"Hungary is being held hostage by an outdated tyrant"

Viktor Orban’s government is returning the country to totalitarianism.

Hungary is a country on the edge. In the last twelve months it has undergone profound political reform and economic collapse but has been given almost no profile in Britain. 

The Constitution has been amended ten times in one year and then replaced all together. The Constitutional Court has been expanded and packed with allies of the Prime Minister. 200 judges have been forced to retire whilst a former party official now gets to decide which judge hears which case.

Election boundaries have been redrawn to ensure the ruling party would have won the last three elections (even the two they lost). Abortion and gay marriage is banned, whilst 238 churches were “de-recognised”, leaving only 14 behind. The multi-party Election Commission has been removed and replaced with five party officials. An ominous Media Board has been given draconian powers to keep the press in check and impose vast fines for ambiguous offences.

To top it all, the President’s private bodyguard is now the head of a new "anti-terror" force with unlimited powers to conduct secret surveillance, demand financial and medical records, and listen into phone calls without a warrant. All of this in contravention of a landmark 1989 court ruling that marked the end of the Communist secret state.

It was a cold dark day in late December and the clocks were striking thirteen.

In the name of tackling government inefficiency and the legacy of Communism, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s constitutional reforms undid two decades of democratic progress on 1st January 2012. In the heart of Europe, the rights and norms that underpinned the politics settlement have changed beyond recognition. 

Orban’s Fedesz Party won a super-majority of seats in the 2010 elections as the result of popular frustration and a disproportionate electoral system. But they used their position to systematically remove checks and balances, install political cronies, and ensure that such a sweeping popular change could never happen again.

Hungary has a proud tradition of democratic progress and the changes did not go unmarked.

There had been relatively few protests during the two decades of democracy, and so tens of thousands of people marching through the bitter winter cold demanded attention. Orban smiled and waved his hands.

Dissidents who led the underground movement against dictatorship and who helped the country transition to democracy pleaded with the EU not to “sit back and watch as [Hungary] is being held hostage by an outdated, provincial tyrant”. Orban smiled and turned away.

Typically softly spoken Brussels bureaucrats issued sweeping denunciations and Hilary Clinton voiced grave concern. Orban smiled and carried on as before.

When Fidesz was swept to power in 2010, their campaign effectively channeled popular frustration. The economy was deep in recession and relied on IMF support to avoid bankruptcy, unemployment was soaring, and even the beleaguered euro was preferred to the forint.

The far-right ultra nationalist Jobbik party used similar campaign tactics. Their leaders railed against the EU, Roma, and Jews. Far from being shunned by the electorate, they were returned as the second largest party in Parliament and boasted one of the highest youth membership rates.

In 2010, Hungary was clearly demanding a dramatic change. However, in exchange for two years of sweeping reforms and stringent cutbacks, they have not said goodbye to hard times, merely their right to demand better. The economy is in such bad shape that last November the vehemently anti-IMF Orban was forced to go cap in hand to the very institution he derided. Not coincidently, his dramatic constitutional changes distracted attention from the stumbling pirouette.

This is the Hungary of today; constitutional manipulation, bubbling extremism, and economic crisis. However, the EU and IMF are in a strong position to promote change. In January, Orban dared the EU to act on their criticisms of the constitutional manipulation. On 6th September, this political brinkmanship was repeated with his rejection of a 15 billion euro IMF deal. But the economy is falling and popular frustration is rising.

Orban famously points to ghosts in the system – conspiracies outside, Roma within, and Communists everywhere. Rather than searching behind for the pantomime villain, Hungarians need to see the one right in front of them.

The EU and IMF are just prolonging the Orban charade by demanding cuts to pensions without making a tough stand for transparency, accountability, and the constitutional integrity of Hungary. They have the leverage to lift the curtain, but do they have the courage? 

The far-right Jobbik party marches in Budapest. Photograph: Getty Images
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle