Orban’s Dream of an Illiberal Pan-European Alliance Is Fading


Exultant after winning his fourth election in a row last year on promises to protect Christian values and keep out immigrants, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary thanked like-minded conservatives in Poland as well as other “friends” abroad for their support.

Europe was turning his way, he rejoiced. Hungary “is not the past,” he said, but “our common European future.”

But Mr. Orban’s hopes of leading a pan-European movement — one that is deeply illiberal and infused with nationalism — are fading, deflated by the poor performance at the polls by some of his most fervent admirers in Europe and deep divisions over the war in Ukraine.

Most crucially, Poland’s governing Law and Justice party — a longtime partner of Mr. Orban’s Fidesz party in its battles with the European Union over minority rights, migrants, the rule of law and other issues— lost a general election last month.

That followed a string of election setbacks for Mr. Orban’s political allies across Europe over the past two years, in Spain this past summer, and upsets in Slovenia and the Czech Republic.

A hard-right coalition won an election in Italy last year, and Giorgia Meloni, who shares Mr. Orban’s views on cultural issues and national sovereignty, became prime minister. But she has since veered away from Hungary over its Kremlin-friendly response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Last month, Mr. Orban was in China for a meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin. He told the Russian leader that Hungary “never wanted to confront Russia” and “has always been eager to expand contacts.”

That stance not only incensed centrist and liberal European leaders — Estonia’s prime minister accused Mr. Orban of “showing the middle finger” to Ukrainians — but put Hungary at odds with many conservatives, including the hard right in Italy and Poland, a founding member of what a 2021 gathering of nationalist leaders in Budapest, the Hungarian capital, declared a “European conservative renaissance.”

“The pan-European movement has been thrown into the ditch by the war in Ukraine,” said Zsombor Zeold, a former Hungarian diplomat and foreign policy expert in Budapest. Even before the recent electoral defeat of the Polish governing party, which shares Fidesz’s hostility to the European Union bureaucracy, immigrants and L.G.B.T.Q. rights, Poland had already started to keep Mr. Orban at arm’s length.

“His policy toward Russia was simply too toxic,” said Slawomir Debski, director of the state-funded Polish Institute of International Affairs. “Nearly everyone wanted to stay away from him.”

In addition to the distress caused by his cozying up to Russia, Mr. Orban has infuriated fellow members of the European Union and NATO by stalling on giving Hungary’s assent to Sweden’s joining the military alliance. Of NATO’s 30 members, only Hungary and Turkey have held out.

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, last month submitted a bill to the Turkish legislature endorsing Sweden’s NATO membership, advancing what is expected to be its eventual approval. At the same time, Hungary’s Parliament, controlled by Mr. Orban’s Fidesz party, rejected opposition calls for a swift vote.

Hungary initially cited “technical” reasons for the delay, and then complained about a Swedish television documentary critical of Hungary’s direction under Mr. Orban and Sweden not showing it enough respect.

Agoston Mraz, the director of the Nezopont Institute, a Budapest research group that does work for Mr. Orban’s government, said Hungary’s position was “very difficult to understand” but was mainly motivated by its strong relationship with Turkey, an important economic and diplomatic partner, despite Mr. Orban’s regular broadsides against Muslim immigrants.

When the Turkish Parliament is ready to vote on Sweden’s membership, Mr. Mraz predicted, Hungary’s legislature will “push the button, too.”

Others, however, point to statements this year by senior Fidesz politicians indicating that the main reason for the delay was Mr. Orban’s anger that the European Union had not released billions of dollars in badly needed funding that had been frozen because of various long-running disputes between Budapest and Brussels.

“Orban is trying to blackmail the E.U. through the NATO issue,” said Peter Kreko, the director of Political Capital, a liberal-leaning Budapest research group. “He sees this as his last chance to have some influence and wants to show that he will give nothing for free,” he added.

Hungary’s biggest supporters these days are not fellow Europeans but right-wing Americans.

Former President Donald J. Trump recently praised the Hungarian prime minister as “one of the strongest leaders anywhere in the world,” describing him as the “leader of Turkey.” (Hungary’s government spokesman trumpeted the glowing tribute on social media, though he omitted the reference to Turkey.)

The admiration is mutual. Mr. Orban recently posted a picture of himself wearing a red cap bearing the name of Mr. Trump, whom he has described as “the man who can save the Western world.” Mimicking the former president, Mr. Orban vows to “topple the progressive elite and drain the Brussels swamp.”

But the belligerent tactics and language that worked for Mr. Trump in the United States have not performed so well in Europe, where political success often depends on stitching together coalitions in national legislatures and the European Parliament in Brussels. That is not a problem in Hungary, where Mr. Orban’s party has a large parliamentary majority, but it has crimped his influence elsewhere.

On the European stage, Fidesz is isolated and mostly alone; it withdrew from an influential bloc of center-right parties in the European Parliament in 2021 to avoid the humiliation of being expelled and has yet to find another parliamentary grouping willing to accept it.

Mr. Orban has offended so many people that he rarely gets credit even when others follow his lead. During Europe’s 2015 migrant crisis, Hungary pushed hard for a strengthening of Europe’s external borders. But Mr. Orban wrapped his proposals, now widely accepted in European capitals as sound policy, in so much nasty, racist language that all but the most extreme far-right groups outside of Hungary kept their distance.

Mr. Mraz, the Nezopont Institute director, who is sympathetic to the Hungarian prime minister, acknowledged Mr. Orban had often caused offense by using aggressive language “that is very normal in Hungary” but “is horrifying when translated” abroad.

But, he added, Mr. Orban “is a very rational politician at the negotiating table and ready to make compromises.”

The clash between Mr. Orban’s pragmatism and an attack mode honed by domestic politics was on display in Hungary’s response to the Polish election results, which Mr. Zeold, the former diplomat, said had come as an “unpleasant surprise” to Budapest.

After days of stunned silence from the government, Mr. Orban’s chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, acknowledged that the “decision of the Polish voters is clear” and “must be respected.”

At the same time, however, Magyar Nemzet, a newspaper that often channels Mr. Orban’s views, challenged the legitimacy of the Polish results and blamed Law and Justice’s upset defeat on outside meddling by European and American liberals.

The only nation now fully in step with Mr. Orban is Slovakia, which, following an election in September, is led by Robert Fico, a former prime minister who shares the Hungarian leader’s taste for pugilistic politics and his deep distrust of Ukraine.

But any gains to be had from Mr. Fico’s victory are far outweighed by the defeat of Law and Justice in Poland, a much bigger and — in terms of economic, political and military power — more important country. “Size matters,” said Mr. Kreko, the research group director.

Poland’s next prime minister is most likely Donald Tusk, a longtime critic of Mr. Orban who, on a visit to Budapest last year to show support for the opposition, described Hungary as a “freak democracy.” (On Monday, Poland’s right-wing president, Andrzej Duda, asked the outgoing Law and Justice prime minister to try to form a new government, a mission that is almost certainly doomed, given that Mr. Tusk and his opposition allies won a majority in Parliament last month.)

Angered by Mr. Tusk’s criticism last year of Hungary’s democratic backsliding, Hungary’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, responded by dismissing the man who is now poised to become the next Polish leader as an inconsequential has-been.

“Orban thinks he is a visionary who sees European politics right, while everyone else is wrong,” Mr. Kreko said. “He tries to depict himself as the future leader of Europe. But most of his expectations have proved wrong.”


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