Now Hungary leads the nationalist populist march away from freedom

Timothy Garton Ash knew the young Orbán.

As I saw on a recent visit to Budapest, the country no longer has the pluralistic media you need for liberal democracy, while the independence of the judiciary has been eroded, as it has more recently in Poland. Even as Orbán tries to take down the Central European University (CEU), founded by George Soros, he is also preparing a squeeze on all NGOs, and proposing to pack refugees and their families into containers, in violation of international humanitarian law.

I write as someone who stood on Heroes Square in Budapest in June 1989 and watched with admiration as the then little-known 26-year-old Orbán electrified the crowd with a call for Russian troops to leave Hungarian soil. (Now he is one of Vladimir Putin’s best friends inside the EU.) I remember too how the bright-eyed, seemingly idealistic young Oxford Soros scholar Orbán sought me out in my rooms at St Antony’s College to talk about democracy. (Now the Soros scholar wants to shut down the university founded by Soros.) Back then Hungary, along with Poland, led half of Europe towards freedom. Now Hungary, along with Poland, leads the nationalist populist march away from freedom.

And with what poisonous language. In his state-of-the-nation address earlier this year, Orbán denounced “the globalists and liberals, the powerbrokers sitting in their palaces … the swarm of media locusts and their owners”. And he spoke darkly of “large predators swimming in the water … the transnational empire of George Soros”. Scorning Merkel to her face at the EPP’s congress in Malta this spring, he said migration had “turned out to be the Trojan horse of terrorism”.

“Scorning Merkel to her face” – how familiar that sounds.

And what reaction do we see from the leaders of Europe’s centre-right, who rightly claim to be the heirs of the Christian Democratic founding fathers of the European Union? They wring their hands. They grimace. They make stern phone calls to their friend Viktor. They flutter and they tweet. “Freedom of thinking, research and speech are essential for our European identity,” tweeted Manfred Weber, head of the EPP group in the European parliament, adding “@EPPGroup will defend this at any cost”.

At any cost, that is, except losing the 12 loyal Fidesz MEPs who give the EPP a clear majority over the other major political grouping, of the centre-left, and therefore also first dibs on top jobs. So instead they pass the buck to the European commission, which is due to discuss Hungary’s higher education law and other anti-liberal measures today. But this is not just a question of EU law; it is a question of fundamental values, values we share with many others around the world but call in shorthand European values. That question is not for the commission to answer, but rather for every European politician who proclaims those values.

So far it hasn’t been happening.

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