Hungary’s passing of an emergency law on 31 March to instate rule by decree stirred significant international commotion from observers ranging from US Republicans to European greens. The law gives prime minister Viktor Orbán’s government the right to suspend the enforcement of certain laws. It also allows the imprisonment of people who publicise ‘untrue or distorted facts’ that could alarm the public.
Perhaps the most dramatic reaction came from Luxembourg’s foreign minister Jean Asselborn, who said that ‘Hungary immediately belongs [in] strict political quarantine.’ First ‘read the law!’ was the reply from Tamás Deutsch, a member of the European Parliament from Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party. Hungary’s justice minister Judit Varga bemoaned the EU’s ‘double standards’ and the efforts of ‘some Western European thinkers to discredit Hungary’.
Hungarian cabinet members such as Judit Varga and foreign minister Péter Szijjártó point out that the regulations allowing rule by decree are limited in time and scope. The new law explicitly deals with handling the coronavirus pandemic and is limited to a duration of fifteen days. After that, the government needs the approval of two-thirds of the country’s parliament to renew the rules. But this will not be a problem for a government with 70 per cent of the seats in the legislature.
The measures have a clear precedent in the Orbán government’s 2015–16 state of emergency, introduced following mass immigration amid the European refugee crisis. As then, the Hungarian government’s reaction to the coronavirus is unique in Europe: no other country has so far adopted similar measures—despite the pandemic’s gravity and death toll.
The narrative of a ‘liberal mainstream’ threat
Budapest’s latest move is part of a wider trend. Ongoing research at the Freie Universität Berlin’s Institute of East European Studies shows the emergence of a coherent and highly ideologised, illiberal right wing in post-communist Europe. The statist, conservative ideology of Hungary’s and Poland’s ruling parties pursues a state that is very different from the liberal ideal of an arbiter state in charge of maintaining rules and rights. Instead, the illiberal state has a moral mission to acknowledge and defend what its proponents regard as legitimate national interests.
Fidesz officials and their supporters feed international reactions into a long-established right-wing narrative that conjures up an offensive by a ‘liberal mainstream’ against Hungary. That narrative was manifest in the perceptions of Fidesz politicians towards international criticism over Hungary’s handling of the 2015–16 refugee crisis or of the legal status of the Central European University (CEU) in 2017–18. In the latter case, Orbán accused the CEU of ‘cheating’ and violating Hungarian legislation. Despite intense international protests, the university was forced to announce in 2018 that it would transfer all of its activities from Budapest to a new campus in Vienna.
For Judit Varga, the mounting criticism of Hungary’s coronavirus law amounts to silencing ‘critical, true Europeans’. For Szijjártó, the row is about an ‘international liberal mainstream attacking Hungary’. Much of the argumentation of Hungarian officials has focused on discrediting Hungary’s international critics. According to a Facebook post by Szijjártó, this ‘liberal mainstream’ consists of a string of left-wing, centre-left, green, and liberal political parties.
Conspicuously absent from the list is the European People’s Party (EPP), Fidesz’s group in the European Parliament. Leading members of the EPP have made only vague statements about threats to the rule of law in Europe, with little explicit mention of Fidesz. The ‘liberal mainstream’ argument will become harder to deploy if top EPP leaders, such as European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, former European Council president Donald Tusk, and EPP leader in the European Parliament Manfred Weber, more consistently join the ranks of the critics.
The nation-state versus Brussels
The real significance of Orbán’s new powers lies in what Hungary’s illiberal conservatives perceive as the main lesson of the coronavirus crisis and the disconcerted European response to it: the nation-state is making a massive comeback at the expense of the EU, and only nation-states are capable of dealing with a crisis of this sort. This perception has been best symbolised by images of the quintessential national institution—the army—sending gun-toting soldiers to patrol the streets of Budapest since 20 March.
The message about the nation-state therefore translates into open criticism of the EU’s difficulty in reaching a strong, common response to the crisis. Fidesz openly confronts the EU with the image of its hard-working prime minister, contending that ‘Brussels does nothing to help with defence [against the coronavirus] but at the same time is constantly twitching because the [Hungarian] government is doing its thing’.
EU officials and observers have argued for the importance of winning a battle of narratives over finding the proper response to the global pandemic. As Pawel Zerka of the European Council of Foreign Relations has pointed out, ‘the advent of coronavirus has set off a battle of narratives about the role of the EU. The winner will define Europe’s future.’ To win this battle, the EU will need to compete with Hungary’s Fidesz not only rhetorically but also practically, by finding a fast and resolute response to the pandemic and its economic aftermath.
Mihai Varga teaches and researches at the Institute for East European Studies of the Freie Universität Berlin.