Is Hungary’s Leader Giving Up on Europe?

When it comes to Brussels-bashing, no one outdoes Viktor Orban.

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Over the next few weeks, European leaders will be focusing on the United Kingdom, whose citizens will soon decide whether they want their country to remain part of the European Union. But that’s not the only threat to the EU’s makeup that is in the offing. Trouble is also brewing in Budapest.

Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, is a long-established Euroskeptic. Ever since he took office in 2010, it’s been clear that there’s no love lost between him and Brussels. He seizes just about every opportunity to scold European Union leaders — and they seem increasingly willing to return the favor.

But lately, Orban been taking matters to a whole new level, prompting opposition parties to warn that he’s plotting to take Hungary out of the EU altogether. Although his position on the issue remains far from clear, there are many signs that he is eager to revise Hungary’s status within the EU.

It wasn’t always like this. Orban was once fervently pro-European. In fact, he led his country’s accession talks to the EU during his first term in office between 1998 and 2002. But once he returned to the opposition in the years that followed, his attitude began to shift. He saw an opportunity to respond to the growing anti-globalization and anti-EU feelings of average Hungarians, many of whom feel that joining the EU has not brought about the prosperity they think they were promised.

By the time Orban returned to power in 2010, he did so on a platform featuring a strong anti-globalization and anti-Brussels agenda. Since then he has regularly flaunted his contempt for European values. He has enacted laws sharply curtailing the freedom of the independent media and allowing for extra taxation of EU companies operating in Hungary. He has openly stated that he aims to transform Hungary into an “illiberal democracy,” citing Turkey, Russia, and China as praiseworthy models. He has used the migrant crisis to raise himself to EU-wide prominence as the leader of the hardliners who aim to build fences to defend “fortress Europe” — the implication being that this is something Brussels can’t handle. Even though his right-wing Fidesz Party is still part of the European People’s Party — the mainstream conservative alliance in the European Parliament — he is clearly becoming a liability even for his long-time allies, such as the Christian Democrats of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Some of Orban’s recent comments have fueled additional anxiety about his intentions. Lately he and leading members of his party have taken to describing Hungary’s EU membership as purely a “business matter” — a red flag for those European leaders who see the EU, above all, as a vital political project. In one recent interview, Janos Lazar, a minister often seen as one of Orban’s potential successors, also cast Hungary’s EU membership purely in economic terms. This is a calculated provocation. If the EU is only about business, then there’s no reason to accept a common Europe policy on the refugee crisis — and the refugee quota that goes with it.

Needless to say, that crisis has provided Orban with one of his most effective anti-EU talking points. In a recent radio interview, he declared that Europe is no longer a safe space for his fellow Hungarians, claiming that the EU’s stance on migrants has led to “rioting immigrants,” “refugee camps that are on fire,” and “gangs preying on Hungarian women, our wives and daughters.”

Those comments came a few days after Orban’s March 1 state of the nation speech, in which the prime minister recast the debate over migrant policy as an epic battle between the “Europe of free nations” (supporters of national sovereignty, including Hungary) and the federalists who sit in Berlin, Brussels, and Paris. The latter, he claimed, believe in immigrant quotas that will turn Europe into a sort of caliphate, a frontal assault on the continent’s Christian values. A left-wing opposition party immediately accused Orban of preparing the ground for “taking Hungary out of the EU,” also referring to Orban’s plans to call a referendum on the EU’s refugee quotas later this year. That initiative is clearly aimed at providing the prime minister with a popular mandate in his fight against Brussels.

Though such a referendum blatantly violates EU rules, it’s a perfect way for Orban to boost his party’s standing against its main rival, the far-right Jobbik Party. (The next election isn’t due in Hungary until 2018.) So it’s certainly true that Orban has eminently practical reasons for indulging in anti-EU populism.

Yet his Brussels-bashing cannot be dismissed as pure opportunism, either — there’s also a strong ideological element. Just consider his affinity for Vladimir Putin. Moving Hungary closer to Moscow has become the centerpiece of Orban’s foreign policy. Last year Moscow awarded Budapest a massive 10 billion euro loan. Ostensibly it’s for an expansion of Hungary’s only nuclear power plant, but some observers view the deal as part of a broader Kremlin effort to buy influence with the Hungarians.

Meanwhile, Orban’s talk of illiberal democracy is far more amenable to Moscow than Brussels. When it comes to values and body language, the Hungarian prime minister seems much more at ease with Putin than with anyone in Brussels. During Orban’s last visit to Moscow, Putin and the Russian media praised him for his critical stance toward the EU, and the Russian president claimed to be just as worried about “defending the European identity” as Orban himself. Orban’s approach can, indeed, be summed up as a kind of “Europutinism” — crony capitalism in economics, semi-authoritarianism in politics. Once the most liberal member of the Soviet bloc, Hungary is now an outlier once again — but this time in the EU.

So does all this mean that Orban really is maneuvering for an exit? Probably not. Taking Hungary out of the EU altogether would almost certainly prove hugely unpopular among voters. What Orban does seem to want is more space between Budapest and Brussels. He is clearly keen to resist greater political and economic integration among the EU’s current members. Judging by his actions to date, he would appear to envision a future for Hungary on the edges of the EU, as a sort of bridge between East and West, still enjoying some benefits of EU membership even as it seeks to grow closer to Russia. Of course, whether he can square this circle remains to be seen.

In the photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban converse during a signing ceremony of several agreements between the two countries on Feb. 17, 2015, in Budapest, Hungary.

Photo credit: SEAN GALLUP/Getty Images

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