Viktor Orbán and Huxit: Hungary may be the next to leave the European Union

Hungary has already left the European Union, at least in terms of the Orbán government’s overt rejection of the ties that have bound the country to the Transatlantic community since 1990, including the system of checks and balances, judicial independence (however flawed this may have been, at times), parliamentary democracy and media freedom. But a growing number of analysts believe that Mr. Orbán is very consciously trying to loosen the emotional ties and pragmatic considerations that do still bind most Hungarians to the EU.

Last week, even the overtly pro-Orbán polling firm Nézőpont published figures showing that 64% of Hungarians want Hungary to remain a member of the EU and 60% are unhappy with Brexit. Even among Jobbik voters, 49% would oppose a potential Huxit (sometimes called “Hunexit”.) But in contrast to the United Kingdom, in Hungary it is the elderly who are more pro-EU than the youth. Younger Hungarians tend to be more eurosceptical. Perhaps the elderly have a clearer memory of how it was to live in the Eastern bloc, when borders were closed and their movement curtailed.

In Budapest, it is impossible not to bump into massive anti-EU and anti-migrant government billboards, with the following snarky and condescending phrase: “Let’s send a message to Brussels, so that even they will understand.” Hungarians will go to the polls on October 2, 2016, in order to vote on the following question: “Do you want the European Union to be entitled to prescribe the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the consent of parliament?” President János Áder announced the date of the referendum on Tuesday.

Government campaign billboard in a Budapest metro station: Let's send a message to Brussels, so that even they will undertand!" Photo: Christopher Adam.

Government campaign billboard in a Budapest metro station: Let’s send a message to Brussels, so that even they will undertand!” Photo: Christopher Adam.

Most democratic opposition parties, with the exception of Gábor Fodor’s Hungarian Liberal Party, are calling on Hungarians to boycott the vote. Anti-migrant and anti-immigration sentiment in Hungary is widespread, but if voter turn-out is below 50%, then that will be an embarrassment for Mr. Orbán and will reiterate that he is creating a siege mentality and is using xenophobia, in order to focus attention away from the most widespread, systemic corruption in Hungary in the last quarter century, as well as the country’s crumbling health care and public education.

But the October referendum is more than just a political red herring, at least according to prominent entrepreneur Gábor Bojár, who wrote about Mr. Orbán’s potential long-term strategy in HVG. According to Mr. Bojár, Huxit will follow Brexit, but added: “in Hungary, it is the prime minister who wants to leave, in contrast to the majority of Hungarians.”

According to Mr. Bojár, for the prime minister, EU funds–which form over 4% fo Hungary’s GDP–are less important than preserving his largely unchecked powers and authority. Mr. Bojár points to how Mr. Orbán’s government decided to pay back an advantageous and low-interest IMF loan before it was due, as this loan restricted Mr. Orbán’s movement and powers, with its various external checks. EU funds do still come with some checks and obligations, which Mr. Orbán and his wildly corrupt oligarchs and comrades in Fidesz resent. If Hungary were to leave the EU, could the 4% hole in the GDP be plugged with money from Russia, especially if a Eurasian union or cooperation ever materializes?

For Mr. Orbán, EU membership is not about shared values or ideals. It boils down only to money. “The main difference between Fidesz and Jobbik is that the latter would leave the EU, but Fidesz would not, because EU membership is in Hungary’s economic interest,” declared Mr. Orbán earlier.

But Britain, a country which covered close to 8% of the EU’s budget, is now leaving and the EU budget is set to cut spending and transfers to “have not” to member states, like Hungary. Once Hungary does not reap as many financial rewards from the EU, there will be nothing else–no emotional attachment–to keep Hungary in.

Mr. Bojár writes: “Vikor Orbán is an outstanding politician. He knows that, in contrast to the English, most Hungarians would not support leaving the EU. As such, he is systematically building a mass base for the camp that would eventually vote to leave the EU.”

Although this is not mentioned in Mr. Bojár’s article,  the most powerful Fidesz government minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, János Lázár, said that in a hypothetical  in/out referendum, he would vote to leave the EU. This is probably a political trial balloon. Would Hungarians react in horror at this suggestion, from a very senior minister, or would they be largely indifferent, or perhaps willing to quietly consider the option?

The concept of a Huxit has been planted–the government is now watering the seeds and cultivating the idea.

But the risks of Huxit to Hungary would be massive, as Katalin Lévai, a Member of the European Parliament for the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), points out. Ms. Lévai emphasizes that fully 85% of all infrastructure development and investment (the construction of new highways, bridges, hospitals, schools and stadiums) hinges on EU funding. If there are real concerns that Brexit will lead to capital flight from Britain, Huxit would have a far more dramatic and immediate impact on Hungary, as foreign investors and companies pack up and perhaps relocate their Central European operations to nearby Bratislava, Vienna or maybe Prague. Unemployment in Hungary would sky-rocket.

Ms. Lévai aptly writes: “Perhaps we have forgotten how it felt to live behind the Iron Curtain. Perhaps we have also forgotten about the reality of war, and that ever since the time of St. Stephen (the first king of Hungary), we have wanted to belong to the West…Huxit would be tantamount to suicide.”

Huxit may, indeed, be suicide for Hungary, even if Vladimir Putin’s Russia is able and willing to transfer the equivalent of 25 billion euros per year in subsidies to Hungary and even if more Russian companies set up shop in Budapest and elsewhere in the country. But if we’re talking about St. Stephen, then we must also recall that much of Hungarian history and public discourse has been characterized by a struggle between where Hungary should belong–to the East or to the West? And this debate often came hand-in-hand with bloodshed and tragedy.

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