the throne of the world, Eurasia is re-building with full throttle, the frames of our European Union are creaking, and now it hopes to save itself with a salto mortale [death leap]”. He contrasted this with Hungary’s success in restoring itself, together with the superior capacity of Central Europe as against the decline of the West.
There were howls of outrage from the Western left to add fuel to the fire, with accusations that Hungary had become a dictatorship. The European Parliament scheduled a debate on Hungary and simply ignored data from Hungary.
The West is Losing its Capacity for Self-Reproduction
How real is this proposition? Does Orbán’s analysis of the erosion of the West hold water? There is a line of argument that supports the pessimism. In summary, form, as presently constituted in its liberal vestments, the West is losing its capacity for self-reproduction. The evidence for this proposition is that Western political and economic institutions are in the midst of a set of interlocking crises that they are not able to identify, let alone solve.
What are the factors that explain this dysfunction? First, there is inequality, both status and material. The gap between haves and have-nots is increasing and the response of the latter (the gilets jaunes in France, Brexit and the collapse of the Red Wall in Britain, the rise of anti-system parties in Italy) is dismissed by the haves as irrational. Mutual respect is absent.
Second is the ‘disconnect’ between voter aspirations and government (and EU) performance. The tacit promise of steady improvement for all has failed, real incomes have stagnated, hence many voters no longer trust liberal institutions. The third factor is inconsistency and double standards, differential access to health and/or educational provision is one example, while those with power pretend otherwise. And the EU is repeatedly caught at this game—it looks very carefully at rule of law provision in some member states while ignoring similar shortcomings in others.
A static ruling system can maintain itself through ritual and sacralization, through a lopsided redistribution of benefits, but will find itself ever further from a state of equilibrium.
The fourth dysfunction is the persistent asymmetries of power, with weak conflict resolution, at both the domestic political level and in the EU. Finally, there is an inability and unwillingness to absorb radicalism. Note that these factors can potentiate one another—asymmetries of power can intensify double standards, amplifying resentment; inequality potentiates the disconnect.
Is the West and Europe at the Threshold of Change?
All this is currently noteworthy because Europe historically gained some of its energies and innovativeness from outliers that appeared as radical challenges to the status quo. Europe and the EU’s answer is exclusion, the imposition of the cordon sanitaire on those it deems beyond the pale. This only enhances resentment, even while demonstrating that liberal democratic Europe has become static and is close to a threshold where it can no longer reproduce itself in its present form.
A static ruling system can maintain itself through ritual and sacralization, through a lopsided redistribution of benefits, but will find itself ever further from a state of equilibrium (i.e. with a self-reproducing capacity). The question to be decided and the very fact that the question can be posed is in itself significant, is whether the West and Europe is or is not at the threshold of change? Is it subject to self-amplifying oscillations, disturbances which the system cannot absorb and make a part of its renewal? And if it does cross the threshold, will that become irreversible, to end up with a new equilibrium, with different asymmetries and power distribution?
The answers are not self-evident, but the challenges are. Orbán clearly sees the erosion of the West, but it is unclear where the new ideas will come from. Can Central Europe reverse the historical dynamic of being the subaltern and instead be the role model for renewal that discards the West’s post-national dreamworld and accepts that nationhood remains an inescapable component of Europe’s identity? Or is this all a kind of overreach?
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