Britain and Europe

Beware the Brexit ‘tipping point’

30 June 2016

Hungary’s populist right acknowledge the damage Brexit will cause. But Prime Minister Orbán should learn the lesson that flirting with Euroscepticism domestically is a dangerous game

Andras Biro-Nagy

Very few issues provoke a unanimous answer from all major political parties in Hungarian politics. However, this is exactly what the British referendum on EU membership has achieved. From the pro-European leftwing and liberal forces to the Eurosceptic populist right, all parties agree that both Britain and Europe would have been better off if Britain had voted to remain in the EU.

The reason behind this unity is that Euroscepticism is not Europhobia in Hungary. The rightwing populist governing party, Fidesz and far-right Jobbik usually criticise the European Union – the former has had numerous clashes with Brussels since it took power in 2010 and will hold a referendum on the EU refugee quota system later this year – but they would not quit. Leaving the European Union would not be an option for the Hungarian voters either. A recent Pew Research survey showed that – despite years of Eurosceptic government campaigns – a clear majority (61 per cent) still view the EU rather positively, while Eurobarometer data proves that Hungarians trust the EU more than the institutions of national politics. In Hungary, Brexit is widely seen as the biggest unforced error of the 21st century in European politics, a political gamble turned into a nightmare, in which Britain, the EU as a whole and Hungary will end up as losers.

The immediate economic effects are clear. Hungary’s currency, the forint, has weakened, and the government estimates that GDP growth in 2016 will be 0.3-0.4 per cent lower than expected. A further important aspect is how Brexit will influence the Hungarian workers and their rights in the UK. Their remittances have been a valuable contribution to the Hungarian economy. The long-term consequences might be even more painful. Bilateral economic and trade relations – especially British investment in Hungary – are also expected to suffer, but the most crucial question is the future of the EU funds, which is the most important factor boosting Hungary’s economy. Therefore, any future cut that would come as a result of a net contributor leaving the EU would be a very negative development for the country.

Brexit is bad news for Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán as well, who has just lost a key political ally in the EU, a close friend who was also interested in promoting the concept of a ‘Europe of Nations’. Britain has been seen by the Hungarian government as the most influential player that would help to oppose further integration. As the UK will no longer act as a counterbalancing force against the German-French duo, and the answer of the core EU countries to Brexit may well be a boost for deepening the integration, the Visegrad countries (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia) might face a difficult question sooner than expected. Will they be the strongest critics of the EU and resist all calls for further integration or will they try to go along with the western core, even if it means more and deeper co-operation? This will be the defining dilemma of the central and eastern European bloc in the post-Brexit EU.

Viktor Orbán’s intervention in the final days of the UK referendum campaign – he published a pro-remain advertisement in the Daily Mail – was meant to be a helping hand to David Cameron, but it can be used as a point of reference in the future, in case the conflicts between the Hungarian government and the European institutions intensify again. Orbán can always point out that he campaigned for remain and that his pro-European standpoint cannot be questioned. Nevertheless, the Hungarian PM is likely to stick to his Brussels-bashing rhetoric. His critics have been quick to emphasise after the UK referendum that he is playing with fire. The lessons are obvious: if a leader goes too far, it might not be enough to counterweight years of Euroscepticism with a few months of pro-European campaigning.

Another clear message of the UK results is that the leaders of the remaining 27 member states must repair the European Union in order to end the divergence and imbalances within and among EU countries, so that the EU functions well for all member states and all parts of the society. If the citizens of the European Union do not associate EU membership with economic prosperity and social protection, it may not be possible to stop the decline of trust towards the EU, and the rise of anti-establishment, Eurosceptic forces across the continent.


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