At the tender age of nine, Frank Furedi found himself in the middle of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. He remembers that “everything seemed to come alive and everything seemed possible”. And it is the potential of ordinary people to strike out for freedom and shape their own destiny has inspired Furedi’s work ever since.
His seventeenth book, Populism and the European Culture Wars, has just been published and on Wednesday 13th September, at Rich Mix in London, Furedi joins Gisela Stuart for a public discussion on the principles of popular sovereignty and how they can be positively applied in the post-Brexit era.
Furedi felt an urgent need to write his latest book when the Brexit vote “fuelled a reaction against populism”. Residing in Hungary for much of last year, Furedi saw that the attacks levelled against that country, by the EU-influenced media, were motivated by the same impulses driving the anti-Brexit sentiment in the UK.
“These attacks said more about the undemocratic spirit of Brussels than anything that was going on in Budapest or Birmingham,” says Furedi. “The Brexit vote caught almost everyone unexpectedly, including the people on the pro-Brexit side. Why? Because people have been so used to citizens voting along predictable lines, the idea that people would ignore all the helpful advice they were given was seen as unthinkable.
“In many respects, the fact that so many people had the confidence to follow their best instincts, rather than play the role that was assigned to them, was a very positive development and an important moment politically. It called into question the capacity of the new political establishment to simply have their own way.”
Residing in Hungary and lecturing across Europe, Furedi has developed a wider perspective. “A lot of people across Europe like the fact that people in the UK voted for Brexit because they, themselves, have profound reservations about the EU. However, many think that the British can do it, but that Hungary, for example, is too weak. ‘We are too dependent on the EU to follow your path’ was frequently heard. However, they are encouraged, because they understand that if the UK leaves, that strikes a blow for freedom and a blow against the EU. It weakens the superstate tendencies that the Brussels bureaucrats perpetuate.”
So, is it really true that there are similarities between the UK and Hungary? The Hungarian Government is portrayed as nationalistic and hostile to foreigners, especially refugees. Is it not a very different political environment?
Furedi continues: “Hungary is a very divided society, just like Britain is. I think that the Government has a bad press in the West. It is not God’s gift to human civilisation, but the Hungarian Government is a traditional conservative government, like the Adenauer Government in Germany or that of De Gaulle in France. They are conservative nationalists and illiberal, but no better or worse than old-fashioned conservative governments.
“They appear extraordinary because there are very few of these types of governments left any more, ones that stand up for national sovereignty or for the values that are integral to their culture. They are seen as unacceptable and portrayed as xenophobic or extreme nationalist. However, Budapest is as open and fluid and, in many respects, as tolerant as London. There are problems there, but there is nothing qualitatively different. The presentation of Hungarian culture as extreme does not correspond with reality”.
So, why does Furedi think that the EU is so hostile to national sovereignty, especially with regards to the former communist countries? “Originally, before the EU was created, the European Economic Community believed in a Europe of Nations. What they liked about Europe was the diversity of national cultures. However, the EU is a political union. It has a different idea of diversity. It likes minority rights, regional rights, cultural identity rights and gender rights. It celebrates all rights, except national rights. The EU is committed to diminishing the influence of national consciousness; its idea of diversity no longer extends to the celebration of national cultures. Instead, diversity has become a medium through which national political life is weakened and undermined”.
But isn’t ‘populist’ nationalism dangerous, I ask? “For the EU, any form of nationalism is now seen as an incipient form of Nazism. It no longer understands that there are variants of national consciences ranging from national sensibility to national pride to patriotism all the way to xenophobia – it is not a natural continuum. Just because you have a strong sense of national pride doesn’t mean that you are likely to don a brown shirt next week. This is a fantasy that the EU peddles in order to strengthen its own position.
“The EU has become an institution that, itself, has strong imperial ambitions. A number of bureaucrats have gone on record as talking about the EU as a new type of empire. If you live in Hungary or Eastern Europe, you are constantly lectured about how to live your life, what is and isn’t appropriate and how civilised people behave. It is unsurprising that they feel that the EU is acting as their colonial masters talking down to them.”