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Viktor Orbán: Dealmaker or values-breaker?

Paul Taylor, a contributing editor at POLITICO, writes the “Europe At Large” column. 

BRUSSELS — European Council President Charles Michel was beaming.  

Thanks to another midnight backroom deal with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, European unity had once again been preserved. 

Under the European Union’s ban on Russian oil imports by ship, landlocked Hungary can now go on receiving Russian President Vladimir Putin’s petroleum through a pipeline for an unspecified “temporary” period. Additionally, EU partners will give Budapest extra supplies if anything interrupts the pipeline flow.  

Once again, the Magyar maestro has milked the situation for economic benefit and domestic political propaganda, making himself indispensable to another European agreement, all the while angrily complaining that the Commission wantonly disregards Hungarian interests. 

But should Brussels be agreeing to such stitch ups with the EU’s longest serving national leader — only half-jokingly dubbed the “Viktator” by former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker? Or should the bloc confront him more firmly over his illiberal and increasingly authoritarian-minded rule at home?

In the permanent contest between interests and values, the EU’s need for unanimity to keep the show on the road keeps trumping its political will to uphold liberal democratic values in one of its own member countries. 

After Orbán was reelected with a two-thirds parliamentary majority against a united opposition in April, EU officials resigned themselves to several more years of having to cut deals with him. To be sure, the Commission has been holding back Budapest’s share of the EU recovery fund, and it did trigger a mechanism after the election, allowing it to withhold money when violations of the rule of law pose a risk of EU funds being misused. 

Yet despite this attempt to put the squeeze on Orbán, there’s little hope in Brussels that his stranglehold on Hungarian state institutions and media can be loosened by European pressure. His response has been to use emergency powers to slap a windfall tax, mostly on multinationals, to plug a hole in Hungary’s budget.

Let Hungarians sort out their own domestic mess, seems to be the thinking in Brussels, where Orbán is both respected and loathed — often by the same people.  

“Orbán is a cynical pragmatist, who dresses up ideologically the realpolitik interests of his country and his party, but you can make deals with him,” said an insider with long experience of EU leaders’ horse-trading. “He’s straight, and he does what he says he’ll do. And because he’s in sole command, you know he can deliver,” he added. 

He contrasted the Hungarian strongman’s robust but calculable tactics with the less predictable exercise of negotiating with Poland, the other serial offender in hollowing out the judiciary. Poland is ruled from the shadows by the leader of the conservative nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party, Jarosław Kaczyński. He’s neither head of state nor head of government, and rarely meets foreign leaders. 

“With Poland, you don’t always know where you stand,” the insider said. “You’re dealing with the organ grinder’s monkeys and never with the organ grinder himself. And the monkeys are vying with each other in an unspoken contest for the throne of the aging organ grinder.” 

On rule-of-law issues, Brussels must contend with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki — a former banker and economist with ambitions to lead PiS and who faces constant sniping from Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, leader of the hardline Catholic nationalist United Poland. Further complicating matters is that President Andrzej Duda has the power to veto legislation and propose his own bills — he too aspires to lead PiS after Kaczyński. 

“After a session with the Poles, it’s a relief to deal with Orbán,” a senior EU diplomat said. “He can be personally engaging and talks straight.” In Budapest, only the Big Man counts, and he controls the narrative that his 10 million linguistically isolated citizens read and hear. 

The fact that Orbán‘s Fidesz party long sat in the European People’s Party (EPP) — the mainstream center-right bloc that until recently dominated EU governments and institutions — shielded him from harsher censure over the curtailment of civil rights, media freedom and judicial independence, as well as crony control of swathes of the economy. 

Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel protected him, even after he publicly insulted her over her 2015 decision to open Germany’s gates to a million, mostly Syrian, refugees. Fidesz was only forced out of the EPP in 2019, after Orbán led a campaign redolent of anti-Semitism against U.S. philanthropist George Soros.  

Orbán’s attempt to wreak revenge on the EU establishment and spread his political influence by building a hard-right nationalist alliance from Warsaw to Rome and Amsterdam to Madrid, with the encouragement of then U.S. President Donald Trump, has yielded little fruit. His political bromance with Kaczynski and use of the Visegrád group of four Central European countries as a battering ram against Brussels have now floundered because of his cozy relationship with Putin.  

Yet he remains unassailable. 

“Hungary has been Putin’s Trojan Horse inside the EU and NATO, playing a double game,” says Zoltan Kesz, director of operations of the Civitas Institute, a pro-democracy think tank in Budapest. While the government formally condemned the Russian assault on Ukraine, public officials and the media still amplify the Kremlin’s narrative. And Hungarian companies, including the giant MOL oil and gas group, continue to do lucrative business in Russia. 

All the while, Hungarian media deliver a relentless message that Brussels is stupid, Washington is making money on the war and the EU wants to subjugate Hungary. The more the EU makes deals with Orbán, the more it gets kicked in the teeth. 

Might it be time to kick back a bit more energetically?

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