Europe’s strongmen and democracy | Michael Falzon

Rather than recognising that Fidesz has no place in a party that is supposed to stand for human rights and rule of law, the EPP has decided to embrace it more tightly

Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban
Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban

Democracy is in the doldrums in many countries of the world. A recent ‘Time’ editorial even ‘explained’ how democracy dies. However, it ended by saying that ‘reports of the death of democracy are greatly exaggerated. But the least-bad system of government ever devised is in trouble. It needs defenders.’

The problem is the rise of the so-called ‘strongmen’ thrust into power by populist waves and making a mockery of democracy itself. This is happening in many countries, all over the world, but I will concentrate on Europe.

Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, is a case in point.

On Wednesday Hungary’s parliament approved a so-called “Stop Soros” legislation, which criminalises any aid given to illegal immigrants and imposes a new 25 percent special tax on aid groups that support migration.

The ruling right-wing Fidesz party, which has the majority of seats in parliament, also passed a constitutional amendment that says an “alien population” cannot settle in Hungary. This is ethnic discrimination, pure and simple.

Incidentally Fidesz, an EPP member, got a two thirds majority in Parliament, albeit it got less than two-thirds of the popular vote.

Yet, the European People’s Party (EPP) refuses to stand up for its values and take any action against its Hungarian party member. A year or so ago, the EPP leadership had warned Fidesz’s leader and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban that the party needed to live up to EPP values.

But rather than doing so, Fidesz has further reduced space for civic debates in Hungary, demonising critics and smearing media and non-governmental groups. Populist and xenophobic campaigns accompanied migration policies that are the most restrictive, brutal and degrading in the EU.

Rather than recognising that Fidesz has no place in a party that is supposed to stand for human rights and rule of law, the EPP has decided to embrace it more tightly, presumably, to remain the largest political group in the European Parliament, including after next year’s elections. So, in this case, there is nothing wrong with the number of votes coming before principles!

I wonder what our MEPs David Casa and Roberta Metsola – outspoken critics of Joseph Muscat and consistently alleging that the rule of law is losing ground in Malta – have to say about the situation in Hungary. Their silence about this issue impresses me – in the wrong way, of course.

Then there is Turkey’s Erdogan. Ten years ago or so, Turkey was a budding democracy aspiring to join the EU. Now it is halfway between democracy and dictatorship.

The purge launched by Erdogan after the attempted coup in 2016, jailed over 200,000 citizens, mostly suspected members of the Gulen movement – the Islamist sect that was blamed for the attempt. In Turkey anyone can get arrested for having attended a Gulenist school or for holding an account at a Gulen-owned bank. Erdogan even passed a Constitutional amendment making him ‘executive president’, enabling him to issue decrees and nominate the members of the judiciary.

Still in Europe, we have the rise of Matteo Salvini leader of La Lega which is now the third largest party in Italy with 17.4% of the vote. It shares power with the maverick ‘Cinque Stelle’ but is behaving as if it won the election outright.

Following Salvini’s tiff with Malta on illegal immigrants picked in the Mediterranean, the other Italian deputy Prime Minister, Luigi Di Maio, joined the fray by linking tensions over migrants rescued in the Mediterranean with Sicily allowing electricity to Malta through the interconnector, saying, “We give Malta electricity; there is a cable that starts in Ragusa that gives Malta electricity...” In fact, Malta buys electricity from the European grid supplied through the cable that Malta paid for. Behaving as bullies seems to be the thing that wins votes these days.

Salvini also announced plans to order “a survey of Roma in Italy to find out who, how, how many”, saying the information would be collected in a “register”. He said that the government wants to close all of the ethnic groups’ illegal camps and intends to hold a special ‘census’ of Roma people in Italy, with a view to deporting those without papers.

This is nothing short of discrimination on ethnic grounds, to the extent that Italy’s Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, felt he had to intervene to stop this abusive policy.

This wave of despicable policies makes mockery of whatever one considers as ‘European values’, by those pushing populist far-right policies by depicting them to be the right medicine for the current troubles of Europe.

This is nothing short of nonsense, of course.


Second thoughts

After falsely blaming others for his policy of separating immigrant children from their parents – a practice that triggered a political storm and swift international condemnation – US President Donald Trump had second thoughts and signed an executive order to stop the despicable practice. His wife and daughter urged him to do so, he said.

The executive order states the administration will “maintain family unity, including by detaining alien families together where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources. It is unfortunate that Congress’s failure to act and court orders have put the Administration in the position of separating alien families to effectively enforce the law.”

The US was sending babies and other young children forcibly separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border to at least three “tender age” shelters in South Texas. At least 2,000 children had been torn from their parents under Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy.

Lawyers and medical providers who visited the Rio Grande Valley shelters described play rooms of crying preschool-age children as poignant scenes. The government also planned to open a fourth shelter to house hundreds of young migrant children in Houston.

Trump’s U-turn came after he faced intense pressure from across the political spectrum and from religious, political and world leaders to halt the separations, which produced days of distressing media coverage of crying children – some of whom were kept in cage-like sections in detention centres.

The President had claimed that he was not backing down but after a meeting with Homeland Security Secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, and other key officials on Wednesday, Trump decided to change his stance.

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