“The new state that we are building is an illiberal state, It does not deny foundational values of liberalism, such as freedom, etc. But it does not make this ideology a central element of state organization, but applies a specific, national, particular approach in its stead.” – Viktor Orbán
Orbán – European Pariah to European Norm:
Historians will mark the 2015 decision of Viktor Orbán’s government to construct border protection along its frontiers as seminal in post-Cold War European history, possibly akin to the fall of the Berlin Wall. While done largely in compliance with EU law and specifically to assist implementing the Dublin regulation of processing asylum claims, the decision was met with vituperative rhetoric from western democracies resulting a period of de-facto isolation for the Hungarian leader.
In retrospect we can see the merit of this decision. Germany responded to the resolution of Budapest by offering to take migrants directly, setting in motion a wave of populism that arguably tipped Brexit over the electoral edge and set the stage for an era of populist destabilisation across the EU. The European vision of an increasingly borderless Europe crashed against the rocks during the migrant crisis and began negotiating its own decline almost immediately after.
Orbán, once an anathema to the liberal order, is increasingly becoming the norm not just in Eastern Europe but across Southern Europe. It is fast becoming a question of which countries remain liberal, and not which are becoming illiberal, with Right-wing parties taking power from Austria to Italy. The generation that governs Eastern Europe matured during the fall of Soviet communism and are familiar with the coming and going of global orders in a way which Western leaders are not.
Liberalism promised them economic growth through market based reforms in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse and largely delivered, yet now the retreat from political liberalism is all too flagrant. Orbán is a nationalist idol today, but once was a George Soros funded scholar earlier in his life. He embodies this volte-face and is ahead of the curve if currents trends continue.
The honeymoon period enjoyed by western liberalism following the fall of the USSR has been limping on since the Great Crash of 2008, with Eastern Europe very much conscious that Brussels is a paper tiger when forced to implement diktats. With the international ascendancy of China and other non-liberal models of governance, governments across Europe are increasingly cogent that liberalism is not the only ideology in town, but potentially a transient political phase now near exhaustion.
What is emerging in Hungary could be a European prototype for a post-liberal nationalist state confident in asserting its ethnic and religious nature and with a keen interest in re-shaping neighbouring countries in its image.
The Death of EU Centrism:
In the case of Ireland, geopolitically wedged between and partitioned by the two powers of the EU and the UK, Brexit poses some unusual circumstances and brings out contradictions within Irish public life. For the best part of 40 years Ireland has marketed itself as straddling the two worlds; an English speaking EU springboard for multinationals.
The emergence into the international sphere through the EU and burying of the hatchet with Britain allegedly denoted Ireland’s maturity as well as our ticket to economic prosperity. Should the UK opt for a No-Deal, Brexit could tear apart the economic and political ecosystem that has sustained Ireland economically for the past 40 years. Ireland may face a crisis pitting against each other the more Anglophile elements and the more Europhile elements of its business and political communities, reshaping Irish politics in its wake.
The fixation on Brexit is natural considering Ireland’s position, but perhaps minor in the face of the crises potentially coming down the road with the wider EU27. The liberal centre ground that has supported Europe the past 20 years is faltering and major structural issues in the Union remain unresolved.
While Ireland has taken great care to castigate anti-globalist leaders from Trump to Orbán, there is little consideration as to what happens if and when these leaders become the leading force in European and Western political life permanently. A more protectionist and chauvinistic ‘Europe of Nations’ could undo the current game plan for Irish economic security. A sudden unravelling of the EU or euro currency through populism or an economic calamity is all too possible in 2019, yet a fear that barely registers within Irish political discussion.
In short; Ireland’s government, intelligentsia, and business community are loyal to an order that is rapidly losing potency. The upcoming May elections across the EU could very well herald the formal end of the liberal centre and pose a greater problem then the headaches engendered by Brexit.
The rising tide of illiberalism taking charge of the EU could even force Irish intelligentsia nominally so proud of Irish involvement with the European project to think twice – in a similar fashion to how the more traditionally anglophile elements in Irish public life became cynical of the UK following Brexit. While on the face of it absurd, such a turn is not impossible should nationalists take charge of the EU or the institution itself capsizes under its own weight.
As typified in recent commentary by Willie Kealy condemning right wing populism, Irish court opinion is wilfully negligent of the tide across Europe – much happier to pull punches with smug polemics than begin to prepare for the illiberal future that is emerging.
Ireland and the Hungarian Example:
While they exist as dialectical opposites today, Ireland and Hungary experienced a rather similar process of liberalisation over the past few decades. Ireland as the economically backward clerical state and Hungary as the Soviet backwater, both accepted liberalism. However, the latter has since come to resist it.
To Hungarian elites, liberalism is a means to an end to rebuild the nation economically following the vandalism of communism – one which can be disposed of when appropriate to do so. For Ireland we appear to be more doctrinaire in our liberalism, pimping the country out to multinationals and happily implementing progressive values in the social sphere.
A century ago a much underrated theorist of our revolutionary period, Arthur Griffith, outlined in ‘The Resurrection of Hungary (1904)’ a nationalist strategy of undermining British Rule through abstentionism, and establishing economic protectionism to nurture a new state. This was styled off the Magyar people under Ferenc Deák who established their own parliament separate from Austria by merely ignoring Vienna’s orders.
While trivial at the time and forgotten today, the text set a road map for the 1919 Dáil. Perhaps Irish anti-globalists can take a leaf from the example of modern Hungary in its simplistic refusal to implement EU diktats. Certainly the manner in which Orbán hampered outsider civil society bodies could be an example to us in an Ireland at the mercy of the well-oiled NGO industry who push the envelope on liberalisation measures around immigration and social issues.
It would be understandable to look towards Brexit with a degree of envy as an Irish anti-globalist. However, the Brexit project has largely miscarried, being left in the hands of Tory infighting. Naturally the Hungary option has its issues, requiring state control before going toe to toe against globalist forces, but long-term achieves more results.
More often than not the Irish struggle for nationhood has been compared to that of anti-colonial struggles in Palestine and Cuba. This styling was expedient from the 1950s onwards in an era of decolonisation where it was convenient to align Irish separatism with third-world movements. In an era where anti-colonial struggles have largely extinguished themselves, Orbán appears to be a promising new role model.
While maligned as a xenophobic relic, Orbán has positioned Hungary at the forefront of a rising tide of illiberalism in Europe under the banner of the Visegrad organisation. As such, Hungary is better situated than Varadkar’s Ireland, which is likely to come undone post-Brexit with its rock solid faith in globalism and the benevolence of European solidarity.