EU outlier Orban faces isolation due to support for Putin
Many people say that the Ukraine war has changed the world and that the international system will never be the same again. Quite how this will pan out is far from clear, not least as the war still rages, but already some early reverberations are impacting European relationships.
This was brought into sharp focus by last week’s inevitable election “victory” for Viktor Orban in Hungary. The Fidesz leader had claimed, without evidence, that the opposition would push the country into war with Russia. Orban’s client media slavishly repeated the line. Sadly, there is barely any independent media left in Hungary.
The trouble is that Orban may have supporters at home, but increasingly the war in Ukraine has left him isolated in Europe. Hitherto, Hungary had significant allies in the EU who were prepared to shield it from those states that were horrified by the Hungarian leader’s authoritarian leanings, as well as his anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish views. Poland was one such ally, with the ruling Law and Justice party sharing many of Orban’s positions, while far-right populists such as Matteo Salvini in Italy and Marine Le Pen in France were also admirers. Orban, as the EU’s longest-serving current head of government, has become one of the heroes of the populist far right across the world, in a similar way that Fidel Castro in Cuba and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela used to be a magnet for leftists.
Erstwhile European partners have condemned Orban’s reluctance to take action against Russia or even criticize Russian aggression in Ukraine. The best that Orban could do was to meekly claim that he had called Russian President Vladimir Putin to ask for an “immediate ceasefire” in Ukraine. He did reluctantly go along with EU sanctions on Russia, but refused to extend them to Russian oil and gas. His relations with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine range from freezing to Siberian. Orban, in his election victory speech, cited him as an opponent he had vanquished.
But Hungary’s neighbors see things very differently, as does most of Europe. Poland is terrified of the Russian threat and Polish leaders have lashed out at other EU countries for not being tough enough.
Orban has also declared that Hungary would be content to pay Russia for gas in rubles, as Putin has demanded. This, however, would be in violation of EU sanctions, which European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was quick to point out.
So what does Orban’s continued premiership mean for the future of the EU? Hungary cannot credibly claim it remains a democracy. It violates a host of EU rules and regulations.
Incredibly, the EU has done little to keep Hungary within its rules while still funneling billions of euros in its direction. But Brussels has finally made a move. Two days after Orban “won” at the polls, the European Commission invoked its new rule-of-law disciplinary procedure. This could see Budapest lose access to as much as €40 billion ($43 billion) in vital EU funding. The lucrative EU funding pipeline that Orban has gratefully fed off could be turned off. Brussels correctly argues that Hungary has reneged on its EU accession commitments to a free press, an independent judiciary and an open economy, while also failing to tackle corruption.
Hungary has been an outlier in the EU on many issues, including Russia, but also through its support for Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. Here again, on occasions, Budapest could rely on support from the other Visegrad Group states that share his illiberal approach, but none of them are happy at Hungary’s position on Russia. This four-country network of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia has been ripped apart — a relief, one suspects, in many Western European capitals.
All Orban has needed is one EU state to prevent any sanctions being imposed on Hungary. Poland had played that role and, together, the two even stalled the 2020 EU budget. Now, Hungary is approaching leper status.
The Hungarian prime minister will no longer be the center of attention, but a figure to be deprived of influence and attention.
A potential lifeline for Orban would be a Le Pen victory in the French presidential election. Le Pen and Orban share a mutual admiration. It was no surprise that Le Pen tweeted her warm congratulations to the Hungarian leader: “When the people vote, the people win.” Moreover, an Orban ally reportedly arranged a loan for her National Rally party. If France were to be under a leader prepared to act as a shield to Hungary, then this would be a massive win for Orban.
Conversely, the more likely scenario is that the Hungarian prime minister will find himself isolated in the EU like never before, at least for the next few months while Ukraine remains a pivotal issue. EU states can cut off his euros and then ignore Orban, putting him under his own lockdown. He will no longer be the center of attention, but a figure to be deprived of influence and attention. The ultranationalist Orban will face a choice between maintaining his self-described “illiberal democracy” and close ties to Russia or being a full member of the EU.
For Europe, it shows that the dividing lines and areas of tension have shifted, for the time being, from identity politics and anti-immigration and anti-Muslim policies to how states line up toward Russia. The lesson for many EU leaders is that they have been too soft on autocrats like Orban. In this contest, the disempowerment of the Hungarian leader will be a major triumph for those who crave a Europe that is open and respectful of all peoples. It will also be a blow to all aspirant autocrats and nativists in Europe.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech