ON 12 SEPTEMBER, the European Parliament in Strasbourg took an unprecedented step. MEPs voted by 448 to 197 to trigger the sanctions against Hungary under Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty. Their action was a response to a serious breakdown in the rule of law and a violation of core European values inside the country. If member states ratify the decision, Hungary could lose its voting rights in EU institutions.
Speaking in the debate preceding the vote, the Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the ADLE (Liberal) grouping, asserted that the situation in Hungary meant that “we are living today . . . [an] existential battle over survival of the European project.”
Verhofstadt’s words were later echoed by Green and Social Democrat speakers. To the surprise of many, they were joined by Manfred Weber, the German leader of the centre-right European People’s Party.
Mr Webber’s intervention was striking because the EPP, which has strong Christian-Democrat roots, is the group to which Hungary’s governing Fidesz party presently belongs. It is precisely the question who “owns” the definition of “Christian Democracy”, however, that formed one of the most heated loci of contention during the debate.
A LITTLE context is needed to understand this conflict. Worries about the rule of law in Hungary are longstanding. Of late, however, observers believe that things have been getting appreciably worse.
Over the past 12 months, independent newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters in Hungary have either passed into pro-government hands or even mysteriously closed overnight. Fidesz put powerful pressure on commercial advertisers and media owners to withdraw support or sell up. The threats worked.
International observers judged April’s election in Hungary to be “free but not fair”. A report by the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe said that the result was compromised because “hostile and intimidating campaign rhetoric limited space for substantive debate and voters’ ability to make an informed choice.”
The election delivered a two-thirds parliamentary “super majority” for the Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán’s, ruling Fidesz party, allowing it to amend Hungary’s constitution unilaterally.
Irritated by negative scrutiny from human-rights NGOs, Mr Orbán had promised in his speech on Hungary’s National Day, on 15 March, that “after the elections we will take revenge — moral, political, and legal.” Opponents did not have long to wait: a legislative crackdown began almost immediately after Fidesz was returned to power.
On World Refugee Day, on 20 June, the government enacted a legal package aimed at suppressing asylum and civil-society NGOs. It became an imprisonable offence to “assist illegal migration” by publishing literature critical of the government’s immigration policy, or carrying out human-rights monitoring of the Hungarian police and army within eight kilometres of the border. Penalties range between 50 days and one year in prison, or, for foreign nationals, expulsion. A separate law passed in July radically curbed the right to peaceful protest.
According to Mr Orbán, in his 8 September address to the European Parliament, such measures are necessary because, in Hungary, “we think differently about Europe’s Christian character, and the role of national cultures.” The actions of Fidesz, he said, protected Hungary’s “Christian identity” from the twin dangers of Western relativism and Islamic immigration.
The Hungarian Premier’s speech in Strasbourg built on, and made reference to, earlier remarks delivered to Romania’s ethnic Hungarians at their annual rally at Tusnádfürdo, Transylvania, on 28 July. Back then, his speech used the word “Christian” 31 times. The most striking use came in an attack on liberal democracy. “Let us confidently declare that Christian democracy is not liberal,” he said. “Liberal democracy is liberal, while Christian democracy is, by definition, not liberal: it is, if you like, illiberal.”
Mr Orbán also pointed forward to the May 2019 European elections, and the possibility of a pan-continental alliance of Christian-Nationalist parties: “The upcoming elections are of the utmost importance. . . We must show that the liberal elite can be replaced with a Christian democratic elite.”
ON THE Continent, “Christian Democrat” normally denotes a “compassionate conservative”-type policy stance, as exemplified by Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, in Germany. Given this heritage, Mr Orbán’s striking appropriation of the term “Christian Democracy” has not gone unresisted.
Indeed, reactions to his re-purposing of language have been sharp. In the Strasbourg debate, Manfred Weber, a Bavarian Catholic, went so far as to counter: “We invented human rights — not Christian rights — on this continent.”
In contrast, Mr Verhofstadt tried to turn Mr Orbán’s appeal to Christianity against him, saying: “The European Union has been based on Christian democratic principles, beliefs, and energy for decades. . . [It] is in many ways exactly the opposite to the divisive, narrow, and destructive actions and opinions of Mr Orbán.”
The May 2019 elections are still some way off, and much remains uncertain. If Mr Orbán’s version of Christian Democracy prevails next May, however, then we had better all be secularists.
The Revd Alexander Faludy is an Anglican priest presently pursuing legal studies. He holds dual British and Hungarian nationality.