VISEGRAD BLOG: Europe's populist surge can still be contained

VISEGRAD BLOG: Europe's populist surge can still be contained
Brothers of Populism? Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (left) and Italy's Giorgia Meloni. / bne IntelliNews
By Robert Anderson in Prague November 27, 2023

“The winds of change are here!” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán rejoiced on social media platform X after the victory of Geert Wilders’ radical right-wing Freedom Party in the Dutch general election last week.

That is still not clear. The latest populist triumph may be yet another false dawn – it is far from clear that Wilders will be part of, let alone lead, the next Dutch government.

Moreover, the European radical right has also suffered two body blows in recent months: the ruling Law and Justice Party looks set to lose power after the Polish election last month, and Vox flopped in the Spanish election in July. In both elections the populists had been expected to emerge victorious.

Nevertheless, observers continue to warn of a looming populist tidal wave in Europe, which is expected to peak at the European Parliamentary (EP) elections next June. If this wave is somehow fought off then, the re-election of Donald Trump next November could still shake the whole European establishment.

Hungary’s bombastic strongman has appointed himself the maestro of this coming populist storm, despite his country’s small size, economic backwardness and international marginalisation. That he is taken seriously at all reflects Orban’s charisma and his longevity in power – he is currently Europe's longest serving leader – as well as the huge investment of time and (government) money he has put into building an international right-wing network.

Blowing hard

Orban has been impatiently awaiting the “winds of change” after spending more than two years with the wind blowing hard in his face. After years of tension, in March 2021 his Fidesz party was at last forced to leave the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) grouping, which removed his political protection inside the EU.

The Commission then finally began to get tough over his flouting of the bloc’s key democratic values. It attached a new so-called rule of law mechanism to the 2021-27 budget deal and the Recovery Fund in November 2021, and then began to use it and other sanctions last year to withhold Hungary’s funding. Some €9.5bn of recovery fund money is still frozen, as well as €8.8bn of cohesion funding, money that Hungary desperately needs to climb its way out of recession.

Despite persistent rumours to the contrary, it is entirely possible that these funds will not be released before the EP elections, because Hungary has only made superficial efforts to meet the EU’s reform milestones.  

“No-one is fighting for Hungary at the moment,” French Green MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield told a webinar of Hungarian think-tank Political Capital and Germany’s Heinrich Boll Stiftung on November 22. “Orban knows it is going to be very difficult to get the money”.

On top of this, Orban’s refusal to cut Hungary’s close links with the Kremlin after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has made him a pariah in Europe. Furthermore, it broke his alliance with Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Poland and rendered the Visegrad Group (V4) bloc of Central European states moribund.

Rather than encouraging him to try to reach a compromise, these setbacks have prompted Orban to become even more confrontational towards Brussels.

Hungary continues to obstruct new sanctions against Russia and further assistance to Ukraine, while calling for peace talks to end the war now. He has also threatened to block the launch of Ukraine’s EU accession talks.

“It’s time to face the music: the front line has frozen and this strategy has failed. We need a plan B. But most importantly, we need a ceasefire and peace talks,” he tweeted recently.

In a letter to European Council President Charles Michel last week, Orban implicitly threatened to block decisions on Ukraine at next month’s European Council summit unless his demands on “future strategy” were met.

“The European Council is unable to make key decisions on security guarantees for Ukraine, additional financial support, further strengthening of the EU sanctions regime (against Russia) or the future of the enlargement process unless a consensus on our future strategy toward Ukraine is found," he wrote.

The letter has been widely seen as another attempt to blackmail the Commission into unfreezing Hungary’s funding.

At the same time, while he is meant to be carrying out reforms to resuscitate Hungarian democracy, Orban has instead launched another crackdown on foreign funding of Hungary's opposition, as well as another biased “national consultation” to supposedly gauge Hungarians’ views. This consultation includes the loaded topic: “Brussels wants even more money to support Ukraine . . . We should not pay more to support Ukraine until we get the money we are due.”

This campaign is accompanied by government billboards depicting EC President Ursula von der Leyen and Alex Soros, the son of US progressive philanthropist George Soros, with the message: “Let’s not dance to their tune”.

It is hard to see this approach opening the Commission’s wallet. “Orban’s national sovereignty consultation will make Hungary even more isolated,” says Delbos-Corfield.

Catch a wave

Yet Orban now senses that the tide may be about to turn and he could catch a wave. The European economy is still stagnating, driving economic discontent, while migration will continue to be a headline issue across the continent, sparking cultural angst. European moves to fight climate change, correct gender inequalities and enable the EU Council to take more decisions by majority vote should also continue to rouse populist ire next year.

One new factor could be fatigue with the war of attrition in Ukraine as the conflict enters a third year with no end in sight.

The Commission is running out of ideas for new sanctions and already some EU member states want to soften its proposals for fighting evasion of the existing measures. European states are also running short of surplus military supplies to give to Ukraine. Orban will therefore be hoping that opinion will shift his way and that his isolation over the war will soon be over.

Evidence for any populist tide has been mixed this year, with failure in Spain and Poland but success in Finland in April, where the Finns party joined the government, and in Slovakia in September, where the populist left-wing Smer party returned to power with the radical right-wing Slovak Nationalist Party and was promptly suspended from the Party of European Socialists (PES) grouping.

These two countries joined Hungary, Italy (led by Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy), Sweden (where the centre-right government is backed by the Swedish Democrats) and Latvia (where the National Alliance is part of the ruling coalition) as states where the radical right exercises a significant degree of power.

Besides the Netherlands, next year they could be joined by Portugal in March and more likely Austria in September, where the Freedom Party could even lead the government.

Across Europe there is no longer a taboo against forming coalitions with once fringe radical right-wing parties, and the bloc's struggling centre-right parties have been increasingly adopting their policies on migration and other issues.

“There is a strong radicalisation of the mainstream right,” Steven Forti, lecturer at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, told the Political Capital webcast. “They buy the discourse of the far right as [the EPP] is the sickest party in Europe.”

Populist surge?

If the radical right is making slow but steady progress inside EU states, Orban is hoping for a breakthrough this June in the European institutions.  Hungary – which takes over the rotating European Council presidency in July – is calling for a populist surge in the European Parliamentary elections in June to end its current dominance by an alliance of the EPP, the Socialists and Democrats, and the liberal Renew Europe groupings.

Orban dreams that the EPP, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and the Identity and Democracy (ID) groupings could then have enough votes to form a “national conservative” majority. Radical right-wing ideologues increasingly prefer this term “national conservative” in order to imply a natural convergence of views between the traditional centre-right and the new radical right.

These three right-wing groupings may indeed muster enough votes to hold a majority of the parliament’s 705 MEPs, which would inevitably affect the political climate, but there remain several serious obstacles to their close co-operation.

The radical right is still split between the ECR and the even more far-right ID grouping, and there are no firm signs of a rapprochement. Many countries have a party from each grouping that are domestic rivals and would find it very difficult to join together at the European level. Orban’s Fidesz itself has not joined either group, though the ECR would be the more obvious fit.

The far-right parties are also currently divided over their attitude to Russia, with their most important party, Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, backing Ukraine. There are also serious differences over migration, with Meloni’s government backing the latest Commission proposals as a way of easing the burden on Italy as a frontline state, while Fidesz and Poland’s Law and Justice oppose any moves to share the load.

Thirdly, the ID group remains a pariah, partly because of its increasing dominance by Germany’s far right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. The EPP has been flirting with the ECR – though not Poland's Law and Justice – but the ID group remains beyond the pale.

“There is a cordon sanitaire with the ID but no longer with the ECR,” Zsuzsanna Végh. visiting fellow, German Marshall Fund, told the Political Capital webinar.

Lastly, Orban himself could be an obstacle for co-operation with his erstwhile EPP allies, because their split was so bitter. Fidesz joining the ECR would likely scare away the EPP from agreeing to any co-operation, argues Rudolf Berkes of Political Capital.

Therefore the webinar panel agreed that though there might indeed be a radical right-wing surge next year it could still be contained. Progressive parties should not be defeatist, as that will only make the worst happen.

“I do hope with the elections in Poland there will be a surge of fighting spirit coming back,” said MEP Delbos-Corfield.