The strange emergence of Viktor Orbán as the “guardian” of the EU’s borders

The ongoing refugee crisis has once again highlighted the mismatch between an ever-more-integrated union of 28 societies and a European political structure built primarily around the interests of sovereign states. In this political framework even an issue intimately linked to elementary human rights and European values is being transformed into a series of seemingly intractable distributive conflicts.

The emergence of Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian Prime Minister, as the ‘guardian’ of EU borders, organizer of Central European governments’ resistance against the unruly West European leaders, and as Hungary’s savior from the ‘uncontrollable flow of migrants’ is one of the strangest turns of events in the still unfolding drama. Only a few months ago Orbán was regularly questioned in Brussels for violating basic EU rules, he was the outcast in the lobby alliance of Central European governments known as the Visegrád group, and at home, the leader of a party that, despite winning two consecutive elections, has lost one-third of its voters in the last year.

How did one of the most unruly nationalist leaders of Europe manage to position himself as a defender of European rules? Mr. Orbán is clearly capitalizing on the massive influx of refugees. With no real challenge from Hungary’s weak and fragmented left, only the well-organized and modernizing extreme right party Jobbik poses a threat to his party.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán...the self-proclaimed "guardian" of the EU's borders? Photo: Viktor Orbán's Facebook page.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán…the self-proclaimed “guardian” of the EU’s borders? Photo: Viktor Orbán’s Facebook page.

Even before the big waves of migrants started reaching Hungary last June, Mr Orbán acted fast to control the agenda on refugees and attract voters away from Jobbik. He spent billions on a publicly-financed hate campaign whereby huge billboards throughout the country warn Afghan, Syrian or Iraqi refugees, in Hungarian: “If you come to Hungary you cannot take the jobs of Hungarians!” He has also spent government funds on vilifying refugees via direct-marketing tools that have linked migration to the spread of terrorism or to the loss of Hungarian workplaces.

Deliberate inaction mixed with ineptitude on the part of the government has created a crisis on the borders, in the streets and on the squares of Budapest, not to mention in the refugee camps. This has increased the impression that the refugees are the source of chaos and that a strong hand is needed to reinstate order. During the height of the crisis István Tarlós, the mayor of Budapest, spoke publicly about ‘stinky immigrants rumbling on the streets of Budapest,’ forgetting to add that his office has only created transit zones next to three main train stations in Budapest in August, where one single open water pipe with 8 taps and 7 mobile toilets served the thousands of refugees.

Indecision and a lack of consensus from more affluent European countries about the guiding principles of how to handle the flow of refugees has allowed Mr. Orbán to promote himself in Hungary as the only principled leader ready to defend European borders, and Hungary itself.

The refugee crisis is far from over: we are probably witnessing only the first act of an unpredictable drama—a drama primarily about the fate of displaced people. The technical and legal issues of upholding EU borders should not draw attention away from this basic fact. Mr Orbán, however, is doing his best to make his perspective dominate. Empowered with new legislation, he is ready to escalate the crisis on the borders. Europe could face inestimable losses if Mr. Orbán’s perspective wins the day.

László Bruszt

László Bruszt is Professor of Sociology in the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. This article was republished in the HFP with permission, from the European University Institute’s EUI Times website.

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