The relevance of the protective shield provided by the European Christian democrats to Viktor Orbán cannot be emphasized enough. It is no wonder then that he remains quite ambiguous about a potential future partnership between his party and the other Eurosceptic populists.
We are approaching an end game regarding the identification of Fidesz, the Hungarian ruling party with the European center-right political faction, which has—with the cooperation of the center-left—influenced the politics of the EU for decades. Although the final break has not materialized yet, Viktor Orbán’s party is a member of the Christian democratic European People’s Party (EPP) in name only. In fact, the Hungarian Prime Minister is orbiting a broader Eurosceptic and/or populist alliance which is willing to transform the integration and question some of the fundamentals the continent had laid down throughout its historical progress after the Second World War. How seriously should one take, however, Orbán’s peacock dance with the forming Eurosceptic Populist International?
Back in March 2019, when the EPP raised concerns about Orbán’s European elections campaign—which ultimately led to the suspension of the membership of Fidesz in the EPP –, Orbán already hinted at holding talks about a potential new, European party-based alliance with the Polish governing party, Law and Justice (PiS). The idea of such cooperation is hardly surprising given the extent to which political realities overlap in the two countries. Both Orbán and Kaczyński—the de facto political leader in Poland—use a Eurosceptic populist voice that portrays the EU as an imperial or colonizing power that often disrespects its member states and its constituencies.
Defending the National Sovereignty against Brussels
Orbán’s Eurosceptic populist approach is underpinned by an extremely one-dimensional anti-immigrant rhetoric. The main thrust of his political discourse is that pro-migrant federalist elites—also within the EPP—are willing to build an empire, the United States of Europe, that would undermine the sovereignty of Hungary and its honest people. According to investigative journalists, the Hungarian government has spent more than €100 million since 2015 for a public advertisement campaign embedded in a broader conspiracy that the Hungarian-born American billionaire George Soros, together with the EU, is willing to destroy nation-states by flooding Hungary and the EU with illegal migrants. While spreading the key message that the “People have the right to know what Brussels is planning”, Orbán’s centralized press machinery attempts to delegitimize any rule of law criticism coming from the EU by saying that it is a punishment for Orbán’s anti-immigrant stance.
Orbán’s centralized press machinery attempts to delegitimize any rule of law criticism coming from the EU by saying that it is a punishment for Orbán’s anti-immigrant stance.
As opposed to the anti-migration rhetoric, in the case of Poland, the political discourse has been dominated instead by the rule of law crisis and the disciplinary hearings in the EU. As the rule of law-based criticism intensified, Kaczyński began to claim that the corrupt, domestic political elite collaborated with the politically biased European Commission and the European Court of Justice to undermine the national sovereignty of Poland, and the will of the Polish people.
A Cultural War against the EU
Although there is a substantial difference in the intensity and bluntness in Orbán’s and Kaczyński’s Eurosceptic populist narratives, which can be partly explained by the level of concentration of political power in their respective countries, the two leaders share a strong sentiment that the EU is increasingly becoming a colonizing empire with a political elite that declares decisions based on the will of the people dangerous. To counter that, Kaczyński has even suggested recently, in a letter to the other capitals in the EU, to give the veto right to national parliaments over EU laws.
Furthermore, both Orbán and Kaczyński are waging a cultural war against the EU. While the former claims that Hungary’s way of life is now being threatened by “politicians from Brussels, Berlin and Paris”, the latter intensified his cultural counter-revolution narrative against the EU that it is not able to defend traditional family values as it continuously insists on political correctness for the sake of LGBTQ and Muslim minorities.
Orbán and Kaczyński share a strong sentiment that the EU is increasingly becoming a colonizing empire with a political elite that declares decisions based on the will of the people dangerous.
Orbán has other potential allies with a similarly Eurosceptic, populist position and governmental power. Matteo Salvini, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for the Interior in Italy, described the EP elections as a referendum to choose between the “pure people” and the corrupt European elites. He is promoting the creation of a pan-European right-wing populist coalition, the European Alliance of Peoples and Nations (EAPN). Although neither Orbán nor Kaczyński and their respective parties attended the transnational meeting of the EAPN in April, Salvini did pay a visit to both Warsaw and Budapest to signal his openness to include Fidesz and PiS into his European party coalition.
The Austrian Model
The unity between Salvini and the Hungarian Prime Minister, who referred to the Italian politician as a hero, was hard to miss during their meeting. They both criticized the EU for not representing what “the people” really want and for not showing enough respect for its member states. During their press conference, Orbán even emphasized that the EPP should open towards “the patriotic right”, i.e. the Eurosceptic and often populist parties under the EAPN, as opposed to the center-left parties which are “pro-migration” according to Orbán, and “want the worst for the peoples of Europe” as Salvini claimed.
Matteo Salvini, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for the Interior in Italy, described the EP elections as a referendum to choose between the “pure people” and the corrupt European elites.
This right-wing coalition model was mentioned again during a visit of the then leader of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), Heinz-Christian Strache in Hungary. Orbán has claimed that “instead of a grand European coalition, we would also like to maintain the possibility of opening towards the Right; what works in Vienna could also work in Brussels”. Although the resignation of Vice-Chancellor Strache, after the scandalous footage of his dubious political act, circulated across newsrooms all across Europe, and the dissolution of the Austrian governing coalition raised multiple questions that undermine the viability of a right-wing coalition advocated by Orbán, he is still aiming to become a mediator and the facilitator of such political cooperation. The Ibiza-Gate is likely to deepen the cleavage, however, between the EPP and the EAPN, and thus will further alienate Orbán from the EPP.
The Dangerous “Liberal World-Mafia”
The relevance of the protective shield, provided by the EPP to Orbán, cannot be emphasized enough. Giving up strategic positions in the center political field and shifting away from the strongest European platform will come at a great cost as it will result in his further marginalization on the European level. This could turn out to be perilous for its negotiation positions in the Article 7 Procedure (although the upcoming Polish parliamentary elections are much more relevant for that), and in the next multi-annual financial framework, just to name a few. This is where the cracks among Eurosceptic populists become more and more visible.
Despite the “budding bromance” among the previous four, now three, right-wing Eurosceptic populist politicians in government, Salvini, Kaczyński, and Orbán do not share much in terms of policy preferences.
While Salvini wants to ease austerity measures in Italy and is likely to fight for a larger slice of the common EU budget, the latter two tend to strengthen the perceived division between the West and the East, signalling to their nationals that the EU is employing double standards and thus lets East-Central European member states down. Relations with Russia—just to name another issue—is another topic where these three politicians do not necessarily see eye to eye. While Salvini is one of the greatest proponents of Vladimir Putin in Western-Europe, Orbán takes a similarly benevolent position towards the Russian leader. As the Hungarian Prime Minister explained it just before the EP elections: “one should not fear Russian interference, but rather the liberal world-mafia of George Soros”. In contrast, Kaczyński and Poland is highly critical of any friendly approach towards the Russian Federation.
Orbán ́s Sit-on-the-Fence Strategy
There is a more inherent challenge Eurosceptic populist parties will have to face. They might find common ground, however, in their critique towards the EU, which attracted these parties to one another. Not only did Salvini de facto send an invitation to Orbán and Kaczyński, but the European Reformist and Conservatives (ECR), where PiS is the main stakeholder, would also welcome the Italian Liga, the Hungarian Fidesz and the Spanish Vox among their ranks with open arms. PiS also tried to join the EPP last summer, which indicates the political limitation of operating in a less influential faction within the EP.
The relevance of the protective shield, provided by the EPP to Orbán, cannot be emphasized enough.
Populists, more specifically nativist populists, tend to define “the people” they represent in an exclusively nationalist way. This eventually leads to an unstable and antagonistic relationship between them in the long-run, or rather as soon as national interests collide. This is why pre-election forecasts about a potential Eurosceptic populist challenge to further EU integration were rather exaggerated. After all, although the center-left S&D, and the center-right EPP lost seats in the European Parliament, with the liberal ALDE, they still have a comfortable majority in the house, even if Orbán decides to leave the EPP.
Furthermore, even if Salvini’s EAPN, the ECR and the British Brexiteers joined forces, which is highly unlikely given their diverging policy preferences, they would not qualify as the largest faction in the EP.
Provided that they also manage to lure some of the EPP members into their ranks, which would effectively lead to the breakup of the EPP, close-to-center parties are highly unlikely to enter into a coalition with the Eurosceptic populist platform, which—given the previously explained reasons—is almost doomed to disintegrate if decision-making power is guaranteed to them.
Populists, more specifically nativist populists, tend to define “the people” they represent in an exclusively nationalist way. This eventually leads to an unstable and antagonistic relationship between them
It is not surprising then that Orbán remains quite ambiguous about a potential future partnership between his party and the other Eurosceptic populists, and instead wants to build a bridge with the EPP. Europe’s self-proclaimed strongman, who always lectures his political opponents about the relevance of values and principles in politics, indeed seems to resort to a cowardly, calculating, a sit-on-the-fence strategy that leaves him the largest room for manoeuvre. Should EPP push him to play the role of the “prodigal son” after the EP-elections, for power-political considerations, the Hungarian Prime Minister will keep polarizing both on the national and the European level with these populist Eurosceptic narratives.
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