Macron vs. Orbán: a new iron curtain in Europe?11 min read

Almost thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, one can wonder whether the European cleavage between West and East is back in fashion. A migrant crisis has shaken up the entire continent, and Europe seems to have become geographically divided between a liberal, pro-migrant West and a conservative, anti-migrant East. The European Parliament elections, which are scheduled for May, are paving the way for a political battle which was materialised by the end of the summer 2018 in the persons of Emmanuel Macron and Viktor Orbán. But is the crisis of Europe truly a crisis of West and East?

It is half a year until the May 2019 European Parliament elections, and things are going pear-shaped in Brussels. Many Europeans still remember July 2015 when, at the height of the European migrant crisis, the European Commission, led by Jean-Claude Juncker, decided to enforce a migrant quota upon EU member states – an idea that was accepted by most Western European countries, but immediately flicked off the table by member states like Poland and Hungary. More than three years after the peak of the crisis, the political line within Europe has not become weaker but stronger. In the end of August this year, it even came to an open confrontation between French President Emmanuel Macron and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. To some European media (like The Economist, The Telegraph, and Le Monde), Macron and Orbán have become the figureheads of a new division between the West and the post-communist East.

State of affairs

In fact, some could argue that tensions between West and East had been incubating for a while in the European continent. In France for instance, there is still a fresh memory of Macron’s campaign promise to get to grips with what is called the Posting of Workers Directive. This European law was originally voted through in 1996, and allowed European companies to temporarily send workers to another EU country to perform a specific mission, while still paying social contributions in their country of origin. This provision had long been criticized in the West, particularly in Germany, France and Belgium, because it resulted in wage gaps between European workers – favouring the ones coming from countries with lower social contributions over the “national workers” (social dumping). When the European Commission proposed a revision of the law in 2016, the Central and Eastern European member states unanimously rejected it, showing a clear East/West cleavage on the topic. This divide would only increase with the election of Macron in May 2017: the French president immediately stepped in on the question, and declared “Europe is not a supermarket,” provoking the ire of his partners eastwards.

However, it is at the end of summer 2018 that tensions culminated in the form of an open confrontation between the French and Hungarian leaders, this time on the migration issue. Orbán, in a joint press conference with Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, on August 28th, declared that there are currently two camps in Europe and one is headed by Macron. Supposedly, Macron was “the head of the political forces supporting immigration,” to which the French leader hastily replied: if they wanted to see me as their main opponent, they were right to do so. It became then very tempting to believe that the old East/West divisions had come back in European politics. However, an event was about to nuance the picture a few days later.

The Sargentini report

On September 12th, the members of the European Parliament had to make a highly symbolic decision: whether to trigger the so-called Article 7 procedure against Hungary for its multiple infringements on the rule of law. In theory, Article 7 could deprive Hungary of all its voting rights in the European decision-making process. In practice, even if it passed through the European Parliament, all European governments would still have to agree on invoking the article in the European Council – which would be very unlikely. But the fact that Article 7 became a serious consideration in the European Parliament was already a watershed in European politics.

A parliamentary vote on the article only materialised after a report had been put together by Judith Sargentini, a member of the European Parliament from the European Green Party. In short, Sargentini achieved what she wanted: Article 7 was passed by the European Parliament with an overwhelming majority: 448 members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted in favour, 197 MEPs voted against, and 48 abstained. So who voted exactly what? The answer is unclear. Orbán could count on support from MEPs across a wide political spectrum, from the far-right to the far-left. What became evident was that Orbán could not rely on a East/West division. A scenario in which the Eastern bloc would unquestionably back Orbán against a liberal West turned out to be ungrounded. While Polish and Slovak MEPs were completely split on the matter, most Lithuanian and Estonian MEPs supported the Article 7 procedure. Support for Orbán came from an unexpected corner: more than half of all British MEPs had voted against Article 7, and therefore in favour of Orbán.

So, coming back to Orbán and Macron: are the power games between the two European leaders cutting the continent into a Western and Eastern part? That seems unlikely. While one could have expected Orbán and Macron to have engaged in a self-fulfilling prophecy, actually erecting a new Iron Curtain in the European Parliament, the vote on the Sargentini report proved quite the contrary. In fact, the current state of affairs cannot be analysed nor understood outside of the framework of the upcoming European elections. So what are our two protagonists really up to?

Two underdogs with European ambitions

Macron and Orbán share at least one feature: the desire to transform the European Union from within and, perhaps, respectively covet a future European career. Orbán is not challenged anymore in domestic politics, to say the least: with 53 percent of support and a moribund opposition, he may be tempted to get to the next level. In June 2018, he gave a speech in Budapest, in which he campaigned for his envisioned Christian Europe – a Europe united against the threats of migrants and Islam. On the other hand, Macron has never hidden his intention of becoming the leader of a movement of reformation in Europe. His speech in the Sorbonne in September 2017, where he paved the way with an ambitious program for a reformed, enlightened Europe, underlined the historical position Macron envisions for himself in European history books.

While the French and Hungarian leaders both have hegemonic aspirations at the European level, we should not forget that the two competitors are racing with disadvantages. Hungary remains a small country (10 million inhabitants), with a mid-range economy (world’s 58th in GDP), and a relatively new member state of the EU (accession in 2004) with a limited room for manoeuvre. While France’s influence on the European stage is undoubtedly bigger, Macron remains an incredibly young political player. His party, La République En Marche! (LREM), was only created two years ago and has not participated in any European elections, while it is not affiliated yet with any European parliamentary group. If they want to achieve their ambitions to significantly reform the European Union, both leaders need to overcome their respective weaknesses. And to this end, they paradoxically need each other, as useful enemies.

Orbán’s bogeyman

Orbán has two strengths in European politics: he is incredibly bold, and he belongs to the EPP. That is, the European People’s Party – which may not ring a bell, unless you are into EU politics. The EPP is the largest political group in the European Parliament, and has been so since the establishment of the EU. The group is officially “centre-right conservative” and  includes parties as diverse as the French Republicans (LR), Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (FI) and, you guessed it, Orbán’s Fidesz. In fact, the platform offered by the EPP has provided the Hungarian Prime Minister with a wonderful opportunity to hit the raw nerve of European politics at the moment: migration. Stepping onto the breach opened by the crisis, he has consistently sought to take the lead of a European anti-immigration side, aggressively confronting his opponents, Juncker’s commission in the frontline, and creating a growing cleavage outside and within his own political formation.

Since every aspiring leader needs an enemy, Orbán found the perfect one in Macron. Indeed, the latter represents a multicultural country with a long history of welcoming (though not always with open arms) immigrants. But France was also plagued between 2015 and 2016 by ISIS-linked terrorist attacks. Orbán did not need more to support his identitarian narrative: “This is what happens to countries who open the doors to immigrants” seems to be the message that the Hungarian leader repeats to anyone listening. By directly challenging the French president, Orbán’s goal is threefold: maintaining the European political debate on the migration topic, the only one where he really stands out; consolidating his influence within the EPP, without which he cannot do anything; and finally, managing the tour de force of bringing up Hungary to the capacity to discuss with France, as if they were equally powerful. What remains perhaps more surprising is the eagerness with which Macron threw himself in this fight. This odd situation can only be understood if we recall that Macron needs Orbán, too.

Divide and rule

As mentioned earlier, Macron is an extremely young player on the European political stage. Therefore, if he wants to be able to sustain his project for Europe, he needs to make his way up to the European Parliament and create a vacuum on the European political spectrum in order to fit his own political movement. Since his major opponent is the EPP, he seems to have adopted a strategy that proved fruitful in domestic politics: dividing. The French leader is aware that the giant political formation of the EPP has suffered from the migration crisis. How, indeed, to maintain the unity of a party home to both Merkel and Orbán, in times of heated debates about the European refugee policy? Well, you cannot. That is why a number of EPP members called for the expulsion of Orbán, while others supported him. Moreover, Orbán’s recent success in pushing the Central European University (CEU) out of Hungary has made relations within the EPP even more problematic. Macron is taking advantage of these internal struggles, and aims to weaken the party by pushing Orbán to more extreme positions, shedding light on ideological contradictions within the party: “In reality, the EPP is no longer a Christian Democratic party, but a combination of the Christian Democratic right and a more authoritarian, nationalist right,” he declared for example in February 2018. This way, Macron hopes to depict himself as the democratic and tolerant voice of reason, attracting the moderate fringe of the EPP electorate, whereas Orbán is left as nothing more than an autocratic xenophobe. To say so, Macron seeks to make Orbán his new Marine le Pen.

What’s next?

The spat between the French and Hungarian leaders seems therefore to be the result of the rough competition for European leadership, rather than the consequence of an unbridgeable, East/West ontological incompatibility. But for neither Macron nor Orbán, the road to European success will be easy. Macron particularly faces a lot of challenges internally. The French economy has grown, but not as much as was initially hoped. The budget has been cut, and French pensioners and civil workers have already felt the effects of these policies. Macron has rapidly become one of the least popular presidents in post-war French history according to the current polls (23 percent approval in December 2018). But his biggest challenge so far has only erupted in the last weeks: the rise of a country-wide revolt in France. Going by the name of Gilets Jaunes (or “Yellow Vests), French citizens have occupied the streets of Paris and other French cities, initially to protest against Macron’s plans to increase fuel tax, although the motivation of the protests have evolved to more than that. However, several analysts have pointed out that Macron’s success in reforming the European Union will depend on his capacity to successfully reform France. On the other side, Orbán was severely discredited by the vote on the Sargentini report and seemingly lost support even among his best allies, like the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). Moreover, the outcome of the fight over the CEU, which will move to Vienna in September 2019, has severely hampered Orbán’s image at the European level.

What’s next seems to be unclear. Macron and Orbán face struggles of different natures, but equally serious. For now, in the void of voices that we call European politics, the battle between Macron and Orbán remains as one of the most visible confrontations within the European Union.

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.

Laura Royer is currently taking part in the CEERES program at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. Originally from France, she started to investigate national identity in Central and Eastern Europe in order to stop pondering about her own. She is interested in nationalism, minorities and migration-related issues. Besides, she also cultivates a tenacious passion for the Hungarian language.