The Tories were the only governing conservative party in western Europe to support Viktor Orbán in the European Parliament’s vote on the rule of law in Hungary last month.
At euronews, we believe all views matter. We asked British members of the European Parliament from different political parties to share their perspective on the vote and its possible consequences. This is the response of Neena Gill, Labour MEP for the West Midlands. See what other politicians had to say here.
By Neena Gill
Violations of press freedom, restrictions on judicial independence, the tearing up of human rights and the undermining of democracy. What we are witnessing today in Hungary takes us back to one of the darkest chapters in Europe’s history.
As such, it is absolutely right that the European Parliament adopted in September the Sargentini Report, aimed at putting pressure on the European Council to launch infringement proceedings against Hungary for its clear deviation from basic EU principles and norms under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his governing Fidesz party.
My country, the United Kingdom, has been instrumental in championing the values-based system which the EU has been spreading across our continent for over 60 years.
The decision, therefore, by UK Conservative Party MEPs to vote against the Sargentini Report, and to ally with far-right parties in doing so, is a worrying sign of the direction of travel in European politics.
It is also a defining moment in my country’s historic disengagement from the European continent, and a reflection of the moral vacuum into which the UK government has been drawn as a result of its desperation to achieve a fantasy Brexit deal that might be capable of satisfying the anti-European hardliners within the Tory party.
The inheritors of Winston Churchill – one of the leading Europhiles of his age – have abdicated Britain’s historic role as a force for stability on our continent, becoming the only governing conservative party in Western Europe to lend its support to the authoritarian Orbán.
As students of history know – and as British Conservative prime ministers have learned to their disadvantage in attempting to placate Europhobes in their own ranks – appeasement of the far-right does not work; it only emboldens extremism. Tory moderates appear not to have learnt the lessons of the past.
Then Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision in 2009 to pull Tory MEPs out of the European People's Party was a key milestone, reflecting how detached from Europe the Conservative Party had by then already become, but which quickly became a catalyst for further isolation, and can now be seen as a key progenitor of the Brexit quagmire into which my country is sinking at an alarming rate.
Today in Tory circles, whether it be in Cabinet, on the backbenches or in the local constituency, there seems to be little understanding or desire to engage with the currents of thinking that prevail within mainstream European politics. The Palmerstonian belief of many British Conservatives – in the face of all the evidence – that the UK would be able to play one European capital off against another in the final Brexit endgame has, unsurprisingly to most outsiders, proved utterly illusory.
The problem with embracing the politics of the "Honourable Member for the 18th century" (with due deference to the voters of North East Somerset) is that one can get stuck in the gunboat-diplomacy thinking of that century, whereas, in reality, the world has moved on.
The inability of Tory MPs to look beyond zero-sum games and the glories of the past has blinded them to the reality of the European project as seen from the continent – that it is a values-centred, rules-based, competitiveness-enhancing peace project which strengthens the power and the influence of its member states, and which European leaders will do everything in their power to protect.
At a time when the Conservative Party should be trying to maintain as many bridges as possible to our continent in order to retain as much of the benefits of Europe’s post-war architecture as possible, and ensure that we can continue to play a constructive role in European affairs in the years ahead, including in championing human rights, the British government has instead opted to throw in its lot with the racists of Fidesz.
This reckless and dishonourable approach to relations with our European allies was reinforced in September at the Tory party’s annual conference, where Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, the UK’s chief diplomat, compared the European Union to the USSR. More recently, the Tories’ leading MEP, Sayed Kamal, speaking to the plenary of the European Parliament, succeeded in offending – and uniting in condemnation – colleagues from across Europe and across the political spectrum by comparing social democrats and socialists to the Nazis.
It is not altogether surprising that critical negotiations on future UK-EU relations should prove so intractable when some of the decisions and language emanating from leading Conservative Party politicians has more in common with the most extremist elements within European politics than with their erstwhile, mainstream political allies in Europe.
The Tory vote in support of Orbán certainly reflects the desperation of a party that has been tying itself in knots over the question of how to square Theresa May’s divisive red lines over the Single Market and Customs Union with the requirements of the Good Friday Agreement. More fundamentally, however, the British government’s increasingly reactionary tactics and goals can be seen as part of a broader current in Western politics: that of the pent-up desire to hold on to the certainties of the past.
Among the Tory right, the loss of Empire is still fresh in the imagination. In France, decolonisation has seen the rise of the Front National. In Italy, thirty years of stagnation have put the Lega into power. And in Eastern Europe, whether it be in the guise of the AfD in eastern Germany, Fidesz in Hungary or Law and Justice in Poland, where the closed societies of Communist times have been replaced with something radically different, the situation is particularly troubling.
Orbán’s Hungary and Brexit Britain are symptoms of the same malaise that has befallen much of the West as globalisation has gathered pace – a rising sense of dislocation and insecurity, turbocharged by the after-shock of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the manufactured clash of civilisations post-2001, and the financial crisis of 2008 – which the extreme right have been only too capable of exploiting.
And yet it is only by working together as a continent that Europe stands any chance of withstanding the forces that are buffeting it.
Whether it be in terms of embracing clean energy and the transition away from dwindling fossil fuels, protecting our precious environment, managing increasing migratory flows brought on by climate change, leading the new digital and bio-technological revolutions, preventing unfair competition or fighting terrorism, organised crime, tax evasion, tax avoidance and money-laundering, one country standing alone cannot possibly hope to succeed in meeting the multiplicity of challenges ahead.
The likes of Orbán, the demagogues of this world, offer no solutions, only hatred, division and isolation. The Conservative Party, one of my country’s two great political parties, must quickly learn that the next generation of British voters – as well as the ethnic minority communities which they have previously tried to court – care little for the perceived glories of the past. The 21st century will be a progressive century of interconnectedness, where turbo-charged international competition and the ever-escalating impact of climate change will require not simply permanent interests, but permanent friends. It is urgent that we chart the right course for the years and the challenges ahead.
Neena Gill is a Labour MEP for the West Midlands.
Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the author.