Frank Furedi is the executive director of MCC Brussels and emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent. MCC has been the recipient of Hungarian government funds.
There’s something in the air in Brussels that makes me feel particularly Hungarian.
Having grown up in the West and spent my adult life in Anglo-American academic institutions, the country of my birth was rarely ever a source of contention; at most, it was a subject of curiosity. However, after speaking at the Brussels Passa Porta Book Festival in 2017, I came to realize that for some people, my Hungarian identity was problematic.
On the way back to my hotel, I was approached by a member of the audience who accused me of being fascist scum for refusing to denounce Hungary’s stance on Europe’s migration crisis. And when I gently suggested we should agree to disagree, he simply sneered and pushed past. It was a minor incident, but for me, at least, it had major consequences.
I had come to Brussels to discuss the importance of imparting a love of reading on youngsters, but I left the city feeling that, as a writer, I had an obligation to challenge the polarizing and unbalanced narrative surrounding my country — and that is what I plan to do.
Hoping to prompt reasoned debate, I have now returned to Brussels — not to promote a book but as the director of a new think tank, MCC Brussels, aiming to promote mature, thoughtful discussion about the cultural tensions prevailing across the Continent.
Back in 2017, scaremongering about the return of an authoritarian dictatorship to Hungary was relatively restrained compared to today. But since the decisive reelection of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government last April, the hostility toward Hungary has morphed into an irrational Magyarophobia.
Orbán’s Hungarian opponents use the term “autocratization” to justify their demonization of him — and the European Union has followed suit. In September, the European Parliament agreed on a resolution that labelled Hungary as an “electoral autocracy” rather than a “full democracy,” and it condemned the country’s government for undermining European values. A few days later, the European Commission recommended suspending €7.5 billion in funding to Hungary, citing concerns over “democratic backsliding.”
Democratic backsliding is an ideologically constructed concept, designed to delegitimize the election of individuals and parties that go against the Western political establishment’s outlook. In this way, the very exercise of democracy that leads to the election of the “wrong people” can be dismissed. So, when Orbán was reelected with a landslide 53.3 percent of the popular vote, the usual suspects cited this as democratic backsliding.
The remarkable success of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party in the recent Italian general election has set off a flurry of similar accusations as well.
An excellent illustration of the highly tendentious and ideological use of this term can be found in Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s “How Democracies Die.” In the book, the two authors obsess over backsliding, which, according to them, “begins at the ballot box,” with the very act of casting a vote that undermines democracy. They write of an “electoral path” that leads to “breakdown” and is “dangerously deceptive.”
In other words, their anxiety is directed toward the very exercise of democracy.
Similarly, Hungary’s emergence as the bad boy of Europe has little to do with this nation’s supposed fascination with authoritarianism. As I argue in my book “Populism and the European Culture Wars,” Orbán’s pathologization is motivated by hostility toward the values promoted by his government.
Unlike many others in Europe, Hungary’s government self-consciously advocates national sovereignty. It isn’t inhibited about upholding the traditions and values of its people — including Christianity — and it is unambiguously hostile toward an outlook that prefers to dismiss the legacy of Europe’s past. Hungary is hated by the West’s culture warriors for the simple reason that it dares to question their post-traditionalist, identity-politics-fueled world view.
Hungary isn’t without its problems, of course. And I, too, often feel that democracy in my home country is under threat. But the real threat to Hungarian democracy isn’t the Fidesz government — it’s the absence of a serious and responsible political opposition.
A democratic society requires an able, mature political alternative. And it always needs an opposition that can speak on behalf of those who feel ignored and marginalized. Indeed, a government can only grow more effective when it’s kept on its toes by credible critics.
Yet, the Hungarian opposition finds it difficult to reflect the sentiments of the people. It is alienated from those living outside the capital, and seems only able to talk to itself — much like a group of self-centered children who blame their failures on their opponents rather than their own incompetence.
My concern isn’t simply the need to resolve the confusion surrounding Hungary’s political orientation, however. It is also to bring together those who are worried about Europe’s increasingly polarized cultural landscape.
So, in this beautiful city, groaning under the weight of political complacency and bureaucracy, we are here to provide an alternative — to take ideas seriously and to gently expose those who don’t.