Viktor Orban Cannot Do a European Populist Revolution Alone
Without European allies and Trump, the populist leader is isolated.
"There's a great man in Europe. Viktor Orban. He's the prime minister of Hungary. He's a very great leader; a very strong man. Some people don't like him because he's too strong. It's nice having a strongman running your country," Donald Trump said last month while campaigning in New Hampshire.
Trump's fondness for Orban is not new; what was revealed this past week is how powerless Orban is without allies like Trump in office. On February 1, the EU passed a 50 billion Euro ($54 billion) aid package for Ukraine which Orban had blocked at the end of last year. He had wanted an annual veto over the funds, which go to paying salaries and pensions in Ukraine's budget as its tax revenues have been decimated by the war and are exclusively allocated for the war effort. Instead, Orban settled for an annual review of the funds, which allows him to merely complain.
Orban capitulated because he is isolated. Poland's previous nationalistic government used to be Orban's biggest ally in the EU. However their alliance faltered in 2022, when Warsaw and Budapest split over the Ukraine war; Poland's populist government was voted out in November. New Prime Minister Donald Tusk did not mince words about Orban earlier this week: "The position of Viktor Orban is a threat to our security," he said, “It’s for Viktor Orban to decide if Hungary is part of our community or not. It’s black and white.” An ideological ally of Orban's, Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni, has been steadfast in supporting Ukraine, and convinced Orban to go along with the aid. While Meloni was playing good cop, EU officials leaked a document to the Financial Times showing that the bloc was prepared to shut off all EU funding to Budapest, with the intention of causing a run on its currency. When asked by reporters what concessions Orban had gotten, European Commission Chair Ursula von der Leyen replied: "The answer to your question is a simple no.”
While according to the New York Times, Meloni drank champagne with Orban during her successful lobbying effort, perhaps the rest of Europe should keep their bottles on ice. Europe's liberal democratic coalition could still splinter -- and be left alone if Trump wins the presidency in 2024.
The European Parliament, which is expected to easily pass the Ukraine funds by a simple majority later this month, faces elections in June. Right-leaning parties are expected to make gains, which would not immediately threaten Ukraine funding but could imperil future packages. While Germany has seen mass protests against the far-right in recent weeks, the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) remains the country's second-most popular party and is leading in polls for elections in three Eastern German states later this year. (However, last week, the party narrowly lost a regional election.) As French President Emmanuel Macron is term-limited, Marine Le Pen could be France's next president in 2027. She recently criticized the AfD over a plan to deport thousands of nonwhite migrants from Germany. (Deutschland Radio's Brussels correspondent, Peter Kapern, dubbed her criticisms "whitewashing.")
Orban would gain far more strength if Trump were to return to the presidency in 2025, giving the isolated leader of a country of 10 million people a powerful ally. In the fall of 2022, Orban said, "Hope for peace goes by the name of Donald Trump.” He said Ukrainians only can fight because of "endless" supplies of American weapons, and he added that "the Americans have to come to an agreement with the Russians."
American military support for Ukraine is dwindling. A deal combining aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan with border security measures remains stalled in the U.S. Congress. Trump, the likely 2024 Republican nominee, has campaigned against it; many Republicans in the House and Senate oppose it and House Speaker Mike Johnson has called it dead on arrival. However, a test vote for the deal is planned for next Wednesday. (On February 4, Johnson announced a vote on Israel aid alone, angling against the larger deal.)
With Trump and European allies, it's possible that Orban could lead a continental populist revolution, in which he would serve as the avatar for creating undemocratic national political systems: he controls the media, his critics are sidelined, and repeatedly wins free but not fair elections. For the moment, the prospects of that revolution are dim. However, he is the longest-serving prime minister of Hungary and does not intend to leave office; he is merely waiting for a chance.
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