Quo vadis Europa – Merkel or Orbán’s version?

Susan Divald

One of the classic definitions of the state is from Max Weber in his essay Politics as a Vocation: “a human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” For Weber, borders define who the state can claim power over, whether it be to defend its community against outsiders or maintain inner civil peace. Through this lens of borders, force and the state, European countries sit in an odd position. The dynamics of Europeanisation have meant that the borders of Europe have been both reinforced and discarded. For those in the European Union, there is free movement of goods, people, capital and services; however, for those on the outside, access into EU countries is far from easy, creating an “insiders-outsiders” phenomenon.

The current migrant crisis brings into question these borders and if and when it is justifiable to defend them. It also shows the different conceptions of the responsibility of the state towards its own citizens and towards non-citizens. German Chancellor Angela Merkel believes the German community has a responsibility to the larger “human community” and should welcome those taking the perilous journey to Germany. Meanwhile, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán defends the state’s power to regulate who enters into its territory and who does not, in defence of its own Hungarian community.

What exactly is Orbán’s view of the state and where does it come from? One clear example is his 2014 speech at his party’s summer school in Tusnádfürdó, Transylvania where he coined the term “illiberal state". His comments made waves in the press and attracted criticism from EU leaders. The phrase has become one which will forever be hung around his neck but what did he mean?

To answer this, we need to understand the historical context of regime change in Europe. Orbán argues that Europe has gone through three regime changes: World War I, World War II and the 1990 transition from communism. The 2008 financial crisis has led to a fourth regime change, one that has occurred more slowly and which questions the ideals and sustainability of liberalism. But what is liberalism? A term difficult to pin down, but for Orbán it has meant mainly upholding the ideal of being free to do anything as long as it does not impinge on another’s freedom. To him, Hungary’s 20 years of liberal democracy have led to the stifling of those with a weaker voice to the main advantage of the corporation and the bank who have stronger weights to throw around. On the national level this has also meant that liberalism could not serve the national interest. The Hungarian state had one of the lowest levels of public wealth in all of Europe, a large amount of debt to international financial institutions and a banking system with very little ownership by Hungarians. In this case, the state was the one with the weaker voice in the liberal order.

For Orbán, therefore, liberalism has not provided the appropriate framework to organise society and the national community, nor has it been able to serve the national interest. To be able to survive the regime change stemming from the 2008 financial crisis, he calls for the need to re-think how to organise a community and maintain a state which can make the country competitive. It will not be via a ‘liberal state’ but rather through an ‘illiberal’ one. He argues a democracy does not have to be liberal, nor does a state. Indeed, there are other varieties of conceptions of the state: nation-state, welfare state and liberal state just as there are varieties of ideas of democracies – Christian democracies, social democracies, popular democracies, etc. Looking to the future, Orbán believes the most competitive way to organise a state and society will entail one that protects the national interest, while still respecting Christian values, freedom and human rights.

Is the “state” therefore still in vogue as the guarantor of national interest, or is it just the case in Hungary? Looking at responses to the migrant crisis, one element has been the protection of

boundaries in both the physical and cultural senses. The most obvious evidence of the former is Hungary’s fence construction along the border with Serbia and then Croatia for which it has attracted widespread criticism from western European states. However, Hungary is not alone: Bulgaria built a fence along its border with Turkey, France erected fences in Calais to stop migrants crossing the Channel, Germany’s police chief has recently argued the case for fencing off the German-Austrian border and Austria has announced plans to build a fence at the main border crossing with Slovenia. In addition, border controls have been enforced – or borders even closed temporarily – between European countries to manage the move of migrants, as happened between Germany and Denmark, Austria and Germany, and Hungary and Austria.

Hungary has voiced the desire to preserve the Christian identity of Europe, drawing on centuries old rhetoric of being the protector of Christianity from its southern neighbours – and at times invaders – the Ottomans. Safeguarding Christian heritage is also a concern of countries such as Poland and Slovakia, which only wanted to agree to take in refugees as long as they were Christian. However, this cultural preservation argument does not find sympathy in Western Europe’s arguably post-Christian societies, although the founding fathers of the European idea – embodied in the European Coal and Steel Community and later European Union – were motivated by their Christian heritage and ideals.

The gap in cultural viewpoint highlights a significant divide in the ways Eastern and Western Europe think about pluralism. Western Europe has experienced a more extensive history of multiculturalism and immigration since World War II, and has been wary of encouraging nationalism given the World War II track record. Eastern Europe’s challenge has mainly been the treatment of historical minorities. Moreover, nationalism was a positive force for many during communism and contributed to its fall. Looking towards the future, all countries will have to consider an integration model to use, but the options on the table may be fewer than before: many political leaders believe that multiculturalism has failed. Angela Merkel, in a 2010 meeting with young members of her CDU party said that the approach of building a multicultural society to “live side-by-side and to enjoy each other…has failed, utterly failed.” David Cameron in 2011 followed suit arguing that “state multiculturalism” has led to segregation and toleration of behaviour that went against British values. Moreover, the Netherlands – a long-standing supporter of multiculturalism – changed tracks with Interior Minister Piet Hein Donner’s integration bill in 2011 with the goals to “shift priority to the values of the Dutch people” and where “integration will not be tailored to different groups.”

In addition to the cultural and physical elements of borders, there is the issue of state sovereignty and Europeanisation. There has been an ongoing tension between giving up sovereignty to the European Union and maintaining control over domestic matters. One thorny example is the adoption of the quota system for refugee allocation, illustrating East-West divisions, with the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania opposing; in earlier discussion Poland and Latvia also opposed the measure. Why the opposition? As one Czech Member of Parliament said, “We were under the supervision of Moscow once...Now a lot of people have the impression...that the same thing is happening in Brussels.” In addition, Eastern European countries do not feel they bear the responsibility for the events that happened in the Middle East (as compared to perhaps France and the United Kingdom) and therefore should be able to decide for themselves how to handle the migrant crisis and not take orders from Brussels.

Wrapping our heads around the migrant crisis is not easy given its multi-dimensional nature and humanitarian concerns. Yet, through the lens of the power of the state, it seems clear that the “state” has increased its conceptual currency and is seen as the guarantor of the national community’s interest, particularly in Eastern Europe. With the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in many Western European countries – including Germany and Sweden – the question becomes whether their political leaders can navigate between the definitions of the broader human community and national community. Moreover, the successful integration of the recent arrivals into the local population is essential for any long term policy solution to tackle the migrant crisis, and European leaders will have to successfully balance these two communities within their own countries. To do this, an acknowledgement and appreciation of the varied conceptions of statehood across EU countries is essential.