25 September 2016

It’s fair to say that the outcome of the EU referendum in the United Kingdom came as a shock to the EU’s elite.  There have been uncomfortable democratic results before for the Union – most notably in Ireland, France and the Netherlands – but Brexit is of a different magnitude.

This result is significant because the EU has no clear idea how to respond. The recent ‘State of the Union Address’ by Jean-Claude Junker demonstrated and underlined just how far the Federalists are away from reality. With a seething European populace fed up with the Union, economic stagnation again threatening the Euro project and a migration crisis, which has hardly begun, undermining Chancellor Merkel’s rule in Germany, the best that could be offered in response was a European Union army with its own dedicated HQ.

On top of this will be Hungary’s own referendum on the Union’s questionable decision to impose refugee quotas on member states.  Clearly, the referendum is a challenge to the EU right to impose quotas, in many ways more powerful than the legal challenge being mounted concurrently.

Critics of the Hungarian government have been quick to denounce this move. Citing other examples of so-called illiberal policy emanating from Budapest, critics in the Commission and in some other member states have even gone so far as to seek Hungary’s expulsion from the Union.

This development seems ‘illiberal’ but sadly in keeping with how left and liberal communities undertake politics these days. For example, calls for the electorate, not to partake in the forthcoming referendum in October seems to be anti-democratic. The subject of the vote is actually about a fundamental freedom of choice yet the left/liberal voice in Hungary is encouraging the removal of that choice. Similarly, suggestions by the Socialists and Left/Liberals (DK, Együtt etc) that those who do not vote should be considered as being against the referendum proposition is simply childish and irrational and not worthy of serious consideration. In short, Hungary’s opposition has positioned itself on the side of illiberalism, whilst the ruling party moves ever more closer to the majority consensus in the region. It begs the question – who does Hungary’s Socialists and Liberals actually represent?

Should the government emerge victorious from the referendum – which seems likely – one could anticipate the momentum of anti-Brussels dissent accelerating.

It would be fatal, however, for the European Union to simply see this as a disagreement about migration – although this is central to the Hungarian vote. The dissent is actually about the future of the European project without a commitment to ‘ever closer union’ and the hegemony of unelected elites.  For example, Brussels unwanted intervention in Ireland’s internal taxation policy has merely provided more depth and detail to the sketched out contours of future battles, which will determine a post-Brexit future for many states around the periphery of the Union’s core members.

Viktor Orbán’s illiberal state will enjoy popular support so long as it resonates with people dissatisfied with the current EU. Indeed, with more intellectual consideration and debate, his concepts, with some modification, might become mainstream in European politics. It is now becoming counterproductive for liberal politicians to decry dissent as populism. This default position is lazy and corrupt. If the dissent manifested in the Brexit vote is reinforced by another in Budapest next month, there will be two clear losers: the opposition in Hungary and the European Commission. The referendum in Hungary on 2 October 2016 might just be a tipping point in anti-Brussels dissent.