What if a migration crisis draws your society into an identity crisis? What if your continent is fearfully awaiting another economic watershed? What if your politicians are no longer trusted by their citizens? You blame the European Union, of course. At least that is the common strategy in the western half of Europe. From Helsinki to Rome, the ‘right-wing spring’ has been characterised by anti-Europeanism, provincialism, and localism. But the eastern half of the continent seem to undergo a different evolution. Whereas Italy’s Salvini wants to see the EU disintegrate as soon as possible, Hungary’s Orbán remains as pro-Europeanist as ever. Unlike the Salvinis, Le Pens, and Farages of this continent, Orbán wishes to change the European Union from within – to transform the (neo)liberal Union into a traditionalist one, a Union that recognises Europe as what Orbán believes is central to Europe: white Christendom. If this ‘Eastern Right’ could win enough hearts in the West, the upcoming European Parliament election might generate an unexpected alliance between pro-EU elitists and far-right traditionalists.
Viktor Orbán, who has been prime-minister of Hungary since 2010, gets off on the wrong foot with the EU establishment. Not only does the European Commission frequently clash with Orbán’s ideas, even his own European party-family, the European People’s Party (EPP), isn’t always charmed by the Orbán-led party, Fidesz. Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Alliance) is, by Western European standards, ultra-nationalist. On paper, it resonates with Christian democracy. In reality, it is arguably more Christian than democratic. Viktor Orbán’s party has been accused of anti-democratic reforms, reducing press independence and the power of judiciary, and siding on several ultra conservative stances with Hungary’s Christian communities. Fidesz has been explicitly Islamophobic and even openly racist, referring often to Hungary’s ‘unwillingness’ to blend white Europeans with other ethnicities. But not only controversial issues increase tensions between Fidesz and the rest of the EPP; notably, Fidesz’ stance towards European integration and international relations is problematic for most EPP-parties. It is, most of all, a rather vague stance; on the one hand, it emphasises national sovereignty, and on the other hand it stresses the importance of defending Europe against non-European actors.
The European People’s Party: How one party-family has dominated EU history
If anything, the EPP can be compared to an American party rather than a European party. After all, it is a party-family, like virtually every political group in the European Parliament. The EPP is a collection of local and national parties, confederated by a loosely defined manifesto. It is a big-tent party consisting of all European parties and politicians that identify with soft-conservatism, the centre-right, and Christian democracy. For this reason, the EPP includes European parties as diverse as Merkel’s CDU, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, Netherlands’ CDA, and Poland’s Civic Platform. What the EPP shares, at least according to its website’s manifesto, is its search for balance between contemporary challenges and Europe’s traditional values or, as they put it, “Traditional values in tomorrow’s economy”. This makes the EPP ridiculously diverse – indeed, as diverse as the American Republicans. It also makes the EPP the biggest party of the European Union. From the very birth of the EU, the EPP has remained the biggest political group in the European Parliament and has dominated every single European Commission. Ever since the European Parliament has become partly responsible for electing the president of the European Commission (2007), each president has been a member of the EPP (including the current President, Jean-Claude Juncker).
At first sight, Orbán’s membership in the EPP seems somehow puzzling. If we look closely at all the European party-families in the European Parliament, there are at least three families that suit Fidesz better. The most obvious one would be the EFDD (Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy). You probably know it as the party that Nigel Farage’s UKIP belongs to. Italy’s governing Five Stars Movement has joined it too. Another family on the far-right is ENF (Europe of Nations and Freedom), supported by Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders. There isn’t much difference between those two families; whereas Farage’s EFDD depicts the EU as the enemy of (direct) democracy, Le Pen’s ENF uses the EU as the enemy of the nation. Fidesz could also have joined the Parliament’s third biggest party, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR): a collection of parties that support so-called ‘soft-Euroscepticism’, basically meaning that it supports the EU as it is, but opposes further integration. Of all the parties, Fidesz joined an unambiguously pro-European, pro-migration, and liberal-leaning group of parties. Why is that?
The reason is actually simple: The EPP is the biggest party of the EU. Orbán believes that if you disagree with EU’s open borders, its tendency towards technocracy, or its predominantly supportive attitude towards liberalism and multiculturalism, you have to change the Union from within. And this seems only possible by joining the establishment.
George Soros: Orbán’s enemy as Europe’s enemy
This strategy has been visible in Orbán’s political career for a while, but it has become especially evident in the past few years. Last year’s speech in the European Parliament in April 2017 has revealed Orbán’s political ambitions clearer than ever. That month, Orbán was in Brussels to defend his legal attempts to close down Budapest’s Central-European University (CEU). CEU is widely known for its prestige in the academic world, even outside Europe, having educated students such as Georgia’s current president Giorgi Margvelashvili, Oxford professor Jaroslav Miller, and Canadian film director Dylan Mohan Gray. It’s dominated by liberal-minded, left-leaning intellectuals – the kind that don’t really suite Orbán’s ideology. What’s even more important, the CEU is run by George Soros. That might ring a bell.
Throughout his life, the 87-year old American-Hungarian multi-billionaire, George Soros, kept a close link between his growing capital and his increasing political activism. Once upon a time, Soros was even Orbán’s personal political advisor. But when Orbán took an illiberal U-turn, Soros fell to the background of European politics – however, his political power didn’t decrease. By 2017, Soros’s donations “on civil initiatives to reduce poverty and increase transparency, and on scholarships and universities around the world” totaled $12 billion USD. On top of that, George Soros is a Jew. As The Economist wrote last year, he is the perfect “bugaboo of European nationalists”, and so he is for Orbán.
But Orbán depicts Soros in a way Western European and American far-right nationalists are not used to depicting him. In his speech, that April day in Brussels, Orbán warned his colleagues that, “although [Soros] ruined millions of European citizens’ lives with his speculations, was penalised in Hungary for speculation, and is also the open enemy of the euro, he is held in such great esteem here that the highest leaders of the European Union meet with him”. This was a surprisingly new turn for a politician so often categorised as part of the same movement as Front National and Alternative für Deutschland. This even became evident in the way Orbán started his speech, addressing his colleagues with: “Respected European Parliament representatives”. One might have wondered, since when does the far-right respect the European Parliament? Indeed, whereas most far-right nationalists known to the Western media would depict the EU as an extension of Soros’ empire, Orbán depicts the EU as the ultimate victim of this apparently horrendous man. By doing so, Orbán seemed to say: “European Union, wake up! You are wrong! I am not the enemy of the European project. Soros and his liberal and leftist sheep are!”. A new discourse was born, and Orbán proved to have reinvented the European far-right: a far-right that supports the EU and its values, that invites EU in fighting liberalism and socialism together.
But what kind of EU does Orbán envision? What are the values that he understands to be inherent to the EU, and apparently hostile towards Soros’ visionary? It is not today’s EU – this became clear in the rest of Orbán’s speech. His speech ended with a warning: “The European Union’s support is the highest among member states in Hungary, over 70%. And we are proud of this. Believe me, people will support, but will only support the European Union if it is fair and built on open debates, capable of admitting that it needs reform from time to time”.
Christian Europe: Orbán’s version of Helmut Kohl
The reforms that the EU have to undergo in the eyes of Orbán’s new Europhile far-right were not clearly uttered, but the message was clear. One year later Orbán gave a similar but even stronger speech at home. This time, Orbán received attention from every corner of the European media. Francophone geopolitical magazine Le Grand Continent concluded after reporting his speech: “We believe that Orbán will mark the debate of the next European election year. Orbán claims for his movement a central place in the conception of European neo-nationalism, and his position must be understood”. Most importantly, the speech was issued during the occasion of commemorating, of all people, the first anniversary of Helmut Kohl’s death.
Kohl, the German chancellor who led his country to reunification, was a chairman of Germany’s CDU, which is indeed a member of Orbán’s party-family, the EPP. But aside from being part of this loose party alliance, Orbán and Kohl seem to have very little in common. Kohl became one of the most prominent faces of the modern European Union, founded on the liberal-democratic principles of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. His official chancellor picture was a portrait in front of a heroically waving EU flag. His funeral was an unprecedented “European act of state” that took place, of all places, in the French city of Strasbourg, not far away from his native German border. His coffin was covered with another colossal EU flag and the Catholic requiem mass was concluded with the European anthem, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”. Kohl seemed to embody the absolute opposite of what the Western far-right stands for: a cosmopolite who was present at hour zero of the demolition of Europe’s internal border.
But for Orbán and so many other Central Europeans, Kohl is a Christian-Democrat, a conservative, who unified not only West and East Germany, but the West and East as a whole. And this is exactly what Orbán aspires to create: a conservative, Christian-democrat Europe, bridging the ever-existing gap between West and East. Orbán quite literally argued that in his commemoration: “For us Central Europeans, Helmut Kohl is the exemplar for the Christian European. He represented the Christian Europe to which we have always belonged, and after forty years of communism his political will paved the way for our return to the community of the peoples of Europe. Chancellor Kohl’s political courage laid the foundations for the reunification of Germany and Europe, and therefore we will always remember him with respect and gratitude. May the earth rest lightly on him”. Throughout the speech, Orbán intertwined Kohl’s legitimacy with what he calls a strong “Christian Europe”, with “basic principles of family policy” and “a beautiful wall” that protects the continent from non-Christian forces. Orbán blamed the current challenges in the EU as caused by the anti-conservative, anti-Christian turn in European politics: “Firstly, we have lost the UK; secondly, we have been unable to defend our continent against migrants; and thirdly, Brussels has upset the balance between the East and West. The responsibility of the current European leadership is as clear as day”.
Orbán’s solution to this assumed Christian crisis of Europe shows his ambition to change the EU from within in a very explicit way:
“In relation to the 2019 elections to the European Parliament, it would be easy to, say, establish a new formation from like-minded Central European parties – or, indeed, a pan-European anti-immigration formation. There is no doubt that we would have great success in the 2019 European elections. But I suggest that we resist this temptation, and stand by Helmut Kohl’s ideals and party family. Instead of desertion, we should take on the more difficult task of renewing the European People’s Party, and helping it to find its way back to its Christian democratic roots. The European People’s Party is the most successful party in the history of the European community”. “We believe that the time has come for a Christian democratic renaissance, not an anti-populist people’s front. Unlike liberal politics, Christian politics is able to protect people, our nations, families, our culture rooted in Christianity, and equality between men and women: in other words, our European way of life”.
So, what’s next?
Unlike those far-right politicians who try to end further integration of the EU and desire to end the EU altogether, Orbán recognises the European Parliament as a legitimate forum to practice politics. Perhaps, Orbán has realised that his envisioned resurrection of European Christendom can only gain support if he keeps holding hands with Brussels. Nigel Farage proved that a radical anti-Europeanist can only change Europe in one way: by leaving it. So why exactly would Orbán’s far-right Europhilia potentially dominate the upcoming parliamentary elections of the European Union? Brexit has shocked people across the continent, even extreme-nationalists like Marine Le Pen have come to believe that leaving the EU isn’t the best solution for a more confident France. Simultaneously, the migrant crisis has sprouted a new movement in Europe, which mixes nationalism with European supranational ideas – albeit by using references to the European Crusades rather than the liberal resurrection of post-war Europe. Meanwhile, the elite in Brussels is getting sweaty. The absolute end of the European Union isn’t as close as some anti-Europeanists like to believe, but it hasn’t become completely unimaginable either. With a growing number of Farages in Europe, Brussels’ elite is fearing the death of the European project. Some Eurocrats might start to believe that an awkward alliance with the far-right would be the only way to keep the EU vital enough to stay alive. For that, the Brussels elite needs a far-right that does not want to end the Union. In this quest, they have found Viktor Orbán.
Jules Ortjens is a student of Political Science who graduated from Humanities at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and currently studies EU-Russia Studies in Tartu, Estonia and Moscow, Russia. Having been active in Dutch politics for a while, Jules is primarily interested in how European politics is interpreted in different national public spaces.