He doesn’t need a referendum. And even though the public is overwhelmingly pro-EU right now, Orbán’s information bubble is complete and it can turn things around at record speed.
It has been years since Orbán’s anti-EU campaign started. The massive advertising and billboard campaigns, alongside a referendum, was used to attack “Brussels” (not the EU) and particular politicians in it. The attacks never relented, even if sometimes they retreated into pundits’ rants. And now that Orbán confirmed himself as the unquestioned ruler who can not be removed within his own system, he may actually choose to leave the EU.
No, it is not in the country’s interest. But the whole problem with autocracy is that the interest of the people who live in it doesn’t matter anymore, only that of the ruling elite. And Orbán only benefits from the cash the EU sends – while hating the rules that come with it. Like being a democracy and having some sort of prosecution for stealing EU cash. If the Article 7 procedure accelerates and money keeps being blocked – what is the use of the EU for him?
It is not in Orbán’s personal interest to stay in the EU. The money is not coming any more and prosecution may. Who needs that? And if it wasn’t for his role as Putin’s emissary to Europe he would probably have already left.
For the time being Orbán can buy time blocking effective sanctions against Russia and blackmailing the EU for cash in exchange for not doing it. But it doesn’t seem like a comfortable position for someone whose political ego goes unchecked at home – and who finds it incredibly offensive that he is not revered as some sort of autocratic vanguard in the world.
Putin’s war started a few weeks before Orbán’s reelection. It could have been a lethal blow to his campaign, has it not been for his complete and absolute control over the information flow outside of Budapest. He now controls the media so completely that an entire alternative universe has been created where even the problems caused by Orbán are blamed on the opposition (and the EU) that have not been in power for 12 years. Putin’s war has been turned into a peace-and-gas narrative in just two weeks.
Right now the support for the EU is at record high near 90%. But how long would it take to turn that around as well? Not that he needs to because Orbán doesn’t need a referendum to take the country out of the EU.
According to the relevant treaties a country can leave according to its own constitutional rules and if that doesn’t include a referendum then tough luck for the people who wish to remain EU citizens. And Hungary’s departure will also probably be faster than Britain’s. Not only are negotiators more practiced – no one cares if a tiny troublemaker wants to exit.
One of Orbán’s pet opposition parties, the one-man party hitherto named after its founder (and only member) has renamed itself ‘Huxit’ party yesterday. This guy has been used by Orbán to suggest things and laws that are useful for Orbán. He suggested the amendments to the basic law allowing the outsourcing of public wealth and assets into private foundation – that was accepted even though non-Fidesz proposals are swept down the table, sometimes without even a vote because they re annoying. He was also the one who suggested the change to the election law allowing referendums to be held on the same day as the elections (that allowed Orbán to spend tens of millions more on his campaign under he disguise of advertising the homophobic referendum). And his “party” didn’t run in 2022, just to make sure he doesn’t accidentally take away votes from Orbán. He is not a member of the parliament right now.
There are other signs. Pundits and Orbánist talking heads keep ranting about the horror of EU membership and how threatening it is to our national identity, how the EU wants to force us to admit non-white people and let children change their sex. An anonymous “reader’s” letter has been published on one of their websites, claiming to be just a mother and decrying the way the EU wants to tear the fabric of our certainties that men are fathers and women are mothers, like Orbán’s constitution declares. It all triggers memories of pre-1989 Russian occupation when the regimes used these tools (and this very rhetoric) to blast the West in the Party-controlled media. Up to and including fearful mothers’ open letters.
Orbán is well known to test and channel certain issues through outsourcing them to his pet opposition parties or to the “Christian democratic” members of his own party “coalition” that is not really a coalition at all. He did the same with vaccine skeptics as he could not appeal to them while also running a vaccine campaign. So another party of his own making campaigned to “end covid-dictatorship” and got into parliament where they can now support Orbán. Or not. They are not needed – but they are loyal.
If an issue sticks, he will co-opt it. If it is opposite to his agenda – like the fight against corruption – he outsources it to one of his pet opposition parties.
But once again, he doesn’t need our support to get the country out of the EU. The question is not whether he can do it – but whether something bad happens to him if he does. Only to consequences, and only to his person, can stop him from doing it.