Prime Minister Viktor Orban is using his powers to impose a regressive agenda

For the great majority of Hungarians, May 1, 2004, was a momentous day. It was the day their country, invaded by the Soviet Union in 1956 and then kept under Communist rule of varying severity, acceded to the world’s most successful example of democratic international cooperation, the European Union. Thenceforth, 10 million Hungarians would have free and fair elections in a multiparty polity with a broadly free and pluralistic press, as well as protections and equalities under supranational legislation backed by rulings in the European Court of Justice. They might also have thought they had earned their membership, not least for their part in ending communist rule in central Europe. It was their country that in 1989 had given citizens of the erstwhile German Democratic Republic an open border into Austria, thereby showing East Germany that its time was up.

Yet, only eight years later, Hungary is marching back to quasi-Fascism or worse, in a development of the very kind the EU, from its first avatar as the European Coal and Steel Community, was intended to prevent. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has rewritten the constitution, with the far-right Jobbik party aiding him to get the required two-thirds parliamentary majority. Now the government chooses which judges hear cases, and the media have to register with a regulator which can fine them or close them. Public-sector radio and TV stations have seen wholesale sackings, with handpicked government supporters as replacements.

Mr. Orbán is using his new powers to impose a highly regressive agenda. New laws define marriage as solely between a man and a woman, and assert rights for the unborn child. Another feature is a new electoral system, which critics say favours the ruling Fidesz party. In addition, several Christian denominations have lost tax exemptions, as have Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Mr. Orbán himself has said, “The Republic is merely a cloak for the nation.”

That is ideal for the Hungarian far-right, who use a sophisticated network of websites to spread what the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel International calls “extremely aggressive anti-Semitic, anti-Gypsy, chauvinistic and homophobic content.” Some of the websites concerned are based in the United States, but even Hungarian officials’ attempts to get them closed have so far failed. This virtual world shows that far-right sympathies in Hungary extend far beyond the membership of the Jobbik party, which came third with a 17 per cent vote-share in the 2010 parliamentary elections. The party leader, Gábor Vona, has even announced that they are not democrats–but Jobbik still stands in elections.

The party is now exploiting what it sees as governmental acceptance, if not approval, to intimidate the country’s Roma, who number between 400,000 and 800,000. The British newspaper the Guardian reports that one village school maintains a form of apartheid, with Roma children given poorer equipment, taught on separate floors, and fed separately from the other pupils. Municipal officials and teachers evade questions or refuse to discuss the matter.

Furthermore, sections of the Hungarian right are openly terrorising the Roma. In the last three years, 49 attacks on Roma have killed seven adults and two children, and in at least one village several Roma families are too frightened to venture out for fear of racial abuse and physical assault. The local police seem to have done nothing in response to their complaints, and right-wing militias target such villages with arrogant displays and loud late-night events to keep the residents awake. Jobbik are also planning a nationwide militia. At one point a U.S. philanthropist organised an emergency evacuation of Roma families, which officials huffily claim was a pre-organised holiday for the children.

Just as ominously, the government itself is sending menacing signals to Hungary’s Jewish minority, with blatant attacks on major cultural institutions in a country that has famous fine-arts traditions. The director of Budapest’s highly successful New Theatre, István Márta, has been replaced by György Dörner, who promptly announced his intention of collaborating with the extreme right-wing playright and notorious anti-semite, István Csurka. (Csurka died on February 4.) One of Dörner’s targets is Tamás Ascher, the Director of the Academy of Drama and Film, who also happens to be Jewish.

Needless to say, the new Hungarian constitution, most of the new laws, and the unpunished conduct of the Hungarian Right almost certainly breach the European Charter of Fundamental Rights and the separate European Convention on Human Rights. Yet the EU looks helpless over flagrant transgressions by a member state. Its only elected body, the European Parliament, remains deafeningly silent; it has a conservative majority made up of MEPs far more extreme than those who succeed in gaining domestic office. The EU Council of Ministers also remains silent, and the sole response has come from bureaucrats in the European Commission and the European Central Bank with an earnest debate on what to do about Hungary’s finances, which are in parlous condition after years of mismanagement by the former Socialist prime minister, Ferenc Gyürcsany, and chaotic spending by Mr. Orbán. The Eurocrats seem to think only financial sanctions can restrain the latter, despite the risk that sanctions will feed the rampant anti-Europeanism and xenophobia of Fidesz and its allies. The problem is that financial measures alone will not address the political issues involved, and will leave Hungary’s Roma and Jewish minorities even more exposed. If the EU cannot deal robustly with its own errant members, then its citizens could soon hear the jackboots echoing a long way west of the Danube.

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