Wednesday, 22 May 2013

We do not stigmatise your country, Deputy Prime Minister. It is you and your party we find distasteful

Last Saturday a senior European politician wrote an article in the British press which made you want to shout at the computer screen. Not such an unusual event, you might think, but this was not a debater’s disagreement as one might have had with the viewpoint of a Tory, a Gaullist or a Christian Democrat. It was one which also left the reader feeling a bit nauseous.

And that is because, rather than an honestly-expressed case justified with some evidence, it was rather a sneaky and disingenuous one, one that those on the left, and those who believe in democracy and liberty, should care about; because it is part of a smokescreen for a particularly unpleasant kind of populist politics taking place within an EU state, from a party leaning ever more towards authoritarianism and even open racism.

Tibor Navracsics, deputy prime minister of Hungary, questioned why his country was “stigmatised” because of “eruptions of racial hatred”, when others seemed to, as it were, get away with it.

You see, after a lot of recent criticism of his country, it seems that Mr Navracsics’ party is on a charm offensive. His boss, prime minister Viktor Orbán, has milked to death the meeting of the
World Jewish Congress in Budapest to present his regime as a forward-thinking, racially tolerant one. It is not.

Navracsics himself
told the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Phil Gordon, on a trip to Washington:
“I told the Senator that [such feelings] are not more prevalent in Hungary than in other countries of the region and that the Hungarian government is resolutely against racism and anti-Semitism.”
Oh, well that’s alright, then.

The question one had to ask oneself was this: was Navracsics (a) a concerned politician, worrying about the political direction of his country but who felt it was being unfairly criticised; or (b) slyly trying to divert attention from the ugly policies of his own government, crying “slur” and playing the victim, that ready recourse of the extremist and the demagogue?

Navraciscs makes three charges: that Western European countries see the East as threat to their hegemonic power; that they have a romantic view of Eastern Europe, conditioned by the image of plucky dissidents fighting the Cold War regime; and that they are actively stemming the free flow of labour from East to West, contravening the basic principles of the EU.

These all contain elements of truth. The trouble is that they also have little to do with the criticisms made of Hungary. How does he answer the criticisms of his government? By speaking in non sequiturs and fatuously claiming that we are all out to get the Hungarian people.

First unrelated issue: in the main, it is not Hungary itself per se that is being criticised, as Navracsics implies; the largely tolerant people of Hungary are not in question, although as the excellent Hungarian writer George Szirtes pointed out in the Guardian recently, the line between Fidesz and the Hungarian state is one that they increasingly blur.

No, it is Hungary’s politicians that are called into question; the deeply unpleasant far right of the Jobbik party, who hold over a tenth of the seats in the country’s parliament; and the more polished and plausible government of the “mainstream” right that is Fidesz. These people prey insidiously on the insecurities and the history of the Hungarian people, to make them feel like outsiders in the European Union, so that they will stand with them and away from liberal values.

Second unrelated issue: Navraciscs cleverly makes common cause with the other countries of Eastern Europe – to side with emigrants from Poland, Romania or Bulgaria who have sometimes been made less than welcome abroad.

His “they’re out to get us” message is therefore useful to feed his countrymen’s paranoia; a good way to get a country to turn in on itself. But Hungary is not being singled out for resentment at its immigrants any more than those other countries.

No, Hungary is being criticised because of its slow slide into
single-party authoritarianism; because of Fidesz’ treatment of Jews and Roma (his founding Fidesz colleague Zsolt Bayer, referred to Roma as “animals”); because it has made four anti-Semitic writers part of the secondary school curriculum and handed the state’s top journalism prize to another.

Oh, and this is a good one:

“We, just like our regional partners, have to prove our commitment to democracy every day…”
But you don’t, do you, Mr Navracsics?

In fact, your party is being criticised for precisely the opposite: it is being criticised for tinkering with the constitution, hobbling the Constitutional Court and limiting judicial independence, invariably danger signs for a democracy.

Fidesz, essentially, echoes the neo-fascists of Jobbik, just a little less stridently; twisting proud Hungarian nationalism into something less wholesome. As Szirtes commented on
Twitter last weekend:
It doesn’t take much skill to open the wounds of a nation that is deeply sentimental about its – quite genuine – wounds.
It doesn’t indeed. But it is a dangerous game, which will likely end in tears; no-one should be fooled by these people, above all on the left.

In truth, people are already referring to Hungary as a one-party state. And in countries with a relatively short history of democracy, that is a very short distance from a no-party state.

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