VISEGRAD BLOG: Victorious at home, Orban faces deeper isolation abroad

VISEGRAD BLOG: Victorious at home, Orban faces deeper isolation abroad
Prime Minister Viktor Orban: “We won a victory so big that you can see it from the moon, and you can certainly see it from Brussels.”
By Robert Anderson in Prague April 5, 2022

Viktor Orban is master of all he surveys in Hungary after his landslide election victory on Sunday, 3 April, but he is becoming more and more isolated within the EU – and is likely to remain so. This is shrinking his diplomatic influence and could even start to constrain his autocratic rule at home, foreign policy experts have told bne IntelliNews.

In his vainglorious speech on Sunday Orban said: “We won a victory so big that you can see it from the moon, and you can certainly see it from Brussels”. He also included “Brussels bureaucrats” in the long list of enemies who had tried to obstruct his victory, and said his brand of politics was “our common European future”.

This speech indicates that he is unlikely to use his crushing of the domestic opposition to forge a compromise with Brussels, but will rather continue to lead a radical right-wing crusade against the Berlaymont monster.

Populist leaders have indeed rushed to applaud Orban after his win. “Orban’s victory will boost all manner of anti-elite, populist parties in Europe,” Professor Sean Hanley of UCL told bne IntelliNews in an interview.

“He is not ready to do any major compromise,” Professor Zsolt Enyedi of CEU told a webinar of the university’s Democracy Institute on April 4. “He thinks he represents the future. He doesn’t want to show any weakness.”

“Orban is not going to become more moderate domestically or in EU policies such as towards Russia,” Roland Freudenstein, vice-president of Slovak foreign affairs think-tank Globsec, told a webinar of the German Council of Foreign Relations (DGAP) on April 5. “Rather we will see a radicalisation as he feels he has been hugely corroborated by the election result.”

Nor does Orban look prepared to end his close alliance with the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, which has deepened his isolation within the EU – though he may try to create some distance between them in the short term purely for PR purposes.

In his victory speech he did not even mention the Russia-Ukraine conflict among the future challenges he faces, Peter Kreko, director of Hungarian think-tank Political Capital, told the DGAP webinar. He predicts that Orban will try to stay on the fence over the Ukraine war in the hope that the EU’s relations with Putin will quickly return to normal after a peace deal.

“He deeply believes in the decline of the West,” Kreko said. “So he will keep betting on authoritarian regimes in the East.”

Orban’s refusal to send arms to Ukraine and his opposition to energy sanctions on Moscow has already broken apart the Central European Visegrad Group (V4).

Up until now, against a more combative European Commission, and lacking the protection of any of the European parliamentary groups, Hungary could often count on the support of the V4.

But changes of government in Prague and Bratislava over the past couple of years have divided the V4 group between authoritarians and democrats, and now Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has even separated Budapest from Warsaw.

“The Visegrad Group is dead and will probably not easily be revived,” Professor Wojciech Sadurski told a webinar at Princeton University on April 4. “The fall-out from Ukraine will last for many years.”

Orban’s isolation was embarrassingly clear in the tone of the congratulations on his victory from EU countries compared to that from fellow authoritarian populists such as Italy’s Matteo Salvini, France’s Marine Le Pen and Putin himself.

Not backing down

If Orban is staying put, the EU is unlikely to back down on his violations of EU values, and his alliance with Putin is likely to continue to put the frayed relationship under strain.

The EU Commission has always struggled to deal with the way Orban has gradually hollowed out Hungarian democracy, using EU funds to bolster his regime and grant patronage to friendly oligarchs, while at the same time attacking the EU as a bogeyman.

“He is a free rider,” Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society Policy Institute, told bne IntelliNews in an interview. “He has pushed the boundaries of acceptable behaviour while attacking the EU and demonising the EU for electoral gain.”

Because of Hungary's failure to prosecute rampant corruption, the EU is currently withholding €5.9bn of Recovery Funds, which the bloc is distributing to boost recovery from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. On April 5 it also triggered the new conditionality mechanism to punish violations of the rule of law, having hesitated to do so before the election to avoid being accused of interference in the campaign.

“EU institutions are not going to back down suddenly,” Freudenstein told the DGAP webinar. “There will be continual pushback.”

“There are political reasons to take time to give Hungary the recovery fund money,” Milan Nic, senior fellow at DGAP, told bne IntelliNews in an interview. “[Hungary’s stance on Russia] will make it more difficult for EU net payers to approve it.”

But at the same time, the EU needs to keep Orban on board during the Ukraine conflict to maintain pressure on Putin.

Some EU leaders, notably President Emmanuel Macron of France, may be prepared to do a deal with Orban in order to enable the EU to pursue a united foreign policy, argued Professor Jan-Werner Muller in the Princeton webinar. “Orban has lost Central Europe. But it might not matter if Western European leaders go soft on Hungary or have too much on their plates to get involved,” he said.

“The EU will wait,” Pavlina Janebova, research director of the Czech foreign affairs think-tank AMO, told bne IntelliNews. “It can’t really afford to antagonise Orban in case he will block further sanctions on Russia.”

Wedge politics

There has been speculation that the EU could try to prise apart Poland and Hungary by reaching a compromise with Warsaw, which is enjoying a much improved reputation because of its frontline role in confronting Putin and hosting Ukrainian refugees. In Poland it is regularly reported that Warsaw is about to receive its delayed Recovery Fund money. 

If Warsaw could be bought off, it would allow for much tougher action against Hungary, as it would mean that Budapest could not rely on Poland vetoing any attempt to use the Article 7 procedure to suspend its voting rights.

However attractive this strategy might look, the execution looks problematic. Hardline member states such as the Netherlands are not about to give Poland a free pass on the rule of law conditions – which it has failed to meet – just because Polish NGOs are doing a wonderful job handling the huge tide of Ukrainian refugees that have crossed the border.

“As the Ukraine conflict drags on, the problems that Poland has been having with the rule of law won’t be forgotten,” says Janebova.

“There are quite a number of member states who say the conditions have not been met. It would trash our reputation to give money at this point,” says Grabbe, who also points out that there would still be the unsolved problem of Polish legal decisions being challenged in other EU courts because of the rule of law violations.

She argues that a short-term decision made to keep unity on sanctions would also store up long-term problems. “EU conditionality will have no credibility. It will be a green light for other governments to syphon off money, creating a moral hazard,” she says.

It could also send the wrong signal to countries applying for membership.  “It is already giving ambiguous signal to countries on the way to the EU,” said Muller.

Moreover, Warsaw is also unlikely to completely abandon Orban. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of the Law and Justice Party and the country’s de facto leader, will not want to leave himself vulnerable to punishment by Brussels, though relations with Budapest are unlikely to return to their former warmth, at least while Putin’s atrocities remain fresh in the memory.

“Law and Justice may make a rational calculation and realise they need Orban,” says Janebova.

“The bromance is not entirely over,” agrees Freudenstein, pointing out that Orban and Kaczynski have had an agreement since 2016 to “agree to disagree” on Russia.

Orban's bubble

Nevertheless, because he can no longer use the V4 as his megaphone, Orban seems to be shifting more and more of his attention to the Western Balkans, where Hungarian businesses close to his regime have been building up their presence for some time, particularly in the media sector.

The democratic backsliding of Hungary and Poland has made EU member states even more reluctant to allow the accession of flawed Western Balkan democracies, and this has ironically created an opening for authoritarian governments such as Hungary and Russia.  

Orban’s new best friend is President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia, another close ally of Putin, who also won re-election at the weekend. This raises the danger that they will combine, together with Russia, to create mischief in the region, particularly in Bosnia.

Orban is also likely to pursue stronger relations with Chinese President Xi Jinping while Putin remains too hot to handle. Orban has already blocked attempts in the European Council to criticise Beijing for human rights abuses.

“He realises he could lose EU funds. He is looking for other partners. His whole system depends on channelling public funds into private hands,” Professor Kim Scheppele told the Princeton webinar.

All in all, therefore, Orban looks like he will become more, not less detached from the EU after his victory.

“Long term I’m really worried by Hungary,” says Nic. “It’s in a bubble. It’s moving in a very different way from the rest of the EU.”

Inside the EU, Orban now has little influence, as shown by his struggles to create a new right-wing European parliamentary faction, a task that the Ukraine war has made even more difficult.

This isolation could also increasingly limit his freedom of manoeuvre at home. As the economic skies darken, and Hungary has to rein in its budget deficit after Orban’s pre-election splurge, the holding up of EU funds will become increasingly painful.

“His victory was so huge that he is not forced to do anything,” says Janebova. “But he needs the EU money.”

So long as the EU keeps its nerve, and does not fall once again for his staged retreats, using EU funds still offers the best hope of bringing Orban to heel. “He has burned all his reserves in this campaign, diplomatic and economic,” says Kreko.