Chutzpah in Strasbourg

Chutzpah in Strasbourg
Members of the European Parliament applaud Dutch MEP Judith Sargentini after members of the European Parliament after a vote in Strasbourg, France, to launch action against Hungary for allegedly undermining the bloc's democratic values, Wednesday, Sept.12, 2018. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

Chutzpah, an Aramaic word for unbridled effrontery, came to America via Yiddish. It’s the man who enters a revolving door after you and comes out first. It’s the fellow who murdered his parents and asks for clemency because he’s an orphan. And now it’s the backers of an unelected supranational European government casting a vote of censure against Hungary. The European parliament in Strasbourg said this week that it

Regrets that the developments in Hungary have led to a serious deterioration of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights over the past few years, inter alia, freedom of expression, academic freedom, the human rights of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, freedom of assembly and association, restrictions and obstructions to the activities of civil society organisations, the right to equal treatment, the rights of people belonging to minorities, including Roma, Jews and LGBTI people, social rights, the functioning of the constitutional system, the independence of the judiciary and of other institutions and many worrying allegations of corruption and conflicts of interest, which, taken together, could represent an emerging systemic threat to the rule of law in this Member State.

The notion that minorities, religious, sexual or otherwise, are under threat in Hungary is at variance with the facts; in the case of the Jews, as I reported in this space some months ago, it is diametrically opposite to the facts. Jewish life flourishes in Budapest as in no other European capital.

Prime Minister Orban’s crime in the eyes of the European Parliament may be just the opposite: He was elected for a third term last April 8 by a two-thirds majority, which makes him the most popular leader in Europe. In fact, he may be the only popular leader in Europe; I cannot think off-hand of another European head of government with a popularity rating of more than 40%. Germany’s two ruling parties, the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, together poll at just 46%. France’s Emmanuel Macron stands at 31%. The two Italian populist parties, who have mutually incompatible agendas and entirely different constituencies, poll at around 30% each. Spain is ruled by a minority party. Britain’s Theresa May polls around 25%.

And then we have Viktor Orban, who has governed Hungary for eight years, long enough for the voters to get to know him, with an enormous popular majority. He gained the majority by good economic management (Hungary has a fast-growing economy and a labor shortage) and by opposing large-scale Muslim immigration against the efforts of the European Commission to impose this on Hungary. There are right-wing European radicals who should worry us, for example, Germany’s Alternative fürDeutschland (AfD). But Mr. Orban is not one of them; he is a Calvinist married to a Catholic with five children, whose model of a European politician is Germany’s late Christian Democratic Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Mr. Orban’s opponents claim that he has put his thumb on the scales by using state institutions to build media support for the government, but no one says that he has falsified votes or intimidated opponents. Opposition politics in Hungary is open and uninhibited.

The unelected European Commission, with members appointed by governments that represent a minority of their voters, ordered Hungary to accept its quota of so-called refugees, and Hungary refused. Last year it ordered Poland to rescind a judicial reform that gives the elected legislature a modicum of authority over appointed judges, many of whom retain lifetime appointments from the Communist era. Poland and Hungary refused the imperial decree from the bureaucrats of Brussels, and for this, both countries faced the censure of the European Parliament.

The European Parliament vote also sends a message to President Trump, who has made clear his disapproval of Europe’s migration policy, as well as its failure to fund its own defense. By contrast, the Trump administration has a friend in Orban, as the New York Times complained last month. It also reflects European animosity toward Israel, which has an ally in the Orban government. Above all, the vote expresses the rancor of an unpopular European elite whose hold on power is tenuous, and for whom Mr. Orban’s success appears as a portent of doom.