In the wake of the New Year’s Eve attacks on young women by a mob of Middle Eastern and North African men in Cologne, is Orbanism having a moment in Europe? A roundup of columns in European papers would seem to suggest so. Look for instance at this article (trans.) by Jean Quatremer in Libération, a center-left French paper founded by Jean-Paul Sartre:
Six months after the refugee crisis started, there was indeed a true evolution or revolution in Europe. The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was the first who responded by building a fence, and everyone noticed him because it was pretty amazing that Hungary, the first country that had broke down the Iron Curtain in 1989, rebuilt a fence on its border with Serbia, then with Croatia.
Everybody named and shamed him by saying ‘this is no surprise from him, he is an [authoritarian] Prime Minister, etcetera.’ On the other hand everyone praised Angela Merkel for quickly opening German borders […]
And six months later, everyone has reinstated border controls, countries have built fences and no one raised any objections. We let people die in the Mediterranean, because every day there are children, like Aylan, dying at sea, no one cares and some say that ultimately Orban may have been right before everyone else—this is the right model, the construction of the wall, watchtowers, electrified barriers, we do not want these Muslims.
Orban is a genuinely ugly character—see for instance this article by Charles Gati in our pages in 2014—who has taken advantage of the migrant crisis to entrench his power by passing a series of repressive laws in Hungary. And yet, the German establishment (and the European elites more generally) seem to be working very hard this week to vindicate him. In the wake of Cologne, the German center-right and center-left have exhibited such self-destructive reflexes that they almost seem to be trying to suggest to concerned citizens that the only solution to problems caused by the refugee crisis will come from Orban-like populism.
On Wednesday, as we covered, the Mayor of Cologne, supported by the CDU (conservative) and the Greens, hinted that it was, at least in part, on German women to learn how to avoid such assaults. Then today, an SPD (leftwing) minister of the state in which Cologne is located added this to the debate:
Ralf Jaeger, interior minister for North Rhine-Westphalia, said police had to “adjust” to the fact that groups of men had attacked women en masse.[ . . . ]
Mr Jaeger also warned that anti-immigrant groups were trying to use the attacks to stir up hatred against refugees.
“What happens on the right-wing platforms and in chatrooms is at least as awful as the acts of those assaulting the women,” he said. “This is poisoning the climate of our society.”
At least as bad! And so German authorities and prosecutors are making a high-profile effort to censor comments on the events, including on social media. While some of the comments in question are indeed vile, the Washington Post reports on concerns that legitimate political comments are also being swept up.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Angela Merkel doubled down on her refugee policy, resisting cries from the CSU to implement caps on refugee intakes for the next year. Deutsche Welle:
“There exist some varying positions. That will probably not change in the discussion today,” Merkel said, referring to CSU chief Horst Seehofer’s desire to implement a natiowide ceiling of 200,000 refugees this year.
So in the wake of a high-profile, mass attack on women by refugees, an independent Mayor, a SPD regional minister, and a CDU Chancellor have all come out in ways that seem to be at least as concerned—at least—with protecting liberal pieties as addressing popular concerns. It’s the backlash, not the actual attacks, that seems to most worry some of these centrist politicians.
And this is precisely the recipe for getting people to look to Orban-style populism. After all, if even terrorist attacks such as Paris and incidents against women, committed on a large scale, in Cologne cannot get the centrists to focus on popular concerns about immigration, a German voter might wonder, what ever will? Whereas the populists, whatever else might be said about them, do. Which means the choice may indeed come down to Orbanism or Merkelism. And in this environment, that’s not one the elites can necessarily count on winning.