Rubik’s Cube Politics: Hungarian Nationalism and Conservative International Relations

One of the joys of studying abroad in Budapest is discovering the small, strange differences between Hungary and the US. Hungarians will use the English word “hello” to mean “goodbye,” public displays of affection are much more accepted, and belching is perfectly acceptable whenever animals are present. Hungarians are also curiously proud of the Rubik’s Cube; the famous toy was invented by a Hungarian. Just outside my school is a monument in the form of a giant Rubik’s Cube, my language school offered a class on how to solve Rubik’s cubes, and Hungarian movies  often reference the cube and its inventor. Had a Serb, Romanian, or Austrian invented it, there probably would not be giant statues in the toy’s honor in Hungary. In a way, the innocuous toy puzzle is a symbol of nationalism.

Nationalism is strongly associated with right–wing politics. In the US, it is the Republicans who are more skeptical of the UN, and it is usually conservatives who show the most pride in being American citizens. In other countries, nationalist parties, even if they have little else in common with US Republicans, are routinely labeled as right-wing. By most measures, nationalism belongs firmly in right-wing ideology. But how important should nationalism be to right-wing parties, if at all? (Nationalism, like most political terms, is too vague to use without defining it first. By nationalism, I mean the extent to which a country minds its own affairs, as opposed to internationalism where countries bind themselves together by treaty or supranational governments, beyond simple trade agreements.)

Today, the European Union is the most ambitious undertaking of international government. After two world wars caused in part by militant nationalism, a focus on internationalism seems fitting. The Union has grown from 6 to 28 members since its beginning, with even more prospective members. Its economic integration has bolstered international trade, and it has successfully eased travel restrictions.

However, some members of the European Union are having second thoughts. Euro-skepticism is especially prevalent in Hungary, where as many citizens oppose the EU as support it. Hungary is a great example of the conflict between nationalism and internationalism, as the EU plays power games with its current nationalist government.

It started in the 2010 parliamentary election, when Hungary took a dramatic turn towards nationalism. The center-right Fidesz party, running on a nationalist platform, had an electoral landslide, winning a majority of the popular vote and taking a two-thirds majority of the parliament seats. Meanwhile, the Jobbik party, radical nationalists, placed third in the popular vote with 16%, a sizeable minority. It would be a stretch to say that the election was primarily about nationalism. The preceding socialist party had ruled parliament since 2002, and had become deeply unpopular due to the depressed economy, rampant corruption in the party, and a scandal in which a top party official admitted that the socialists had lied to the country in order to stay in power. Still, even if the election was more about rejecting socialism than supporting nationalism, nationalism is an important influence on Fidesz and Jobbik’s ideologies.

The Fidesz government later found itself in a battle of wills against the European Union. It started when Fidesz used its two-thirds majority in parliament to pass a series of controversial laws. They adopted a new state constitution (to replace the temporary constitution created after the fall of the Soviet Union) – with a controversial preamble peppered with references to God and the Holy Crown. Fidesz also used its political might to pass judicial reforms that forced several judges out of office, and also media regulations that gave the government greater control over radio stations. The opposition party, and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, and foreign governments such as Germany and France decried such legislation as authoritarian.

Enter the European Union. Condemning the new Hungarian constitution as contrary to European values, the EU decided to test its political influence over Hungary. According to the EU critics, Hungary’s new laws threatened the independence of the judiciary and censored media, and its new constitution lacked legitimacy since it was written and approved by a single ruling party. Based on these faults, the European Commission concluded that Hungary violated democratic principles of the EU.

The European Commission made formal objections to Hungary, threatening to take  legal action. The EU has some limited, though potent, powers to check its members. The European Court of Justice can fine members if they are too un-democratic, and in extreme cases the EU can even suspend a member’s voting rights, though this is a drastic measure. Still, the EU has used its influence successfully, forcing Hungary to make concessions. For example, Hungary dropped a plan to consolidate its central bank with its financial market regulator, which had been criticized by the EU as threatening the central bank’s independence.

The EU has another potent tool: money. Along with the International Monetary Fund, the EU has dictated some of Hungary’s financial policy.  Hungary is a net recipient of EU money and loans, but these funds can and do come with strings attached. Hungary has been forced to control its national debt and to slash public spending to qualify for funds, for example. The EU and IMF also obliged Hungary to repeal various banking laws, mostly involving the central bank. These developments should be good news to anti-nationalists.

To be sure, Hungary has not swallowed these tactics without protest. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been unapologetic about his government coalition, and has vigorously defended his policies and attacked the EU for interfering.

On one hand, the actions of the EU have been helpful. The Fidesz party has gone too far in some of its political reforms. The stifling media laws encourage self-censorship, since critics of the government fear losing their broadcasting license come renewal time, and the independence of the judiciary has been seriously challenged by the forced removal of opposition judges. The EU has legitimate objections to Hungary’s government. Moreover, Hungary is a voluntary member of the union – it was never forced to join.

Even so, these problems should be solved by Hungarians themselves. The EU is setting an ugly precedent for international governments. The Fidesz party are legitimate representatives of Hungary, and their 2010 election landslide surely gives them a mandate to pass laws. The implementation of the new constitution was legal and valid. Yet politicians in the EU apparently think that the Hungarian constitution should need their approval too. If the EU has the authority to bully a nation over its most fundamental laws, then there is nothing to prevent the EU from use its political muscle against any law it deems wrong.

The EU should not pretend it can speak for Hungarians about Hungarian law. Hungary has a unique language, history, and culture that separate it from Western Europe. It was isolated from the West for years behind the Iron Curtain. A statesman from Brussels is alien to Hungarian society; they may be on the same geographic continent, but the similarities end there. A Hungarian has no significant connection to a German or a Frenchman or a Dutchman; that is why Hungarians proudly celebrate the Rubik’s cube and not, say, Legos. Since the EU is not representative of  the Hungarian people, any law imposed by the EU on Hungary is un-democratic. Whether a given Hungarian constitution is good or bad is beside the point. Hungary shouldn’t have to defend its constitution from such disconnected foreigners.

These are the natural consequences of internationalism, however, even if Hungary is an extreme case. Any government organization – local, national, or supranational – will always try to maximize its influence, and Hungary has seen this nasty effect in the EU. As supranational governments grow, national governments must consequently become weaker.

Conservatives have long valued individual liberty, presuming the individual knows what’s best rather than the collective wisdom of a national government. It makes sense then that conservatives value nationalism too – letting countries decide their own fate instead of trusting a removed supranational organization. It’s naïve to pretend that people from different nations are all basically the same. There are real differences between nations, but an international government cannot evenly account for these differences. Unless it’s impotent, it will force the same values on all its member nations. Large governments and one-size-fits-all approaches are hardly hallmarks of conservatism. Conservatives should continue to embrace nationalism.


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