Orban Courts New Enablers in Germany for Post-Merkel Era

Hungary’s prime minister may be pleased the centrist Armin Laschet will be the next leader of the CDU, though he is going to find a much tougher crowd in Germany in the post-Merkel era.

When Joe Biden won the US election, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban – an avid supporter of Donald Trump who even famously remarked that Trump would win for sure and he had no Plan B for a different outcome – was among the last European leaders to send a congratulatory message. Even in his short letter, he only acknowledged Biden’s “successful presidential campaign”, falling short of using words like “victory” or “president-elect”. However important cooperation with a future US president might be, Orban thought this minor snub was something he could afford. The Hungarian media directly influenced by his government continued to cast doubts on Biden’s win for months to come.

Then came another, seemingly much less important election two months later on January 16: party delegates of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) chose Armin Laschet, a centrist candidate and close ally of Angela Merkel, as its new chairman – a position that could be a springboard for him to succeed Merkel as chancellor later this year.

This time, however, Orban did have a Plan B. His Plan A was, of course, Friedrich Merz, Laschet’s hardline rival, whom the government-controlled pro-Orban media in Hungary had been portraying for months as the Hungarian prime minister’s ideological ally and praising him as the “anti-immigration candidate”.

Nevertheless, in just a matter of hours, Orban’s warm congratulatory letter to Laschet had been widely and proudly publicised by his allies. The message was crystal clear: Orban wants to continue the “pragmatic cooperation” between the CDU and his own Fidesz party, based on “mutual respect”.

Even prior to sending this letter, Orban himself had been much more cautious in the language he used and, in contrast to his loud support for Trump, refrained from endorsing Merz or anyone else. While Orban went all-in for the US election, he never dared alienate any of his potential German counterparts.

As a Hungarian government official dealing with foreign affairs explained to BIRN, while the US has no real leverage over Hungary, it is extremely dependent on Germany – both politically and economically.

It is no surprise, then, that when the prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia was crowned the next CDU chairman, pro-Orban pundits rushed to emphasise how large companies from Laschet’s state have huge investments in Hungary. And when they eagerly pointed out that Laschet is expected to continue Merkel’s policies, they did not mean supporting migration or being in favour of LGBT rights; rather, the expectation that he would set aside all these differences and still shake Orban’s hand for the sake of the profits of German companies in Hungary.

The ties that bind
This intricate system of political and economic interests that entwine German and Hungarian elites is exactly what I was investigating during much of 2020. My in-depth piece for Direkt36, “How Orbán played Germany, Europe’s great power”, has shown the unconditional support that German carmakers receive from the Hungarian government, which, combined with lucrative arms deals with German manufacturers, helps Orban to secure the goodwill of the business-minded German government and its conservative allies.

Ever since being mentored by the former Free Democratic leader Otto Graf Lambsdorff and later by the CDU’s Helmut Kohl, Orban has always paid special attention to, and maintained a close personal relationship with, Germany’s elite. Although his cooperation with Chancellor Merkel was less a love story and more an interest-driven work relationship, the Hungarian prime minister was ultimately so satisfied with what he got from their partnership over the years that he even tried to talk Merkel out of retiring.

Orban did not succeed in that, but his close bond with Merkel proved to be a true lifeline for his hold on power in late 2020 in several ways.

First, the German EU presidency helped broker a deal over the EU’s next multiannual budget, which essentially makes it impossible to punish Orban’s regime for its multiple breaches of law for at least a few more years. The EU budget’s so-called rule-of-law conditionality offers rather loose checks and many think it will be almost impossible in practice to actually strip a member state of EU funds.

Second, Merkel’s CDU has been helping Orban’s Fidesz avoid getting kicked out of the European People’s Party (EPP) since 2019. Being the EPP’s largest delegation, the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, have again and again prevented the formation of a majority block needed for Fidesz’s expulsion simply by remaining “undecided” on the issue.

After being elected, Laschet was instantly confronted with a question on Fidesz, and his vague and non-committal reply – starting with “that’s a tough question” – was received as more than reassuring in Budapest. Moreover, Laschet’s anything-but-hawkish foreign policy stances on Russia and China also suggests he is surely not the person who puts the rule of law and democracy issues over business interests.

Even so, the image of Orban in Germany and elsewhere in Europe has become so tarnished that being associated with the Hungarian prime minister could well pose a reputational risk to Laschet, especially given that he still needs to secure the candidacy for chancellor, and then win the federal election on September 26. It is often forgotten that Hungary and Orban are enormously over-covered both in the German media and in political circles. During the televised debate before the previous German parliamentary election, Merkel and Martin Schulz, her Social Democrat contender, mentioned Orban’s name at least half a dozen times.

But it is not the outcome of the CDU/CSU’s internal race for the candidacy of the chancellorship that should worry the Hungarian government.

The greening of German politics
Thanks to his well-connected lobbyists, talented ambassadors, loyal German intermediaries and skilled advisors, Orban is usually extremely successful in navigating internal German politics. However, there is one development in Germany that he has truly misread over the past few years.

While Orban was anticipating a rise of anti-immigration, hardline right-wing policies both in Europe and Germany, it has actually been the Greens that have gained ground. By the time the pandemic hit the continent, the Greens in Germany had considerably grown in popularity compared to the CDU. Now it is the common expectation that they will replace the SPD in the next coalition – an alliance that has already been tried and tested in neighbouring Austria.

The shift towards the Greens has already cost Orban dear. Bavarian Prime Minister and CSU head Markus Soeder – another popular contender for succeeding Merkel as chancellor – has already turned against Fidesz and the Hungarian government in statements, a radical shift from the once-close alliance the CSU had with Fidesz.

After the CSU’s previous experiment with anti-immigration and Fidesz-like hardline policies caused the party’s popularity to plummet under its former leader Horst Seehofer, Soeder has firmly steered the party back to the centre. An important element of that was riding the ‘green wave’, giving an environmentally conscious and green veneer to the CSU. By doing so, Soeder also had to sideline those former party leaders who were Orban’s main allies and intermediaries in Bavaria.

But the real threat to Orban comes from Germany’s Green Party itself, which has actually evolved to become his most vocal critic. Green MEPs like Daniel Freund are already investing time and energy into raising the issue of Hungary’s flawed democracy as well as its rampant high-level corruption.

Unlike the Social Democrats, the current junior coalition party running the Federal Foreign Office, the Greens are also less susceptible to lobbying efforts from the German automotive industry, given that trade union interests have less influence over them. And when it comes to Berlin’s foreign policy towards Hungary, as the previous decade has shown, it has always been the car industry calling the shots.

Of course, it will still matter in Berlin if the Orban government pours more direct state support into German companies than on Hungarians – a shocking trend in Hungary in recent years that is in stark contrast with the Orban government’s sovereignist and anti-globalist rhetoric. However, having decision-makers at the top table with a more environmental-oriented mindset will surely pose a risk to those who have been taking it for granted that the Merkel-era’s transactional relationship with Orban’s Hungary would last forever.

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