The European Union (EU) and Germany, the next EU presidency, rightly called the death of African-American, George Floyd, by police in the U.S. an “abuse of power” and called for an immediate de-escalation of tensions.
It was an important and welcome intervention, however, it was morally and politically inconsistent with the EU’s own silence on public displays of hate and brutality in its own yard. In the context of the bloc’s troubles with far-right terrorism in recent years, in Germany for example, this is even more appalling.
For example, the EU officials, as well as most other European leaders, were deafeningly silent in 2016, when a Romani man, Miroslav Demeter, was killed by the police in comparable circumstances in the Czech Republic.
Moreover, in stark contrast with anti-racist protests in the US, a neo-Nazi protest in Hungary, just a few days ago, went by without any official statement by the leadership in Brussels or Berlin.
Indeed, the politics of racism against the Roma has taken a new level during the rule of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. The case of Gyöngyöspata exemplifies this point. Despite a court ruling, which found that the historic ethnic segregation of Roma pupils in the town’s schools was unlawful, Prime Minister Orbán has sought political capital from blocking the payout of the compensation, and labelling the victims as “aggressors against the majority”.
For Orban, the ploy is simple. Wounded by the losses in last year’s local elections, his ruling party, Fidesz, is using the assaults on the Roma as a vehicle to attract far-right voters; as a precedent for overpowering the courts; and as a diversionary tactic, to steer focus from his administration’s faltering education policies and the under-funding of key public health services.
Far-right terrorism on the rise
These attacks go against the fundamental values and interests of the EU. Yet, the institution, and its key leaders – such as European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen – are silent.
This could be for three key reasons. First, the likes of von der Leyen, might consider the events in Hungary as ‘fringe’, especially against a backdrop of COVID-19. Yet, this is too narrow in its perspective. For its clear Orbán is making significant contributions to the kind of racism that feeds far-right terrorism, including the one we witnessed in Germany recently. In the last five years, far-right terrorism has grown over 320 per-cent globally. It is now a transnational threat not only in terms of its racist ideology, but also in how it operates across borders.
The silence could also stem from the economic interests of the bloc’s lead country, Germany. After all, Germany is its main bilateral trading partner, with over 3,000 German firms operating out of Hungary. Aware of the incentives of German businesses, Orban and his party aim to expand the economic cooperation and thereby strengthen the German and EU avoidance strategy. For example, Hungary was the biggest buyer of German weapons in 2019.
Third, there’s the issue of Fidesz, its association with the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU in the European People’s Party, and its votes in the EU Council. This is part of so-called authoritarian equilibrium, a problem that the EU’s suffers from. The party politics that gives the EU legitimacy also prevents it from interference in the politics of member states.
Those in power get EU funding and investment, while dissatisfied citizens are free to move to the Western Europe, which depletes political opposition and generates remittances. Prime Minister Orban is perhaps the champion of using this political weakness of the EU in this regard.
Since Orbán’s recent moves go against the very core of EU’s values-based system, it is high time the bloc’s leadership spoke out and said “enough is enough.” This would be a deeply ethical decision and would require some business and political sacrifices. And, certainly, it could be that Orban has succeeded in convincing enough parts of the EU and German establishment that those sacrifices might be too big for them.
However, with this view, the EU, and its leading players, such as Chancellor Merkel, miscalculate the short-term profit from the stability of Orban’s regime. They do not grasp the implications, and the fact that Orban’s politics of enabling the far right is eroding pillars of the EU. At the end of the day, the German and overall EU economies do not depend on Hungary. It is the other way around. The instability of the EU carries far graver consequences for Germany than the instability of Orban.
The EU has an opportunity to take strong measures against home-grown racism and far-right terror during the presidency of Germany because this is the member state that has progressed the most on collective memory and responsibility for their atrocities during the World War II.
The death of George Floyd and the eruption of protests across European capitals provide an imperative to take steps in this direction, and to ensure that the groups targeted by racism, such as Roma, are protected against the politics of far-right that poison Hungary and the rest of Europe.
_ Zeljko Jovanovic is director of the Roma Initiatives Office at the Open Society Foundation._