14 min read — Analysis | Long-Form | Hungary

Hungary and Euroscepticism: What Do Hungarians Think?

We’ve heard it again and again: Hungary, Orbán, and Euroscepticism. But have we truly asked ourselves what Hungarians believe?
Here we attempt to answer: “To what extent does economic discontent, nationalism, and populism contribute to Hungarians’ Euroscepticism post-2010?”
Hungary and Euroscepticism
Image Credit: Euro Prospects

By Francesco Bernabeu Fornara

First published: July 2023 | Electronically published: January 5, 2024 at 12:00

  1. Preface – Why read this article?
  2. Introduction
  3. Facts and Statistics: Euroscepticism in Hungary and the EU
  4. Economic Discontent
  5. Nationalism (and Nativism)
  6. Populism (and Popular Sovereignty; ie., Anti-EU Elitism)
  7. Conclusion
Preface – Why read this article?

For many Europeans, it is easy to paint a clear picture of Hungary in the EU. For external observers, “Hungary”, “Euroscepticism”, and “Orbán” seem almost interchangeable if all we take in are newspaper headlines. Make no mistake, these interpretations are arguably valid, and Hungarian foreign policy under the Orbán government has represented a strenuous obstacle for European unity and integration.

Still, it should go without saying that Hungarian society is far more politically nuanced than what such headlines would have us believe.

What this article attempts to do is shed light on just that, offering a small glimpse into how the Hungarian public perceives the European Union — through a non-judgmental analysis. Because of this, the present article will take a much more research-based and analytical approach to Euroscepticism within the Hungarian public, setting aside a short-form newspaper article format which normally offers brief explanations to politically complex topics. Though such newspaper articles are of course necessary for their own set of reasons, taking time to inform ourselves on broader narratives and bigger pictures is quintessential to a critical and informed (European) public.

This article will compare and delve into three sources of Hungarian euroscepticism: economic discontent, nationalism (incl. nativism), and populism (incl. popular sovereignty and anti-EU elitism). What is concluded is three-fold, and has been personally eye-opening: (1) Most ordinary Hungarians view the EU through a utilitarian lens, prioritising economic stability and financial benefit (so-called specific support). (2) Nationalism and nativism, though highly resonant with Orbán’s electorate, is mostly influential in domestic affairs, with only a spill-over type effect to the level of Euroscepticism. (3) Populism and anti-EU elitism, though also highly present rhetorically, is largely inconsequential in increasing the level of Euroscepticism, exemplified in the surprisingly high trust Hungarians have in EU institutions, which has consistently surpassed the level of trust enjoyed by their own national institutions. Indeed, Hungarian Euroscepticism is a paradox whereby a Eurosceptic ruling elite coincides with a relatively Europhile public (possible reasons for this are also elaborated on).

Of course, this article does not argue that the aforementioned is a conclusive explanation to Hungarians’ Euroscepticism, more research is obviously needed and comparing this article with other academic pieces is highly encouraged. Nevertheless, what this article can conclusively say is that the Hungarian public (like all other societies) is far more interesting and nuanced than what we might have unintentionally believed.


With the notable rise of Euroscepticism across the European Union (EU) in the past decade, Hungary has become perceived as a paragon of the movement’s ‘soft’ subdivision. Unlike hard-Euroscepticism, which favours ‘complete opposition to European integration and advocates withdrawal from the EU’, soft-Euroscepticism actively opposes specific EU policies and trajectories while still willingly remaining a member of the Union. Hungary, formerly considered a model for other aspiring post-communist EU members, has volte-faced its approach to EU affairs since the early 2010s under the Fidesz ruling party led by Viktor Orbán. Nevertheless, Hungarian Euroscepticism, like other Members’ equivalents, is a unique, complex, and nuanced phenomenon marked by a combination of nation-specific factors which require further analytical research to distinguish clearly.

Therefore, this research paper intends to answer the following question: To what extent does economic discontent, nationalism, and populism each contribute to the level of soft-Euroscepticism in the Hungarian public post-2010? Thus, this research paper will carry out a comparative analysis of the extent to which each said factor — economic discontent, nationalism, and populism — contribute to the Hungarian public’s level of Euroscepticism (which paradoxically diverges from the government’s level of Euroscepticism). Furthermore, due to its distinctive comparative nature, this paper aims to contribute to the academic literature surrounding the underlying causes of Hungary’s prominent Eurosceptic movement, the disparity between government and public levels of Euroscepticism, and the causes of soft-Euroscepticism in general.

To minimise overlap between each cause, this paper distinguishes — and will examine in the following order — (1) the factor of economic discontent as a general dissatisfaction with country’s economic situation in relation to the EU financial crises and decreasing enthusiasm with EU membership benefits, (2) nationalism as akin to nativism and the protection of state sovereignty and legitimacy vis-à-vis EU supranationalism, and (3) populism as a form of popular sovereignty with an expression of ‘anti-elitism and people-centrism’, translating into a distrust in EU institutions.

Based on the current academic literature, it could be hypothesised that economic discontent, due to Hungarians’ pragmatic and utilitarian perception of the EU, is the most significant contributor to Hungarians’ Euroscepticism. Nationalism, as a by-product of the fear of losing state sovereignty and national democratic legitimacy, could hence be postulated to be the secondly-significant cause, with Eurosceptic populism, despite its prevalent rhetoric, being the least due to Hungarians’ surprisingly high trust in EU institutions.

To test this hypothesis, this research paper employs a mixed-method approach combining quantitative and qualitative sources. Quantitative data includes primary sources from Eurobarometer surveys, referenda results, and statistical reports from think tanks like the International Republican Institute and independent academic investigations in order to examine the prevalence and trend of Euroscepticism among Hungary’s populous, scrutinising inflection points and their causes. Qualitative data primarily includes secondary sources such as analytical scholarly papers, books, and newspapers in order to support independent quantitative deductions and analyse the cultural, economic, and political contexts which shape Hungary’s Euroscepticism. Lastly, qualitative primary sources are also utilised when examining government statements, interviews, and policy programmes, providing an in-depth understanding of the perspectives, motives, and methods of the Hungarian political elite, examining their effects on the Hungarian public. Such a mix-method approach to answering the research question allows for a comprehensive analysis of the causes of Hungary’s complex and nuanced Euroscepticism.

Facts and Statistics: Euroscepticism in Hungary and the EU

Analysing Hungary’s level of Euroscepticism, a paradox is unveiled: the reality of a Eurosceptic ruling elite coinciding with a Europhile public. Indeed, though Hungary’s Fidesz ruling party — which has continuously enjoyed ~50% of the electorate’s support  — has been unwavering in its soft-Euroscepticism, the far majority of Hungarians either have a neutral (~40%) or positive (~35-50%) view of the EU. The two notable exceptions to this norm occurred during the beginning of the Orbán regime (2010-2012), where negative perception of the EU peak at 33%, and the EU’s migration crisis (2015-2016), with negative perception increasing to 24%. Notwithstanding, positive perception of the EU has been on an increasing trend since 2012, with positive perception of the EU now fluctuating around 50%, surpassing the EU average. Moreover, neutral perception of the EU has been remarkably stagnant since Hungary’s EU accession, hovering around 40% — slightly above the EU average of 35-40%.

In summary, Hungarians’ perception of the EU makes the country a fairly pro-European EU Member when compared to the EU average in Figure 2, with a slightly higher neutral perception and with notably sharper fluctuations (high volatility). Evaluation of the causes and deductions from these statistics will be conducted in the following sections. Lastly, explanations for the exceptional disparity between government and public levels of Euroscepticism will be entertained in the conclusion — as this falls outside of the scope of this paper which will focus on the Hungarian public.

Figure 1
Figure 2
Economic Discontent

As sociologists Borbála Göncz and György Lengyel explain, legitimacy of any political system comes primarily from public support for it, distinguished between specific support or diffuse support. Specific support is fuelled by ‘the perception of the performance of a system’ while diffuse support represents ‘a reservoir of positive attitudes towards a system that [may] make people accept non-favourable outputs  — nationalism being an example of the latter. In the EU’s context, while diffuse support is expressed by personal identification with the EU irrelevant of its performance, specific support is fuelled by the perceived outputs/performance of the EU. Thus, specific support is a form of utilitarianism — where ‘attitudes are defined by a rational evaluation of the EU’s advantages and disadvantages at the individual or at the country level’.

Using these analytical tools on Hungary, we find that specific support (utilitarianism) is a highly consequential factor to Hungarians’ level of Euroscepticism. Indeed, as Göncz and Lengyel affirm regarding Hungarian diffuse support (identity-related support), ‘this element did not have a significant impact on support for the EU’. In other words, Hungarians perceive the EU through a pragmatic lens, based on their satisfaction with EU membership — which translates primarily into economic benefit.

Evidence of Hungarians’ pragmatic view of the EU is perhaps best found when analysing the fluctuations and volatility in their positive and negative perception of the EU, comparing them to the EU average. As aforementioned, Hungary’s perception of the EU over time is exceptionally volatile, indicating that Hungarians are much more predispose to altering their image of the EU dependent on the perceived advantageousness of its membership. Logically, if Hungarian support of the EU was based primarily on diffuse support instead of specific support, perception of the EU would remain relatively unresponsive to changes in perceived benefit of EU membership.

Analysing the period following the European sovereign debt crisis (2009-2011), Hungarians’ positive view of the Union (Figure 1) plummeted 17 percentage points (42% to 25%), with negative perception increasing 18 percentage points (17% to 33%) — a much stronger volatility when compared to the EU average (Figure 2) which decreased only 13 percentage points (4 less) in positive perception (45% to 31%) and increased just 14 percentage points (4 less) in negative perception (15% to 29%). Indeed, Hungarians’ volatility in perception of the EU surpasses the European average, replicated in other economic crises like the 2007-2008 Great Recession and 2020 COVID-19 recession.

Succinctly, Hungarians have an exceptionally pragmatic (utilitarian) view of the EU compared to the EU average which causes it to be highly responsive (volatile) towards changes in the perceived advantageousness of EU membership. Clearly, what we can extrapolate is that economic discontent is a highly determinant factor to Hungarians’ level of Euroscepticism.

Nationalism (and Nativism)

When regarding European-type nationalism, it is important to outline how nationalism and nativism is expressed distinctly in Eastern Europe when compared to its Western counterpart. While in the West, ‘civic nationalism prevails’ which endorses and self-prides itself on ‘secularism, philosemitism and selective liberalism’, Eastern European nationalism places greater focus on ‘overcoming historical trauma and humiliation’. Though the differences are much more nuanced and intertwined than this might make it seem, it is unsurprising therefore that Eastern European Euroscepticism emphasises upholding state sovereignty and national legitimacy over supranational authorities like the EU.

Indeed, in the Hungarian context, nationalism’s contribution to Euroscepticism is expressed by the government’s aberrant rejection towards transnational European solidarity efforts when such are perceived to hinder Hungarian interests or culture  — ie., nativism. Over the past decade, this policy has translated into ‘restor[ing] sovereignty’ and advancing a ‘Europe of nations’ over furthering European integration, underpinning Orbán’s policies, but particularly in rhetoric. Nonetheless, when referring to the state sovereignty and national legitimacy that Fidesz pontificates, scholarly consensus insists that such rhetoric serves little purpose other than using ‘the EU for domestic political games’, as put by Hungarian political analyst Tamás Boros. As British political scientist James Foley confirms, ‘none of these issues serve other than domestic electoral purposes’, with political scientist Ivan Krastev similarly stating that Orbán’s regime uses ‘Brussels as a rhetorical punching bag’. As Foley elaborates, Fidesz has exploited the well-perceived ideology of Christian-nationalism into a fuel for ‘anti-EU sentiment’. If true to a significant extent, it may indicate that nationalism, specifically elite nationalist rhetoric, is a significant source of Hungarian Euroscepticism.

In other words, Hungarian nationalist-induced Euroscepticism could be argued as induced through top-down elite political rhetoric which influences public opinion, rather than a bottom-up expression of the electorate’s predetermined stances, differentiating it with economic discontent. This is particularly evident when examining Orbán’s rhetoric during the Rule of Law crisis (2011-2018) and analysing its quantitative public effects.

Following electoral victory in 2010, Orbán’s government started drafting a new constitution, one which according to his nativist-based 2011 State of the Nation speech, would allegedly ‘manifest[s] the Hungarian spirit’ against the old one which was ‘not the Hungarians’ constitution’. Entering into force in 2012 accompanied with controversial legislation, the European Commission started criticising the actions as undermining the principle of the rule of law. Instead of caving, Orbán countered with nationalistic rhetoric, stating in one speech that ‘we did not let Vienna dictate us in 1848, we did not let Moscow dictate us in 1956, and we won’t let Brussels or others dictate us now’. Though the Rule of Law quarrel dimmed in 2015 with the European Migration Crisis, the former renewed in 2018 with similar nationalistic rhetorical rebuttals. Succinctly, upon redrafting the constitution under a nativist rhetoric, Orbán deflected EU criticism by framing his regime as a protector of sovereignty and national legitimacy, backing it with Eastern European nationalist rationale by referencing historical trauma and humiliation.

Though Orbán’s nationalist-founded rhetorical narrative to counter the crisis has become scholarly consensus, its quantitative effects on the public’s Euroscepticism are less clear. Examining Figure 1, it’s evident that the record-high negative perception and record-low positive perception of the EU between 2010 and 2013 coincides with the heightened nationalist rhetoric from the Rule of Law crisis. However, negative perception had already been increasing since 2009, indicating that other factor(s) had influenced it (such as economic discontent); notwithstanding the probability that the Rule of Law crisis may have exacerbated that foregoing trend. Nevertheless, negative perception of the EU had returned to pre-2009 levels by 2013 — when nationalist rhetoric and the crisis was still in full swing. Furthermore, when the crisis renewed headlines in 2018, Hungarian negative perception of the EU entered — paradoxically — its historic low, with positive perception increasing to its all-time high of 53%. Viewed quantitatively therefore, it could be inferred that Orbán’s nationalist rhetoric — despite ‘Fidesz’s dominance of political discourse  — has had little influence on the public’s level of Euroscepticism.

Still, political scholars such as Robert Csehi and sociologists like Edit Zgut argue that ‘national sovereignty … resonates well with the electorate’. A proposed explanation accepting both conclusions is alluded by Göncz and Lengyel: that the Hungarian public is exceptionally polarised. Based on studies by political scientists Adam Brinegar and Seth Jolly, Göncz and Lengyel argue that ‘education and urban environment seem to be a catalyst of the support’ for European integration in Hungary. Supporting this explanation is a survey by the International Republican Institute in 2017, uncovering that 65% of Hungarians believed Hungary was ‘moving towards more polarisation’, with ‘EU-Hungary issues’ (under ‘national identity issues’) being the issue which Hungarians are least willing to make concessions. Therefore, it may be that Orbán’s nationalist rhetoric resonated with Fidesz’s electoral base while anti-Orbán voters are exceptionally Europhile.

Despite the unclarity, what could be extrapolated with fair certainty is that the Orbán regime’s nationalist Eurosceptic rhetoric is likely influential with Fidesz’s electoral base but has had certainly less of an impact on Hungarian Euroscepticism than economic discontent; though further research is still required to determine the extent to which negative perception of the EU between 2010 and 2013 was caused by nationalist rhetoric, rather than by the Great Recession long-term effects.

Additionally, this conclusion adds credibility to the deduction that determined that Hungarian Euroscepticism is based less on diffuse support — which is by definition nationalist — and more on specific support.

Populism (and Popular Sovereignty; ie., Anti-EU Elitism)

Though used interchangeably by media and politicians, populism is not inherently Eurosceptic, nor is it intrinsically linked to nationalism. As aforementioned, populism is defined by ‘anti-elitism and people-centrism’ which advances ‘that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale’, differentiating it from Euroscepticism as ‘a much narrower concept with less abstract ideas which refers to an opposition to the process of European integration’. When both ideologies do intersect, Eurosceptic populists ‘equate the EU with “the corrupt elite” that stands in sharp contrast to “the pure people”’. Moreover, populism is highly linked to popular sovereignty — the ideology where legitimacy of the governing is founded on the ‘will of the people’, rather than on entities like NGOs or foreign states.

The aim of this section is therefore twofold: (1) determine whether Hungarian Euroscepticism incorporates populist elements and, if true, (2) determine to what extent populism contributes to Hungarians’ Euroscepticism.

Answering the former, it has become scholarly consensus that Orbán’s regime significantly induces populism in its Eurosceptic rhetoric. According to Csehi and Zgut, ‘Orban’s … discourses show … how the EU is claimed to act against the notion of popular sovereignty’, where ‘the EU is portrayed as an imperial power led by a corrupt elite against the will of the people’.  Moreover, Fidesz’s populism has not limited itself to rhetoric; accusing two Norwegian Fund-related NGOs of being ‘foreign agents’ whom were subsequently searched by police, while George Soros, the pro-European Hungarian philanthropist, has been ‘repeatedly targeted in the media’. Furthermore, Fidesz ‘used billboard and newspaper campaigns also to strengthen the image of “the corrupt elite”, the EU’. According to a study which empirically investigated the most prevalent concepts in Orbán’s populist discourse, Eurosceptic rhetoric proved to be the most prevailing element, followed by people-centrism and elitism. Undoubtedly, the Orbán regime has significantly attempted to induce populism in Hungarians’ Euroscepticism.

Moreover, according to said study, Orbán’s Eurosceptic populist rhetoric peaked in 2015, amidst the European Migration Crisis. The rhetoric’s impact on public opinion can therefore be analysed through this crisis using quantitative data.

Examining Figure 1 (2014-2015), negative perception of the EU increased from 14% to 23% — a notable, but momentary spike. Contrasting this with the EU average (Figure 2), negative perception had increased from 19% to 27% in the same timeframe — not only an equal increase but a more prevalent negative perception than in Hungary. Thus, if Orbán’s Eurosceptic populist rhetoric did influence public opinion during the crisis, it did so to a minimal or unexceptional extent.

Subsequently, the Orbán government initiated a referendum in 2016 regarding the EU’s migrant quotas  — referring the decision to ‘the people’, following a popular sovereignty agenda. Though the results indicated against the quotas, the referendum failed due to an overwhelming boycott. Despite the populist rhetoric, Orbán was unable to persuade a majority of Hungarians to vote against the quotas.

Notwithstanding, the evidence most convincing against populism being a notable contributor to Hungarians’ Euroscepticism is their trust in EU institutions. According to Eurobarometer surveys, Hungarians consistently place more trust in the EU than in their national government, continually surpassing the European average. Despite the closing gap since Orbán took office, despite trust in the national government being higher than Europeans’ equivalents, and despite drops during moments of crisis, never has trust in the national government surpassed the trust in EU institutions (except slightly in 2018). Evidentially, if Eurosceptic populism were a notable contributor, these statistics would be the reverse.

Concluding, it could be argued that Eurosceptic populism is a prevalent rhetorical element in the Orbán regime, but one which is inconsequential to the majority of Hungarians’ level of Euroscepticism — particularly compared to nationalism and economic discontent.


Answering the research question ‘To what extent does economic discontent, nationalism, and populism each contribute to the level of soft-Euroscepticism in the Hungarian public post-2010?’, what is evident is that Hungarians’ perception of the EU is based on specific support.

By comparatively analysing three contributors to the level of soft-Euroscepticism in the Hungarian public, this research paper has come to the following conclusions. Economic discontent has been determined to the most consequential factor in Hungarians’ level of Euroscepticism as EU membership is judged through a utilitarian lens, prioritising economic stability and financial benefit — ie., specific support. Nationalism, though requiring further research (particularly to distinguish its effects with economic discontent), has been determined to be resonant with Fidesz’s electorate domestically while having little effect vis-à-vis the level of Euroscepticism — despite its rhetorical prevalence. Populism, though possessing the highest rhetorical pervasiveness, has been determined through quantitative analysis to be inconsequential to Hungarians’ level of Euroscepticism due to an exceptionally high public trust in EU institutions which contradicts the premise of Eurosceptic populism — ie., anti-EU elitism.

Notwithstanding, the disparity in Euroscepticism between government and public remains unclear. The most convincing explanation for Fidesz’s success amongst the electorate whilst diverging on European affairs is due to domestic factors detached from Euroscepticism: (1) a polarised public with a highly supportive concentrated base (elaborated on in section two); (2) an exceptional aversion towards left-wing parties rooted in the 2008 global economic crisis, and (3) the contentment with the economic stability publicly credited to Orbán.

In conclusion, through a mixed-method research approach combining quantitative and qualitative data supported by scholarly secondary sources, this paper has proven true the hypothesis that the economic discontent is the biggest contributor to the Hungarian public’s soft-Euroscepticism due to EU perception being based on a utilitarian specific support, demonstrating nationalism and populism as significantly less consequential.

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