Political Reform

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.

The Curious Case of the Umbrella Revolution


Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution was a strange display of people power. The 79-day resistance started with a series of student strikes in protest of Beijing's decision to, in practice, pre-screen candidates running for Hong Kong’s first direct Chief Executive Election. The student movement quickly expanded beyond police control after they fired tear gas against unarmed protestors, and triggered the dispersed protestors to occupy various parts of Hong Kong.

An unprecedented level of international media gathered in Hong Kong to cover the resistance, and called it the “Umbrella Revolution” after protestors used umbrellas to defend themselves against pepper spray. Many observers likened the Umbrella Revolution to Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement earlier in March, where students occupied the legislature and successfully forced the government to halt further trade liberalisation with China.

Nevertheless, in less than three months, the momentum of the Umbrella Revolution all but dissipated. Protestors retreated from their barricades without a single concession from the government beyond vague promises to discuss the matter. Chun-Ying Leung, the unpopular Chief Executive who approved the use of tear gas, has remained in office, and waves of arrests took place after the Umbrella Revolution ended.

While Taiwan’s students could resist Chinese encroachment, Hong Kong has been unable to sustain long-term protests in support of democracy. The failure of the Umbrella Revolution reveals a deeper contradiction in the minds of the Hong Kong people – as much as they wish for democratisation, they accept that Beijing has a say in the matter.

The root of such conflicting sentiments can be traced back to the Tiananmen Movement more than two decades ago. In the late 1980s, Hong Kong was set to return from British colonial rule to the hands of China within a decade. Despite many people started emigrating overseas in fear of Communist rule, leaders of pro-democratic parties continued to place high hopes in the reform and opening up of China, and believed political reforms would take place soon after economic liberalisation.  There was broad consensus among the leaders that Hong Kong should strive for a “democratic handover”.

In April 1989, thousands of students gathered in Tiananmen Square of Beijing to demand the Communist government to address corruption and implement democratic reforms. The Movement inspired the hopes of many Hong Kong people that China will become democratic and approve of Hong Kong’s democratisation after the Handover. The enthusiasm surrounding the Movement in Hong Kong quickly turned into disillusionment after the massacre.

The massacre, and the response to it, exemplifies the conflicted identity of the Hong Kong people. On the one hand, Hong Kong people no longer hold any hopes of a democratic Chinese government; on the other, their earnest involvement in the Movement has innately connected Hong Kong’s democratisation to the eventual democratisation of the Mainland.

In spite of their objections to Beijing’s conduct, Hong Kong people’s emotional attachment to the mainland led them to never question the legitimacy of the Handover which they never consented to, and often succumb to Beijing’s influence in Hong Kong politics. The legitimacy of the Basic Law, a mini-constitution that was not ratified by the people, was taken for granted. Beijing’s imposition of political authority over the rulings of the Hong Kong’s judiciary was protested, but eventually acknowledged by courts. While mass political protests and parliamentary objections have scuttled larger policy changes, they have been less effective in resisting more subtle erosion of Hong Kong’s authority—and they have yet to have any effect on the timetable for universal suffrage.

As leaders of pro-democratic parties position themselves as loyal opposition against a ruthless regime instead of a vanguard party mobilising the oppressed people for broad revolutionary struggle; it is not surprising that even supposedly radical protestors initially conceived the Umbrella Revolution as an occupation movement with “Love and Peace”. The ultimate objective was not to undermine Beijing’s dominance in Hong Kong, but hopefully to bargain for some political concessions. Benny Tai, the proposer of the movement, advised protestors to tie their hands to show that they have no intention to usurp political authorities, and left the occupation after the government offered to send a report detailing the events that happened in the movement to Beijing.

Counter-intuitive moves by leaders of the movement included showing an openness to negotiation by removing barricades. Most leaders quit the occupation by November as they disagreed with the student’s insistence for solid reforms. As the leaders chose to take a backseat instead of staying in the frontlines, the support for the Umbrella Revolution inevitably dwindled and ultimate failure was foreseeable since the students were not able to sustain the movement on their own.

The conflicting identity of Hong Kong people not only serves to explain the unwillingness of the movement to challenge Beijing authority through the Umbrella Revolution, but also highlights the unviability of such a weak stance in defending local interest as tensions between Hong Kong and China intensify over recent years.

Since 2003, Hong Kong has witnessed a massive surge of mainland tourists under the Individual Visit Scheme, where the Chinese government allowed citizens from major cities to travel to Hong Kong on individual basis, instead of through group tours or business visas. Many mainlanders took advantage of the scheme to crash the hospitals of Hong Kong in order to let their new-borns gain the right of abode. Others flocked to scoop up items ranging from powdered milk and diapers for babies to golden bracelets and residential flats for speculation.

The small capacity of Hong Kong was soon overwhelmed by an annual influx of 40 million mainland tourists. As the Hong Kong people struggled to cope with rising prices and shortages of goods blamed on excess demand from China, the unruly behaviours of mainland tourists further fuelled the tensions between Hong Kong and China.

Despite the locals’ intensifying grievances, the Hong Kong government has only taken marginal action to resolve them, and even then only reluctantly. In line with their long-held belief that Hong Kong’s future is inseparable from China’s, leaders of the pro-democratic parties have done little to halt Beijing from tightening its grip over the lives of the Hong Kong people, rather they perceived any political actions against mainland tourists as discriminatory, and called for the people “tolerate” uncivilised behaviour of tourists.

The inability of the leaders to transform the Umbrella Revolution into a struggle against Chinese domination stands in stark contrast with the successful Sunflower Movement in Taiwan. The Movement’s opposition to trade liberalisation with the mainland received territory-wide support as citizens united to defend Taiwan’s identity against Chinese capital and political takeover.  The murky position of Hong Kong’s movement in terms of local and mainland interest not only failed to establish the authority of student leaders among protestors, but also missed the opportunity to launch a broader appeal by connecting with disgruntled citizens to strengthen the base of support and momentum of the movement.

Fortunately, the Hong Kong people are starting to realise that tying their fates with China will only sink any hopes of them standing on their own feet. Many newly formed political groups call for the outright rejection of Beijing’s authority and campaign for the Hong Kong people’s self-determination. They have also taken the resistance to various retail hotspots to challenge the mainlanders who are overrunning Hong Kong, and put political pressure on the government to address the pressing interests of the local people.

Many commentators called the Umbrella Revolution a civic awakening of the Hong Kong people. While the people of Hong Kong step up their struggle for democracy, they also need to realise they are facing the domineering and intractable Beijing government. It is in remembrance of the spirit of the Tiananmen Movement that avoiding direct confrontation against Beijing’s hegemony is destined to fail.