Welcome to The Thermometer Interview, a new series of conversations that will test the temperature of Europe.
With America on the retreat, what happens in Europe today matters more than ever. Superficially the last bastion of liberalism, there are some subterranean currents that should trouble us all. In Poland and Hungary, populist right-wing governments threaten freedom of expression and the rights of minorities. The former Yugoslavia is turning anew to nationalism. Anti-Zionism and tolerance of anti-Semitism remain a stubborn problem on the political left, especially in Britain. Having failed in electoral tests in France and the Netherlands, the far right hopes to make gains in Germany and Austria this fall. It is on these topics that Moment will bring you interviews with writers, thinkers, activists, and political and community leaders from across Europe.
We begin in Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been described as having moved his country “in a more authoritarian direction than any other” nation in Europe. Human Rights Watch argues Orbán’s government fails to respect the rule of law and human rights, particularly as it concerns journalists, academics, and NGOs, as well as asylum seekers. Just this month Orbán, who has a close relationship with Vladimir Putin and has repeatedly praised Donald Trump, is pushing a bill to target NGOs that receive funding from outside Hungary. They would be forced to register as “foreign funded” and made subject to sanctions and obligations.
In this debut Thermometer Interview, we speak with Anton Pelinka, a specialist in nationalism and political science at Budapest’s Central European University (CEU). Founded in 1991 by George Soros, the college’s status is currently threatened by a new law proposed by Orbán that would restrict the ability of foreign higher education institutions to operate in Hungary.
How would you assess the health of Europe today?
It’s better than most argue but not as good as it should be. The Macron-Merkel axis is very important, as we are now seeing an American president become pro-Russian and anti-EU. There is a motivation to help countries like Italy and Greece and that have been overwhelmed by the wave of migration and control the EU’s outer borders, which makes me less pessimistic.
What is the biggest problem facing Europe today?
Inequality between EU member states, which is much more difficult to deal with. [Former President of the European Commission] Jacques Delors warned that to include so many less prosperous states [in 2004 and 2007] would overstretch the EU and the possibility of full integration into the Single Market. The movement of millions of people from [eastern Europe] to the United Kingdom created an anti-European sentiment that made Brexit possible. Even in Austria, there is an anti-EU populist agenda created by the feeling that we cannot afford to have so many Czechs or Slovaks. For the EU, the mood is dangerous.
Turning to Hungary, what is the latest concerning the status of CEU? Will the college able to conduct its full academic schedule in 2017 and 2018?
At the moment there’s not much movement because it is all about Viktor Orbán and only Viktor Orbán. He is playing CEU as a card as part of a strategy that portrays NGOs and those with international connections as the enemy of the Hungarian nation. It is not about academic quality but political vandalism intended to destroy an internationally acclaimed university for domestic political profit and an attempt to influence America by using the CEU to contact Trump [who also hates Soros].
The first option is to defend the CEU in Hungary. The second option is to move out of Hungary.
And you would prefer the first option?
To move out of Hungary would play to Orbán. We would like to stay in Hungary but we have to have a Plan B. The Austrian Chancellor [Christian Kern] has said the CEU would be welcome in Vienna, so that’s one option, but other options are also available in former communist countries.
From the outside, this action against CEU seems motivated by a particular animus on the part of Orbán towards George Soros.
Yes, this is one side of it. It is ridiculous because while Soros is the financial [backer] of CEU, he has nothing to do with its academic life. For Orbán, Soros is the perfect scapegoat: a Jewish East Coast billionaire who fits into any kind of negative stereotype. Orban has invented an enemy who is very useful as part of Orbán’s strategy to out-Jobbik Jobbik [the far-right political party], to be more nationalistic than Jobbik. Jobbik is Orbán’s main domestic competitor and they are extremely right wing, more anti-European, and more anti-Semitic.
Is that strategy working? I know there have been protests in the wake of the CEU law.
There is a wave of solidarity but I cannot speak about the whole country. In Budapest, Andrássy University—a small German-speaking university funded by a number of German states but also financially dependent on Orbán—had a demonstration in favor of CEU. The intellectual milieu in Budapest also stands with CEU, but as long as the wave of solidarity remains in Budapest, Orbán will not give in. He thinks in electoral terms more about the people outside Budapest, who are more nationalistic and less well educated.
Does the European Union have either the will or the capacity to rein in Orbán?
Where is the leverage? In the European Parliament, there is a strong and significant majority against Orbán. Even the European People’s Party, to whom his own party [Fidesz] belongs, has endorsed an anti-Orbán position, but at the same time, the Austrian Foreign Minister [Sebastian Kurz], who belongs to the same European party, has said that Orbán is a good guy who has saved Europe from Angela Merkel’s failed refugee policy, completely neglecting Orbán’s record concerning academic freedom. There is no clear policy.
This is a good segue into the Austrian elections. How seriously should we take the possibility that the far right Freedom Party [FPÖ] will be in the next government?
There is a high probability that the FPÖ will be part of a coalition government by the end of this year. The FPÖ has changed its position regarding EU membership. They now say we will remain for the moment and try to reconstruct the EU, which is just rhetoric since they will not be able to. Concerning anti-Semitism, the FPÖ has for 25 years tried to have two or three well-known Jewish members, but it still mobilizes xenophobic sentiment, has kept its revisionist narrative about World War II, and recruits most of its elites from the Burschenschaften [fraternities that support greater German nationalism].
The FPÖ has become the party of blue-collar voters. What approach should the Socialist Party [SPÖ] take to the far right?
I think Kern favors ending the ban [on the SPÖ forming a coalition with the FPÖ]. He will define conditions for coalition so vaguely that the FPÖ will argue that they are able to fulfill them. They can say they are not against the EU, basic human rights, or liberal democracy. The question then is would the SPÖ split. My guess is not formally but many would leave the SPÖ, which would be a great chance for the Greens.
This interview has been edited and condensed.