A variant of the Eurosceptic populism behind Britain’s hasty exit from the European Union last month has featured in Hungarian politics for years. The weeks ahead promise more of the same—but don’t expect a Huxit anytime soon.
BY MICHAEL COLELLO
Darren sat hunched over his glass. He didn’t look well.
Three days had passed since the Brexit vote, in which a majority of British voters opted to decamp from an already smarting European Union. Darren couldn’t come to grips.
“For the first time in my life,” he said, “I’m ashamed to be English. I’ve never felt that before.”
A 30-something grad student living in London with his Hungarian wife, the usually apolitical Darren had not only voted Remain, but in a burst of panicked activism, actually distributed fliers in the campaign’s final days.
But while he and a majority of Londoners voted to stay, the rest of England (and much of Wales) mandated the seemingly unthinkable. Thus the UK would wash its hands of Europe and watch it burn from across the Channel. Or so went the narrative.
Now, huddled around our table in Budapest on an otherwise sublime June evening, we, like everyone else, were left to ride out the shockwaves and wonder what next?
Everyone here knew someone living and working in the UK (made possible by Hungary joining the EU in 2004). What the vote would mean for their finances, freedom of movement, careers and relationships—and our ability to do likewise—remained to be seen. Regardless, Brexit felt like a very large and important door slamming shut.
While anti-immigration sentiment had factored, the vote couldn’t be dismissed as mere xenophobia. The EU had been having a lousy run, its map dotted with imploded economies and nationalist wildfires, a deluge of Mideast refugees and increasingly frequent terror attacks. And just beyond the wire, war in Ukraine.
If this string of disasters rightly had people spooked, the EU’s tepid handling of them hardly inspired confidence. The UK’s shock departure was pushback, sending a message to Brussels. Or so went the narrative.
Hungarian politics had been sending a similar message for years. Only, unlike grassroots dissent elsewhere, it was driven by the establishment itself. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has routinely clashed with the EU over everything from his promotion of “Illiberal Democracy,” to his party’s dominance of the courts, banks and news media. Yet the real war between Budapest and Brussels has been over their divergent handling of the refugee crisis. Last summer, after nearly a half a million refugees streamed through on their way to Germany, Orban erected a razor wire fence along Hungary’s southern border.
The fence, along with detention camps and a xenophobic PR campaign, was demonized by the EU and the Hungarian left but played well with voters. Orban was standing up to the ‘unelected bureaucrats’ while also defending Hungary and Christian Europe from a Muslim invasion. Or so went the narrative.
(It wasn’t the first time. In 2012 the Prime Minister also skirmished with the EU and IMF whilst negotiating terms of Hungary’s bailout—and consequently drew 100,000 supporters in a torchlight parade through Budapest.)
Now, with the EU Commission preparing to enforce mandatory quotas for resettling refugees throughout member states, including Hungary, Orban is again bracing for a fight, and rallying domestic support, while preparing a referendum on whether to accept or reject the plan.
Orban has blasted the Commission’s ‘forced resettlement’ plan (which would require Hungary accept 1,300 migrants or pay more than a quarter million dollars per individual refused) as a danger to Hungary and Europe, and has rallied leaders of the neighboring ‘Visegrad’ nations (Slovakia, Czech Republic and Poland) in opposition.
Orban opposed Brexit, yet hopes the referendum will furnish him a mandate to oppose EU dictates. Recent polls suggest he’ll get it: more than three quarters of Hungarians surveyed oppose the quota plan. More importantly, the government’s stance has pried support away from its main rival, the radical nationalist Jobbik party.
A showdown is nigh, however a replay of Brexit seems unlikely: Hungary is hugely dependent on EU funds, taking in tens of billion Euro annually. The benefits of staying outweigh the drawbacks, refugees or not.
But with Hungary seizing the momentum, the referendum will be consequential, regardless of outcome.
In preparation, the government plastered Budapest with posters urging a ‘no’ vote—on billboards, on busses, in metro tunnels, everywhere.
As Darren and friends and I conclude the evening, one backlit poster shines from the busy tram stop across the street, with a message all too familiar:
“Let’s send Brussels a message so that they understand.”
Michael Colello is an American writer and photographer living in Budapest, Hungary.