The past year has been a historically bad one for liberal democracy in Europe. Right-wing nationalist and anti-immigrant political leaders and parties took power, consolidated power, or made major gains in elections across the continent, particularly in central Europe: Austria, Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic, and Hungary.
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party pushed through electoral reforms last December that will make it harder for its opposition to put up a fight in upcoming local and parliamentary elections.
The governing bodies of the European Union have been a perennial punching bag for the European right, which has accused them of undemocratically foisting liberal values and open borders on member states without their people’s consent. Some nationalists, like the U.K.’s Brexiteers (and Donald Trump), see the solution in shrinking or dismantling the union. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, an anti-Muslim Eurosceptic nationalist and currently the closest thing to a dictator in the E.U., has a better idea: Take it over, and destroy the liberal order from within.
In his annual speech to a community of ethnic Hungarians in neighboring Romania last week, Orban, who has presided over the almost complete erosion of democratic institutions in Hungary, declared that next year’s elections to the European Parliament would be the moment the right-wing nationalist wave achieved its real victory over the liberal elites who are out to “transform Europe, to ship it into a post-Christian era, and into an era when nations disappear.”
Orban called the vote an opportunity for Europe to opt for an alternative to liberal democracy: so-called Christian democracy, which he approvingly described as “not liberal … [or] illiberal, if you like.” He continued: “We are facing a big moment: We are saying goodbye not simply to liberal democracy … but to the 1968 elite,” in an allusion to the year a wave of left-liberal protest movements overturned conservative governments in a number of European countries and ushered in the cultural transformation in which contemporary European liberalism is rooted.
Orban is sometimes described as a European Trump, though it’s really more accurate to call Trump an American Orban, as the Hungarian strongman has been around much longer than Trump the notional politician. Orban sailed into a third term after his right-wing Fidesz party won a commanding victory in April’s parliamentary elections — a win on which Trump congratulated Orban in June, to the dismay of anyone who still vainly hopes for the U.S. to stand up for freedom and democracy around the world.
In power since 2010, Orban refused to take part in the E.U.’s refugee resettlement program and closed his country’s borders in defiance of Brussels, building a fence along its borders with Serbia and Croatia in 2015. He has undermined the independence of his country’s judiciary and smashed its free press: This week, supporters of his took control of a prominent television news channel.
Right-wing zealots including Steve Bannon see Orban as a heroic leader of the resistance to liberal elitism in Europe: someone to overturn the multicultural, multilateral post–Cold War European order and replace it with a collection of atomistic, conservative, overtly Christian nation-states with closed borders, whose relations are governed mainly by bilateral agreements rather than continental and global institutions.
Oddly, though Orban’s campaign against Hungarian–American Jewish billionaire George Soros has carried anti-Semitic overtones, he is also buddies with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and professes a philo-semitic attitude grounded in the two men’s mutual disdain for Islam, and in their authoritarian tendencies. On a recent trip to Israel, he said Hungary would show “zero tolerance” for anti-Semitism, and that Hungarian Jews are “under the protection of the government” and “can feel safe.”
Needless to say, it is hard to argue that Hungarian Jews are safe when the second most popular party in the country just recently decided to start checking its overt anti-Semitism, probably more out of concern for its image than genuine repentance. The irony of Orban making this statement in Israel — a country established squarely on the principle that Jews must never again rely on the protection of European governments for their safety — was presumably lost on all present.
If European Jews are safe from the rising tide of right-wing nationalism (and that remains very much an open question), it is only because they have been supplanted by Muslim immigrants as the scapegoat for the continent’s ills.
Orban, along with Italy’s Matteo Salvini and 31-year-old Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, is part of what John Lloyd at the New Statesman recently described as the emerging “illiberal international” — a group of European leaders who are unafraid to trespass against liberal values by closing the door to refugees, or demanding that Muslims assimilate into European Christian society or go back where they came from.
The common thread that unites Europe’s right-wing movements is hostility to immigration, particularly from the Muslim Middle East, where war zones have ejected hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers into Europe over the past few years. The massive influx has stoked xenophobic and Islamophobic sentiment and given the far right a political opening to campaign on the preservation of their national cultures, values, and identities against dilution and denigration by what they characterize as an invasion of foreigners.
European voters aren’t necessarily as zealously anti-immigration as the nationalists they’re electing: For example, a recent study found that more than 70 percent of Italians believe in granting asylum to some immigrants, and very few support sending smuggled asylum seekers back across the Mediterranean. However, the nationalists’ promise to bring order to a chaotic, seemingly ceaseless influx of immigrants has resonated with European voters, coupled with their vow to end the undemocratic rule of corrupt liberal elites and populist promises to end austerity and restore prosperity.
Still more worrying is that the avowedly illiberal nationalists of Europe are united in a way its remaining liberal democrats are not. If Orban’s prediction comes true and Europe elects a nationalist parliament next year, the E.U. will quickly cease to be a force of liberalism and pluralism on the continent, and will join the long list of Nobel laureates whose peace prizes were awarded much too hastily.