George Szirtes is a celebrated British-Hungarian translator and poet who arrived in England as a refugee at the age of eight, a self-described “English poet who has never written a poem in Hungarian,” a former professor, the son of a Jew who changed his name from Shwartz for safety’s sake, and above all else, a European.
The 68-year-old Szirtes is not accustomed to staking out a political standpoint and fighting its cause. Szirtes won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize for his first volume of poetry, The Slant Door, in 1979, and two years ago he shared the Man Booker translation award with Ottilie Mulzet when the international prize went to Hungary’s László Krasznahorkai. In between, Szirtes has been awarded the T.S. Eliot Prize and a host of distinctions for his plays and librettos and poems.
An Honorary Fellow of Goldsmith’s College in London, a quiet writing life in Norfolk should be his reward by now. Instead, Szirtes has found himself thrown into the struggle for Europe—for the very idea of Europe—a cause that has been taking a great kicking from all sides lately. In recent days, Szirtes and tens of thousands of brave young Hungarians, in a most unexpected turn of events, have been kicking back.
The main battleground has been in the streets of Budapest, in the vicinity of the Central European University, a prestigious independent university established a quarter of a century ago, shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed and the brittle Warsaw Pact regimes gave way to what Szirtes and so many of his generation were once convinced would be a lasting emancipation from tyranny.
“We thought we were going to get a social democratic Europe,” Szirtes told me during a conversation the other day. “That is not what has happened.”
In Hungary, what has happened is the populist, xenophobic, nationalism of Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been slowly tightening the noose on liberal democracy, by way of constitutional amendments and statutory encroachments upon the formerly independent judiciary, the news media, civil society organizations, and now, the University of Central Europe.
On April 9, at least 70,000 people streamed along the west bank of the Danube River to protest a proposed law on higher education that would effectively shut down the university. Orban and his ruling Fidesz party insist that the university, founded with funds provided by the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, is merely an instrument Soros is using to interfere with Hungary’s internal affairs.
To Orban, and to far-right demagogues and conspiracy theorists throughout Europe and the United States, the Budapest-born Soros is a kind of totemic hate figure. Soros, whose Budapest-based Open Society Foundation sponsors hundreds of civil-socety initiatives devoted to free speech, individual rights and democratic governance throughout the world, fled Hungary in his teens as a Jewish refugee.
Michael Ignatieff, the Harvard academic and former Canadian Liberal leader who has served as the CEU’s president and rector since August, 2014, insists that Soros is merely the university’s founding benefactor, and otherwise has no influence on the institution. But Orban’s Fidesz party persists in the Soros conspiracy theory.
Orban’s government appears to have been taken aback by the scale of the protests, however, which continued last weekend as several thousand people marched through downtown Budapest. “There is an awful lot of bottled up resentment that has come out now,” Szirtes told me. “Each year, another brick in the wall is laid, and the process has been a shutting down of independent opinion in Hungary.”
A few days ago, Szirtes drafted an open letter that condemns Orban’s attack on the CEU and calls on the European Union to intervene. Assisted by the Irish novelist Colm Toibin, Szirtes’ letter quickly garnered the signatures of several hundred prominent writers, artists and intellectuals all over the world. Separately, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Nobel literature prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa called on Orban’s government to withdraw the anti-CEU law, as have more than 1,000 cognitive scientists, including several Harvard, Yale and MIT professors and members of the Royal Society and the British Academy.
The student demonstrators in Budapest are Hungary’s last hope, Szirtes said. In his open letter, he asserts that if Orban is allowed to get away with shutting down the CEU, “it would be a serious blot on the EU’s conscience. . . It reduces Europe. It weakens it. It takes it one step further to the edge of disintegration.”
There have been quite a few steps to that edge lately. The prospect of European disintegration, unthinkable only a few years ago, is very much with us. “What is happening now is an absolutely crucial moment,” Szirtes told me.
In the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, government officials worry that Moscow’s disinformation campaigns, hacking operations and increasingly belligerent rhetoric appear too frighteningly similar to the cyber-warfare and propaganda campaigns the Kremlin waged in the lead-up to its 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. As a gesture of reassurance to Russia’s more vulnerable neighbours, roughly 7,000 troops from various NATO countries have been deployed to the Baltics, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. The Canadian Forces are taking the NATO lead in Latvia.
Europe’s military and political integrity are collapsing under the weight of internal forces, too.
After the June 2016 referendum that narrowly approved a “Brexit” from the European Union, Westminster finally informed the EU last month that it was ready to get down to the dirty work of negotiating the disentanglement of a sixth of Europe’s GDP and 44 years of shared governance from Brussels. This week, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced a snap election, three years ahead of schedule, to earn a negotiating mandate from voters. With Britain’s Labour Party a comical shadow of its former greatness, May is expected to trounce Labour’s oafish Jeremy Corbyn at the polls in June.
Meanwhile, the Polish government is undermining the rule of law so arbitrarily, by sabotaging the independence of the judiciary, trampling on freedom of assembly and interfering with the independent news media, that Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch and other civil society organizations are calling on the European Commission to invoke Article 7 of the EU Treaty against the government in Warsaw. The move could lead to Poland facing sanctions from its fellow EU members.
Negotiations have gone nowhere. “The Polish government hasn’t given us any reasons for optimism. The situation is getting worse,” Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans told members of the Commission’s civil liberties committee last month. But the European Parliament is not expected to stand up to Poland, especially not now that the Brexit talks are about to begin.
Slovakia and the Czech Republic are being drawn ever deeper within Russia’s orbit. The Greek government is running on its third Eurozone bailout since 2010, with an unemployment rate of 23 per cent and nearly half the population relying on pensions or other government benefits. In France, where the first round of voting in presidential elections begins next week, upstart leftist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon is now inching close in the opinion polls to rightist Marine Le Pen. Both of them are neck and neck in a four-way race with the more centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron and conservative Francois Fillon. Le Pen and Melanchon both want France out of the EU.
But it is the political trajectory of “the Visegrad Four,” as Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary are known, that could prove the European Union’s undoing. “Once the paradigmatic example of transition to liberal democracy and market economies,” James Kirchick writes in his just-published book, The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age, “the Visegrad Four are slowly becoming models of regression to illiberal democracy and economic autarky.”
Hungary’s Viktor Orban would not take that as an insult. “Illiberal democracy” is Orban’s own term for the kind of strongman-state he’s trying to build. He identifies Russia, China and Turkey as his inspirational models.
The Visegrad Four have mounted their fiercest revolt against Europe in the matter of the European allotment of refugees for resettlement throughout the Schengen Agreement, a passport-free arrangement involving most of the EU states. Led by Germany’s Angela Merkel, Europe has been struggling to resettle more than a million refugees following the crisis of 2015, when more than a million people, in the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War, arrived on Europe’s southern doorstep.
Orban has flatly refused to accept Hungary’s allotment of 1,200 refugees and has threatened to detain refugees in metal shipping containers if they’re found entering Hungary from the country’s southern borders with Serbia and Croatia. With Orban’s blessing, Hungarian police have recruited and trained 3,000 armed and uniformed volunteer-vigilantes to patrol the borders.
Szirtes watched with dismay as his fellow Britons argued past one another during the shambling debates that preceded last June’s Brexit referendum. There are similarities and differences between the anti-European sentiments at the opposite ends of Europe (“In Hungary, you appeal to the wounds of history. And in Britain, you appeal to the glory of history”) but they end up in the same chaos.
It is not so clearly a conventional European contest, between the Left and the Right—although there is that. “My instinct is that the struggle is between closed societies and open societies,” Szirtes said.
“One of the assumptions of 1989 was that we were moving into a more secular world, and that religion was withering. It is like what happened with the Arab Spring—educated, liberal, progressive people don’t make an army. The whole country, the whole world, was glad that the old order went away, without violence. But there is a history of the hard right in Hungary. We don’t want to become Greece. That’s the monster in the corner that you don’t want to become.”
“So instead, you get xenophobia and nationalism.”