The illiberal agenda


In taking a swipe at “liberal democracy”, Viktor Orban left no-one in any doubt about his target. Hungary’s prime minister did not mean liberal in the economic sense, or the sense of a specific brand of political party, he made clear. His purpose in his second term, he said, is “building an illiberal new state based on national foundations” with Russia, Turkey and China as models. The financial crisis, he warned, showed that “liberal democratic states can’t remain globally competitive”.

A controversial right wing populist of Bonapartist leanings, re-elected in April with control of two thirds of parliament, Orban opined – wrongly – that “I don’t think that our EU membership precludes us” from carrying through his project. He was speaking to ethnic Hungarian leaders in Romania on Saturday.

Orban has previously clashed with Brussels over the incompatibility with EU law of his attempts to control the judiciary, press and foreign NGOs, and over taxation policies seen as aimed at driving out foreign-owned companies. And he’ll get short-shrift from the European Court of Justice if he tries to undermine the democratic values, copperfastened in treaties, that are now an intrinsic part of membership.

The opposition has condemned what it calls the “Putinisation” of Hungarian society, in part a response to Orban’s illiberal drive, but also to his rapprochement to Moscow which recently lent Budapest €10 billion to build a nuclear plant. Nor has his suggestion to Hungarians in Ukraine that they should demand greater autonomy endeared him to EU partners at a time when Russia is arming secessionists in the east of the country.

Orban has replaced the Czech Republic’s ex- president Vaclav Klaus as the most doggedly nationalist thorn in the side of the European project. He sees Hungary becoming a “colony” of the EU. And his rhetoric and new agenda suggest a fundamental incompatibility with membership. But then, like the UK, no-one is forcing Hungary to stay. The door is open Mr Orban if membership is so oppressive.