We already have 1930s style economic problems in much of Europe; is fascism next?
If the current Hungarian government gets its way, maybe so. The government of Hungary, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz Party, is pushing the country away from democracy and toward authoritarian nationalist rule with anti-Semitic undertones. A draconian media law severely restricts free speech, cultural leaders like the head of a prominent theater have been dropped in favor of extremists and openly anti-Semitic friends of the Party, and a new constitution going into effect on January 1 threatens to slash the power of the independent Constitutional Court and the central bank. Oh, and the economy is headed off the cliff.
First, a telling example from the theater world in Budapest. This Der Spiegel story is long and in places so tendentious with boilerplate lefty agitprop that it is easy to lose patience, but the facts are worrying. The prominent director of a successful theater was forced out of his position in favor of a two-bit actor who does Mel Gibson voiceovers for Hungarian television and his colleague István Csurka, once a celebrated poet, now a far-right politician, avowed anti-Semite, and cohort of the prime minister. (Csurka apparently believes that the Zionists, not content with Israel, are looking to establish a “second homeland” in Hungary.)
Orbán has waged war against the head of the central bank and the Constitutional Court, together the two remaining independent institutions in the country. This week, the Constitutional Court, in what German commentators call the “last twitch” of Hungarian political freedom, scrapped the most controversial parts of Orbán’s draconian media law.
This was a gesture, not a defense. A new constitution takes effect on January 1, and the government will no longer be troubled by obstructionist, old fashioned judges. The German conservative daily Die Welt writes:
In the future, laws pushed through according to rules governing accelerated passage will require just a two-thirds majority — which Orban’s Fidesz has — instead of four-fifths. In addition, speaking times are to be limited, allowing just 15 minutes per opposition party. The result is that parliamentary debate, the fundamental element of every democracy, will be rendered meaningless. In addition, the contrarian Constitutional Court is to be enlarged and reformed, and will likely hand down verdicts more to the government’s liking in the future. Such measures have led Orban critics to justifiably claim that he is eliminating the separation of powers.
It looks like Putinismo on the Danube, and the Hungarian economy is also looking a bit Russian these days — Russia without the oil. Hungary’s finances are a wreck, and although it had the good fortune not to have joined the eurozone yet, the EU wide economic problems are making things worse for Hungarians. After the IMF rescued Budapest from the brink of insolvency in 2008, Orbán pledged reform. He has since backtracked, telling the IMF not to meddle in the economic affairs of his country, and pushing through his own changes to the central bank. As Der Spiegel comments, “The law would change the bank’s management structure and also that of the committee which sets interest rates. Both the EU and the IMF, in Budapest to negotiate measures to help insulate Hungary from the euro crisis, left abruptly last week due to concerns about the law.”
To be fair, the government faces some serious problems that aren’t of its own making. A recent article by Charles Gati in TAI clarifies the nature of its dilemma:
If a Hungarian government were to announce cuts of just 25 percent to current subsidies for health care, higher education and the pension system over a five-year period, there would be riots, and the next election would clean house. On the other hand, if a government were to continue subsidies at their current levels, the state budget would collapse and the government would also go down in flames. Lasting structural reform is impossible under such circumstances. Many Hungarian politicians know what needs to be done; what they don’t know is how to get reelected after they do it.
Under the circumstances, a war on free expression, the judiciary and the independence of the central bank makes a certain amount of sense. If voters refuse to make sensible choices, sooner or later they will lose the power to choose.
These developments are troubling in themselves; even a mild and watery form of fascism should have no place in Europe today. But the problem with Hungary is more than a local problem. It testifies to the impotence and weak governance of Europe as a whole. The laws and regulations of the EU fill thousands of volumes and binders and the lush growth of its many institutions and bureaucracies is the envy and inspiration of civil servants around the world.
But as we have seen, Europe is incapable of managing the problems of monetary union; and as we are learning in Hungary, its resources to defend democracy in an erring member state are not great. The EU is better at writing laws than enforcing them, better and enunciating grand principles than at working things out on the ground.
In Greece the problem is financial; in Hungary it is political. In countries like Romania and Bulgaria it is crime and corruption. The gap in the EU between promise and performance is wide and getting wider. The political and economic consensus that bound its members together has frayed. The laws and arrangements that work for cozy Scandinavian countries like Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands don’t make as much sense out in the “wild East”. The national hatreds largely left behind in countries like Germany and France smoulder with undiminished force in much of the East, waiting only for the signal to burst out again into flame.
I do not know what the EU will do if Hungary’s grim slide toward millennial fascism continues. Suppose the European Court of Human Rights in all its sublime majesty rules against the government of Hungary and the government of Hungary ignores the decision? US presidents sent troops to enforce court orders ending segregation, even as recalcitrant governors like Alabama’s George Wallace vowed to “stand in the schoolhouse door.” The Europeans, one suspects, will do… less.
The euro is in trouble partly because Europe had a set of financial rules that didn’t work and weren’t enforced. Many of its political arrangements are equally flawed. Hungary could be to Europe’s political project as Greece has been to its economic goal — a small country whose failures exposed the weakness of the wider European agenda. The rise of fascism in a European country is a greater threat to the EU project than the prospect of bankruptcy in some peripheral economies; it is not at all clear that the EU could do anything at all about the destruction of what remains of Hungarian democracy.
US federalism has its flaws, but the more one watches Europe struggle these days, the more grateful one is for the strengths of the US system. In the meantime, watch Hungary. What is happening there is less dramatic than what is happening in Greece and Italy, but it is equally important for the future of the EU.