EU, Hungary, Italy
The Great Orbán-Salvini Hack

How the European populist radical-right paves its way to power

Daniel Hegedüs
14 września 2018

It is almost banal to point out that the strategic interests of Italy and Hungary with regard to European asylum policy could not be more divergent. Due to its geographical location, Italy bears a significant burden of irregular migration on the Mediterranean route, a fact that is hardly affected by the gradual reorientation of irregular migration to Spain in the Western Mediterranean basin over the last few months.

Against this backdrop, the governments in Rome, irrespective of their political background, are interested in creating a compulsory relocation mechanism for asylum seekers. In contrast, Hungary bitterly opposes any policy aimed at redistributing asylum seekers within the EU.

Regardless of how these fundamental differences between the asylum policy positions of Rome and Budapest appear to be or how misleading they are to someone aimed at decoding the political intentions of Mr. Orbán and Signore Salvini – who demonstrated cordiality and hinted at a political proximity after their meeting on August 28 in Milan – it is in vain to look for policy rationality, or to presuppose the existence of policy rationality, in a political relationship where policy considerations are essentially lacking.

The performance of crisis

Since 2015, the refugee crisis has significantly contributed to the spreading of the “post-truth” phenomenon in public discourse. It has led to the recognition that political discourse theory was right and that the subjective perception of important political issues plays a superordinate role to statistical facts or assumed policy rationality.

Considering the following facts, from January to August 2018 roughly 20,000 asylum seekers landed at the beaches of Italy. In the same period of 2016 and 2017 the figure was approximately five times higher. Objectively evaluated, Europe no longer has a refugee crisis anymore.

In spite of this, populist radical-right forces shout and scream from Hungary through Austria and France to Italy and Germany that European civilisation should stand up and fight for the preservation of its ethnic, cultural and religious identity against the repercussions of illegal migration.

According to the “performed crisis” theory of Benjamin Moffit, a highly-respected Australian scholar on populism, there exists a strong link between the political support of populist forces and the appearance of crises, but this link manifests rather differently than many might expect.

Political crises are often accompanied by emerging waves of populism as citizens who feel threatened and insecure are more receptive to political messages that operate with anti-elitist and other concepts focused on villainising real and manufactured threats so as to offer radical but simple solutions to the looming challenges. However, political crises do not only constitute an external environment of populism; crisis is an organic, inseparable internal element of populist politics. Crisis is not only a cause of populism, but largely also an effect of it.

Political crises are not objective phenomena either; they require interpretation. It depends on the perception of the political speaker and the broader public as to whether there is or is not a crisis. In this sense, according to their obvious political interests, populist forces do practically everything to maintain and, if possible, to deepen the crisis of a political environment by labelling certain groups allegedly responsible for the “crisis” as public enemies and propagating radical and simple political solutions.

The refugee drama of European politics is definitely such a performed crisis, or, if you like, a crisis performance. The main goal of the different initiatives embracing the idea of a Europe-wide cooperation among populist right-wing parties – including the recent meeting between the Italian Minister of Interior and Lega Nord party chairman Mateo Salvini and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – is not aimed at the creation of any particular platform for (migration) policy or institutional cooperation. The main goal is the coordination of the crisis performance.

“La Marcia su Bruxelles”

It is in the mutual short-term strategic interest of Salvini and Orbán to aggravate the political situation before the upcoming European parliamentary elections and radicalise the discourse of crisis with regard to the refugee and migration issue.

This performance of crisis serves best their domestic and European political interests as their popularity and electoral support are largely based on their radical approach to the refugee issue. Therefore, unsurprisingly, the very same recipe of success is used in their EP election strategies too.

The more lame and helpless European institutions drift on political waves stirred up by the ultimatums and norm-breaking acts of populist strongmen, the more EU-critical votes can be ultimately gathered by populist right-wing parties at the EP elections next May.

That  pattern was already proven several times both by Orbán and Salvini; it’s enough to call the fence on the Southern borders of Hungary, Orbán’s EU quota referendum, the so called “Stop Soros” legislation criminalising refugee aid organizations, the latest starvation of asylum seekers in the Hungarian transit zones or Salvini’s rescue ship ban to mind, and one can see how Orbán and Salvini have broadened their own political leeway in the absence of any EU reactions they had to take seriously.

The fact that Italy and Hungary support completely diverging positions in the asylum policy, turns in the above context, a disadvantage to an advantage. It allows them to maintain the European political deadlock they desperately need at home to effectively perform the populist mobilisation of the electorate; to threaten the citizens with the bogeyman of the “migration quota” in East-Central-Europe or, in Rome, to point an accusing finger at Brussels, Paris and Berlin due to the lack of solidarity in the redistribution of asylum seekers.

The short-term goal of Salvini and Orbán is as clear as the summer sun: to maximise votes for the European parliamentary elections. Their mid-term goal, consequently, seeks for a decisive influence within the EU institutional framework, according to the following scenarios.

The minimal goal might be to render the European Parliament dysfunctional, either by the creation of a blocking minority of Eurosceptic radical-right forces emerging from the EP elections or by elevating the costs of political consensus required to decision making within the EP. To create a blocking minority, populist radical-right parties have to win at least one-third of the EP mandates, irrespective of how many political groups they are going to form. Concerning the difficulty of decision making, the situation is a bit more complex than simply reaching a parliamentary threshold.

Most analysts predict that approximately 20% of the seats will be held by Eurosceptic right-wing parties in the new EP. Calculating the significant losses that the European People’s Party (EPP) and the socialists (S&D) are certainly going to face, this 20% share of the radical-right could become a critical mass, making the creation of the required two-third majority to substantial decisions very complex.

Until know, the “big coalition” of EPP and S&D could guarantee the necessary majority, but in alternative cases it was also possible by the involvement of the liberals, the greens or the conservative-reformists. However, in the new settings, a compromise with the overall involvement of the EPP, S&D, greens and liberals might become necessary in nearly all questions to forge a two-third majority, resulting in extreme political costs for all involved parties.

Moreover, the statements of Salvini and Orbán point much further, and envisage a “disciplining” of the European Commission. The way to this goal leads through the “occupation” of the EPP. It was a colourful moment of the Salvini-Orbán press conference, evoking the Freudian category of projection, when EPP renegade Orbán and the not even EPP member Salvini accused Emmanuel Macron of actively striving to split the European People’s Party.

 

The EPP caught in a quagmire

As a matter of fact, the EPP is definitely not far from a party-split; however, it is not Macron but rather Orbán who bears the primary responsibility for that.

During the past few months the EPP has faced a dual challenge as both its leading role within the EP and its pro-European value fundament has been seriously questioned. With the triggering of the Article 7 procedure by the European Parliament against Hungary, among others with the overwhelming support of MEPs of the People’s Party, EPP ultimately demonstrated its commitment to European values. However, the question of the party’s strategic orientation towards the refugee issue is still open, and political crisis is still looming over the EPP.

Concerning their strategic options, the EPP could, on one hand, open up towards the Eurosceptic radical-right – a pet project of Viktor Orbán which envisages Salvini’s Lega Nord and probably the Polish Law and Justice (PiS) joining the rows of EPP – and this would probably guarantee EPP’s leading position even in the new European Parliament. However, in this case it is more than likely that the liberal and pro-European EPP member parties from the Benelux countries and Scandinavia could vote with their feet and leave the right-shifting EPP. The adoption of the Sargentini Report by the EP definitely lowered this scenario’s probability in a significant way but did not render it completely obsolete.

On the other hand, disciplining the mostly East-Central-European radical-right wing of EPP can easily backfire. If the Hungarian Fidesz, the Croatian HDZ or the Slovenian SDS would leave the People’s Party that would weaken the EPP and strengthen the radical-right groups in a very sensitive moment, when EPP’s political bases in France and Italy seem to have already collapsed. The chances of this scenario grew exponentially after the naming and shaming of Hungary and the subsequent ongoing conflict between the EPP and Fidesz. However, a balance of the parties’ wins and losses can only be established after the EP elections next May.

Manfred Weber’s candidacy to the post of the European Commission’s President appeared to be still somehow rational in spite of its overall irrationality as it left the dilemma above still open. Weber has traditionally shown patience and understanding toward the unruly East-Central-Europeans in the party, his cordial relationship to Orbán was well-known.

However, he has been still moderate enough and a committed pro-European that the liberal wing of EPP could still accept him as a lesser evil in these troubled times. Nevertheless, knowing Weber’s and party chairman Joseph Daul’s track record with right-wing populism in the EPP in general (and with Viktor Orbán in particular), it was hard to expect the current EPP leadership to make a straightforward commitment in that strategic dilemma before the results of the EP elections are known. However, Weber’s surprising personal support for the Article 7 procedure set an end for this balancing act. Orbán’s political relation to the EPP and Manfred Weber was hard hit and can barely be healed. Sooner or later this newly grew tension will ultimately result in the suspension of Fidesz’ membership in the EPP, or in its leave. Hence, in the lack of other strategic options, pursuing a stronger friendship with Salvini and the radical-right appears to be inevitable for Orbán.

Irrespective of the EPP’s fate, Salvini and Orbán still cannot be completely displeased, even if they cannot fulfil now their mid-term goal, the occupation of the EU institutional setting. Of course, it is impossible to forecast the domestic political dynamics of key EU member states in the next six years until the EP elections in 2024. However, it is rather plausible to expect that a paralyzed European Parliament and EU institutional setting will in the long-term contribute to the electoral support of Eurosceptic, populist radical-right forces.

Therefore, it is fair to say that the elections of the European Parliament in 2019 have enormous importance. The fate of the European integration is really in the hands of European citizens. If Eurosceptic radical-right forces definitely reach a critical mass in the EP, the key question that remains, which party among them can be integrated into a rational and programmatic political process, and which of them will continue focusing on crisis-performance to maintain their domestic political support at all costs.

Daniel Hegedüs is visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and visiting lecturer at the Humboldt University to Berlin

*A version of this article was originally published in Hungarian by Magyar Narancs. This version reflects the author’s most recent views.
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