8th Feb 2023


Orbán versus the Zoomers

Viktor Orbán has slowly and steadily undermined European fundamental rights and the rule of law in Hungary for years. He got away with it so far, largely thanks to his cunning manoeuvring. But now - suddenly - something seems to have changed.

At a meeting in Brussels on 24 June, European heads of state and government lashed out against Hungary's new bill to restrict visibility of LGBT+ in schools and the media. They lectured Orbán at length, one after another, insisting that a law equating being trans or gay with paedophilia and child pornography violates European values. Orbán left the meeting bruised, saying he felt "attacked" from all sides. Only Poland and Slovenia took his side.

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  • Orban seems to have underestimated the growing influence of the so-called Zoomer generation on the public debate. We probably all underestimated it

Is this a turning point? Has Orbán finally crossed a line? Will he be disciplined at last?

Well, this is now entirely possible. He seems to have underestimated the growing influence of the so-called Zoomer generation on the public debate. We probably all underestimated it.

First, a word about Orbán's tactics. They follow a well-known pattern.

When he is criticised for curtailing the media, he says: 'look, these are just businessmen taking over a newspaper! Wasn't the EU about free markets?' That these businessmen are Orbán loyalists helping him to 'discipline' newspapers, broadcasters and news sites and turn them into mouthpieces of his Fidesz party, was definitely not his responsibility.

And sure, he says, he respects the independent judiciary in Hungary. The accusation that he fired judges was, he insisted, a "misunderstanding": he only intended to lower the judges' retirement age and make way for the younger generation. Wasn't the fight against youth unemployment an EU priority? Well then.

This time, Orbán used another familiar trick: the discriminatory provisions against the LGBTIQ+ community are inserted in an existing law against child pornography and paedophilia.

To critics, he says: oh, are you not supporting the fight against child pornography and paedophilia? So, the critics feel forced to more or less repeat the slogan covering Orbán's discriminatory LGBTIQ+ provisions: 'We are against child pornography and pedophilia, but...' Few hear what comes after the comma.

In 2018, the European parliament voted for action against Hungary, because of breaches of EU values. Member states were not keen, however, to take further steps.

Some say that in court, it can be difficult to prove that we are not dealing here with "misunderstandings", as Orbán insists, but with the deliberate, gradual erosion of Article 2 of the European Treaty. Orbán's lawyers often use legal ambiguities, choosing their words carefully.

In general, member states don't like to smash each other on the head - today it is Hungary; tomorrow, one of them.

The European system stumbles on one compromise at the time. You need allies all the time on every issue. It's always risky to antagonise potential allies on real issues (money) for the sake of making a point on lofty ones (human rights).

And on many issues, each member state has a veto. One frustrated prime minister can paralyse a substantial part of EU decision making.

This is how things went for 11 years, since Orbán came to power for the second time in 2010.

But this time, it looks different.

All over Europe, politicians who tended to look away are suddenly as principled and outspoken about Hungary's new law as the NGOs, human rights defenders and legal experts who had to do the footwork for the past 11 years without gaining much traction with politicians.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, often criticised of inaction, immediately took steps toward legal action. She called Hungary's new law "a disgrace".

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte was also unusually sharp: "Orbán is shameless. We must bring him to his knees." He reportedly asked: "Viktor, if you do this, why do you stay in the EU?" Even Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz – accused in some quarters of 'Orbanising' his country but quick to predict how the weathercock will turn - duly signed a letter by 16 government leaders vowing to "continue fighting against discrimination towards the LGBTIQ+ community".

So, why this turnaround? Because Orbán went too far this time. Because everyone is fed up.

Enter the Zoomers

And because the 'Zoomer generation' arrives on the political scene, for whom social values are a big thing.

Zoomers – aka 'Generation Z' - are young Europeans, born between roughly 1995 and 2005. Most are highly-educated. They grew up with multiple crises, and developed a strong belief that the state (not markets) must intervene socially and economically. Zoomers are hyper-individualistic, and allergic to injustice. Matthew Goodwin of Kent University noted that this generation, "raised on polarisation, fragmentation and challengers", is ethnically and racially the most diverse in history .

Those challengers include most right-wing politicians currently in power in Europe, moderates and radicals: from Rutte to Kurz, from Johnson to Orbán.

Anyone with Zoomers at home knows they can be incredibly 'woke' (politically correct) about things like "toxic masculinity" and "white privilege". They tend to be well-behaved, trusting, socially-minded, and rather unmaterialistic. Many have homosexual or trans friends, and are at ease with this. 84-percent of Zoomers think same-sex marriage is fine, while only 15 percent oppose it. Among the older 'Baby Boomers', opposition is 32 percent.

Zoomers have already pushed businesses to become political. Apple, Uber and Nike clearly know which way the wind is blowing. Zoomers are their customers and also, increasingly, their employees.

According to opinion polls 44 percent of young employees say they are more loyal and motivated at work if the CEO is politically active. Only 18 percent of Baby Boomers find this important.

No wonder, then, that BMW, Siemens, Volkswagen, Allianz and other companies immediately put out rainbow flags when UEFA recently banned the Munich football stadium from being illuminated in rainbow lights on the day Hungary was playing there.

Even police stations joined in.

The world is your campus

Companies also increasingly take a stand on Belarus, the Uyghurs and Myanmar (Total and Chevron withdrew from Myanmar in May). What started on campus in recent years, and with Greta Thunberg's Fridays for Future demonstrations, is becoming mainstream.

Goodwin thinks Zoomers look set "to deliver a revolution of their own in the years ahead". He quotes the writer Andrew Sullivan, who observed: "We're all on campus now."

And Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz once said: "When people believe they share values with a company, they will stay loyal to the brand."

Just like the CEOs, Europe's heads of state and government suddenly understand that this time doing nothing against Orbán could backfire on them. They are used to face this new class of concerned citizens at all occasions, and realise that for Zoomers, social values are crucial – and easier to fight for than the independence of the judiciary.

We can think what we want about woke-ism, politicising football or the true intentions of newly-activist companies – but the reality is that Zoomers have begun to tilt the balance and Orbán is increasingly rowing against the stream.

Maybe we should try to find a ladder to help him climb out of the tree.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. This column is an edited version of a column in NRC.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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