The Illiberal State of Europe

This Sunday, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is set to win another term in national elections, giving him a fresh mandate to advance his project of building what he calls an “illiberal” state at the heart of Europe.


Over the past eight years, Orban’s democratically-elected governments have, in fact, behaved less and less democratically — steadily centralizing power, eroding the independence of the courts, the media, and even cultural institutions.

For Orban and his defenders, this is a closing of ranks meant to defend Hungary’s interests against EU bureaucrats whose policies — particularly on the resettlement of refugees from Syria and North Africa — threaten to dilute Hungary’s traditional Christian identity and reduce its sovereignty. Orban himself openly looks to the authoritarian efficiency of Xi Jinping’s China and the conservative nationalism of Vladimir Putin’s Russia as examples.

His critics, meanwhile, say he has mounted an opportunistic political power play that has enriched friendly oligarchs, deepened economic inequality, and undermined the accountability of the government.

All of this presents a growing existential challenge for the EU. Alongside Poland’s move in a similarly illiberal direction, Orban’s continued strength sharpens two critical questions: First, how to impose costs on countries that buck EU institutions and ideals without alienating them further. And second, how to reconcile the desire of core Western European countries like Germany and France, which seek to further integrate the bloc, with Eastern countries’ resurgent nationalism.

When Donald Trump first started talking about buying Greenland last week, we figured it was a weird story with less legs than a Harp seal.

Signal readers, we were wrong. President Trump was so serious about purchasing the autonomous Danish territory that this week he abruptly cancelled a trip to Denmark after the country's prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, labelled the idea "absurd."

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The Amazon in flames – More than 70,000 forest fires are burning in Brazil right now, most of them in the Amazon. That's up 84% over the same period last year, and it's the highest number on record. This is the dry season when farmers burn certain amounts of forest legally to clear farmland. But critics say Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro's efforts to loosen conservation rules have encouraged farmers, loggers, and miners to set more fires, many of them illegally. Bolsonaro – a science skeptic who recently fired the head of the agency that tracks deforestation – says, without proof, that NGOs are setting the fires to embarrass his government. Meanwhile, the EU is holding up a major trade deal with Brazil unless Bolsonaro commits to higher environmental protection standards, including those that affect the Amazon.

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Over the past fifty years, the Amazon rainforest has shrunk by an area equal to the size of Turkey. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Brazilian government supported settlement of the sparsely populated region for security reasons. Since then, huge swaths of the forest -- which is crucial for limiting the world's greenhouse gasses -- have been cleared for farmland used to feed Brazil's population and support its massive agricultural exports. Greater awareness of the environmental impacts in the 1990s produced tighter conservation regulations, though plenty of illegal clearing continues. In recent years, the annual deforestation rate has begun to rise again, and Brazil's new president Jair Bolsonaro has pledged to weaken regulations further in order to support businesses.

3: The US has recruited Australia to join its nascent mission of protecting ships in the critical Strait of Hormuz. Along with Britain and Bahrain, Australia is now the third country to join the US-led maritime mission, as high seas brinksmanship with the Iranians continues.

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