Too Close to Moscow

Viktor Orbán and the EU, Part II

The populists are taking over. The pronouncement is familiar and gets trotted out before every European election.

The populist bromance.

The difficulty is figuring out when it might mean something. It’s never quite the landslide that gets predicted.

For the last decade, centre-right parties have mostly held sway, and not-so-socialist social democratic parties have won some surprising victories.

That doesn’t mean Europe’s political establishment will hold on forever. Such forecasting has a habit of overlooking the state of the far-right.

Case in point: Romanian populist party AUR’s refusal to join the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group after June’s EU elections if Hungary becomes a member, too.

This is a surprise turn of events. Hungary’s Fidesz Party and its leader, Viktor Orbán, have been at the forefront of the fascist-adjacent populist right in Europe for more than a decade.

Few member states are better positioned to lead the ECR than Hungary. Could it be that all is not well in the paradise of nationalist ambition?

Yes and no. A certain degree of conflict is baked into the international relations of the European right that helps it live with internal differences.

One reason MAGA-fied Republicans find solace in Donald Trump’s fawning over Vladimir Putin is that his pet hates – homosexuality, minorities, democracy – are things they share as well.

The West has always been a problematic concept. In the post-democratic era, it has degenerated into a code for an ethno-cultural chauvinism shared by the people of “Europe”, however defined.

Provincialism underlines the essence of groups like the ECR, whose proceedings are being disturbed by the importune refusal of the Romanians to get with the team.

The conflict between AUR and Fidesz indicates some intractable underlying problems.

The ECR tries to present itself as comprising moderate Euroscepticism and conservatism. On its website, one finds slogans like “Doing less, but better” and “Cooperation, yes! Superstate, no!”

The goal of “Bringing back common sense” is superimposed over an image of someone using a pottery wheel. Nothing says moderation more clearly than a commitment to arts and crafts.

Other imperatives embraced by the ECR can be found in its call for “all member states [to be] treated equally” for an immigration policy that “works” and for a common front with Ukraine.

That last point is one of the places where adding Fidesz to the ECR group gets dicey.

Orbán has made no secret of the fact that he regards Vladimir Putin as undeserving of the calumnies that have been heaped upon him by the Americans and their globalist clientele.

It’s a backwards way of rehabilitating fascism, using a Russian to sell a German-branded product.

I remember a conversation I had with Czech football fans at the World Cup a decade ago. I asked them who they remembered less fondly, the Nazis or the Soviets.

“The Nazis stole from us for a decade. The Soviets stole from us for fifty years,” one of them tellingly responded.

That is, of course, an isolated anecdote. But there is no lack of evidence that there is a great degree of fear and suspicion of Russia in the former Soviet Bloc.

In part, it is a consequence of history. At the same time, there is also an equal measure of alarm at Putin’s clearly expressed ambition that Russia should wield the same degree of power and influence that the USSR did in the halcyon days of the Cold War.

One might think that this anxiety would be particularly acute in Hungary.

The images of Russian tanks and troops crushing Nagy’s attempt to establish a more moderate communism are some of the most stark and compelling of the entire East-West conflict.

Viktor Orbán seems to have gotten over any squeamishness he might have been expected to feel on this account.

Today’s Russia is farther away than the Soviet Union was and would have to digest Ukraine before it might present any danger to Hungarian territory.

But it is also a question of political dynamics.

In the bad old days, the USSR was the acknowledged leader of a movement with subservient party organisations elsewhere.

While Orbán feels reinforced by Putin’s project of “daring less democracy,” he isn’t burdened by a third column threatening to unseat him. The EU lives with his illiberalism.

That doesn’t stop the Hungarian premier from manufacturing fake threats by indulging in Antisemitic fearmongering campaigns against George Soros and, more generally, Brussels.

But, the fact of the matter is there is no real threat to his rule, so Orbán has to pretend he’s besieged to generate sympathy. The fact that it’s the West belies his alliance with Russia.

Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the feeling among right-wingers is somewhat less sanguine when it comes to Orbán.  Parties like AUR know what he’s doing, and it scares them.

Once again, several lines of causality come together here.

The political line of the ECR is a combination of economic liberalism and subsidiarity (i.e. the idea that local problems are better dealt with at the local level).

Neither of these ideas carries weight with Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán. Both run highly clientelistic states in which markets don’t trump the needs or expectations of the leadership.

While Orbán seems subsidaristic concerning the EU’s insistence on democratic norms, his conception of localism stops at the border. Brussels’ job is to finance that.

The fundamental nature of this difference can be seen in the fact that the leading state in the ECR is Poland’s PiS (Law and Justice) Party.

Although indulging similarly populist inclinations as Fidesz, the PiS cannot bring itself to get behind Putin’s kleptocracy. Perhaps their sense of history is a bit better than Orbán’s.

Still, it’s not enough to prevent them from cooperating with Hungary in the populist Visegrád group of Central European states over the years, which is split over Russia.

This proposition seems even more plausible when one considers the other issue that AUR has politically cohabitating with Orbán: the national question.

The issue at hand is Viktor Orbán’s stoking of the autonomist ambitions of the significant Hungarian minority in the Rumanian region of Transylvania.

The stresses of this issue date back to the days of the Habsburg Empire.

In recent years, Orbán has been wont to make statements suggesting that the human rights of culturally Hungarian residents of Rumania are persistently violated.

Bucharest, as you can imagine, has been none too pleased by Budapest meddling in its affairs, and the AUR’s animus towards Orbán reflects that.

It is unclear whether all of this will ultimately forestall Hungary’s participation in the ECR. But the larger implications are interesting.

Given the ultimately divisive nature of populist nationalism, to what degree will it be possible to maintain any supranational solidarity?

Will it work for particular issues but not in the long term? Can national populism retain its base’s loyalty, given neoliberalism’s tendency to reward the rich, not the poor?

However things turn out, the rise of nationalist tensions, mostly unseen since 1945, represents a return of the repressed.

There is no reason to think that the populist right can’t cope with such challenges. They haven’t sorted it out yet, but there’s no reason they won’t in the future.

However, the shape of European politics in the next decade will have much to do with how this process shakes out.

Given how previous populist governments run their countries into the ground – the UK, for example, under the Tories, and further afield, Bolsonaro, in Brazil – there’s lots to learn.

The problem is always the EU’s preference for technocratic governance and austerity economics. It only takes action when it has to, and even then, it can be long coming.

There isn’t much warmth or solidarity in that. Populist parties do a much better job of pretending they speak for the working class and the disenfranchised. That needs to be stopped.

Photograph courtesy of Kremlin.RU/Wikimedia. Published under a Creative Commons license.