“Today we decided that only we . . . can decide who we want to live with.” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared this in his celebratory speech after a national referendum resulted in Hungary rejecting European Union (EU) migration quotas. Though the decision was not legally binding, Orbán declared it a victory, saying, “Brussels or Budapest––that was the question, and we decided that . . . the decision belongs to Budapest alone.” To the Prime Minister, it is undemocratic of the EU to compel a member state to follow a policy that 98% of that country’s citizens democratically rejected. What Orbán fails to mention is that only 43% of the Hungarian electorate voted.
Numbers and facts don’t seem to matter to Orbán, however. In his mind, he is leading an anti-Brussels campaign representing not just Hungarians, but all Europeans who feel that their sovereignty is being violated by the distant, elitist bureaucrats of the EU. Masked under this veil of revolution and nationalism is a deep resentment of supranational institutions fueled by xenophobia and Islamophobia. Opportunistic, populist politicians are eager to exploit such feelings regardless of their personal views (Orbán was initially a progressive), and with European integration increasing, the best scapegoat for all of their misfortunes has been the European Union.
When Orbán came to power in 2013, there were concerns about his nationalist rhetoric and human rights violations, but he was seen as a fringe populist on Europe’s periphery. He was in no way perceived as an existential threat to the EU. Today, however, Orbán has become part of a larger pattern challenging the core values and goals of the EU––if not the existence of the European project as a whole. Orbán has found new friends in Europe, from Poland’s majority party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczyński, with whom Orbán teamed up on the issue of migration quotas, to Czech President Milos Zeman, who feels that Muslims can never be integrated into Western Europe. Add to that the populist parties in almost every EU country (ranging from right-wing to neo-Nazi), and you see that Orbán is not alone in his counter-revolution.
Although these Eurosceptics are politically fragmented and do not offer a coherent front, their growth does pose a threat to the EU. The existential threat to the whole project may be abstract, but there is a real possibility that mainstream parties will adopt more Eurosceptic and conservative policies, especially when it comes to migration. We saw this happen in Austria, where the socialist party adopted a very anti-refugee stance to compete against the rise of a populist, right-wing party. Many analysts fear similar developments in Germany after Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU party lost numerous regional elections to the anti-immigrant AfD party just a year ahead of national elections.
However, all is not lost for the EU when it comes to enforcing its will on dissident populists. There are mechanisms the EU can use to ensure that everybody respects its core values as well as the decisions taken by the majority of members through the European Parliament. For example, Hungary largely depends on the EU’s money and investment; even Orbán knows how much his country relies on the EU, which is why he never talks seriously about leaving it. The EU has to make it clear that remaining in the Union and receiving its benefits also means assuming responsibility to fulfill certain obligations. When it comes to matters like immigration, a unified European response is necessary to ensure efficient distribution of refugees and respect for human rights (which are repeatedly violated in Hungary).
The EU must be careful not to be too forceful, though, lest it alienate the Eurosceptic populations of its member states. However, the realization that their countries rely on EU economic benefits will likely persuade most Europeans to continue supporting EU membership. After all, austerity was forced onto countries like Greece, and although the Greeks voted against such policies, they still supported remaining in the EU. The EU made it clear to Greeks that if they wanted to continue receiving EU support, they needed to play by the rules; likewise, the EU needs to tell Hungary, Poland, and all other countries with aspiring revolutionaries that being in the EU means sharing common burdens equitably. At the end of the day, coordination might be impossible among 28 nation-states with diverse needs, opinions, and levels of development, and it is about time that the EU stops compromising its values in order to placate populists.
If some member states are unreceptive to Brussels’ enforcement mechanisms, the EU might have to cut its losses and focus on forging ahead to maintain the union with only those who support EU values and are willing to give up some sovereignty to be a part of it.
Georgios Anagnostopoulos (ESIA ’19) is an international affairs major and Geography minor at the George Washington University. He is an international student from Greece with special interest in European integration and human rights.