The Kantian dream of undoing real nations keeps foundering on the shoals of human nature's need for real attachments to place.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán meets today with President Donald Trump in the White House ostensibly to discuss Hungary’s NATO membership (this is its 20th anniversary year) among other security issues.
Whatever geopolitical issues will be discussed, the meeting will be covered as a summit of populist leaders who consistently besmirch the values of post-1968 America and Europe. Nothing good can come from those two talking to each other. Those values in Europe have largely become the unquestionable system of individualism, egalitarianism, secularism, and multiculturalism, secured by rule-of-law governance directives from European Union bodies in Brussels. I use the term governance because the rules handed down by Brussels can claim only the patina of democratic legitimacy. It’s not government achieved by politics in any recognizable sense. Governance is what happens when debate is over or isn’t even allowed to begin; it is nothing more than the management of predetermined outcomes.
Many have noted this, but it was Orbán who has taken matters to the next level one might say. To the insistence of EU officials that there is nothing really left to argue about because the abstractions of rights, equality, and diversity are universal notions available to human beings as such, Orbán reintroduces politics. That is, he insists that his nation order itself by a different notion of the common good, one that is no less European.
Orbán’s infraction, according to Frank Furedi in his 2017 invaluable book, Populism and the European Culture Wars, was to reintroduce into this European settlement of supposedly politically sterile transnationalism, historically-rooted cultural and moral foundations for law and politics. Furedi notes two points of departure that define Hungarian politics in the 21st century: The Crown of St. Stephen, which in 2000 became the National Symbol almost by a popular uprising, and the Fundamental Law of Hungary, its new constitution that was ratified in 2012. These political markers legitimated the Hungarian regime in the hearts of its people. Why is Hungary, among other Eastern European nations such as Poland, willing to buck Brussels and earn its undying enmity, particularly amongst much of the pro-EU press?
The key to Furedi’s analysis is how Hungary and other nations of Eastern Europe approvingly view their culture and inheritance in the face of the intellectuals’ contempt toward and dismissal of the past and the traditions of the West. The fundamental dividing line of Europe is the general openness to reappropriate a cultural, political, and religious tradition that was denied the East by the Soviet Union versus the desire of EU leaders, technocrats, and judges to critique and distance themselves from their own tradition.
Furedi, a native Hungarian who teaches sociology at the University of Kent, observes that Hungary was robbed of its culture by the Soviet Union in 1945. However, in 1989, when it was liberated from Soviet rule, rather than becoming reacquainted in its laws and politics with its former self, Hungary accepted a constitution built on transnational norms of rights and rules that were supported by international organizations. Generic and procedural sources of authority were seen as a more effective way to secure the rule of law and an orderly democratic politics as opposed to constitutional legitimacy arising from the cultural-moral order of Hungary. This same ahistorical constitution was also key to Hungary’s securing membership in the European Union in the late 1990s. According to the Hungarian philosopher Ferenc Hörcher, this is precisely why the 1989 Constitution failed. The crucial acceptance and identity of the Hungarian people with their charter document was never secured. Thus, the Constitution of 2012, which features a 26-paragraph preamble affirming the religious and cultural meaning of Hungary, did not waver in defining and protecting the core political goods of the country.
Furedi notes a curious debate held that year in the European Parliament about Hungary’s new Constitution and supposed deviation from core liberal EU values. It wasn’t just the content of the Hungarian Constitution, but that Orbán had dared to be substantively political rather than engage in the endless EU bromides about equality, health, diversity, and environmental standards. Furedi points out that in this, Orbán threatens the legitimacy of the European Union’s technocratic governance by recalling the much deeper resources of Western civilization. He was subjected to hours of criticism in the European Parliament for his country’s alleged violations of European values. The Flemish Belgian politician Guy Verhofstadt demanded a full investigation of Hungary in order to determine if “there exists a clear risk or a serious breach of our values.” As Furedi notes, the irony that in the name of tolerant, liberal EU values a sovereign nation should be investigated for its constitution that was approved by a large majority of its voters was, apparently, lost on Verhofstadt. And Orbán is viewed as the illiberal one. Orbán’s response was to say that this was ultimately a debate about what it means to be a self-governing nation in Europe, but that neither side should hurl aspersions at the other. There should be room within the EU for domestic political differences among sovereign nations. But apparently not. EU Council President Herman van Rompuy apparently, spoke for many when he remarked in a 2010 speech in Berlin that national sovereignty is a “lie.”
Religion is the institution that can’t die soon enough for many in Europe, specifically Catholicism. How dare Orbán note that political ideals formed and shaped by a Christian perspective were actually thoroughly European, as was “national sentiment” and the strength of families. A French member of the EU Parliament, Marie-Christine Vergiat, having failed to consult the most cursory of European history texts, asserted to Orbán, “European values are not Christian values.” The insistence that Christianity is actually alien to the European Union would come as a surprise to one of its founders, Robert Schuman, who said in 1958 that the Christian faith was the foundation and wellspring of continental integration. Vergiat, though, did succinctly state the post-1968 outlook that defines ruling EU opinion.
The Hungarian question, though, exposes the EU’s governing crisis. Almost in recognition of its inability to secure the affection, loyalty, and sentiment of Europeans, there are now calls for an EU superstate being made, most notably by French President Emmanuel Macron. Read: If we can’t govern blandly, we’ll govern grandly, as if Europeans could be led to devotion to a postmodern EU imperialism in the name of individualism, tolerance, and the prevention of climate change. Macron, like Orbán, recognizes the crucial need for law to derive authority from something external to itself. Technical legal procedures and autonomy rights alone won’t guarantee the loyalty of citizens. There must be a source and foundation of the law in order for it to have authority. Don’t look to the words but to the unwritten supports for the legitimacy of law, which means that the law points higher to morals, culture, and a lived experience that the people understand in their spirit. The EU doesn’t just have a democratic deficit—it’s deficiencies run much deeper. For pointing out that the EU is a disembodied ruling vagabond, Orbán must be anathema.