Observations of an expat: Liberty

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Retired UK Supreme Court Justice Lord Sumption recently told Radio Four’s World At One said that when people lose their freedom it is not because tyrants have taken it away. “It is usually because people willingly surrender their freedom in return for protection against some external threat.”

The eminent jurist was talking about measures in the UK to combat coronavirus which he described as a cure “worse than the disease.”

At the moment, I think he is wrong about Britain. But if he was talking about Hungary he would be spot-on. There the Fidesz-dominated parliament has responded to the pandemic by voting Prime Minister Viktor Orban the power to rule by decree for an indefinite period of time.

The right-wing populist Hungarian leader can now lock-up his media critics. He can continue to pack the courts with his cronies and block refugees from entering Hungary. He can close down universities that teach the liberal ideas he despises and dismiss from jobs anyone who makes disparaging comments about his rule. He can even suspend elections. Orban can, in effect, do whatever he wants. And because parliament has surrendered its scrutiny powers, he can do it for as long as he wants without fear of retribution.

Orban has gone on record as saying that his goal is to turn Hungary into an “illiberal state” along the same lines as Russia, China and Turkey. Now—thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic—he has the power to do it.

Hungary is also the leading light in the four-nation East European Visegrad Group of countries. Where he goes the others tend to follow. In fact, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic have already said that they are thinking of passing similar decree-type legislation.

But there is a problem in the form of the Visegrad Four’s membership of the European Union. Th EU is a democratic club. A condition of membership is that the country must be a democracy with all the trappings such a free and fair elections, parliaments, free press, free speech and an independent judiciary.

Orban’s acquisition of draconian powers has already resulted in severe criticism from the European Commission and 13 West European EU members. On top of that, the criticism came the day before the European Court of Justice ruled that the Visegrad Four broke EU law by refusing to take in refugees crowding into camps in Greece and Italy.

The four countries are in real danger of exiting the EU. Not jumping a la British style, but pushed for breaking club rules. The UK is expected to suffer from Brexit, but nothing like the financial torment that the Visegrad Four can expect to suffer. Their trade with the EU represents between 80-85 per cent of their economy. They are all substantial net beneficiaries of Brussels largesse (Hungary 4.049 billion Euros a year, Poland 11.92 billion Euros a year, Czech Republic 2.76 billion Euros a year and Slovakia 1.815 billion Euros a year). The amount of EU money that has poured into these countries since they joined 16 years ago has dwarfed the aid extended to Europe by the Marshall Plan.

Outside the EU the Visegrad Four are likely to become easy targets for the Russian dominance that they escaped from only 30 years ago. Britain took the lead in pushing for the Central European countries to join the EU. They had been a buffer for Russia against the West. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union they became a buffer for the West against a resurgent Russia. Britain’s past role should give it influence in Budapest and the other capitals to point out the errors and dangers. But no, the Johnson government is exiting the EU it encouraged them to join. Its political authority and credibility is now nil.

* Journalist Tom Arms is vice-chairman and secretary of Tooting Liberal Democrats and a regular contributor to Lib Dem Voice.

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12 Comments

  • Are you suggesting this is another EU failure?

  • Richard Underhill. 3rd Apr '20 - 7:58pm

    We used to support FIDESZ because it was non-communist. To be a member it was necessary to be under 35 years old. It was therefore an extreme example of voting for change. Many of the communists in power were much older. Hungarian electors over 35 could vote for change this way and many did.
    The Alliance of Free Democrats were more our sort of people and they were in government in coalition in Hungary.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alliance_of_Free_Democrats
    Hungary revolted against Moscow, so Moscow sent in the tanks, causing a flood of refugees to cross the border into Austria and thence into the free world.
    Nikita Kruschev was in power in Moscow and seems to have calculated that the Suez crisis gave him a political opportunity. His hands had been bloodied in the Ukraine in Stalin’s time. The suppression of the rebellion in Hungary seems to have caused Moscow to be worry that it could happen again, so there was a light touch on economic policy, even a free election in which a non-communist independent won a by-election and was allowed to travel in the West.

  • Tony Greaves 3rd Apr '20 - 8:02pm

    Yes, a lot of rather nasty people around the world will be licking their lips and looking to use this crisis to entrench their power and wealth – illiberal and corrupt politicians and their corporate friends. The question is – what do we do about it? (And do not assume it is not a potential problem here, even if on a less draconian scale).

  • Richard Underhill. 3rd Apr '20 - 8:04pm

    The ending of four-power government in Austria was considered something of a miracle in western media during the Cold War, an achievement of brilliant diplomacy. The Austrian parliament declared that Austria was neutral, did not join NATO and was not an early member of the EU.

  • I was in the old Czechoslovakia a year after the Russians sent the tanks in to put an end to the Prague Spring. What struck me was the way so much of the culture at grass roots level suggested it ought to be one of the most liberal countries in Europe. Clandestine satire, poetry and drama was part of it – whether that could happen in the era of social media I don’t know. Certainly we ought to be planning patterns of resistance to the people running our country that draw strength from and cherish benign cultural alternatives. How do you tap the bloody-mindedness of the people of all ages who insist on singing their own Christmas carols in Pennine pubs? There is much more to nonconformity than a strand of religious history!

  • The EU has serious decisions to make. The billions poured into the Visegrad countries cannot be maintained once the UK ceases to be a contributor to the EU budget. At the same time, the Southern members like Spain and Greece are calling for debt sharing to bail them out of a deepening crisis. France is keen to see debt sharing as part of a deeper integration that binds the members in a federation with a finance minister, treasury and tax raising powers. Germany and her taxpayers, already the main contributor, are strongly opposed to becoming the underwriters of all EU debt.

    The EU has achieved almost full uniformity of regulation but it has failed to win the hearts and minds of all the member states. Ever closer integration is leading to increased resentment in some quarters, especially when the importance of the nation state and irrelevance of the EU has been highlighted by current events.

    The experiment would probably have been successful if it had remained as a group of trading nations each retaining full sovereignty but cooperating in areas of mutual interest. Instead, it pressed ahead with the common currency but failed to install the central institutions required by such a currency.

    Today, the unravelling of the EU is happening before our eyes. A sudden lurch towards more integration is the usual response when a crisis threatens, but in the current climate it could help to drive the member states apart. As a longstanding critic of the EU I would favour a managed retreat to a club of independent nations but the EU will never contemplate this. Too much political capital has been invested in the Project.

  • Can’t disagree about Orban but you make a serious mistake in lumping 4 countries in together – and certainly we Czechs have no interest in taking his lead. Indeed the same non-conformity / bloody-mindedness Geoff Reid refers to above means we don’t like taking instructions from anyone! We may have an idiot for our (current) President but his role is that of a figurehead and his completely at odds with the PM, not to mention most of the Czech people.

    So let’s not jump to conclusions based on Orban in Hungary.

  • John Marriott 4th Apr '20 - 9:48am

    Why are we really surprised about Hungary? Until 1918 it was part of the dual monarchy of Austria Hungary, hardly the model of parliamentary democracy. Between the world wars and for most of the second it was a de facto dictatorship under ‘Regent’, Admiral Miklos Horthy. For most of the Cold War period until the fall of communism, Hungary was firmly anchored in the Soviet Bloc, despite the valiant but futile attempt to break free in the Autumn of 1956.

    The most that people here knew about the country was its football team of the 1950s, led by Army ‘Major’ Ferenc Puskas, the so called ‘Magnificent Magyars’, 1952 Olympic champions, and the first foreign team to beat (actually trounce) England 6-3 on English soil, a feat they repeated the following year, 1954, in Budapest to the tune of 7-1! By all rights they should have lifted the FIFA World Cup in Switzerland that same year; but failed in the final to overcome a resurgent West German team, having thrashed them in the qualifying rounds.

    Like many Eastern European nations, in particular Poland, there is really no history of democracy. There is, unfortunately, a tendency to support a ‘strong’ leader. Poland, for whom we actually went to war in 1939 in our defence of democracy against totalitarianism, was ironically mainly ruled after WW1, despite the trappings of a parliament and constitution, by military leaders, such as General Josef Pilsudski’ and his successors, known as ‘Pilsudski’s colonels. So, is it surprising then that such countries revert to type when the going gets tough?

  • Retired UK Supreme Court Justice Lord Sumption recently told Radio Four’s World At One said that when people lose their freedom it is not because tyrants have taken it away. “It is usually because people willingly surrender their freedom in return for protection against some external threat.”

    Did he give any examples? Because the “tyrants take away” thing seems much closer to the truth when thinking of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Communist China and so on.

  • Martin Styan 4th Apr '20 - 11:29am

    I am an Englishman living in Slovakia and I can report that democracy is also alive and well here. In the 1990s commitment to the principles of democracy was strengthened by the experience of opposition to authoritarian populist Vladimir Mečiar, who was defeated in elections in 1998. Later there was some backsliding, especially under Robert Fico of the centre left Direction Party. More recently, a young investigative journalist Jan Kuciak was murdered in February 2018. This led to the emergence of the Decent Slovakia Movement, mass demonstrations, and the resignation of Prime Minister Fico and other top people. The new prime minister came from the same party, but investigations proceeded and Marian Kočner, a businessman with links to the government and influence over parts of the judiciary, was arrested and put on trial for the murder. In 2019, Susanna Čaputová, one of the leaders of Decent Slovakia, was elected president. In the last month, a parliamentary election was held and a new government of four democratic, hitherto opposition parties has come to power. The old government introduced tough measures as soon as the first coronavirus case appeared and these have been continued and extended by the new government. They seem to be working. Up to yesterday, there were 471 cases, 1 death and 21 new cases on one day in a population of five million. The leaders of the coalition parties are openly discussing how strict the measures against the coronavirus should be. Slovakia is not like Hungary.

  • John Marriott 5th Apr '20 - 7:59am

    I didn’t really deal with Austria in my previous post; but before Richard Underhill gets carried away with his eulogy on Austrian democracy, please allow me to remind him of some of the more unsavoury characters that this now tiny nation has thrown up, and I don’t just mean a certain Adolf Hitler. Let’s start with former President and UN General Secretary, Kurt Waldheim, whose reputation was trashed, when his rôle as an intelligence officer in Nazi Germany’s Wehrmacht in Greece during WW2 was revealed. Then there was the late Jörg Haider, a right wing politician, whose FPÖ ‘Freedom Party’ shared power with the ÖVP Austrian People’s Party in the early noughties. Austria’s current poster boy, the ÖVP’s youthful Sebastian Kurz, is far from being a moderate, and has also recently got into bed with the FPÖ. It might be the land of Mozart, Schubert and Lehar, not forgetting Falco and Nikki Lauder, but Austria has produced some dodgy characters over the years. (Mind you, hasn’t every country?) Didn’t Hitler learn to hate the Jews from his experiences as a ‘down and out’ in pre WW1 Vienna?

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