The greatest threat to the European Union’s values is not posed by Brexit but by Hungary. Viktor Orbán’s self-described “illiberal” government has strangled the country’s free media, quashed judicial independence, criminalised giving assistance to asylum seekers (whom the Hungarian prime minister labelled “poison” and “Muslim invaders”) and waged a relentlessly anti-Semitic campaign against the Jewish businessman and philanthropist George Soros.
On 12 September, the European Parliament finally voted to initiate disciplinary action against Hungary (which could lead to the suspension of its membership voting rights). The motion was backed by all the EU’s major centre-right parties with one exception: the British Conservative Party. Tory MEPs were whipped to oppose action against Mr Orbán’s government, with only three of the 19 refusing to do so.
In recent months, the Conservatives have been rightly critical of Labour’s failure to resolve its anti-Semitism crisis. Though the party has now adopted the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance guidelines, Jeremy Corbyn has yet to apologise for his most offensive remarks, such as his statement that “Zionists” do not “understand English irony”.
The Tories’ appeasement of Mr Orbán, however, leaves them in no position to lecture Labour. The Jewish Board of Deputies expressed its “disappointment” at the Conservatives’ disregard of Hungary’s “vivid anti-Semitism”.
Yet no one should be surprised by the party’s conduct. For nearly a decade, largely ignored by the British media, the Conservatives have aligned themselves with Europe’s far right. The European Conservatives and Reformists grouping in the European Parliament, which was formed in 2009, includes the Sweden Democrats (a party with neo-Nazi origins), Poland’s authoritarian Law and Justice Party, the Islamophobic Danish People’s Party and Latvia’s ethnonationalist National Alliance (“For Fatherland and Freedom”).
The roots of this dark affiliation were laid by the supposedly liberal David Cameron. During his 2005 Conservative leadership campaign, in order to woo anti-EU party members away from Liam Fox, Mr Cameron vowed to withdraw the Conservatives from the mainstream European People’s Party group. He would, however, eventually pay for his Faustian pact. The move helped him secure the leadership, yet centre-right leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel were appalled by his opportunism and moral relativism. One consequence was that they felt little compulsion to support him during his protracted and ultimately doomed renegotiation with the EU. The result was Brexit.
The Conservatives’ refusal to confront the authoritarianism and racism of Hungary stems from similarly cynical motives. On 16 September, Michael Gove refused to condemn Mr Orbán because to do so could jeopardise “the best deal for Britain as we leave the European Union”. Yet the Tories’ machinations will only strengthen the resolve of Germany, France and others to uphold the EU’s values. The economic cost of Brexit has been well-documented. Yet as Hungary assails liberal values, the moral cost is perhaps even clearer.
This article appears in the 19 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next war