Despite high support for EU membership in Hungary, over a decade of Eurosceptic rhetoric by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party has had a lasting impact on voters’ attitudes. In the coming years, negative campaigns against the EU may become even more prevalent in Hungarian politics.
Various aspects of the relationship between the Hungarian government and the EU institutions have become sources of conflict in the political communication of the Orbán government, leading to negative campaigning against the EU as a permanent political tool for Fidesz. Recently, these issues have involved debates regarding the rule of law and the quality of Hungarian democracy, the issue of EU funding, EU sanctions on Russia over the war in Ukraine, political control over higher education, and the situation of LGBTQ rights. Moreover, ‘Brussels’ has been under attack over immigration for years. The Orbán government commonly portrays the EU as a hostile actor threatening Hungarian interests. The government communicates that Hungarians need to be protected from the EU in the same way as from the US-Hungarian billionaire George Soros. It also communicates that they need to be protected from ‘migrants’, ‘western liberals’, ‘gender ideology’, and ‘critical NGOs’.
Due to its anti-EU rhetoric over the past 13 years, academic literature now widely describes Fidesz as a Eurosceptic party. Fidesz’s shift towards Euroscepticism can be seen not only in its positions on the EU, but also in the attitudes of its voters. It is important to emphasise that in the Hungarian context, the high support for EU membership, which remains stable at around 70 per cent, is not a suitable indicator of the complexity of Hungarians’ attitudes towards the EU. According to Policy Solutions’ research on EU attitudes in Hungary, both Fidesz and opposition voters generally agree that Hungary should remain in the EU. However, they have differing views on what they want from the EU. While two-thirds of opposition voters would not only stay in the EU, but also give the EU important powers, Fidesz voters are almost equally split between support for the ‘Europe of Nations’ concept and the desire to give more powers to the EU institutions, with an additional fifth of Fidesz voters nevertheless wanting to leave the EU altogether. Overall, there is greater support among Fidesz supporters for a policy that emphasises the defence of national sovereignty rather than the promotion of further European integration.
This aligns with the official position of the governing party, as touted by Orbán. Although leading Fidesz politicians have expressed occasional support for leaving the EU, the Hungarian prime minister maintains that it is in Hungary’s best interest to remain a member of the EU. However, Orbán believes the EU must be reformed and ‘put back on the right track’. In his view, the EU should be based on cooperation among nation states, granting more national sovereignty and reducing the EU’s competence and interference in Hungary’s internal affairs from Brussels. Orbán’s position is essentially a fight for sovereignty, which resonates with many governing party supporters.
There are many further signs that Fidesz’s Eurosceptic rhetoric of more than a decade has impacted voters’ attitudes. Around 70 per cent of Fidesz voters agree with the notion, frequently disseminated in government communications, that Brussels bureaucrats aim to force their agenda onto the Hungarian people. This goes together with the fact that ‘excessive regulation’ and ‘loss of national sovereignty’ are widely seen as the most significant drawbacks of EU membership. It is also due to the Orbán government’s messaging that in recent years voters increasingly name immigration as one of the biggest disadvantages of EU membership. Consequently, of all public policy areas, migration is the one they would most like to see fall under member states’ competence. Furthermore, there is a demand for a cultural and nationalist critique of the EU in Hungarian society. Right-wing socio-cultural values (especially anti-multiculturalism and pro-sovereignty) are associated with higher levels of Euroscepticism.
Diverging ideas about the future of the EU could further polarise Hungarian society. If the focus of the debate on the EU is not whether Hungary should stay in or leave the EU, but whether deeper integration or more national sovereignty is needed, then the distribution on either side of the debate is more even in Hungarian society. Furthermore, as long as Fidesz takes a pro-sovereignty and EU-critical stance, and refrains from making Hungary’s EU membership a point of contention, it will continue on a trajectory that resonates with most of its voters.
Disputes between the EU and the Hungarian government about EU funds pose a significant threat to the level of support for the EU in Hungary. This is because Hungarians primarily view EU membership as beneficial due to the EU funds and the potential for economic development they bring. Should Hungary’s access to EU funds remain frozen for a more extended period, the question of who will be held responsible by Hungarian voters becomes crucial. While the external observer could assume that the Orbán government would be blamed for being denied funds based on rule-of-law and corruption concerns, the complex nature of domestic political communication in Hungary makes the situation less clear-cut. In the blame game, whether the narrative of the government or the opposition proves to be more effective could have a significant impact. Given Fidesz’s extensive media machinery and its ability to influence public opinion on a wide range of issues in recent years, there is a genuine risk that the government would effectively frame the freezing of EU funds as a punishment for the Hungarian government’s dissenting policies on a range of topics, from migration, to LGBTQ issues, to sanctions policy.
Moreover, amidst a cost-of-living crisis, the government appears strongly inclined to attribute every domestic economic challenge to the EU. With the upcoming European Parliament elections in 2024, the Orbán government will probably continue to project the image of the EU as its primary adversary. As a result, Eurosceptic voices in Hungary will likely not only persist in the coming years, but may become even more prevalent in domestic politics. In this context, it is the responsibility of progressive, pro-EU parties to emphasise that Orbán’s policies have resulted in a lack of EU funds and that the government’s conduct in recent years has significantly damaged national interests.
Author: András Bíró-Nagy, Director of Policy Solutions
Policy Solutions is a progressive political research institute based in Budapest. It was founded in 2008 and it is committed to the values of liberal democracy, solidarity, equal opportunity, sustainability and European integration. The focus of Policy Solutions’ work is on understanding political processes in Hungary and the European Union. Among the pre-eminent areas of our research are the investigation of how the quality of democracy evolves, the analysis of factors driving euroscepticism, populism and the far-right, and election research.
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