When a man witnesses a gross insult to his mother, he must at least interrupt his playing of the violin.

Some of our readers have recently made mild complaints that the balance of articles in the Review has swung too far towards the contemporary political and away from the artistic and the cultural. They may be mollified to learn that the editors share that feeling. We are proud of the articles run in our “back of the book” on Béla Bartók, Art Deco in Central Europe, the plays of Géza Páskándi, and other topics from travel writing about the region to poems written in response to 1956 – articles which, when illustrated like Ilona Sármány-Parsons’ “First Golden Age of the Műcsarnok”, ravish the eye as well as delight the mind. Nor do we intend to slacken in our pursuit of good writers able to discourse on such themes with authority and grace. We have offered these assurances before and regret having to do so again.

Yet when a man witnesses a gross insult to his mother … it is hard not to respond firmly and quickly, as to the insults recently levelled at Hungary both in the international media and by a majority in the European Parliament. My colleagues, being Hungarian, respond as outraged sons and daughters; I, as a loyal subject of Queen Elizabeth the Second, respond in sympathy but also in outrage at the insults to the truth represented by the European Assembly report alleging that democracy, the rule of law, and fundamental human rights are under systemic threat in the country – and the subsequent Assembly vote endorsing it and calling for sanctions against the country.

Those eccentrics interested in my own views of the recent Hungarian election and related matters can find them in our last issue, in National Review Online, and in the Australian magazine, Quadrant. Broadly speaking, I was sceptical of most opposition attacks on the conduct of the election (not all) but agreed with the final judgement of one critic, Gábor Horváth writing in the Weekly Standard in Washington, that “it would take an extraordinary level of manipulation and secrecy to commit a fraud with such overwhelming results”. No one believes that happened, including the OSCE observers. Orbán’s government won 49 per cent of the popular vote and a two-thirds parliamentary majority because the voters (including many of those who voted for opposition parties) thought that overall it had governed the country well and in particular favoured its policy on migration, quotas and relocation.

Thus the EU Assembly has just denounced a government and a set of policies endorsed by the Hungarian electorate in a landslide. MEPs cannot reasonably claim to be denouncing the Orbán government rather than Hungary since, as the distinguished Polish MEP Ryszard Legutko asked caustically, who did the Assembly think had chosen the government: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?” And though the Hungarian people have made some mistakes through their legislature and executive, those mistakes bear little relationship to a systemic attack on democracy, law and human rights that would justify removing the country’s voting rights within EU institutions.

That point was given additional support by my former colleague in the Danube Institute, Gerald Frost (who takes a harsher view than I of the Orbán government), in a letter to the London Times responding to a columnist, Philip Collins, who had endorsed such sanctions:

“[He] overlooks the fact that, as the late Lord Dahrendorf, a former EU commissioner, said, if the EU itself applied for membership it could not be admitted because it did not meet the criteria set for applicants. The fact of the matter is that the so-called democratic deficit cannot be overcome for as long as this top-down political structure is driven to achieve the goal of ever-closer union. The EU is consequently far from enshrining democratic values, as Mr Collins claims. Those concerned to preserve the great project of self-government should acknowledge that, for the time being at least, whatever the faults of individual nationalisms the nation-state remains the only available basis on which democracy can be organised. Hungary can be forgiven for wishing to preserve its sovereignty, even if we do not care for its policies.”

Some small share of the blame for confusion on this point must rest on Viktor Orbán himself since he innocently coined the term “illiberal democracy” to describe the kind of polity he favoured, and that damning phrase has been hung around his neck ever since. As I argued at the time, he was in reality opposing the undemocratic imposition of liberal policies and thus in principle advocating a democracy without adjectives. The truth that elected bodies have increasingly lost power to undemocratic institutions like courts and international agencies under the rules of liberal democracy is now more widely accepted even as the damning phrase obscures its validity. In his firm response to the EU parliamentary debate, however, the Prime Minister made amends for his earlier gaffe with a concluding sentence that gave us the definition we need if we are to grasp the concept more or less accurately:

“Illiberal democracy is when someone other than the liberals have won.”

Taking that seriously creates a problem for the European Commission, the Assembly, and MEPs in its two mainstream centrist blocs. For European politics until recently has been a left–right battle between the socialists and the conservatives which the liberals always won. That is now changing because significant numbers of voters, often majorities, disliked, felt disadvantaged by, and eventually opposed policies that were more or less agreed between the major parties. New parties have thus emerged to express the voters’ discontents and sometimes, as in Hungary with Fidesz, an existing party has added them to its other programmes. A new basis for political conflict is gradually being established throughout Europe. There are many ways of defining this battle, but the best version has come from the distinguished French intellectual, Pierre Manent, who sees it as one between “populist demagogy and the fanaticism of the centre”.

As that description implies, the mainstream European parties are gradually merging into a duopoly of elites that opposes the parties rising to express popular resistance to progressive liberal policies. Because the political centre has greater access to the levers of power and information than others, its view that this is a conflict between liberal democracy and a dangerous “populism” is the one we usually hear. Interestingly, Manent dissents from this view, seeing the fanaticism of the centre as potentially more dangerous because the centrist establishment is likely to refuse compromise with parties it defines as extreme. That is a plausible analysis when we remember that voter discontent is traceable in part to the centrist strategy and tactics of keeping certain issues “out of politics” and demonising those who insist on raising them.

The EU Assembly’s condemnation of Hungary fits into this pattern: Orbán is heartily disliked by Brussels as a Eurosceptic nationalist who wants to regain national powers lost to Brussels. Worse, he has also shown that populist issues have real political appeal by obstructing Brussels on migration and relocation quotas (despite the irony that in the 2015 migration crisis Hungary was following EU rules while Chancellor Merkel and the EU Commission set them aside). Mainstream parties within particular countries are aware of the power of populist issues, and if they were not, the recent Italian elections would have reminded them. But it sometimes seems that the Euro-duopoly feels itself to be impregnable within the European Assembly and securely in control of the Commission and thus able to surrender to the agreeable fantasy of slapping Orbán down to discourage other “populists” from resisting its politics of historical inevitability and ever-closer union.

It may be correct in its confidence. After all, European elections attract a declining share of voters with each round of voting, and “legacy” parties like those forming the duopoly usually benefit from low turnouts. And despite the jeremiads warning against populism, most of those in the insurgent parties are proposing only moderate changes; they want to reform the EU rather than to leave or destroy it. European elections next May could therefore prove, as so often before, to be a non-event. But European electorates seem to be in a rebellious mood, even in Western Europe; the duopoly should perhaps notice that “legacy” is an unsettling description of its constituent parties; and as de Tocqueville warned, moderate reform can go lead to two contrary outcomes: heading off revolution or accelerating it. When a remote governing elite, clinging to an ossified political agenda, responds to popular discontents by retreating behind its current majority, doubling down on its established policies, and demonising its critics, then history suggests it consider all the possible outcomes when making its dispositions.

All of which is a kind of prelude to three articles in this Review that will be of particular interest to European duopolists, populist rebels, and sons seeking to defend their mothers against insult.

In the light of which, consider first the review by Nicholas T. Parsons of the memoir of the former Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, detailing his struggles with the European Union over the so-called Greek bailout. In the Varoufakis account, endorsed with modest qualifications by Parsons, this was a very perverse operation indeed. It amounted to a gigantic washing machine in which the EU, the IMF and the ECB lent money to Greece to finance Greek banks to pay interest on French and German loans that would keep the French and German banks solvent and Greece within the single currency – the last two aims having always been the main objects of the exercise. It ended with the Greek economy reduced by a quarter, unemployment in the twenties, and the Greek debt burden transformed from an acute problem to a chronic one. The EU’s treatment of Greece is a warning to small EU member states (and in particular to Orbán) that the EU disregards its own rules when it feels that to be necessary in the interests of the wider institution – the euro in Greece’s case, migration rules in that of Hungary. It can be ruthless and deceptive in doing so.

In the second article James Bennett imagines what might happen if Brexit proves to be the first of several cases in which EU member states decide to loosen the EU’s strict and sometimes suffocating bonds and seek new alliances in different patterns of European post-national cooperation. Think of European countries as differently coloured pieces in a kaleidoscope; give it a good shake, and see how the continent’s history and geography might produce new patterns of secession, cooperation, alliance and merger. Bennett is a critic of the EU, not its enemy. He admires what it has achieved and believes it will likely stay together. He offers his speculations on alternative European futures not as a prediction but as an exercise in revealing economic pressures and relationships between and within states and regions that would reshape Europe if the present EU institutions were to prove too uniform and inflexible to accommodate Europe’s real practical diversities. It is a warning not a manifesto, but a necessary one in today’s Europe, because it shows that history can go in many different directions.

David A. J. Reynolds adds the final reflection. In an essay on how the Soviet bloc dealt with the crisis of Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring, he highlights the astute intervention of Hungary’s János Kádár who, having personally travelled from the brutality and repression of 1956 to the more accommodating strategy of Goulash Communism, gave the assembled leaders of the Soviet bloc some advice flavoured with paprika. He told Brezhnev, Gomulka and the others to listen to their Czech colleagues who knew better than others what was going on in their own country. At the same time he urged Dubček and his Czech Communist allies not to let an almost revolutionary situation get out of their control. We do not know if Kádár’s advice would have saved the Czech version of Goulash Communism because Brezhnev overrode it and crushed the Prague Spring. We do know that the Soviet intervention drove Czech freedom under ground but only postponed the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

Which leads to my own final reflection: if the European Commission and MEPs wish to understand what is happening in their continent and assist the EU to foresee future crises and in particular to cope imaginatively with our new ferment of democratic argument, they could do no better than to subscribe to Hungarian Review.

All of which said, and duty done, I hear a violin, a strangely haunting violin … and I turn to page 108 where we commemorate Sándor Veress, the major Hungarian composer of the mid-20th century, who emigrated to hospitable Switzerland for the second part of his life (1949–1992). We turn also from the world of telegrams and anger to that other world–of music, painting, architecture, plays, poems, novels, and even mere games–that world which invigorates the mind and delights the senses.

And that’s a promise.

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