In Brussels, 5,000 right-wing protesters opposed the government’s decision to sign a UN-brokered migration pact. There were scenes of violence: police used water cannons and tear gas to disperse stone and cobblestone-throwing protesters, including a group that tried to storm the offices of the European Commission . Nearly 100 people were arrested.
In one case, you see the nationalist rage that has come to color so much of European politics. In the other, you see growing concern over a deeply nationalist government – a government that has used populist rhetoric to justify policies that have consistently undermined Hungarian democracy. In the West, the former has received a lot of attention in recent years. But it is the latter that may reflect a real political battle brewing on the continent.
The unrest in Belgium began after Prime Minister Charles Michel, who led a center-right ruling coalition, traveled to the Moroccan city of Marrakech to sign the UN migration pact alongside more than 150 others country. The pact is a harmless document aimed at encouraging greater international cooperation on migration. It sets 23 structured goals for the world to better manage the flow of tens of millions of migrants.
It is not a formal treaty, and it is completely non-binding. The UN is not about to impose migration policies on countries around the world. Yet that is precisely how anti-immigrant parties in Europe — not to mention the White House — have attempted to frame the measure. The Trump administration signaled earlier in the year that it had no interest in joining the pact; a number of other European governments, including Hungary and the populist coalition in Italy, have followed suit.
In Belgium, a right-wing Flemish party from Michel’s fragile coalition left the government last week. Michel will likely limp in the minority until next year’s election. Analysts suggest the decision by Michel’s partners to step down was a cynical calculation, an attempt to win support from the far right ahead of a new vote.
It can be effective. On Saturday, France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen joined former Trump whisperer Steve Bannon – who is trying to muster support for nationalists on the continent ahead of next year’s European elections – at an event in Brussels. organized by the Vlaams Belang, a Flemish ultranationalist party. “The country that signs the pact obviously signs a pact with the devil,” Le Pen said.
But if the scenes in Brussels showed the power of anti-migrant sentiment in some corners of Europe, what is happening in Budapest reinforces the feeling that most Europeans have more pressing issues on their minds.
No European leader has seized on the anti-immigrant fervor more vehemently than Hungary’s Orban, a man hailed by Bannon and others on Europe’s far right. Orban has been prime minister for nearly a decade and is considered the leading figure in the pack of ascendant nationalists in eastern and central Europe. As my colleague Griff Witte wrote in a lengthy exposé, he steadily tightened his grip on the levers of power, ushering in what critics describe as creeping authoritarianism. All the while, he has waged a virulent culture war, demonizing migrants and castigating European liberals.
“So-called independent institutions – including courts and prosecutors – have become instruments of political control,” Witte wrote. “Newspapers and television stations are taken over by sympathetic businessmen and conscientiously preach the government line. Elections still take place, but they serve as a justification for the majority to impose its will rather than a chance for the minority to have its say.
The rise of anti-government protests over the past week is a sign that the frustrated and embittered opposition can still punch Orban’s nationalist ball. On Sunday, working-class protesters expressed economic anxiety over a majority government that critics say fosters a kleptocracy. “They don’t negotiate with anyone. They just do what they want. They steal everything. It’s intolerable. It can’t go on,” a transport worker identified as Zoli told Agence France-Presse on Sunday.
“We believe this is the last chance to stop the dictatorship,” Marton Bartha, 28, a protester outside state media headquarters on Sunday night, told The New York Times. “Maybe dictatorship is a strong word. But our freedom is reduced.
Of course, the Orban government tried to erase the protests by returning to a common theme. A spokesman for Fidesz, the ruling party, called the protesters minions of the “pro-immigration Soros network,” a reference to the American Jewish financier whom Orban has made a convenient scapegoat for his demagoguery.
During the opposition demonstration this evening in front of Hungarian public television, the Jobbik flag flies alongside the Roma flag, along with the flags of the other parties. Several people in the crowd also wave EU flags alongside Hungarian flags. pic.twitter.com/CWrqrVwQtr
— Valerie Hopkins (@VALERIEin140) December 17, 2018
But they may not be able to cast off the opposition forever. “How long this will last, we really don’t know,” Peter Kreko, a political analyst in Budapest, told The New York Times of the protests. “But it’s a big mass – in the sense that there seems to be a committed opposition against the government, and I think that can be the starting point for a wider movement.”
We don’t know what will happen next. Next year’s European election will be seen as a litmus test for a whole range of issues – from immigration to the satisfaction of a supranational project like the European Union to public concern about the erosion of rule of law. Orban and Western right-wing populists see the EU and the UN as remote citadels of unelected bureaucrats bent on undermining the sovereignty of nation states.
But perhaps we see the limits of what such populist harassment can accomplish politically. For Orban, a Prime Minister convinced that migration is a problem, the irony is that it could in fact be part of a solution for his country. The Hungarian labor reform that has sparked such furor is a reaction to a wider demographic crisis: Hungary’s workforce, hit by emigration to wealthier countries in Europe, is stagnating and too small. There is an obvious remedy for this, but it is unlikely to be taken up by the anti-migrant demagogue in power.