“MEGA”: What is Viktor Orbán’s Next EU Game – Survey

Experts comment on Hungarian leader's obsession to remould Europe

22 February 2024

Reeling from a rare series of setbacks at home and abroad, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán acknowledged a shaky start to 2024 but vowed to make a strong comeback during his country’s presidency of the European Union in the second half of the year.

In an annual State of the Nation speech last Saturday, Orbán invoked the expected swing to the right in the European Parliament elections and the potential return of Donald Trump to the White House as foundations of his long-desired “cultural revolution” in Europe. Hungary would “make Europe great again”, he told cheering supporters of the ruling Fidesz Party.

Visegrad Insight asked a panel of experts specialising in Hungarian and European affairs to offer their views on Orbán’s aims in Europe and the likelihood he will achieve them.

Steven Erlanger, Chief Diplomatic Correspondent Europe; The New York Times, Berlin.

It seems pretty clear Orbán is banking on a good showing of the right and far-right in the European elections and makes no secret of his admiration for Donald Trump and Trump’s transactional, identitarian, nationalist and anti-migrant politics.

He has long believed that public opinion in Europe is moving in his direction. But he will do nothing to cause European colleagues to finally punish him and Hungary. He is very good at going to the limits and then retreating.

If he continues to block Sweden’s accession to NATO – in contradiction to his own promises – he is less intelligent than I believe him to be.

Edit Inotai, Board member at the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy and Budapest correspondent of ARD.

After the domestic blunder, Orbán sets his eyes on foreign policy. He hopes for a shift to the right in the European elections, which will be sold as a major victory, although it will not end his isolation in the European Council.

To regain some relevance in the European Parliament, Orbán intends to join the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) – although I would not fully exclude him in the Identity and Democracy group –  where Fidesz could become a key player with its 13-14 MEPs.

Part of the grand plan is to win over Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, which would make the ECR the third largest group in the Parliament.

It is questionable, however, how Orbán, with his inherent mistrust of female politicians, could work in a party family dominated by two women – Le Pen and Giorgia Meloni.

Disagreements over Ukraine will remain, but an alliance can be coined around tougher anti-migration policies, blocking green transition and standing up against “woke ideologies”. Orbán will continue his disruptive EU policies, and a blocking minority is a real threat after the elections.

Relations with the European Commission will remain strained after the vote if Ursula von der Leyen is re-elected. For the EU presidency, Orbán will pick risk-free topics like enhancing the competitiveness of the EU, promoting the digital agenda and advocating for enlargement (but only for the Western Balkans). None of these will depend on Hungary.

An eventual return of Trump to the White House would be communicated as a major victory for Orbán, although Trump’s views on China and Russia are in contradiction with his view on “connectivity”. Orbán hopes to become Europe’s voice in a Trump White House, which may get him some media coverage but no tangible benefits in the bilateral relationship.

Szabolcs Panyi – Central Europe investigative editor at VSquare Project, journalist at Direkt36

Hungary’s economy is in an abysmal shape, and Orbán is betting on Chinese investment, such as in battery factories and Electric Vehicle plants as well as major infrastructure projects (Budapest-Belgrade railway reconstruction) to boost growth and the Hungarian economy in general.

However, the EU’s new Foreign Subsidies Regulation increasingly seems like a challenge for Hungary, especially since the Commission has already started scrutinising the Chinese state-owned rail giant CRRC’s presence in Europe. Government-connected sources told me recently that this was the reason why Orbán would like to get the Commission’s competition portfolio for Hungary.

Since 2022, Orbán’s veto threats regarding Russia or Ukraine related to EU actions have overshadowed the fact that he has also been trying to derail any measure aimed against China. I expect this to become the main issue in the next few years.

Currently, a large majority of Chinese investments in Hungary are still in the initial phase, factories are not yet up and running. Hungary’s increasing reliance on Chinese capital and technology is still somewhat under the radar. But when these Chinese plants start producing batteries and EVs, they would pose a direct competition to European companies. So a clash is certainly coming.

Erika Schlager, independent expert, former US Helsinki Commission Counsel for International Law

To succeed in Brussels, Orbán must maintain his dominance in Budapest. With a view to both the EP and municipal elections, he will continue to fine-tune one of his most insidious innovations: persecution without imprisonment.

The so-called “sovereignty law” – effectively a surveillance law – is an escalation of that form of state intimidation. The Orbán machine will lean on it heavily in propaganda and practice.

With this new tool, all Hungarians are on notice they may be hacked and harassed by the government. Those who put a spotlight on policy issues most salient for Hungarian voters, such as education and health, will be vulnerable.

Since 2010, Orbán has repeatedly lowered the bar for what it takes to put people in jail for acting on their freedoms of speech, assembly and association. That legal machinery has been used against opposition politicians, independent journalists, corruption monitors, human rights activists, the Pastor Gabor Ivanyi — anyone who won’t play ball with Orbán’s corrupt regime.

They are sometimes searched, surveilled and perp-walked, exhausting their time and testing their tenacity. But they won’t be sentenced to jail. Orbán doesn’t want political prisoners: he wants losers, not martyrs.

Dorka Takácsy, Visegrad Insight Fellow

Viktor Orbán, wounded but unbowed, enters Hungary’s EU presidency with a familiar playbook: leveraging cultural grievances and external allies in the hope of reshaping the European Union. He is playing a long game.

He will likely exploit the upcoming EP elections and the Hungarian EU presidency to amplify his message, aiming to build a broader Eurosceptic alliance. While his strivings for the latter were so far unsuccessful, this option won’t disappear from the horizon.

Doubling down in culture wars is to be expected, too. Being an easy target, a flurry of symbolic pronouncements and legislation targeting LGBTIQ+ rights, immigration and media freedoms are to be anticipated.

These are less about policy change and more about mobilising his base and antagonising “Brussels”. Orbán personally envisions a Russian victory in Ukraine and acts and will keep acting accordingly. As such, his ties to Putin are a liability for the whole Western alliance system.

To sum up, Orbán’s EU game will be one of calculated risk-taking. While he may not achieve his grand vision, he can still disrupt and exploit divisions, making him a thorn in the side of the EU for the foreseeable future.

Paul Taylor, senior fellow at the Friends of Europe think-tank and columnist at The Guardian

Despite scandals and setbacks at home and the loss of his key Polish nationalist partner in the EU, Viktor Orbán still thinks the tide of European history is running his way.

Far-right populists and conservative sovereigntists are set to make unprecedented gains in June’s European Parliament elections, and Orbán’s Fidesz party could help tip the scales by joining the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group after the poll to make it the third largest in the EU legislature.

That would restore some of the leverage he lost when Fidesz was forced out of the centre-right European People’s Party in 2019. It has sat in the wilderness for five years.

Orbán will hold the EU’s rotating presidency when the bloc’s top jobs are carved up, and the next Commission’s agenda is set, giving him some influence on issues such as migration, the degree of support for Ukraine and green deal legislation.

Expect him to play his cards cynically but pragmatically to try to escape rule-of-law sanctions without paying too high a political price. Whether he succeeds depends on his ability to recruit new allies, such as Slovakia and Italy, to block efforts to isolate him. Don’t count him out.

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