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Hungary

How Europe Can Avoid Viktor Orbán's Trap, And Save Its Soul

If Europe is to stand firm against Viktor Orbán's illiberal and anti-establishment policies, scapegoating him or excluding him from the EU risks consolidating his hold over his fellow citizens

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban meets with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in London
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban meets with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in London
Dominique Moïsi

-Analysis-

PARIS — "Tact in audacity," Jean Cocteau famously said, "is knowing how far you can go without going too far." By enacting a repressive and retrograde law on homosexuality, has Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán gone too far? Or is he setting a trap for us by deliberately choosing a topic that is so emotionally charged in our society? He may present himself as the vanguard of a counter-revolution in the area of morality.

One could summarize his strategy as follows: "Let's be serious, you hardly reacted when I engaged in a systematic undermining of the fundamentals of liberal democracy: checks and balances, independence of the judiciary, freedom of the press, migrants' rights. And now you are rediscovering the central importance of the notion of the Europe of values from the question of the place of homosexuality in our societies!"

Everything was happening as if the European Union, which was hardly moved by the systemic and repeated attacks of the Hungarian regime against the rule of law, suddenly woke up after the fact. The defense of the great principles of political liberalism seemed quite abstract, compared to the rights of LGBTQ communities.

A little more than 20 years ago, in 2000, the question of values seemed more central. As Jörge Haider's far-right party came to power in Vienna in a coalition government with the center-right, the question of Austria's exclusion from the European Union was hotly debated. Wasn't Austria, a full member of the Union, suffering from a form of political gangrene embodied by the extreme right?

It was necessary to amputate the Austrian arm.

To prevent this contagion from spreading to the entire European body, it was necessary to amputate the Austrian arm. This painful and radical choice was not taken, and a few years later, Haider's party, dragged down by the fall of its leader, suffered very serious setbacks, before being reborn in more acceptable forms, at least in appearance.

What lessons can be drawn from this past? Just over a century ago, Austria-Hungary offered another one. In 2021, the contrast between the former capital of a huge empire, Vienna, and the capital of the Magyar nation, Budapest, could not be greater. Of course, Vienna still gives the impression of floating in clothes too big. But the city is open to modernity and curious about everything.

Under Orbán, despite the courageous resistance of the most enlightened part of its population, Budapest no longer lives — to say the least — on Vienna time. As if by a mysterious movement of tectonic plates, the city that Sissi, Empress of Austria, loved so much has moved towards an increasingly reactionary East, far from the center of Europe.

An anti-government protestor in Ljubljana, Slovenia sports a Viktor Orban mask — Photo: Luka Dakskobler/SOPA Images/ ZUMA Wire

One might think that the Union woke up very late and that its softness, hesitations and divisions have encouraged Orbán to go further and further into provocation. The more difficult the health and economic situation in his country, the more the Hungarian Prime Minister seeks to consolidate his camp to maintain his power. He uses the scapegoat of the hostile foreigner, of the invading Union which intends to impose not only its laws but even more so the "shameless laxity" of its morals, on a country proud of its "traditionalist" behavior.

Orbán knows that on the issue of homosexuality, the vast majority of his voters think like him. In the 2004 U.S. presidential elections, George W. Bush won in a traditionally Democratic state like Illinois, thanks to the votes of blue-collar workers who wanted to punish their party for its support of same-sex marriage. But that was almost 20 years ago. Sensitivities in the West have changed, mindsets have opened up. What may seem unacceptable today in Hungary are the prejudices, calculated or real, of the country's leader.

It would be premature to rejoice for the end of populism or predict the imminent fall of the proponents of "illiberal democracy." We should not write off Viktor Orbán in Hungary, or even the Rassemblement National party of Marine Le Pen in France. Yet — even as Orbán's close friend, the Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa (The "Marshal Twito") takes over the EU's rotating presidency for the next six months — the skies are darkening for the populists.

After Trump's defeat, a Biden Doctrine is beginning to emerge in the United States. It emphasizes the priority of defending democratic values. In Israel, Viktor Orbán's "favored accomplice," if not mentor, Benjamin Netanyahu, has left office. Likely, he will not be back in office any time soon. Are fear and hope about to flip positions on the question of progress?

Being homosexual is not a choice, being homophobic is.

The fact remains that the European Union has a narrow path to follow. To do nothing in the face of Orbán's provocations is to show how little regard we have for those values that define us.

On the other hand, to follow the Hungarian Prime Minister in the trap he is setting for us, with this tactical anti-LGBTQ diversion, is to take the risk of consolidating the hold he has on his fellow citizens. Is his main objective to revise the Constitution and thus allow a transfer of public funds to private foundations controlled by the ruling power, to constitute a state within a state that survives the vagaries of politics?

The European Union must be firm and clear on its principles. As the Prime Minister of Belgium, Alexander de Croo, says: "Being homosexual is not a choice, being homophobic is."

Not falling into Orbán's trap means first of all not insulting the future. There is and will be life in Hungary, beyond the current regime. If we cannot economically support such a transgressive regime, it is necessary to give firm, constant and discreet help to the Hungarian democratic and liberal opposition. It will return to power one day.

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