EU aid deal for Ukraine is a pawn in Orban’s long populist game

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After months of bluster against financial aid to Ukraine, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban bowed to intense pressure from fellow European leaders on Thursday, but not before trying to change the subject in Brussels by meeting with farmers angry Belgians next to a convoy of tractors and expressing support for the protests shaking Europe.

In what amounts to a campaign stoppage ahead of June’s European elections that he hopes will tip the balance of power in Europe in his direction, Mr. Orban skipped a dinner with European leaders on Wednesday evening and is went to speak to the farmers who had gathered outside the compound. Brussels will host the decisive summit on Ukraine on Thursday.

“We need to find new leaders who truly represent the interests of the people,” Orban told farmers, leaving no doubt that he includes himself in what he sees as an inevitable changing of the guard in Brussels, headquarters of the European Union. Union.

For Mr. Orban, whether or not to send billions of dollars to Ukraine has never been a question of unshakable principle, and he went to bed on Thursday when he was told that some member states were seriously considering isolating him, or even stripping him of his right to vote, if he continued to block aid. Rather, it is just one of many issues on which he has sought to establish himself as the leader of a pan-European movement defending national sovereignty and traditional values ​​against what he despises as disconnected urban elites.

On Thursday morning, headlines in Hungarian media loyal to Mr. Orban’s government suggested that his main goal all along had been to position himself as a beacon for Europeans dissatisfied with the status quo and looking for a leader willing to disconcert the dominant opinion.

“Hungary in the lead,” trumpeted Mandiner, a pro-government weekly and online news site. “All eyes are on Viktor Orban again,” said Index, a once-independent online news portal now firmly on the government side after being bought by a loyal tycoon.

It is far from certain, however, that Mr Orban will succeed in convincing Europeans to join his populist quest, which has been far more successful and has attracted fervent support in the United States, where Donald J. Trump is a big fan, than in Europe. Budapest, the Hungarian capital, declared “the capital of anti-woke resistance” by its leaders, will welcome American supporters and demonstrators in April. Geert Wilders, Dutch far-right politician during a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee.

“European politics is not about knocking on the door and shouting,” said Zsombor Zeold, a former Hungarian diplomat and foreign policy expert in Budapest. “It’s about building coalitions and reaching compromises. »

Spurred on by what Poland’s new Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, described Thursday morning as “the very strange and selfish game of Viktor Orban,” Hungary also took center stage, largely accompanied by boos and jeers, by blocking the expansion of NATO. It is the latest country to hesitate to approve Sweden’s entry, although Mr Orban insists his country will eventually give its assent.

A general election in Poland in October that ousted nationalist forces closely aligned with Mr. Orban and strong support for Ukraine from Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s deeply conservative Italian government. left Hungary more isolated than ever.

But Mr. Orban, who described Hungary as a “David-sized nation facing a woke Goliath,” is playing a long game, confident that Mr. Trump will win the November election and that public opinion European public sector is also looking to the future. in a context of growing concern about illegal immigration and the rising cost of living.

Frontex, the European Union’s border agency, reported this week that the number of “irregular border crossings” into Europe rose last year to 380,000, an increase of 17% per year. compared to 2022 and the highest level since 2016.

Unlike British Eurosceptics who led a successful campaign in 2016 to take their country out of the European Union, Mr Orban, who has his eyes on European Parliament elections this summer, does not want to leave Europe, but to lead he.

“My plan is not to leave,” he said in December, “but to take back Brussels.”

To that end, he has addressed a wide range of issues that not only help strengthen his unassailable grip on Hungary – his Fidesz party has won four consecutive electoral victories – but also reinforce his image abroad as a leader who dares to make a move things. the boat and give voice to opinions that other politicians, described as “woke globalists” by Mr. Orban, are too timid or beholden to particular interests to express.

Speaking in Budapest on the eve of the Brussels summit, Mr Orban’s chief of staff, Gergely Gulyás, said “Hungary is not alone” in doubting whether to send aid. money to Ukraine, but rather “the strongest to say that war is not the solution. Europe, he added, needs a “change of tone”, an adjustment which he said will take place once the European parliamentary elections show strong popular support for Hungary’s pragmatic policies .

The European Parliament is largely a forum for discussion that generates little interest outside Brussels. But the elections serve as a barometer of public opinion in the 27 member countries and could strengthen the influence of right-wing forces who share Mr Orban’s nationalist views.

Mr. Orban’s meeting with aggrieved farmers in Brussels brought together several potentially vote-winning themes: Brussels bureaucrats neglect the interests of ordinary workers and, the prime minister said, that they “should represent the interests of European farmers against those of Ukraine, and not the other way around.”

Mr Orban did not mention rising costs due to inflation, one of farmers’ main complaints. At more than 17 percent, Hungary recorded the highest inflation rate in the European Union last year.

Faced with a general elections in Hungary in April 2022, Mr. Orban and his party initially focused on denouncing “gender madness,” saying the European Union wanted to indoctrinate children into becoming transgender. He largely abandoned this line of attack after Russia invaded Ukraine and instead focused on accusing the opposition of wanting to send Hungarian men to fight Russia. This was wrong, but it tapped into a deep unease across Europe about being drawn into a war with Russia.

That resonated strongly with voters in Hungary’s neighbor Slovakia, which in September elected a new government deeply skeptical of aid to Ukraine. But it was present in other countries where hostility towards Ukraine also became, at both ends of the political spectrum, a marker of political allegiance and defiance of dominant opinion.

One position that has remained consistent for Mr Orban – and one that is very beneficial politically, here and abroad – is opposition to immigration. This has been a recurring situation since the migrant crisis in Europe in 2015, when Hungary has led the way in calling for stricter border controlsa position now adopted in most European capitals.

Mr. Orban’s abrupt withdrawal on Thursday from his hard line against the approval of an aid plan for Ukraine worth 50 billion euros aroused joy and also surprise in Brussels, given that he had in December he used his veto to block the money and has since repeatedly said that he would never submit to “blackmail”.

Shifting gears carries no risk at home, however, where Mr. Orban’s hold on the Hungarian news media allows him to present whatever happens as a victory. He faced no backlash in Hungary, for example, when he agreed to several rounds of EU sanctions against Moscow, while insisting he would block efforts to punish Russia for its invasion on a large scale of Ukraine.

Mandiner, the pro-government media outlet, acknowledged on Thursday that the summit had “ended unexpectedly and quickly” with an agreement, but said this was because “the heads of government of the member states were open to the Hungarian compromise proposal. EU leaders insisted, however, that they had stood their ground, rejecting Hungary’s demand that aid to Ukraine be subject to an annual review by leaders, which would give Mr Orban the possibility of withholding aid against a ransom each year.

Mr Tusk, the Polish prime minister, whose country sided with Hungary for years under the nationalist government ousted by voters in October, rejected the idea that Europe is suffering from “Ukraine fatigue”.

But he added: “We certainly have Orban fatigue now in Brussels. »

Barnabas Heincz contributed reporting from Budapest.



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