There is more speculation than ever about a possible “end of the EU”. It might come with a bang — think of the sudden implosion that many feared at the height of the crisis in the eurozone — or with a whimper, as countries follow Britain in leaving voluntarily. But the EU could also be hollowed out from within. This scenario has nothing to do with populists such as Marine Le Pen, who brag about their hatred of European integration, but rather with politicians such as the anti-liberal Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban. Ironically, Mr Orban is a member of the European People’s party, the EU’s centre-right bloc. The EPP represents mostly Christian Democrats, whose ancestors were the architects of European integration in the 1950s. Not only are they now tolerating a far-right populist such as Mr Orban in their midst, they are also blind to the fact that the Hungarian leader is making a bid for European leadership that could destroy Christian Democracy, and the EU, from the inside. Hungary receives large subsidies from Brussels, yet Mr Orban’s government systematically disregards the rules of the European club and the supposedly shared values of democracy. Most recently, for example, his government passed a law which, for purely political reasons, aims at closing the Central European University, a Budapest-based bastion of academic independence and free thought founded by the billionaire philanthropist George Soros. (Tens of thousands took to the streets of the Hungarian capital on Sunday to protest against the new law.) At the same time, Mr Orban has begun to play at EU level a game he has long perfected at home. Domestically, he has benefited from the strong showing of the far-right Jobbik party. These extremists have allowed him to deflect criticism from abroad by arguing that without him neo-Nazis would be in power. Mr Orban is now selectively distancing himself from Poland’s rightwing Law and Justice government. He voted for Donald Tusk, when the latter was up for reappointment as president of the European Council, thereby helping to isolate the Poles, who strenuously opposed the more liberal Mr Tusk. Feeling that they now owe Mr Orban, centre-right politicians were the last to criticise the Hungarian government’s attack on the CEU and also on non-governmental organisations — and their criticisms have been weakly phrased. Related article Hungary takes aim at Soros as parliament backs university curbs New law that hits top school is part of broader move to silence dissent, say critics In his speech at the EPP congress in Malta last month, Mr Orban laid out his vision of a Europe in which “there is room for our Christian identity, our national pride”. Such attempts to start a pan-European Kulturkampf against a left that allegedly wants to destroy Europe by letting in as many Muslims as possible used to find an echo only on the far right. But this changed after Hungary put up a fence at the border with Serbia. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition partner, the Bavarian Christian Democratic party, keeps inviting Mr Orban to put pressure on Ms Merkel to abandon refugee-friendly policies. The postwar Christian Democrats did not propound a Christian nationalism in which religion is about belonging, not believing. On the contrary, they, particularly the Catholics among them, saw unconstrained nation states as a threat to vulnerable minorities. But for Mr Orban, Christianity is irrelevant as a guide to individual action. What matters is Christendom as a collective identity that helps to demarcate good Europeans from bad Muslims. It also helps to keep fear stoked and opposition quiescent. And fear can be turned, too, against a Brussels allegedly dominated by “liberal nihilists”. While presenting himself to the rest of the bloc as a reasonable Tusk supporter, at home Mr Orban has started an anti-EU campaign with newspaper advertisements and billboards proclaiming “Let’s Stop Brussels!” Every household in the country is receiving a leaflet with leading questions intended to ram home the message that the EU is planning to impose higher utility prices and “illegal immigrants” on the Magyars. Some Christian Democrats know very well the danger that Mr Orban poses. But they do not dare to exclude his party for fear of losing votes in the European Parliament. They also feel that sanctions are unpalatable in the wake of the Brexit vote. But how can Christian Democrats criticise the anti-democratic excesses of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, say, or Russia’s Vladimir Putin, if they tolerate egregious violations of the rule of law by one of their own? One who is slowly but surely undermining the union from within.
April 11, 2017