Letter from Budapest

The Central European ‘Kulturkampf’

It is my good fortune that I currently live on the Buda side of the Danube in Pasarét, a name that supposedly combines the Serbian word paša and the Hungarian rét (meadow). The nomenclature Pasarét was actually “invented” in 1847 when many names of city regions were Magyarised. The folk etymology suggests a reference to Abdurrahmán Abdi Arnaut, the last pasha of Buda, who died in the reconquest of the city by the Habsburg armies in 1686. It is (in retrospect only, of course) rather a romantic notion that the rotund Turkish pasha would have taken his summer ease here in the former royal hunting grounds, no doubt enjoying the twelve delicious varieties of Hungarian pear so rhapsodically described by the seventeenth-century Turkish traveller Evliya Çelebi. Some four hundred years later, the pasha’s meadow has become a pleasant and elegant residential district of the capital.

It has been a lovely spring here and lockdown has enabled one to enjoy Pasarét’s leafy avenues lined with what Yeats called the “great blossomer” (flowering chestnut), ash, sycamore, black poplars shedding their white pollen, sprays of white hawthorn and the acacia that produces Hungary’s wonderfully aromatic honey. The adjacent gardens of pre-First World War villas have been a riot of colour provided by wisteria, Japanese cherry, elderflower, blushing almond trees and magnolia. The birds are back and our family of red squirrels has been emboldened to resume death-defying circus runs along the telephone wires. With few exceptions May has been idyllically warm and sunny, often with a refreshing light breeze, but the streets have been surrealistically empty of humankind.

However, like Coleridge, I have been imprisoned in my lime-tree bower. Not, of course, because Hungary is the all-but-prison Left-liberals would have us believe, but due to the coronavirus lockdown. The country is beginning to emerge from the outbreak—at the time of writing (late May) there have been over 3600 cases and more than 473 deaths. The fatality rate (12.9 per cent) looks high, but there has been little testing, so it is reasonable to assume that the number of infections is actually very much higher. About 50 per cent of deaths have been persons over eighty years of age, almost all with “underlying health problems” (a medical euphemism for the assumption that many would have died rather soon in the natural course of events). Neighbouring Austria, a country with a similar population but four times the reported cases, currently has a fatality rate of only 3.9 per cent. Independent monitors have nevertheless accepted the Hungarian Health Minister’s statement that overall the country is in the bottom third sector in terms of coronavirus impact. This relatively good outcome (Poland seems to be another case in point) is insufficient to attract media attention, which has instead focused with venom on the decision passed through Parliament to allow the government emergency powers to act by decree.

The rumpus this has caused is not without its entertaining side. While Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s conservative and “take-no-prisoners” Prime Minister, was receiving the familiar abuse from the bien-pensants, the legal and constitutional experts for the European Commission were considering the Hungarian Parliament’s decision. In due course the responsible Commissioner for “Values and Democracy”, a Czech lady called Věra Jourová, announced the result of their deliberations. The decree, she said, was constitutional, compatible with EU law and not out of line with similar measures in other European countries.

The effect was roughly the same as if Angela Merkel had suddenly made a speech saying that Hitler was a much misunderstood fellow. Like a tide of molten lava that abruptly changes course, vitriol was now directed at the unfortunate Jourová, who stuck to her guns but added vague caveats about monitoring how the decree was implemented. This did nothing to appease the anti-Orbán symphony orchestra which had been in full tutti mode even before the legal people had even considered the matter. Former President of the European Council of Ministers, Donald Tusk, who seems to be rather demob-happy, played the Nazi card, making an indirect allusion to the Ermächtigunsgesetz of 1933; Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, professed herself greatly perturbed, while the EU Parliament, which has long been suffering from irritable bowel syndrome in respect of Hungary, passed another motion saying the Budapest government was acting in defiance of “European values”.

The evident frustration of Orbán’s critics may largely have been the result of miscalculation. In a revealing outburst, one Dániel Hegedűs of the German Marshall Fund said (the italics are mine): “Even if she [Jourová] has no solid basis for a proceedings against Hungary for Treaty infringement, why is she so unpolitical as to admit that? Why didn’t she just keep her mouth shut?” The expression of such a view is what sports commentators describe as an “unforced error”. After all, it seems to confirm what Orbán and his supporters have maintained all along, namely that the attacks on his government are politically motivated, for which motivation lofty concerns about democracy are simply a convenient fig-leaf.

On the whole the parliamentary opposition had felt obliged hitherto to support the government’s measures to combat the coronavirus crisis—always an unhappy position for an opposition to be in, even were it not the opposition in highly polarised Hungary. The emergency powers controversy seemed to offer an opportunity to get back on track and further capitalise on the opposition’s electoral success in the autumn of 2019. In October a coalition of five left-of-centre parties took back control of Budapest from the governing Fidesz party. Some readers may be puzzled as to how such a victory could even have occurred in what the late Agnés Heller, a disciple of the communist philosopher György Lukács, has characterised as a “tyranny”. However that may be, the difficulty in making a plausible case that Hungary is a full-blooded dictatorship is partly a technical one—Index, the oppositional online news source, puts it like this:

Contrary to the common misconception, Parliament has to extend the effect of only the extraordinary government decrees every fifteen days (Section 53 (3)), but not the state of emergency itself: that has to be terminated when the danger has subsided by the “organ entitled to introduce the state of emergency” (54 (3)), which, in this case, is the government (53 (1)). The text of the bill does not change that, no matter what politicians on either side keep saying. [The references are to clauses of the Hungarian Basic Law.]

Knee-jerk misconceptions spilled over into an interview the Foreign Minister, Péter Szijjártó, gave to CNN’s Mother Superior of liberalism, Christiane Amanpour (their encounter can be viewed here). This lady also made a mistake in claiming that “Parliament in Hungary had been suspended”, was corrected by Szijjártó, and then began blustering. She ended with the accusation that the government was blocking a bill on transgender rights. The relevance of that to the matter in hand was hard to fathom, even if you believe, with the transgender lobby, that the health of a democracy may be judged by whether or not governments immediately cede any “rights” that the lobby takes it into its head to demand. The interviewer on BBC World’s Hard Talk program fared little better, especially as Zoltán Kovács, a Hungarian Secretary of State, was armed with the EU’s statement of absolution. Stephen Sackur was reduced to increasingly long-winded questions and loud interrupting, always a sign in BBC interviews that things are not going to plan. These two incidents are worth mentioning as both went out to a worldwide audience; and both of them, like the statement from Dániel Hegedűs, revealed how a much narrower Left-liberal ideology (such as transgender rights) was actually being touted under the ostensible “concern” about democracy.

The virulence of the attacks on Hungary, though nothing new, has now spilled over into a wider problem for EU federalists and the Left-liberal firmament. On May 5 the German Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe overruled a judgment of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), by saying that the latter had acted ultra vires. The point at issue was whether the European Central Bank was breaking the rules in massively buying EU government bonds, a practice quite a lot of German lawyers, economists and politicians believe constitutes national bailouts theoretically forbidden under EU law. The ECJ had dismissed their complaints, in effect saying that it could deem anything legal if it so chose and national governments had to comply. This might seem an arcane matter to the man in the street, but the perils which it posed for the EU project were not lost on the latter’s protagonists. The Financial Times immediately had a hissy fit and nine days later demanded in an editorial that action must be taken against Germany for EU treaty infringement (sic!). This was an interesting reaction from a paper that professes undying allegiance to the rule of law—especially as infringement disputes end up in the ECJ, which would thus become judge and jury in its own case.

But there was more: the same paper and numerous liberal commentators identified as one of their major objections to the German court doing its job “the encouragement it gives to other countries looking to defy the ECJ”, in which context Poland and Hungary were almost invariably cited. To the modern liberal mind, which interprets conservatism not as a political philosophy but as a pathology, judgments in the highest courts should only go in one direction, namely that which pushes the boundaries of liberal ideology. In this case there is considerable irony in the fact that the Financial Times and others now want infringement proceedings against such a pillar (and paymaster) of the EU as Germany, especially when similar proceedings were taken under Article 7 against Poland (later dropped) for its judicial reforms which seemed designed to entrench the power of the Law and Justice Party. “Lawfare” is one of the major tools of liberal lobbies to obtain leverage through the creation of international legal precedents, but of course it works best if the judges are themselves sympathetic to the ideology. It appears that the German judges have offended by their temerity in showing that they still regard the interests of Germany, and in particular adherence to its sacred Basic Law, as paramount.

From a Central European perspective, the open split between northern “Hanseatic” countries and the “Mediterranean Club”, though ostensibly based on differing economic circumstances, runs parallel to the different political cultures that bedevil relations between the EU and Central European states. In their book Mitteleuropa Revisited, Erhard Busek and Emil Brix (both strong opponents of anti-democratic tendencies) point out that the invariable application of a Western European model has led to a perception of “arrogance” in countries like Poland and Hungary. Understanding of historical and social context is often lacking and, after all, both countries were functioning as nation-states long before Germany or Italy were united or Belgium even existed. Luxembourg is particularly loud in its invocations of “European values”, which is rich coming from a country built up by a former President of the European Commission as a tax haven and money laundromat.

Delve deeper and you find that both Hungary and Poland are themselves in the throes of a Kulturkampf. Their underlying conservatism is not simply a rejection of “progress”, however tendentiously that is defined by neo-liberals, liberals and socialists, but part of the struggle to emerge from the attempted Sovietisation of their societies over fifty years. On the whole, they prefer not to replace Soviet domination with petitioning at the court of Brussels, although economic circumstances have rather forced them into that position.

There is no more enthusiastic Kulturkämpfer than Viktor Orbán, who has aimed to eradicate what he regards as the structural traces of communist hegemony by transforming politics and society in a way which he hopes will be irreversible. Often he goes too far, as in the latest law effectively removing academic autonomy from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, a move that has evaporated what exiguous support he still had among Budapest intellectuals. This followed the ousting of the Central European University (known to Fidesz supporters as “the unofficial opposition”) from Budapest by the government using spurious legal arguments. Orbán’s reform of the judiciary has extended government control over its administration, though more adroitly than in the Polish case where a dissident and parallel set of judges has been established to resist government overreach. His autocratic style, as well as corruption and cronyism, have outraged liberal opponents and often dismayed even his supporters.

On the other hand Orbán has supplied political and economic stability since re-election in 2010 when he took power to clean up the mess left by the corrupt and incompetent Gyurcsány regime that led to IMF intervention. Against all (politically motivated) predictions, he succeeded in this mission, while his opponents fought him every inch of the way. Indeed, before the coronavirus pandemic hit, independent analysis was predicting that Hungary would have the highest rate of growth in Europe in 2020, closely followed by the EU’s other bad boy, Poland. Already motor engine manufacturing for Audi has restarted in Hungary, but the real hit to the economy from the virus may be tourism which had grown to 8.5 per cent of GDP on the back of strong marketing in the last few years, but especially due to the sophisticated attraction of Budapest (evidently tourists have not noticed they are subsidising a “tyranny”).

According to whether you are an opponent or a supporter, Viktor Orbán is either shameless or unashamed. He is a Hanseatic insofar as he believes in fiscal discipline and has reduced the deficit and the national debt, but a Mediterranean Clubber insofar as Hungary has relied on large EU funding; but then again he dislikes the prospect of lavish uncollateralised grants to fellow Clubbers like Italy as now proposed, since that will reduce finance coming to Hungary. That could be all the more worrying if the achievements of the Fidesz years in power were undermined by the fall-out from the virus.

A non-partisan survey by the liberal think-tank Solutions, working with Friedrich-Ebhart-Stiftung, has found that financial protection for the family, migration policy and the reduction in non-wage labour costs have been Fidesz policies for which there has been considerable support in Hungary across party divides (even in the younger generation). Approval of a tough line on illegal migration and asylum seekers after the chaos of 2015 is strong, probably also privately among many who adopt a high moral tone in public. However, even Fidesz supporters say the health system is on its knees, starved of cash and badly administered, despite its many world-class doctors and dedicated nursing staff. One of the consequences of EU membership has been the flight of freshly trained doctors from the former Eastern Bloc to the lusher financial pastures of the West. During the pandemic the Hungarian health authorities have had to recall doctors over the age of sixty-five who had been furloughed due to fears of infection.

Is Orbán beginning to lose his grip, as the losses in the 2019 local elections seemed to show? Blowhard liberals are already putting it about that he will not leave office if he loses an election; but they said that in 2002 when he lost narrowly and bowed out, as a democrat must. (Socialist Gerhard Schröder in Germany seemed rather less keen to yield in a similarly close finish with Angela Merkel in 2005, but has since been consoled by becoming a board member of the Russian energy giant Rosneft. Which is odd, as the Left is constantly berating Orbán for being too close to President Putin.) The leftist propaganda suggests an uncertain confidence in the voters, who have regrettably long memories, but maybe Hungary has made enough economic progress to take a chance on tax-and-spend environmentalists and socialists. The country could be at a crossroads made all the more challenging by the pandemic. The great Hungarian reformer of the nineteenth century, Count István Széchenyi, famously said, “Many people think there once was a Hungary; I would like to believe there will be one!” Now, as then, the opinions as to what that Hungary of the future should be are riven with partisanship, rivalry and very differing views as to how a Hungarian patriot should be defined.

Back in my corner of Budapest I have been doing some deplorably unscientific testing of the current mood. A Fidesz supporter asserts that the opposition won in the capital by enlisting Chinese voters (there are thought to be some 20,000 Chinese in Budapest, many with dual citizenship or voting rights) by telling them they would all be sent back to China if Fidesz won. He also complained that three new deputy mayors have been appointed as jobs for the boys and that there are longer intervals between the trams and constant breakdowns. My usual taxi-driver is indignant about the numerous new cycle lanes marked or planned which snarl up the traffic, while my green liberal friend is delighted with the promise to plant innumerable trees.

As for my extremely feisty hairdresser, she was furiously concerned that Orbán would include hairdressers in the lockdown, but he did not. (“Probably he has a barber friend,” she observed to gales of laughter among the ladies waiting to be blow-dried.) Together with pedicure and cosmetics salons, she has therefore remained open and has done a roaring trade servicing bored customers otherwise confined to their homes by the pandemic. Not, I suspect, that she would have taken much notice if she had been ordered to close. How then to assess her politically—a sardonically alienated working-class voter, or a former Fidesz one about to return to the fold?

These are deep waters, Watson. Recently the new mayor of Budapest, Gergely Karácsony (his surname means “Christmas”), has made an impact sparring with Orbán over the lockdown (after all, if you rule by decree, you can hardly blame others when things go wrong). He has also secured large funding for the city from the Prime Minister’s arch-enemy, George Soros, maintaining that the government has been punishing Budapest for voting the wrong way in October. It is quite an effective line, but then again there are still two years before the next election; it remains to be seen if the voter turkeys will vote for Christmas in 2022.

Nicholas T. Parsons’s most recent book is Civilisation and Its Malcontents: Essays on Our Times (2019).


One thought on “The Central European ‘Kulturkampf’

  • whitelaughter says:

    Thanks, always good to hear what is happening in Eastern Europe. Our usual news sources are general too busy obsessing over – and hating – the USA and Israel to focus on other countries.

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