Europe

Europe Must Learn to Work With Its Autocrats

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban may have pushed the boundaries of the acceptable, but he's at home in some mainstream European parties.

Pushing the boundary of democacy.

Photographer: Laszlo Balogh/Getty Images

The landslide victory of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party in Sunday's election in Hungary may have disappointed European liberals -- but it drives home an important truth: The limits of the acceptable on the right flank of European politics are moving further to the right. 

Orban has often been described as Europe's black sheep, an outsider challenging European values, setting a bad example for others, such as the Polish, Czech and Slovak nationalists, and emboldening parties of the far-right fringe in Western Europe. Indeed, French nationalist leader Marine Le Pen, one of the top members of Germany's anti-immigrant AfD party Beatrix von Storch and Dutch populist leader Geert Wilders all joyfully congratulated Orban on winning a constitutional supermajority on Sunday. This is the outcast crowd of European politics, whose electoral success is enough to produce scary newspaper headlines but not to govern their countries.

Orban, however, is not part of this bunch. Fidesz belongs to the same European Parliament faction as German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union -- the European People's Party. Despite sporadic criticism from within the EPP, it's a member in good standing, and EPP President Joseph Daul wished Orban success before the election. German Health Minister Jens Spahn -- who is considered one of Merkel's potential successors as party leader -- recently praised the Hungarian prime minister's stance on immigration. "There's much criticism of Viktor Orban, but he imposes European law on the border and secures Europe's border," Spahn said.

Orban's deft balancing act has kept him within the legitimate European right. In Germany, his political allies are in the hardline wing of the CDU, not in the AfD. In Austria, they're in Chancellor Sebastian Kurz's People's Party, not in the far-right Freedom Party which is now part of Kurz's coalition. And though Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has called Orban's stance on European refugee quotas "shameful," his government's ever-tightening immigration policy belies the rhetoric and places Rutte in the same camp as the Hungarian troublemaker.

Orban is not an outsider because he is a consistent winner. Despite all we read and hear about the suppression of the civil society in Hungary and the Orban government's propaganda efforts, often likened to those of President Vladimir Putin's Russia, Hungarian elections -- unlike Russian ones -- are sufficiently free and fair for the country to remain a democracy. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitored the election, noted the "shrinking space for informed political debate" and laws limiting media pluralism to a certain degree, but didn't complain about the parties' ability to reach voters. This time around, Fidesz won on an unexpectedly high -- and genuine -- turnout, almost 69 percent, compared with less than 62 percent in 2014. This wasn't a fake victory like Putin's last month.

More successfully than any other center-right leader in Europe, Orban has pushed the boundary of mainstream acceptability to the gray area between the traditional center-right parties and the far right. He did it by repeatedly overstepping the line. His conspiracy theories about archenemy George Soros, for example, still aren't part of the mainstream, but his insistence on European cultural purity already is: The German "leitkultur" debate isn't a fringe phenomenon anymore. In a way, Orban has made good use of his first mover advantage. He claimed the ground further to the right before the then-liberal EU could slap him down, and he continued avoiding harsh censure thanks to Hungary's status as a post-communist nation pursuing an outwardly effective economic policy.

By winning and pushing, Orban has helped create a new normal inside the EU, a situation in which the bloc faces a choice between trying to force illiberal governments to toe some sort of liberal line and compromising with them as an acceptable reality. There are indications the Brussels bureaucracy may be going for the latter option. It's likely to drop the infringement procedure that threatens Poland with the loss of its EU vote in exchange for some weak concessions on the nationalist government's judicial reform. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki's proposals on these concessions haven't been rejected out of hand and a face-saving deal is in the process of being negotiated.

Indeed, the EU cannot fight the hardening center-right on all the fronts it has opened -- Poland, Austria, and most recently Italy. That's why there are no coordinated attempts at boycotting the Austrian coalition, unlike in 2000, the previous time the Freedom Party won some government portfolios. The EU is going to have to accept the Orban-like right as long as these parties and leaders remain nominally centrist and willing to negotiate rather than rebel and question their countries' EU membership. 

To hear Orban on the stump, he's a fully-fledged rebel. "On one side, national and democratic forces; and on the other side, supranational and anti-democratic forces" was how he drew the battle lines in a recent speech. But in practice, Orban has never rejected dialogue with the EU or dived off the deep end of its political spectrum. That, more than the rebellious rhetoric, is the example others have studied and followed. The EU can no longer pretend that Orban is isolated or a failure, though it can keep a beady eye on the growing problem with corruption, possibly Orban's Achilles' heel, and look for ways to highlight it. That's a long game, though. In the meantime, Europe must learn to work with a growing Orbanite contingent: It may eventually include several of its biggest and most powerful member states, perhaps even Germany. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

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