Voting for Orbán but loving the EU? European identity and EU support in Hungary

January 6, 2022
Nora Mandru

How can we understand the high level of EU support among Hungarians, which is regularly measured in Eurobarometer surveys – against the backdrop of a populist, Eurosceptic government that (for the time being) holds an overwhelming majority in the Hungarian parliament? What are the determinants of EU support in Hungary and which role does national and European identity play in this regard? This blogpost summarizes the findings from a number of qualitative interviews with Hungarian experts, pointing towards interesting avenues for further research.

Importance of support for a crisis-ridden Union

In recent years, the European Union (EU) has been rocked by numerous crises. The global financial crisis, the encompassing eurozone crisis, the so-called refugee crisis, the historically unique case of a member’s withdrawal, democratic backsliding in numerous states as well as the Covid-19 pandemic, which has developed into the largest health crisis in decades, put the EU’s cohesion and the European institutions’ ability to act to a severe test. In these challenging times, the question of public support for the EU has gained increasing importance – a crisis-ridden Union depends more than ever on the latter for its continued existence (Hobolt and De Vries 2016).

EU support in East Central Europe

Of particular interest in this context is East Central Europe: not only do countries in the region possess historic and political peculiarities that have been affecting their relationship with Europe and the EU in a way that differs from the Western European member states, but some of them display rapid democratic backsliding and a decline in the rule of law. Especially in Hungary, EU support is high statistically while the populist, anti-EU government is widely supported and society is extremely polarized between political camps.

Consequently, an examination of the determinants of European Union (EU) support in Hungary seems in order. Precursors of EU support can be roughly divided into three categories: Utilitarian cost-benefit considerations, cue-taking from the national context and identity-driven approaches. While traditionally utilitarian approaches were the focus of research interest, in recent years other determinants gained scholarly attention: As the EU developed from a regulatory apparatus to a comprehensive political system, especially the identity-related aspects of EU support came into focus (Kuhn and Nicoli 2020). Such approaches usually concentrated on the negative influence of exclusive national identity on EU support: it was generally assumed that a strong or even exclusive identification with the respective country of origin would have a negative impact on EU attitudes. However, authors such as Mitchell (2016) or Tóka et al. (2012) complemented such claims by pointing to the positive impact a strong European identity could possibly have on EU support.

Which factors determine EU support in Hungary?

Building on secondary literature and on nine semi-structured interviews with Hungarian experts, the author of this article has found that utilitarian considerations remain the most important determinants: perceived economic and non-material benefits (such as the four freedoms guaranteed by the EU) stemming from European integration continue to be the strongest explanatory factors regarding Hungarians’ EU support. However, the experts agreed that social identity theory should not be disregarded. While exploring the relation between identity and EU support, it becomes evident that the influence of country-specific factors on both concepts has been understudied. Especially in the East Central European context, national and European identity might be inextricably linked: despite being separated from the rest of Europe by the iron curtain, the countries of the region always perceived themselves as being part of the West and the so-called return to Europe after the end of state socialism meant finally being independent and free from foreign domination. After years of oppression, national identity could be expressed freely and thus was closely intertwined with feelings of Europeanness. In this case, strong national identity will be accompanied by strong European identity and is likely to foster EU support. On the other hand, national identification could undermine feelings of Europeanness and its positive effects on EU support in Hungary if it is mobilized in opposition to the EU. Since 2010, the governing Fidesz party is undertaking considerable efforts to strengthen a national identity that conflicts with what they claim to be a homogeneous, overarching, so-called liberal European identity that is said to threaten national traditions and idiosyncrasies. The government portrays the EU as a threat to national sovereignty and identity, fomenting fear of immigration and alienation. While it could not be determined beyond doubt which mechanism was more influential in Hungary, the interviews showed that both mechanisms are relevant in certain parts of society. In a highly politicized environment like Hungary, such processes are closely related to the individual political position.

What do Hungarians mean when claiming to support the EU?

Finally, regarding European identity, the latter might take on different forms which have a varying impact on EU support. European identity can have different identification objects: a ‘“nationalist European identity’ […] based on a view of Europe in primarily cultural terms, a (Western) civilization with a common historical heritage” (Risse 2010, p. 61) is likely to build support for an exclusionary, non-pluralist and possibly intergovernmental EU. European identity defined in civic terms, on the other hand, possibly fosters EU support as “modern political entity encompassing liberal values such as democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and the market economy” (ibid.). Two Hungarians claiming to support the EU in a questionnaire thus might think of an entirely different Union when answering the survey items.


In sum, utilitarian considerations continue to be the most important determinants of EU support in Hungary. However, in recent years social identity theory gained not only scholarly attention but also relevance in day-to-day life. Especially Hungarian national identity might affect EU support: on the one hand, national and European identity could be inextricably linked due to the socialist past and the Hungarian longing for the West, thus ultimately fostering EU support. On the other hand, national identification could undermine feelings of Europeanness and its positive effects on EU support in Hungary because of the government’s efforts to mobilize it in opposition to the EU. Finally, different conceptions of Europe and European identity possible lead to different visions of the EU which is claimed to be supported. Overall, it can be noted that more qualitative research is needed and statistics such as the Eurobarometer should be treated with caution when dealing with complex issues such as identity and support.


Hobolt, Sara B.; De Vries, Catherine E. (2016): Public Support for European Integration. In: Annual Review of Political Science 19 (1), S. 413–432. DOI: 10.1146/annurev-polisci-042214-044157.

Kuhn, Theresa; Nicoli, Francesco (2020): Collective Identities and the Integration of Core State Powers: Introduction to the Special Issue. In: JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies 58 (1), S. 3–20. DOI: 10.1111/jcms.12985.

Mitchell, Kristine (2016): European identity and diffuse support for the European Union in a time of crisis. What can we learn from university students? In: Viktoria Kaina, Ireneusz Paweł Karolewski und Sebastian Kühn (Eds.): European identity revisited: new approaches and recent empirical evidence. New York: Routledge, S. 177–198.

Risse, Thomas (2010): A community of Europeans? Transnational identities and public spheres. Ithaca (New York): Cornell University Press.

Tóka, Gábor; Henjak, Andrija; Markowski, Radoslaw (2012): Explaining Support for European Integration. In: Paolo Bellucci, David Sanders, Gábor Tóka und Mariano Torcal (Eds.): The Europeanization of National Polities? Citizenship and Support in a Post-Enlargement Union: Oxford University Press, S. 137–166.