Trump reinvigorates Visegrad’s EU revolutionaries

Trump reinvigorates Visegrad’s EU revolutionaries
Visegrad Group leaders' meeting in Prague, 2015. / Photo by CC
By Tim Gosling in Prague January 26, 2017

Donald Trump’s rise to power and confrontational first days in the White House has reinvigorated the calls for “revolution” from the populist governments in Poland and Hungary.  

Poland will propose deep reforms to the EU to help the bloc survive Brexit, the prime minister claimed on January 24. Her announcement came just a day after Hungarian peer Viktor Orban told a local conference that his authoritarian and nationalist policies have received the “blessing” of the new US president.

The statement by Polish PM Beata Szydlo follows claims from Poland’s de facto leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski last year that Warsaw is ready to join Hungary in leading a “cultural counter-revolution” against Brussels to return power to national capitals. However, when it comes to the crunch, the Visegrad states usually fail to challenge the likes of Germany in leading the direction of the EU.

“Our ambition is to present a comprehensive proposal of changes and reform in the EU... which will guarantee that the union survives and further develops, taking into account the interests of all member states, and not only the interests of the stronger countries, which have so far dictated terms to all the others,” railed Szydlo, who is viewed as little more than a puppet for Kaczynski, leader of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.

Poland wants a “strengthening of nation states, national parliaments” and “perhaps talks are also needed about changing the [EU] treaties,” the Polish PM said on Polskie Radio.

Her words illustrate the encouragement the region’s populists have received from Trump’s arrival in the Oval Office. Having praised the UK vote for leaving the EU, the rush of Brexit has been clearly wearing off. Trump’s rambunctious takeover of the US presidency has given them renewed pep, and, they claim, “legitimized” their nationalist agendas.

“We have received permission from, if you like, the highest position in the world so we can now also put ourselves in first place,” Orban said on January 23, referring to comments made by the new US president at his inauguration. Trump has pronounced “the end of multilateralism”, the Hungarian premier added. 

The confrontational approach of the new administration in Washington clearly offers fresh enthusiasm to two European leaders that have been battered by criticism of their authoritarian bent and easy answers on issues including the rule of law, immigration and the media.

Kaczynski and Orban loudly announced plans in late August for their ‘illiberal axis’ to force a revolution in the European bloc to defend the sovereignty of member states. However, the initial splash of their “bromance” quickly faded as they failed to follow up their promises to force changes on Brussels with action.

The impotence of the revolutionaries back then was no surprise. The EU bogeyman is a construct for domestic audiences and a collapse of the bloc is not in the interests of either Poland or Hungary. What would the drive their economies? Where else could Orban and Kaczynski point to deflect the blame for problems at home?

When EU leaders met in Bratislava in September for the first summit following the Brexit vote, the “new recipe for the EU”, promised by the revolutionaries turned out to be a couple of sheets of A4 offering a handful of vague and lily-livered suggestions. It was all but ignored.

Different beast

Orban has spent years proving he’s a very different beast in front of Angela Merkel compared with the tub-thumping populist to which the Hungarian electorate is treated. Poland’s leadership appears to harbour a similar lack of confidence in confronting the EU leadership, despite spitting venom from Warsaw at lesser officials in Brussels.

On top of that, Hungary and Poland have received little support from Visegrad neighbours Czechia and Slovakia. Orban and Kaczynski have claimed that all four countries are unified in opposition to “domination” by Brussels, but it’s clear that Prague and Bratislava would prefer to solidify their position within a bloc upon which their economies are crucially dependent – not least by developing relations with Germany – rather than seeking to exacerbate the cracks in the EU.

“The Visegrad Four is not going to lead a unified call for EU reform,” Otilia Dhand at Teneo Intelligence tells bne IntelliNews. “There are too many different interests between them.”

In contrast to the Czechs and Slovaks, Warsaw and Budapest hope to circumvent the EU’s economic leverage over them. While still keen to claim billions in structural funds – Poland is the biggest beneficiary in the bloc under the 2014-20 window with €107bn available – and benefit from export demand, the pair hope to diversify.

Hungary has long sought to tap new export markets to the east in a bid to reduce that dependence, although it has met with limited success. The EU still provides around 80% of export demand, with overseas sales accounting for just under 90% of GDP.

Orban has been trying to eke cash out of Beijing for years, but has largely failed in the face of hardball tactics from the other side. He made another pitch for a slice of China’s huge investment war chest on January 23.

If Europe wants to increase trade with the East, and specifically with China, “it won't work if every morning we lecture them about human rights”, the Hungarian leader said. “This position will only result in a rhetorical opening toward the East, but not in reality,” he added, apparently without irony.

As in so many instances since the PiS government took office in late 2015, Poland is following the Hungarian blueprint. Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski said Poland will seek new markets abroad, and together with the Ministry of Development, plans to open 70 trade offices around the world.

However, Poland’s nationalists are yet to comment on speculation that Trump is likely to reduce the pressure against Russia’s push to reassert its influence around CEE. PiS has an almost pathological fear and hatred of Moscow, and led calls for Nato to boost its presence in the region.

The US president’s pledge to revamp Nato and question the alliance’s role in Europe has no doubt tempered praise out of Warsaw for the new leader of the populist world. Orban, who has spent years seeking to win President Putin’s favours, has no such qualms.