Will Hungary’s EU presidency moderate its views?

Will Hungary’s EU presidency moderate its views?

Hungary will next week assume the rotating EU presidency (File/AFP)
Hungary will next week assume the rotating EU presidency (File/AFP)
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Hungary will next week assume the rotating EU presidency, to the chagrin of many European leaders, who consider the country to be an outlier, to say the least, in terms of domestic governance, immigration and foreign policy, including the war in Ukraine and relations with Russia.

In addition to these intra-EU differences, Budapest has at times been the sole dissenter to the bloc’s attempts to forge a united front on the Gaza war and help reach a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Hungary has also been one of the main places where Islamophobia has been weaponized in domestic politics.

Since the Gaza war started on Oct. 7, Hungary has been consistently pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian within the EU. For example, in February, all EU countries jointly called for a ceasefire in Gaza and urged Israel not to launch its planned assault on Rafah. But Budapest refused to endorse the call, despite pressure from other capitals. It also single-handedly derailed EU plans to collectively slap sanctions on violent Israeli settlers, first introduced in December following repeated attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank.

In a rare airing of foreign policy differences, 26 of the 27 EU member states isolated Hungary and issued a statement calling for “an immediate humanitarian pause that could lead to a sustainable ceasefire” in besieged Gaza.

Hungary has joined a handful of countries at the UN in voting against resolutions on Palestinian rights and ceasefire calls

Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

In May 2021, during an earlier Israeli attack on Gaza, the EU foreign ministers called for a ceasefire but failed to reach unanimity because of Hungary’s sole objection, as the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell revealed at the time.

That pattern has been consistent. Hungary has joined a handful of countries at the UN in voting against resolutions on Palestinian rights and ceasefire calls. It has also opposed action by the International Criminal Court and International Court of Justice on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Activists and academics in Hungary have reported bans on pro-Palestine protests and other forms of peaceful expression.

In addition to the particulars of the Palestine-Israel conflict, Islamophobia has been weaponized in Hungary’s politics. This is a departure from the historically amicable relations between the country and the Muslim and Arab worlds. It is also at odds with Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s declared desire to forge strong ties with Muslim and Arab countries, along with the positive statements made during his frequent visits to the region and meetings with leaders from these countries.

Given the absence of a sizable Muslim population in Hungary — there are about 5,000 in a population of 10 million — Muslim-bashing has been almost cost-free. They have served as a scapegoat for the far-right parties, which fancy themselves as defenders of Europe in the face of both the “corrupt, liberal West” and the imagined “invading Eastern hordes.”

According to research conducted at the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute, in collaboration with the Brookings Institution, Hungary underwent a dramatic transition after gaining independence in 1989, following four decades of Soviet control. This research is part of the multiyear Brookings project “The One Percent Problem: Muslims in the West and the Rise of the New Populists.”

In 1999, Hungary became a full-fledged NATO member and it joined the EU in 2004. Until 2010, Hungary was cited by Western observers as a prime example of a successful political and economic transformation. However, since then, it has departed somewhat from the EU-preferred political model to what has been described as a “competitive authoritarian” or “hybrid” model.

While fear of uncontrolled illegal migration is understandable, turning it into irrational xenophobia is not

Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

The EU and US have lamented that democratic institutions exist in theory in Hungary, but the rule of law and civil liberties have been “severely limited” in practice. Reflecting the drastic changes in Western perspectives, in 2010, the country scored 1 in Freedom House’s Freedom of the World rankings, its highest score, as a “fully free democracy,” but that fell to 2.5 in 2018 and the country was also downgraded to “partly free” status in terms of press freedom. In 2021, press watchdog Reporters Without Borders put Orban on its list of “predators,” the first time a Western European leader had been placed in the lineup of heads of state or government who “crack down massively” on press freedom.

According to the Political Capital Institute, there has been a rising trend of intolerance in Hungary since 1989 and xenophobia has been higher there than in most of the former Soviet republics. In 1992, 15 percent of Hungarians expressed xenophobic attitudes, but that figure increased to 39 percent by 2014 and reached a peak of 67 percent in October 2018. These views are particularly strong when it comes to Muslims. According to the Pew Research Center, 72 percent of Hungarians had unfavorable views of Muslims in 2016 compared to the EU median of 43 percent, even though (or rather because) Hungary has practically no Muslim population.

Hungarians were also more likely to consider refugees a burden or a major threat than the average European. In a 2017 survey, 64 percent of respondents from Hungary agreed with the statement that “all further migration from mainly Muslim countries should be stopped.” The refugee crisis was also weaponized in Hungarian politics. In 2014, 18 percent of Hungarians said immigration was one of the most pressing issues for the EU and only 3 percent thought it was one of the main challenges for Hungary, but in 2018, 56 percent of Hungarians said that immigration was one of the two most pressing issues facing the EU.

While fear of uncontrolled illegal migration is understandable, turning it into irrational xenophobia directed mostly at Muslims is not. And translating that into taking extreme views on the Gaza war is destructive.

Budapest’s defiance of EU consensus has been a thorn in Brussels’ side and has isolated Hungary within the bloc, although recent gains by far-right parties in the European Parliament’s elections may make it less isolated. However, being a spokesman for the bloc for the next six months may propel Hungary to become more conciliatory and closer to the center of the EU consensus. Hopefully, its presidency will drive Hungary to reassess its extreme positions on the Gaza war and the wider Middle East conflict and work to improve its relations with Muslims, both within the country and at large.

  • Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily represent the GCC. X: @abuhamad1
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