Brits in EU

A View from Europe: The Hungarian Referendum

In a country was been my home for five years, the people are preparing for a referendum on the EU. But unlike in my country of birth, the popular verdict is in little doubt.

It was May 2006 and I had a crisp TEFL certificate in my rucksack, an EU passport in my back pocket. I was off to discover the continent, first stop Budapest. I came for 3 months and stayed for the next 2 and a half years. That first summer, I spent my nights in the Backpack Hostel in a 10-bed dormitory under a wall-sized painting of Ganesh, the Indian Elephant god, or on a mattress behind the counter if I got chance during the 14-hour night shifts of manning the desk and the bar.

20th August is Hungary's national day, a commemoration of the first catholic king of the Magyar, St Stephen. I was on night-shift that evening, the only one in a hostel full to bursting; even the back garden tents were full, those were the days before the extension and the yurt. I persuaded almost everyone to go out that night, to watch the fireworks by the side of the river. They started at 9. Precisely five minutes later, one of the biggest storms I've ever seen broke over the city. I watched the front door banging in the gales as, outside, the wind ripped trees from their roots and deposited them onto the streets; half a mile away, they whipped up waves on the Danube so rough that boats collided. 5 people were killed. None of our residents though thankfully, who returned rather earlier than I'd hoped, each with tales of near misses, and proceeded to party until five. I managed a fitful doze before I had to get up to tidy the hostel and get to my other job - five hours of an intensive business English class.

I found enough work to quit the hostel and moved into a one-person flat opposite a pub with a rocking horse above the door that flashed christmas lights until the early hours. My ground-floor window had bars like a prison - it was on the edge of the notorious eighth district - but the courtyard was pleasant and after 3 months in a 10-person dorm I was ready to be alone for a while.

I listened to the BBC in those days, and just a week after leaving the hostel the World Service was full of news from my new home city. The Prime Minster had admitted, on tape, to "lying in the morning, lying in the afternoon, lying in the evening," and people were taking to the streets.

In Hungary, it turned out it wasn't just the weather that was volatile. In the hours every week I would alone spend with students, only too keen to talk history and politics to a foreigner, I learned why the protestors had tried to burn down the Hungarian Television Building (it was a reference to the 1956 uprising against the Soviets when their predecessors has taken control of the state-controlled radio building); how today's rioters had set fire to a water cannon and later even stole a tank that had been part of the fifty-year anniversary commemorations for '56. That night, protestors barricaded the 6-lane Elizabeth bridge, and were finally dispersed, in the small hours of the morning, with a torrent of tear gas. I didn't hear how much from either the radio or my students, but from the receptionist at my language school. When she turned up for work the next morning, tears were streaming down her face at having had to walk the 20 steps from the Metro station to the school building.

We, meanwhile, had escaped to the countryside that weekend, to the Orség for a bike tour of old churches and potters. At one place, the owner was so happy to ply me with apple palinka that I flew along on my bike, a rucksack of pottery on my back, straight into a ditch. I broke only a single, 50 forint (0.20 Euros) shotglass, but that was me pretty much done for the day.

So that night we went back to our 3-room bungalow, drank fröccs and talked.

There was one man, in those days, about whom everyone I spoke to was almost universally afraid.

Viktor Orban.

At that time he was leader of the opposition to a government that was pulling itself apart. He'd been Prime Minister before, once, but in those days the populace still had respect for the old Socialist party and had voted him out after one turn. Now he was riding a wave, making the most of the disarray in government while surfing the rising of tide of nationalism which diverted his party from being young liberals to authoritarian nationalists.

Left: Three billboards in a row tell Hungarians their goverment's message is 'not to take chances' and 'vote no' in their upcoming referendum.
Right: Opposition poster simply saying 'Did you know? There's a war in Syria'.

Also in the Series

The Theft of National Symbols
A comparison of a Hungarian national icon and the British Legion's poppy

Policing and the rule of law
Attitudes towards policing in authoritarian Hungary are a lesson that Spain would do well to heed

Catalonia and Scotland
How history has caused the differences between Scottish and Catalan independence

The Decline of the European Left
Traditional left parties are losing out, but is it all the fault of the far right?

The Left's Resurrection
How a new left emerged out of centerism


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He may have bided his time, but at the next elections in 2010 Orban won with such a huge majority that his party, Fidesz, was able to rewrite the constitution again and again and again. He reduced the numbers of MPs by two thirds; allowed old-kingdom Hungarians who still lived in Slovakia, Romania, Croatia, to vote for the national parliament; and awarded the winning party at the next election a 'bonus' 40 seats (or 20% of the total). With the aid of this bonus, Fidesz was able to regain its two-thirds majority the next time around, in 2015, although a couple of bi-election losses mean they've now lost the ability to write any more constitutions. Yet the posters of a grinning Orban, declaring 'Only Fidesz' and plastered all over the country, showed how quickly this European country had apparently fallen into a one-party state. The main opposition these days is the far-right Jobbik, and it is on their field of extreme nationalism that he now is largely fighting.

Today, there are no more posters of a grinning Orban, they're not necessary given the lack of up-coming elections. To fill this campaigning void, however, Orban's Fidesz has found a way to keep the populace busy with their political agenda. Next month the country will hold a referendum on the question of whether the European Union should be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary without the approval of the National Assembly.

It's not a question on which the government could really lose; something David Cameron might care to dwell upon as he chooses which revolving door to take next. Yet the official campaigning has been one-sided and relentless. Every household has received a 20-page booklet entitled 'Send a message that Brussels can understand', with UKIP-style pictures of lines of refugees, Hungarian armoured vehicles, the Nice lorry and some formal-looking, if somewhat dubious statistics about no-go zones and money. There's even a quote from Mr Cameron about the need for Europe to have strong external borders.

And the advertising isn't limited to the postal service; at Metro stations, blue billboards declare that in Libya alone more than a million people want to come to Europe.

The precise endgame is still unclear, but my guess is that it's about positioning Orban to take advantage of Brexit. There are many here who would like to follow Britain straight out the front gate of Europe, but then there are ever more elaborate infrastructure schemes planned for Budapest and beyond. Outside the EU, from where would the financing come for the new museums on the city park, for the renovation of the Prime Minister's new residence in the Buda Castle or for the millions that have been syphoned off through 'anti-corruption' funding? They'd have to look elsewhere, most likely to Putin's Russia which is already providing the funding (and everything else) for a new reactor and Hungary's only nuclear power station in Paks.

This is where these goings on in Hungary, just as in Poland and elsewhere, will have such a huge impact on Britain as they try to worm themselves out of the Union's webs. The EU is not going to let Britain off lightly; they're going to want to make it as unattractive an option as possible to dissuade net beneficiaries and contributors alike from following Britain's lead. A Britain ruled largely by moronic public school boys, who has so few negotiators of their own that they've had to elicit help from the Commonwealth. What those boys and girls from Canada and Australia can hope to pull out of the hat is dubious, but I wish them all the luck in the world. They're going to need it.

Adam R. Mathews, Budapest, 13 September 2016
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