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Viktor Orbán’s victory in Hungary is bad news for the EU – especially with Britain walking out the door

The push for influence over the EU’s socially liberal policy agenda by right-wing nationalists like Orban poses a conundrum to say the least

Will Gore
Monday 09 April 2018 13:55 BST
Viktor Orban re-elected as Prime Minister of Hungary

Viktor Orban’s election win in Hungary comes as no great surprise, although the margin of victory is wider than many had predicted. With all but 1 per cent of ballot papers still to be counted, Orban’s right-wing Fidesz party had won almost half of the vote.

With turnout high at 69 per cent, Orban will have strong grounds to argue that his nationalist policies have been given a clear mandate. It had been widely anticipated that if voters turned out in large numbers, it would be to the advantage of opposition parties. That prediction was plainly misplaced.

Immigration dominated the election campaign. Ever since the European migrant crisis began three years ago, Orban has been one of the continent’s loudest, anti-immigrant voices, refusing to take part in the EU’s resettlement scheme and presenting himself as a defender of Hungary’s national, Christian identity.

The construction of a new border fence in 2015 between Hungary and neighbouring Croatia and Serbia became a symbol of pride for Orban’s supporters; and an emblem of Europe’s disunity over what to do about immigration from North Africa and the Middle East.

Orban’s re-election for a third successive term will be a kick in the teeth to those in Brussels who hoped that the interminable Brexit process would discourage support for anti-EU parties in other member states.

Not that Orban has plans to remove Hungary from the bloc. The country has experienced consistent economic growth since 2014, with 80 per cent of exports going to other EU countries, and considerable sums flowing into Hungary via EU-backed infrastructure projects. While Orban has praised Vladimir Putin and sought to draw his country closer to its former masters in Moscow, there seems little prospect that Hungary’s economy could derive the benefits it gains from EU membership through alternative alliances.

Arguably, however, Hungary’s ongoing place at the Brussels top table – under Orban’s emboldened leadership – presents just as stiff a challenge to the EU as would any attempt to leave.

In January, Orban held a joint news conference with his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki, in which the pair made clear that they wished to have a much greater say in EU policy. While the “failure” of the EU’s approach migration was the starting point for their call, they made it clear that, in Orban’s words, “we want to have a strong say, as these countries in Central Europe have a vision about the future of Europe”.

At the news of Orban’s election victory, Poland’s envoy to the EU, Konrad Szymanski, declared that it was not just a win for the Hungarian prime minister, but was also “a confirmation of Central Europe’s emancipation policy”.

With Germany’s leadership of the EU weakened for the time being by Angela Merkel’s failure to win a majority in last year’s federal elections, and with Emmanuel Macron seemingly focussed on domestic matters as he battles to overhaul French labour regulations, the push for influence over the EU’s policy agenda by right-wing nationalists like Orban poses a conundrum to say the least.

After all, while the EU was founded on liberal democratic values, it is also, in theory at least, a club of equals. When some of those equals are demonstrably, even proudly, anti-liberal – and regard democracy fundamentally as a means to autocracy – maintaining a meaningful sense of unity may become untenable.

Britain’s presumed departure from the EU next year is, in this context, the cause of additional pain for union chiefs.

While the UK has not always found itself aligned with France, Germany and the EU’s other major economies during the period of its membership, those long-established democracies have co-operated on major issues more often than not and have, together, been the driving force behind the positioning of the EU as a global, socially liberalising force.

The paradox of Britain’s departure may not, therefore, be that its withdrawal will encourage others to follow suit, but that it leaves the remaining longer-established members less able to withstand calls from the likes of Orban and Morawiecki to change direction on key policies.

When the EU expanded in the 2000s to include former Soviet states, the idea was that these eastern and central European countries would willingly turn into liberal democracies in the mirror image of their fellow members to the west.

Increasingly it feels not only that some of those nations are looking longingly back to the East, but that they growing more confident in their desire to drag the EU round to their way of thinking.

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