Viktor Orbán: The Self-Nominated Future Leader of Central Europe—and Then Europe

Victor Orbán claims that Europe, lacking the capacity to defend itself, is doomed to collapse politically and can disappear culturally and ethnically. His recipe for preventing it is simple and attractive for many: give back the power to the Member States, defend the borders from the Big Muslim Invasion, and re-establish the traditional values of Europe—family and Christianity.

„Right now no one can rule out the European mainstream following the same path in the next few years which it has itself tried so hard to prevent Hungary from following. This is how the black sheep will become the flock, and this is how the exception will become the rule. […] If we talk about how we envisage the capital of Europe, Budapest comes to mind more often than Brussels does.”

If anyone had any doubts over Orbán having international ambitions, these could disappear in a second after hearing the speech of the Prime Minister in Băile Tu.nad at the end of July. The speech, which was fully available in English almost immediately after it was delivered, was not revolutional in its main points. On the other hand, the openness with which he talked about the failure and the twilight of the whole “old” political elite in Europe and of the emergence of a new, Visegrad-based European elite, as well as his personal role in this process is rather unprecedented. While Orbán has been typically characterized as someone who always sacrifices foreign policy on the altar of domestic politics, this is definitely not true anymore. More and more, Orbán has his focus on Europe.

Orbán claimed that while Western Europe is doomed to failure both economically and politically, and the dreams of people there of having a better life than their parents have evaporated, this “European dream” is still alive and well in Central Eastern Europe. While Western Europe is on the decline, dangerous and unstable, the V4 countries are safe, prosperous, and stable. Furthermore, while the Western European elites are alienated from the voters, in Central Eastern Europe they take the needs of the voters seriously. The safe democratic haven, the model country, is unquestionably Hungary—the only country, as Orbán said, where the government, in the upcoming referendum in October, will ask the opinion of its citizens regarding “mass migration.”

Beside this speech, there are more and more signs that Orbán is preparing for a (at this moment rather undefined) leading position in Europe. With Kaczyński they called for a “cultural counter-revolution” in Europe that can be started from the Visegrad countries. And Orbán clearly keeps his eyes on what is happening in the European publics. He ordered an international survey from a governmental background institute Századvég in every EU member state (!) to prove his thesis that Europeans see a correlation between migration, crime, and terrorism. The strategic director of this Institute, Gábor G. Fodor, an uninhibited Orbán-fan, assessed Orbán’s speech in Băile Tu.nad in the following way: “Intellectually, Viktor Orbán is light-years ahead of his European colleagues, therefore he is really leading Europe. However, he always remains a politician out of the closest circle—this is his natural character.”

In a piece published in the Hungarian broadsheet newspaper Népszabadság (with good governmental sources and often leaks), some close-to-government players, under the condition of anonymity, also talked openly about the possibility of Orbán aspiring for a leading institutional position within the European Union (possibly the president of Council) in the coming years. The communication of the Hungarian prime minister also focuses more and more on the international public. Since the beginning of the refugee crisis, the government is communicating more and more intensively with the international public, translating all the speeches, YouTube videos, and messages of the PM, and advertising them actively via social media. Orbán recently published a piece in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, recommending solutions for the EU’s institutional problems as he sees them—most importantly, the curbing the power of European Commission and reinstating the priority of the member states. After a recent move of changing the governmental structure and introducing two “supercabinets,” rumors are on the rise that this might be the first step to prepare the scene for his successor in the prime minister’s seat—and for himself as a European leader. And while some of the speculations could be a bit far-fetched, it seems to be clear that Orbán, confident that he can win the next Hungarian elections in 2018, is rather looking at the 2019 parliamentary elections and their aftermath.

Why does Orbán, a politician who has appeared chiefly in negative context in the European public and political discussions so far, think that he can become a leading politician in Europe and the EU? He feels that post- Brexit Europe, drowning in the refugee crisis and suffering political and institutional problems, is the perfect environment for him to realize his political dreams. Just like for the far-right politicians in Europe, problems are his biggest opportunities. As a consequence of the refugee crisis, he says (and he definitely has a point to a certain extent), the citizens of Europe are becoming totally alienated from their own political elites. Orbán hopes that the refugee crisis will sweep away the current European elite: Merkel, Schulz, Juncker, Hollande, and others who are representing the utopian vision of the liberal, tolerant, post-1968 Europe. And he also hopes that a new Europe, characterized by politicians such as Marine Le Pen, Norbert Hofer, Heinz-Christian Strache, and the AfD, will emerge. He thinks it is a logical consequence of the changing political zeitgeist. The refugee crisis and the terrorist attacks, he thinks, are gamechangers in Western democracies. Viktor Orbán dared, for example, endorsing Trump in Băile Tusnad, and repeating his endorsement afterwards, because he is convinced that Trump will become the president of the US. And if this is the case, his gesture can help reboot the US-Hungary relations, which became frozen as a consequence of Orbán’s illiberal adventures and the criticism that it provoked from the US administration (and especially from Hillary Clinton beforehand).

He feels that multiple and endemic crises in the World give him a big chance to redefine Europe according to the taste of the Hungarian and Polish government. And later, possibly, to fill the vacuum in European leadership. His policies (such as building the fence) are, as he can see, becoming more and more popular. As he said in the speech, Hungary is the black sheep in Europe today—but can become a leader of Europe tomorrow.

To achieve his goals, Orbán aims to change the EU’s image. The targets of his attacks are the European Commission, the European Parliament, and their leaders. There will be a government- initiated referendum in Hungary at the beginning of October against the mandatory quota system. In the campaign, going full-scale since July, anti-EU messages (“say no to Brussels”) are coming from everywhere. The transmission of the message is guaranteed by the millions of euros that the government invests in the campaign. The Hungarian public opinion resonates to the anti-quota, anti-refugee messages, and attitudes are slowly shifting more negatively against the EU. Orbán is repeating that “Brussels” does not see the problems of the “migrants” and is sticking for a mandatory relocation of them—despite the fact that Juncker in his “State of the Union” speech obviously stepped back, talking only about the voluntary quotas, and in the last Bratislava summit the leaders of EU member states (including Orbán) agreed on the restriction of the borders to avoid uncontrolled influx that was seen last year.

Orbán’s European political ambitions might sound unrealistic. But Orbán’s experience from his own political career is that he feels where the future mainstream is, and can occupy it easily. Feeling the voters’ needs instinctively, he can adapt to changing circumstances. Furthermore, Orbán is a political animal, who is always aspiring for higher positions. He has been prime minister of Hungary for more than 10 years, and looking on the opposition in Hungary, there is a high chance that Fidesz can make it again in 2018. Orbán needs new challenges and new positions. He thinks he is a transformative force from outside the EU mainstream today, and can lead the transformed institution tomorrow.

While his vision might seem a bit exaggerated and overly messianistic, Orbán can feel the wind of change on his own skin. After 2010, he received incomparably more criticism than praising words from EU institutions and leading politicians. However, since the beginning of the refugee crisis, he receives more and more recognition, even in the political elites. As an illustration of this trend, while Donald Tusk has publicly criticized Orbán’s approach in the refugee crisis about a year ago, recently he claimed that he is proud to come from a party family (EPP) that has both Merkel and Orbán within itself.

Even though Orbán is still a very controversial figure on the European scene, he has an increasing recognition in the political elites, both left and right—and time has been playing for him. The refugee crisis, the terrorist attacks, and Brexit all make his apocalyptic visions easier to believe in: Europe, lacking the capacity to defend itself, is doomed to collapse politically and can disappear culturally and ethnically. And his recipe for preventing it is simple and attractive for many: give the power back to the Member States, defend the borders from the Big Muslim Invasion, and re-establish the traditional values of Europe—family and Christianity.

Orbán thinks that the current V4 cooperation provides a perfect starting point for realizing his political ambitions. He mentioned it several times that after Brexit, V4 is going be the block from where the best initiatives on how to transform Europe should come and will come. Orbán hopes that his (self-nominated) leading role in V4 can be the anteroom for a leadership in the EU. While Brexit seemed to be a tragic moment for V4 at first, now it seems that Orbán (and other Euroskeptic politicians) will be able to use it to their own advantage. In Krynica, Orbán talked about Brexit as a huge and unprecedented opportunity for the V4 block to win the “cultural counterrevolution.”

For how long the V4 leaders will support his ambitions is of course a question. While V4 seems to be a strong and coherent group from outside, it is less the case from inside. It seems like the Czech Republic is occasionally deliberately distancing itself from the V4 “consent.” Slovakia, despite Fico’s strong anti-refugee stance, wants to use the EU presidency to increase its diplomatic impact in the EU instead of promoting Orbán’s and Kaczyński’s counter-revolution. Both countries seem to be more interested in what Berlin says than what Poland and Budapest call for. The refugee crisis seems to be an important common denominator between V4 countries, but it does not mean that the block is sharing interests in every important question. While Kaczyński and Orbán are playing the “Dwa Bratanki” (“Pole and Hungarian cousins be,” says the popular historical proverb) and the Polish-Hungarian alliance seems to be strong despite the big differences in the attitudes towards Russia, these two countries cannot change the rules of the game in Europe.

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Current issue - 01/2020

Heart of Europe on the Periphery

Illiberal backsliding is getting stronger in Visegrad countries recently. Central Europe suffers from a complex of inferiority, they say. Is it a legitimate feeling? Discover the heart of Europe and its pounding chambers on the periphery.

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