A New Era of Ethno-Nationalism in Europe: Why Hungary is Just the Start


Sumantra Maitra

A New Era of Ethno-Nationalism in Europe: Why Hungary is Just the Start

The Internet awoke to images of a camerawoman from Hungarian nationalist TV channel N1TV kicking and tripping refugee children as they fled from police. Petra Laszlo had been filming the refugees as they scrambled to get away from a police crackdown. A father holding his daughter in his arms stumbled and fell when she stuck her leg out in front of him. As he pulled himself up and asked why he’d been kicked, she continued to film. German TV channels picked up the footage and it went viral, prompting others to come forward with examples of similar attacks by Laszlo, including two separate incidents with a refugee boy and girl. She has since been fired from N1TV, but the incident sparked furious debate across Europe.

As bizarre as these scenes are, somehow they don’t defy logic. It’s been asked whether Laszlo was just doing her job by antagonising the refugees since sensationalism sells in TV land. A rambling, angry Syrian dad and a scared and helpless-looking child would both make for great clips after editing by the nationalist broadcaster. They are exactly the sorts of images that could be used to justify the narrative of Europe under siege being promoted by N1TV, which is closely links to Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party. But what if this view of Laszlo is a bit too simple? What if she was just an everyday person earning her living who was swept away by the constant flood of fascist propaganda all around her? What if, in a moment of genuine hatred and anger, she actually wanted to kick a young girl who was fleeing brutal bombings in her own country? And what if this is the start of a virulent new strain of xenophobia whose like has rarely been seen since the 1930s? The narrative, the fever-pitch rhetoric and the scene of a partisan and divided Europe all recall the situation 80 years ago. And that didn’t end well. Fascism is, after all, at its core an idea. And a little of it exists in every ethno-religious-sectarian group which raises its ugly head in times like these when war and economic downturn are the norms of the day.

It’s worth asking why Viktor Orban, Hungary’s maverick head of state, is fuelling this hatred. Some context is needed here. Orban is one of the old guard of nationalist student leaders who  spearheaded the movements that liberated Eastern Europe in 1989. This role in opening up Hungary’s borders makes his recent actions especially ironic. However, Orban is just reflecting the mood in his country and across a massive section of the European populace. And he has done this lately by following European rules; in other words, he has paid the EU back in its own currency. Hungary has declined to open its borders to the non-EU masses, thus frustrating an increasing number of refugees who are making the exodus to the West. In the midst of all the media hype, he has masterfully seized the chance to lecture Europe, choosing words rarely used within the stiff and pompous European bureaucracy. Instead, he has played to the gallery, insisting that Europe’s Christian roots are under threat and warning Europeans they may become a minority on their own continent as demographics change with the constant new arrivals.

Of course, Hungary had to release the refugees it apprehended; there was never any doubt that it would only temporarily detain them. But in two days of drama and the subsequent media coverage, Orban’s message had been communicated, and it resonated with a segment of the European crowd. Eurosceptics from Britain to Slovakia were rejuvenated. Fascist, ultra-nationalist and far-right forces took to the streets chanting Orban’s words. In his own country, he succeeded in taking the wind out of Jobbik’s sails, locating himself to the right of the far-right party. Orban’s party put up billboards warning migrants ‘not to take our jobs.’ They said nothing of the bitter irony that Hungarians, Czechs and Poles headed to Western Europe to do jobs like construction work and taxi driving might now find these posts taken by migrants from the Arab world.

But the problems go far deeper. The main question in the popular narrative is why Europe is bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis while the Gulf countries are being spared.  And outside of Germany and Sweden, the current intensity of anti-migrant sentiment in Europe is unbelievable. In this climate, shoddy attempts like the one by Bloomberg View’s Leonid Bershidsky (04 September 2015) to explain Gulf countries’ reluctance to take in refugees do more harm than good. It is, of course, true that, as Bershidsky says, the Gulf States are bombing ISIS and engaged in conflict. But the same also applies to Europeans. Similarly, the risk that Gulf States could face blowback from demographic changes is just as real for Europeans. And while nativists might rebel in Gulf States, we know that nativists in Europe are already being violent and there is a backlash happening currently.

More interesting are the latest data on the refugees  released by UNHCR on its site (‘Refugees/Migrants Emergency Response – Mediterranean,’ September 2015).  Strikingly, these charts show that male migrants massively outnumber women and children. Men represent 66% of the new arrivals, and 8% of them also come from “other places” including countries like the Ivory Coast where there is absolutely no war going on. This is the exact reverse of the trend seen in all other wars in recent memory in which women and children were sent off as refugees while the men stayed back to fight. It is a new phenomenon and one that absolutely no one is highlighting. Another very important question being pondered in Europe concerns the loyalty of the “refugees” who have chosen not to stay and fight to make their “own” countries better places: what allegiance will they have to their hosts in places as culturally diverse as Scandinavia, Germany, Italy and England? This is the main concern of policy-makers and it has far-reaching implications. Recent weeks have seen reports of massive clashes at processing centres including one on the historic Greek island of Lesbos where migrants entered a fierce fight with local police.

The dream of the European Union is falling apart, and pointing this out is neither sensationalism nor conflict-mongering; it is stating a fact. European leaders must act fast to ensure stability. As far as ethno-nationalism, social cohesion and war are concerned, Europeans don’t have history on their side.

2020 - Volume 14 Issue 3