Inside the Orbán insurgency Europe’s future is being written in Hungary

Will Viktor Orbán really march to Brussels and, as he claims, “occupy” the heart of the European Union? The EU’s enfant terrible has clashed with the bloc for years, but he is no Nigel Farage. He doesn’t want to abandon ship; he wants to commandeer the battered vessel and course-correct. “Our plan is not to leave Brussels but to take it over,” Orbán told Hungarian media in December. And he will soon have a chance to do just that.

Come next month’s European Parliamentary elections, Orbán hopes a Right-populist wave will allow him and his ideological kin to seize top positions and institutions. With Hungary set to assume the rotating presidency of the European Council in July, its prime minister’s influence could be unmatched.

But rather than just being a question of power, there is something more ideological, philosophical even, at play within this conflict. Orbán’s many liberal detractors characterise him as a threat to fundamental “European values”, but there is a strange lack of clarity about what these “values” actually are. We can assume that people wielding the idea of “European values” mean the “religion of universal progress”: liberal democracy, free markets and, in more recent years, neoliberal identity politics. There is also a hint of secular evangelism in the term; these “European values” can seem like imperialism with a human face.

Orbán, however, also sees himself as the champion of European values, and his critics as the ones who are imperilling them. At stake in this continental insurgency, then, is the very meaning and direction of the EU’s core principles — as well as the equally opaque alternatives offered by Orbán.

At the level of rhetoric, the Orbán concept of a “Europe of nations”, with values rooted in the Christian tradition, is clearly at odds with the progressive liberal vision of a secular Europe premised on human rights and equality. But even the pathologies that Orbán’s opponents rightly ascribe to him — nationalism, clientelism, authoritarianism — are ultimately as European as Eurovision. Indeed, the fact that “EU values” are vulnerable to attack in this way at all reveals a certain vacuousness at the heart of the European project. It is, in other words, an empty vessel ripe for hijacking — and a stealth takeover has already begun.

In 2022, the European television network Euronews was purchased by an obscure Portuguese investment fund close to the Orbán government. The Hungarian sovereign wealth fund, Széchenyi Funds, which is a public body, also invested €45 million in the purchase, and a communications company owned by a close Orbán associate contributed €12.5 million more. The motivation here was not hard to glean: according to internal Széchenyi Funds documents obtained by journalists, Euronews, which was described as “the seventh most influential brand on EU politics”, had been purchased “to mitigate Left-wing bias in journalism”. It is an approach to managing media that Orbán has already perfected at home: recent estimates suggest that Orbán and his Fidesz associates now own or control up to 90% of the Hungarian media landscape.

As part of the Euronews makeover, the network recently moved its headquarters from Lyon to the heart of Brussels. There, in terms of soft power at least, it is in very good company. In 2021, the Hungarian government bought a sprawling 18th-century mansion on the same street in Brussels that officials are already calling “Hungary House”. Other existing Hungarian government initiatives include the Mathias Corvinus Collegium (often referred to as MCC), a think tank which opened a new branch in Brussels in 2022, promoting conservative values and discussions of EU affairs in accordance with Orbánist thought. Finally, the Hungarian government also funds the European Conservative, an English-language publication that runs conservative commentary on European news. Taken together, the proliferation of these Orbán-backed institutions highlights the scale and seriousness of his Brussels ambition.

In Orbán’s view, the conflict in Europe is defined by two competing camps: his own cohort, the sovereigntists (or nationalists), and his opponents, the federalists. The federalists want to create a centralised “United States of Europe”, undermining the nation state and reducing its powers. Sovereigntists like Orbán, meanwhile, believe the EU should be reduced to a loose, mostly cultural body that unites European nation states in their shared Christianity. For their part, federalists see the sovereigntists as regressive blood-and-soil nationalists — the ideological cousins of fascists responsible for the worst horrors of the 20th century.

But while the divide between the two camps has grown wider and more acrimonious in recent years, Orbán believes that the sovereigntist-federalist tension was once integral to the EU’s functioning. In the past, he explained recently, it was thought that “if [the] sovereigntists defeat the federalists, then the cohesive force will cease, but if the federalists eliminate the sovereigntists, then what follows can only be the creation of another oppressive empire”. However, Orbán says, this constructive balance was degraded as the federalists began to change. In his view, the old federalists of yore were “Catholic universalists”; they did not call for the abolition of nation states, but rather for their protection within something like a united Christendom, an Occident, or a Res Publica Christiana. What has changed is that those federalists have mutated into “progressive liberals… [who have] become like the communists and are now a real threat to our freedom”. There is some irony in Orbán’s conflation of progressive liberal “European values” with communism. As historian Samuel Moyn and others have written, these values were often championed by post-war European politicians and institutions in an effort “to combat domestic socialism”.

Hungary has been at odds with the federalist eurocrats since Fidesz came to power in 2010. Before then, the technocratic elite of the ruling socialists generally got on well with the technocrats in Brussels. The EU played a leading role in helping Hungary avoid bankruptcy in 2008; along with the IMF and World Bank, it assembled a 25-billion-euro rescue package for the country. Punishing austerity measures were introduced, and the socialists replaced their anti-poverty programme with workfare, placing enormous strain on already struggling Hungarians. Fidesz seized on the accompanying discontent.
“Hungary has been at odds with the federalist eurocrats since Fidesz came to power in 2010.”

The party campaigned on a platform opposed to globalisation, supranational institutions and the concept of an “ever closer union”. The battle lines sharpened around the time of Brexit. The British, Orbán said in March, “always thought in terms of nation states”, and with the UK gone, the countries of Central Europe were tasked with upholding the sovereigntist position. But around the same time, something else also provoked major fissures between the so-called Visegrad Group (Hungary, Czechia, Slovakia, and Poland) and much of the rest of the EU: the 2015 migration crisis. That year, Hungary’s notorious border fence became a site of contestation for the meaning of “European values”. For the progressive liberals in Brussels’s federalist camp, it was a symbol of brutality and violence, a dereliction of those essential European “fundamental values”. For Orbán and others in the V4 camp, it was an expression of Hungary’s sovereignty and the Orbanist concept of “European values”, a fortress shielding Christian civilisation from the Muslim hordes. To drive the point home, Orbán invoked the Ottoman invasion during the crisis, stating “when it comes to living together with Muslim communities… we had the possibility to go through that for 150 years”.

This fundamental disagreement about the meaning and maintenance of “European values” is part of what Orbán is hoping to exploit ahead of the European Parliamentary elections. But it won’t be easy. Fidesz abandoned the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) in 2021 after facing expulsion over Hungary’s multiplying democratic deficiencies and rule of law concerns, and has yet to join either of the two Right-wing nationalist political groupings in the European Parliament. The two groups are divided on a single issue: support for Ukraine. The European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, which includes Poland’s Law and Justice party and Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, strongly supports continued military aid for Kyiv. In contrast, the Identity and Democracy (ID) group, home to Alternative for Deutschland and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, is critical of arming Ukraine and wants to maintain friendly relations with Russia — a position Orbán shares. Polls suggest that both Right-wing groupings are poised to amass more power in the European Parliamentary election.

Some have speculated that, despite their differences on Ukraine, the ECR and ID could merge into a single populist-Right bloc. In mid-April, Orbán held a joint press conference with Former Polish Prime Minister and leader of Law and Justice, Mateusz Morawiecki, and former Frontex chief, Fabrice Leggeri, a candidate for France’s National Rally. The event, hosted by ECR, was attended by numerous members of ID, including MPs from the German AfD and the Flemish nationalist Vlaams Belang. On the potential for further cooperation, Morawiecki told Euractiv: “I can tell you that I have a very good feeling with my colleagues from Fidesz; I know that Giorgia Meloni and Viktor Orbán have a good relationship.” But the prospect of a merger is highly unlikely, as there are others who are far less enthusiastic about the prospect of welcoming the Hungarians into their ranks. Some ECR members from Czechia’s ODS and the Sweden Democrats have objected to the idea of aligning themselves with Fidesz, citing Hungary’s insistence on maintaining warm ties with Russia. Czech MEP Alexandr Vondra drove the point home in an interview earlier this month: “If someone simply parrots Putin’s propaganda, he has no business being here (in ECR). I have told Fidesz this and no negotiations with them can take place now because of this.”

And there are further contradictions within this emerging Right bloc. Though many in Brussels may have forgotten it, prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, it was Hungary that pushed hardest for enlargement of the union to include its eastern “neighbourhood”. Budapest has long insisted that the EU embrace expedited membership for Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. This enthusiasm is based in part on Orbán’s personal rapport with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and the president of Bosnia’s Republika Srpska territory, Milorad Dodik. In early April, Orbán was even awarded the Order of Republika Srpska, and referred to Dodik as “my friend Milorad” during his acceptance speech. In the UK and US, meanwhile, Dodik has been sanctioned for pushing for the secession of Serb-majority Republika Srpska, an act that would very likely trigger a new war in Bosnia.

Upon receiving the award in Banja Luka last month, Orbán also spoke of the necessity of EU enlargement: “Without the Serbs, there is no European security. Without the Serbs there is no healthy European Union… And of course… there is a lot wrong with the European Union — I fight there every day. But today there is no better framework for our nations to strengthen themselves than the European Union.” On the surface, this pro-enlargement rhetoric may seem puzzling — but upon closer inspection, it is entirely coherent: Orbán desires a larger but more fortified bloc. Extending membership to other sovereigntist Christians also has the potential to stymie the federalists’ centralising aims. As Bulcsú Hunyadi, a senior analyst at the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute, explained in 2016: “The bigger the EU gets, the less integrated the union becomes”.

Orbán has always presented his Euroscepticism as part of his broader plan to remake the social fabric of Hungary itself. But such rhetoric often masks the fact that his grand visions are at odds with his meagre domestic record. In the very beginning, he wasn’t entirely without promise. Orbán came to power disavowing neoliberal orthodoxy and the “rescue package” dictated by the IMF, World Bank and EU — and his interventionist economic policies produced some initial success. Yet with time it has become clear that this supposed flaunting of orthodoxy has amounted to little more than “neoliberalism in one country”. As Hungarian sociologist Andras Bozoki has written: “Orbán skilfully attacked the banks (most of them being in foreign hands), the multinational corporations, the foreign media, and EU officials on the basis of [his own preference for] economic nationalism and sovereign independence, but he also combined this with business-friendly domestic policy, such as the introduction of a flat tax, reduced employment rights, and attacks on the homeless, unemployed and trade unions.” In December 2018, for instance, the Orbán government adopted a so-called “slave law” which permits employers to demand 400 hours of overtime per year, a dramatic increase over the 250 hours allowed before. The law also allows employers to delay payments to workers for up to three years.

Meanwhile, Orbán has transformed the state into a vehicle for his own interests, with EU-funded public procurement contracts creating a new class of convivial oligarchs. Consider Orbán’s childhood friend, Lőrinc Mészáros, who became the richest man in Hungary in 2018. Mészáros had previously worked as a pipe fitter for decades, but that year, his companies won the most taxpayer-funded public tenders in the country. These contracts were worth a staggering total of €826 million — 93% of which came from the European Union. He has also appointed allies to key positions of the state and maintained total control over the public prosecutor’s office, ensuring that he and his associates can be shielded from scrutiny.

And while Orbán claims to be the defender of Christian Europe, the number of people who identify as religious in Hungary has plummeted: more than 50% of the country say they do not practise a religion or decline to name their faith. The number of people who admit to practising a religion is at an all-time low — even lower than it was during the socialist period when religious practice was frowned upon by the state. Orbán himself reportedly does not attend Church. He has also fallen out with key religious leaders in Hungary, including some who were once his closest associates. Pastor Gabor Ivanyi, the man who officiated Orbán’s wedding and baptised two of his children, is now among his fiercest critics, enraged by Orbán’s decision to deprive more than 200 religious institutions of official state recognition, leaving many churches near bankruptcy. “Orbán’s Christianity is political Christianity,” Pastor Ivanyi has said. “It has nothing to do with Christ, with humanism or with the Bible.”
“While Orbán claims to be the defender of Christian Europe, the number of people who identify as religious in Hungary has plummeted.”

Despite his rhetorical trade in nationalism and conservatism, this speaks to an essential vacuity in the Orbán project. Like Vladimir Putin, Orbán’s cultural strategy mostly sees him tilting at windmills, making an enemy of a “wokeness” lifted from the Anglo-American culture wars that have little or no domestic resonance; predictably, his targets have included drag queens and Gender Studies departments. His fixation on “anti-wokeness” in homogenous Hungary can give the impression that he would rather shadowbox with American college students than confront his country’s punishing economic reality, where inflation peaked at over 25% in 2023 — the highest anywhere in the EU — and where food prices surged to more than 45% over the year. Beyond mere domestic distraction, however, fanning the culture war serves an additional function: it allows Orbán to position himself as a leading figure in the transnational Right, and Budapest as a beacon of “anti-wokeness” — a narrative that will serve him if he is to rally populist-Right forces across Europe ahead of next month’s EU parliamentary elections.

Orbán has his own sexual culture war to deal with too. In February, it was revealed that President Katalin Novak had pardoned a man imprisoned for covering up child sexual abuse by the director of a state-run orphanage. President Novak and then justice minister Judit Varga, two of the most prominent women in Fidesz, were subsequently forced to resign — almost certainly on Orbán’s order. But further details soon emerged. As part of the Pope’s visit to Budapest in April 2023, Novak pardoned the former deputy director of a children’s home who had blackmailed children into withdrawing testimony against the orphanage director, a prolific paedophile.

When the full story was made public, protesters filled the streets of Budapest. The inevitable charge of hypocrisy has been levelled at the government: Orbán the great defender of “the family” found protecting such debased criminality. The scandal was made more significant by the defection of Peter Magyar, Varga’s ex-husband and a former Fidesz insider, who in March published a recording of Varga detailing the extent to which members of Orbán’s elite inner circle interfered in the prosecution of a corruption case. Magyar has since styled himself as the new face of the opposition, where he hopes to reclaim the political centre.

And yet, Orbán’s authority has emerged a little dented but intact. While his credibility has taken a hit, he will survive — though whether his domestic staying power can translate into an illiberal wave that will engulf the whole of Europe remains to be seen. He has proven himself as a political survivor and a chameleon, rising first through the ranks as a young liberal dissident and then to the heights of power as an anti-liberal Svengali. This has led some of his Hungarian critics to assert that his anti-liberal turn was entirely opportunistic, and that he is devoid of any real principles or ideology. Journalist Paul Lendvai has written about then-liberal Fidesz’s crushing defeat in the 1994 election, which reduced the party to the smallest in parliament. He claims it was at this point that Fidesz began its Rightward shift, even swapping their long hair and jeans for more conservative dress: “There seemed to be no deep ideological soul-searching involved — just clear-eyed calculations about what it would require to win power.” Soon, their speeches were filled with references to tradition and the homeland. In this, perhaps Orbán is not so different from the EU with whom he has long been at odds: vacuous and politically malleable, invoking supposedly ironclad “European values” to mask an impoverished spiritual core.

None of this is to downplay the scale of his ambition. At last month’s CPAC Hungary Conference, Orbán suggested that a “sovereigntist world order” could replace the current liberal one, and that it could do so this year, with critical elections on both sides of the Atlantic. “Let the age of the sovereigntists finally come,” he said. “Make America great again, make Europe great again, go Donald Trump, go European sovereigntists!” He emphasised that the sovereigntist world order would have no ideology, and we can surmise that China, with whom Hungary enjoys warm relations, would also be included in it. Whatever the outcome of the European parliamentary elections, this post-ideological competition, which progressive liberals frame as one of autocracies versus democracies, is here to stay.

The question then remains: who and what is truly “European”, or best representative of “European values”? However widely adopted they may seem today, progressive liberal values are a relatively new phenomenon, and, some would say, somewhat deceptive. As Sartre wrote in 1961, during Algeria’s war for independence from France: “You who are so liberal, so humane, who take the love of culture to the point of affectation, you pretend to forget that you have colonies where massacres are committed in your name.” Anti-colonial icon Frantz Fanon concurred that same year, when he said that “it is in the name of the Spirit, meaning the spirit of Europe, that Europe justified its crimes and legitimised the slavery in which it held four-fifths of humanity”.

If Europe’s evangelists of “Europeanisation” were to ask people outside the West who best epitomised “European values”— themselves or Orbán — they might not like the answer. As much as it may panic the enlightened liberals of Brussels liberals, Orbán’s brand of exclusionary nationalism is integral to European history — and is sure to be a part of its future too.

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