How Hungary's Right-Wing Parties Are Trying To Reform The European Union From Within

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban

On June 3, 2016, Gabor Vonsayas, the leader of Hungarian far-right party Jobbik, announced that he no longer supported Hungary’s withdrawal from the European Union (EU). This declaration stunned international observers, as Jobbik had been defined by a hardline Eurosceptic ideology since its establishment in 2003.

Jobbik’s policy U-turn on Europe has occurred in tandem with the moderation of right-wing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s attitude towards Europe. Orban fervently supported the United Kingdom’s continued EU membership during the Brexit referendum campaign; and recently urged the EU to expedite the incorporation of former Yugoslavian republics into its fold.

Based on my research on contemporary Hungarian politics, I have concluded that the shift in the Hungarian right’s attitudes towards Europe can be explained by right-wing populist parties’ desire to ideologically converge with Hungarian public opinion, gain prestige within the EU by carving out a unique ideological position and increase Hungary’s access to EU financial support.

1) The Linkage Between Hungarian Public Opinion and Right-Wing Moderation Towards Europe

Since Hungary’s accession as a EU member state in 2004, Hungarian public perceptions of the EU have been defined by a striking contradiction. Opinion polls have consistently demonstrated that Hungarians view the EU more favorably as an institution than citizens of most other European countries. A June 2016 Pew Research poll taken immediately before the UK’s vote to withdraw revealed that 61 percent of Hungarians viewed the EU as a positive influence, the second highest figure in Europe after Poland.

Despite these positive perceptions of the EU, Hungarians display little confidence in the effectiveness of European supranational institutions. Distrust was particularly striking in the context of economic and immigration policies. A 2014 Eurobarometer survey revealed that only 36 percent of Hungarians viewed the European Central Bank favorably, a figure lower than the European average. In October 2016, 98 percent percent of Hungarian voters rejected EU immigration quotas in a largely symbolic referendum called by Viktor Orban.

These public opinion trends explain why the Hungarian right has drifted away from hard Euroscepticism, in favor of asserting Hungary’s unique set of political values within the EU’s supranational framework. However, a closer examination of the Hungarian right’s ideological pivot reveals that Jobbik and Orban have moderated their policies in different ways to enhance their electability.

Jobbik’s moderation strategy has consisted of accepting Hungarian EU membership, while rejecting the vast majority of policies outlined by policymakers in Brussels. In recent years, Jobbik supporters have staged mass protests against austerity measures, called for a total ban on immigration, and openly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin. As many Hungarians view participation in a European unity project and the simultaneous rejection of EU norms as a compatible policy platform, Jobbik’s softened form of Euroscepticism has struck a chord with the broader electorate.

Viktor Orban’s moderation strategy has been more nuanced. Unlike Jobbik, Orban’s Fidesz party has been willing to adopt selected EU policy prescriptions, like budgetary reform. This approach is in keeping with the conclusions of my 2014 research on Hungarian public opinion. In my research, I noted that in 2013, 62 percent of Hungarians accepted the need for austerity measures. This is one of the highest levels of support for European policy preferences in the EU. This explains why Orban has been willing to implement budget cuts that his right-wing counterparts in Italy and Greece have fiercely resisted.

Even though many Hungarians abstractly support EU policy preferences, Orban’s insistence that the Hungarian government is more effective at implementing reforms than the EU resonates powerfully amongst the Hungarian public. As Balasz Lengyel noted in his landmark 2011 study on Hungarian public opinion, 52 percent of Hungarians believe that EU member states should be able to implement their preferred policies without making major concessions to Brussels.

The awkward contradiction inherent in the Hungarian public’s support for European integration and criticism of EU policymakers explains Orban’s desire to campaign against the EU’s democratic deficit, and bureaucratic inefficiency from within a European supranational framework.

2) The Linkage Between Right-Wing Moderation in Hungary and Hungary’s Status within the EU

In addition to reflecting Hungarian public opinion on European integration, right-wing parties in Hungary have transitioned towards soft Eurosceptic platforms to bolster Hungary’s status within the EU.

Under Orban, Hungary has become the leader of a faction of EU members calling for greater recognition of national sovereignty rights.

Orban’s leadership role aims to increase respect for Hungary amongst EU member states, which believe that the EU’s supranational framework is inherently undemocratic, and want to exempt themselves from selected EU norms. This defense of national sovereignty has extended to legal norms and foreign policy, which are critical pillars of the EU’s supranational authority.

As Poland has clashed with the EU over the rule of law, and Greece has faced criticism from Brussels over its close ties with Russia, Hungary’s potential bargaining power within the EU has risen considerably. This international support and the EU’s desire to prevent more country withdrawals could give Hungary an outsized role in shaping EU refugee resettlement policy. An expansion of Hungarian ideological influence over the migration issue would likely bolster support for Hungarian right-wing parties ahead of the 2018 legislative elections.

3) Orban Wants to Demonstrate Hungary’s Commitment to European Integration to Increase Budapest’s Access to EU Financial Support

Even though Hungary’s Fidesz government has frequently clashed with Brussels, Orban wants to convince European policymakers that Hungary is making a positive contribution to the cause of European unity. Orban has justified his calls for greater EU concessions to member states, by arguing that the EU needs to compromise with national governments to avoid future UK-style withdrawals.

Orban’s attempts to highlight Budapest’s commitment to the European unity project are closely linked to his desire to expand Hungary’s access to EU economic investments. Even though economic conditions in Hungary have improved markedly in recent years, an unexpected contraction in the first quarter of 2016 was attributed to a decline in EU funds.

The loss of EU investment particularly affected the construction sector, which suffered a 30% contraction in productivity in early 2016. As the expansion of Fidesz’s coalition to include lower middle class and blue collar voters was critical to Orban’s rise to power, securing EU funds that would reduce unemployment in the construction and real estate sector is critical to his political survival.

In short, the Hungarian right’s ideological transition from disengagement from the EU to support for the projection of Hungarian values within the EU framework is the product of shifting public opinion, financial imperatives, and Hungary’s desire to increase its influence within European institutions. Orban’s approach to European integration also provides a compelling model for right-wing populist leaders in other EU countries seeking to expand their support bases in the years to come.

Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a free-lance journalist. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.