Opinion & Analysis

Populist gegenpressing: Why the EU shouldn’t expect Orban to back off

Just as football tactics undergo periodic reimaginings, it seems a similar trend is emerging in Hungarian politics. Before the 2019 European Parliament elections, Hungary was flooded with anti-Brussels posters featuring philanthropist George Soros, peering over the shoulder of then-European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. “You have the right to know what Brussels is up to,” noted the slogan. Now a fresh batch of posters has appeared, with current commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, accompanied by Soros’s son Alexander. The colour photos of 2019 have given way to von der Leyen and Soros in black and white, their expressions sombre, which creates an atmosphere of foreboding. The slogan is sharper and less defensive: “Let’s not dance to their tune,” it urges.

This is in keeping with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban’s strategic playbook. The poster campaign’s combative and provocative style stands out within the consensus-seeking European Union. But Orban has preferred continuous attack throughout his career. Indeed, when he was re-elected as leader of the Fidesz party in November, a position he has held since 2003, he quoted a former coach of Hungary’s parliamentary football team. That coach had once selected only strikers for the starting lineup, prompting Orban to ask who would defend. The coach responded, “the opponent”. This aphorism perfectly reflects Orban’s political creed – and what the EU can expect from him in the future.

Images of generations of the Soros family standing behind European Commission presidents support Orban’s narrative that the EU is weak, partly because – so the propaganda suggests – it is controlled by a liberal speculator. In explaining this narrative, it is useful to draw a conceptual distinction. The cold-war era of state socialism saw official rhetoric differentiate between the ‘construction of socialism’ and ‘actually existing socialism’. In the case of today’s populist governance, it is advisable to draw a line between the ‘construction of populism’ and ‘actually existing populism’, the latter being where the system is established and structures have taken flight and stabilised.

Across Europe, leaders from Poland to Italy have tried to construct populist systems; but only Orban’s Hungary has reached the stage of ‘actually existing populism’. Paradoxically, it has achieved this with the EU’s support. And, alongside Orban’s attack-mindedness, ‘actually existing populism’ can help explain why the hate ritual by poster is becoming a tradition. It can also shed light on why Orban insists on counter-pressing the EU, when another theme in his propaganda is: “we are waiting for the money that Brussels owes us”.

Firstly, there are structural reasons. Anti-elite sentiment is often a key feature of populism. However, in the context of populism in Hungary, where Orban has won elections with a two-thirds majority four times in a row, this sentiment could be problematic. That is, Hungary’s political and economic elite is Orban’s direct creation. To channel anti-elite anger, he therefore needs external actors such as the EU and ‘Soros’ to blame for the country’s problems. Take Hungary’s record inflation, expected to average 18.4 per cent for 2023,compared to the 5.6 per cent projection for the eurozone. Orban’s propaganda claims that Brussels’ misguided sanctions against Russia are responsible for this, and he reinforces that message in another poster campaign.

The second reason is ideological. Orban’s political success appears to have convinced him that his worldview is not only right for Hungary, but also for the rest of Europe. In this view, the EU in its present form poses a threat to Hungary’s sovereignty – hence “Let’s not dance to their tune”. For him, the EU is a weak, decadent, multicultural, and ethnically diverse system on the verge of collapse. This is because the mainstream parties pursue a liberal-leftist – or in Orban’s vocabulary, communist – agenda; while, as he put it recently: “the French, Germans, Italians, and Austrians would give half their lives if they could have migrant-free countries again.” So, Hungary’s current interests may still favour EU membership, but Orban envisions a radical transformation of the bloc to align with his worldview.

This is all part of a larger game. Orban currently refuses to even entertain talks on Ukraine’s EU accession as part of the agenda at this month’s European Council meeting. It remains unclear whether he is attempting to build a stronger bargaining position or will hold firm on this stance. What is certain, however, is that the gegenpressing strategy is working to some extent: the European Commission could be about to release €10 billion from Hungary’s blocked cohesion funds, which it had withheld due to concerns about the rule of law. It would be ironic if this support arrives from Brussels just as anti-EU posters again appear all over the streets of Budapest.

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© European Union 2015 - Source : EP , Martin SCHULZ - EP President meets with Viktor ORBAN - Prime Minister of Hungary