The idea of Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski leading a “cultural counter-revolution” to push back Europe’s liberal, multicultural tide is preposterous, but the doomed charge could still be very damaging, especially to their own countries.
The wide publicity given to the two populist leaders’ fantasies reflects both the Western media’s lazy generalisations about Central Europe, as well as the way their domestic media – particularly Hungary’s – increasingly serve as an echo chamber of their bizarre alternative reality.
Puffed up by the notoriety he has attracted as Europe’s most anti-migrant premier, Orban now has hopes of going on the offensive in Brussels, rather than always being the whipping boy over his hollowing out of Hungarian democracy and discrimination against foreign investors.
At the Kyrnica economic forum in September – which awarded Orban its “Man of the Year” following Kaczynski’s award in 2015 – the two leaders pledged to campaign to overhaul the EU and return more powers to individual nation states. “Brexit is a fantastic opportunity for us. We are at a historic cultural moment,” said Orban. “There is a possibility of a cultural counter-revolution right now.”
Apparently, some people around Orban even think he could become a future president of the European Council.
In his annual speech to the Bálványos Summer Free University in Romania this July, Orban painted a picture of Hungary as a shining light at the centre of Europe, rather than the new black hole that it has become: “Right now no one can rule out the European mainstream following the same path in the next few years which it has itself tried so hard to prevent Hungary from following. This is how the black sheep will become the flock, and this is how the exception will become the rule.”
As in the days of yore, Hungary will confront the Muslim (army/refugee) tide, and its proud example will inspire a conservative Catholic counter-reformation in a weak, stagnating and decadent Western Europe.
This utopian vision was interrupted by hard reality when Hungarians boycotted or ignored Orban’s referendum against EU migration quotas on October 2, despite a massive and mendacious state propaganda campaign.
“How can you lead a counter-revolution when you cannot win a referendum on your strongest topic back home?” says Andras Biro-Nagy, head of research at the progressive Policy Solutions think-tank in Budapest.
“The invalid referendum makes it difficult for Hungary (Mr Orban) to act as a bully in Brussels,” Gunter Deuber, chief economist of RBI, wrote in a research note. “Moreover, failure in Hungary makes a repetition of such a vote in other countries less likely.”
Yet European leaders failed to capitalize on Orban’s humiliation, enabling him to get back on his feet by swiftly tabling constitutional amendments on quotas. Biro-Nagy says these are irrelevant (given that the EU has all but dropped the idea), ironic (given that Orban himself did not vote against them in Brussels), and illegitimate, as they were not approved in the referendum.
Europe needs to be firmer in its defence of liberal democracy if it wants to fight authoritarianism and xenophobia. “Europe lost the opportunity to shape the narrative,” says Benjamin Tallis, research fellow at the Centre for European Security in Prague. “The more [a counter-revolution] is given credence the more it becomes a possibility.”
Even before this setback though, this counter-revolution had looked very improbable, despite the disillusionment with the EU and widespread unease at the scale of recent refugee waves.
Firstly, though Orban’s supporters claim he is listened to respectfully behind closed doors as one of the EU’s longest serving premiers, and that he has led the way on migration, in public he remains virtually a pariah because of his brutal treatment of refugees and creeping authoritarianism.
It is true that Hungary has come up with some proposals on migration that have made it through into EU declarations, though these have been ones that command wide agreement and had also been proposed by other countries. But it is wrong to say, as the media often does, that everyone is now scrambling to build border fences like Hungary’s. The political debate in neighbouring Austria is indeed worrying, but there is a big, though little recognized, difference between the fence that Hungary built and the sections that Austria has constructed to funnel refugees: Austria processes refugees, Hungary just sends them back, often brutally.
Secondly, on returning powers from Brussels to nation states, Orban and Kaczynski have so far made no concrete proposals and anything they may come up with is likely to be stillborn, given the current post-Brexit mood. “For now, the Orban-Kacyzinski ‘cultural counter-revolution’ on the EU level is just political bluster without substance,” says Otilia Dhand, the CEE expert at Teneo Intelligence in London.
Hungary’s failed referendum has merely reinforced the view that trying to win approval for treaty changes is currently impossible. “It’s almost complete fantasy. That is not going to happen,” says Jiri Pehe, a political commentator who once advised former Czech president Vaclav Havel. “There is no movement to go back to a looser union. It is totally outside the debate.”
Furthermore, the very fact that Orban and Kaczynski are talking about leading a crusade for subsidiarity now shows they are living in their own bubble, far removed from mainstream thinking.
Declarations that the loss of the UK – the main opponent of further integration – will help Warsaw and Budapest’s counter-revolution, and that Orban could replace the UK as the figurehead of resistance are simply nonsense. Brexit will in fact accelerate trends in the EU that are deeply negative for the new member states: diminishing solidarity and interest in enlargement; the growing preponderance of Germany; and the movement towards a two-speed or a la carte Europe.
“Whereas some member-states may share Poland and Hungary’s reluctance about the current balance of power in the EU, they think that the current Polish-Hungarian rhetoric is not particularly helpful in addressing EU's challenges,” points out Agata Gostynska-Jakubowska, a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform in Brussels. “Member-states also fear that Kaczynski and Orban are interested in questioning the current system of Western liberalism rather than in the constructive debate about a better and more efficient EU.”
In reality, the only potential allies in a counter-revolution led by Orban and Kaczynski would be extreme rightwing parties such as the Front National in France and the Freedom Parties in the Netherlands and Austria. Only the last looks a good bet to win power, and then probably not until 2018 and not alone.
Conservative Catholic counter-revolution is really a fringe proposition in most of Europe, though a destabilizing one. It is also one that would struggle to form a united front, as it easily slides into xenophobia against all outsiders, not just Muslim ones.
The reason rightwing populism has been able to seize and consolidate power in Central Europe is precisely because it is a fundamentally different beast than that in Western Europe, one based on longstanding historical grievances and conspiracy theories over the continuing influence of Communists.
Its appeal does not even travel very well to the neighbouring Czech Republic and Slovakia, though the Western press tends to bracket them all together because of the provocative comments of Czech (non-executive) President Milos Zeman and Slovak PM Robert Fico.
Both countries are run by centre-left governments that oppose migration quotas but are also increasingly worried by the tone of their neighbours’ confrontation with Brussels. “The Czech Republic and Slovakia seem to feel uneasy with the Orban and Kaczynski narrative and their Brussels-bashing,” says Gostynska-Jakubowska. “They fear that it could cast a shadow on the entire region and undermine its reputation in the EU.”
Fundamentally, both governments see their future with Germany, rather than against it: Slovakia is already a member of the Eurozone and Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka would join if he could persuade his coalition partner, Finance Minister Andrej Babis.
“There is a clear clash of interests now,” says Michal Simecka, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague. “The Czech government (Sobotka in particular) perceives migration quotas as a problem that should be overcome and moved beyond (through giving a positive substance to the notion of flexible/effective solidarity), whereas Orban sees it an opportunity that must be exploited to perpetuate the conflict with Germany and the Commission.”
Rather than the stronger, united Visegrad (V4) that some see, looking only at migration, there are in fact now simmering tensions within the regional group that are making other observers question its very future. “The Czech Repubic and Slovakia run the risk of being tarred with the same brush unless they challenge Orban and Kaczynski,” says Tallis. “The strategic interests of the Czech Republic are not served by the V4, given the [current] direction.”
Once Slovakia’s term as president of the Council of the EU finishes at the end of this year, it is possible that Bratislava, perhaps under a new premier, could join Prague in charting a more independent course, leaving Warsaw and Budapest more isolated than ever.
The question then would be whether, without the moderating influence of their neighbours, Orban and Kaczynski might become even more radical, leading to a fundamental breach with the EU that would be hugely damaging to their countries?
“Orban frequently backs down when consequences start looking serious,” says Dhand. “Poland has a higher risk of an actual clash with the EU. The [ruling] PiS drive for social control is in fundamental opposition to the liberal values championed by the EU and Kaczynski is much less likely to back down.”
“They are misunderstanding their own position,” warns Tallis. “With everything that is going on [in the EU] they are being tolerated, but this may not be for long.”