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Europe’s maverick politicians and the bear in the room

Orban Salvini
©EPA-EFE/SZILARD KOSZTICSAK  |   Leader of Italian right-wing ruling party Lega, Matteo Salvini, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki attend a joint press conference after their trilateral meeting focused on creating a European-level alliance.

After years of sparring with Brussels over his rule of law approach, which led to increased isolation for his Fidesz party, Hungary’s Viktor Orban decided to strike back by forging an alliance with Poland’s Law and Justice Party and Italy’s Lega. The plan was to start by  setting-up a new party bloc within the European Parliament. However, this may prove to be easier said than done.

An inconclusive summit in Budapest

To the clear surprise of Italy’s Lega party leader Matteo Salvini, journalists were not granted questions at the end of his joint press conference with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in Budapest on April 1. After over two hours of talks that had apparently yielded little of substance, the politicians stressed their shared values, but - to paraphrase the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky - the harder you try not to think of a “white bear”, the more it will come to mind.

In stark contrast to Poland, Salvini is a close associate of the Russian President Vladimir Putin, while Orban has become the country’s most loyal EU ally, enthusiastically engaging with Putin’s transactional approach to business while remaining quiet on his incursions into their common neighbour, Ukraine. On the other hand, Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party is deeply suspicious of Russia’s foreign policy and attempts to assert its influence in Eastern Europe. 

Orban was quick to smooth over any potential differences after the meeting, which he admitted had been organised in response to his party quitting the European People’s Party (EPP) in mid-March. He described Morawiecki as Hungary’s most faithful friend and proclaimed Salvini a hero to Hungarians for combatting sea migration. “There were no topics where a consensus could not be reached or where national interests conflict,” Orban said. “Much was discussed about common values, such as the values of freedom, dignity, Christianity, family and national sovereignty, in addition to Euro-Atlantic commitment”, Orban said, adding that all participants reject “a European empire run by Brussels, Communism, illegal migration and Antisemitism”. 

However this was a far cry from Orban’s bold talk on the eve of the hastily arranged event at the Hungarian Parliament. “There are many tens, or perhaps hundreds of millions of us who believe that we don’t have proper representation in the European Union,” he said. “It is this situation we will try to remedy tomorrow, when the Polish prime minister and I hope the future prime minister of Italy will be here and will launch a platform, an organisation, a process that will give citizens who believe and trust in traditional European values the right weight in Europe,” Orban had promised.

Fidesz, more isolated than Lega and PiS

Once the talks were over, there was no announcement of a new organisation, no platform and no EP party bloc. In the wake of Fidesz’s pre-emptive resignation from the EPP in March, after just over 20 years, Orban has been left out in the cold on the European stage. Having lost two of his 13 MEPs in recent months, the rest have now been removed from the EP committees, and have fewer opportunities to speak, join the Commission or even employ staff. Moreover, as Fidesz’s MEPs are considerably outnumbered by Lega’s 28 representatives and PiS and its ally’s 27, Orban will not be the main powerbroker in the formation of a new far-right bloc in the European Parliament EP any time soon. In the evening of April 1, Polish EPP President Donald Tusk was scathing about the Budapest summit, tweeting: "Russia is mobilising forces around Ukraine. The US declares a state of emergency in Europe. Morawiecki in Budapest is organising a pro-Putin political bloc with Orban and Salvini. This is not April Fool's Day.

For his part, Salvini said after the meeting that the EU had made a grave mistake when it rejected its Judeo-Christian roots in its basic treaty. Morawiecki said in a press statement that Europe should return to its Christian roots. However, unlike Orban, the Italian and Polish parties have not been sidelined from the European political mainstream, and there were no apparent plans to form a new EU party family yet. Orban will be hoping that his Muscovite tendencies will not be an obstacle on the European stage for Poland, which has maintained close bilateral ties with Hungary despite reservations regarding Russia.

If the right-wing EP blocs currently called home by PiS - the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) - and Lega - Identity and Democracy (ID) - were to form a single party family with Fidesz, it would become the EP’s second-largest, a scenario favoured by Salvini. 

However domestic issues could also see Lega joining the bloc that Fidesz has just left: members of the less extreme wing of the Italian party Giancarlo Giorgetti and Luca Zaia favour joining their compatriots of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forza party. This might appeal to Salvini, who is reportedly considering softening his anti-EU stance in order to shore up support lost since Lega joined the national unity government led by Mario Draghi, which also includes several left-wing and liberal parties. No longer with a realistic chance of ruling Italy, Berlusconi also likes this idea, as he would like to have a moderating influence on the country’s right-wing. Salvini also might be reluctant to join the ECR benches alongside Lega’s increasingly close rival in the fight for the Italian extreme right-wing: the Fratelli d’Italia party.

For his part, PiS MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski told the Financial Times that the Polish party’s preferred option would be Fidesz and Lega and maybe other ID members - “Le Pen not excluded” - joining the ECR bloc. Tellingly, Saryusz-Wolski did not mention Germany’s AfD, the far-right German party which both Orban and PiS would likely shun, for fear of completely alienating the CDU/CSU, even though Fidesz no longer shares a bloc with the parties. 

Saryusz-Wolski argued that Le Pen’s party was in reality not aggressively pro-Kremlin as it opposes the Nordstream II gas pipeline that would link Russia to Germany. “The Socialists and Democrats [S&D] and EPP are de facto pro-Russian because they do business as usual with Russia. Salvini and Le Pen talk pro-Russian, the others act pro-Russian,” the Polish politician said. Any party would have to think hard about teaming up with Le Pen, too, as this would alienate any common bloc member from the French President Emmanuel Macron.

If all else fails, Fidesz has received an offer to remain among the independents with the German Die Partei. The spoof party’s President Martin Sonneborn has welcomed the prospect of Fidesz joining it in the ranks of the EP independents: “as the scum of the European Parliament, that is, Fidesz, can take its rightful place alongside us'.

The bear in the room

The optics of a conciliatory Orban seeking to form friendships in Europe, rather than find strategic enemies, ended abruptly when a reporter from Austria’s liberal weekly Profil sent three relatively softball questions to Fidesz MEPs for their reactions to the April 1 meeting. The journalist asked for the goals of the alliance, enquired as to why no representatives from Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National and the far-right Austrian Freedom Party had been present at the April 1 meeting, and wondered how the grouping would avoid the schisms of the past, citing Russia, Turkey and Antisemitism as reasons for earlier EP far-right bloc collapses. The email sparked a diplomatic incident.

Fidesz’s MEPs declined to respond, but the government-friendly state news channel M1 was soon running footage of the meeting while a banner entitled “Journalist provokes with questions” scrolled across the bottom of the screen. The Austrian foreign ministry called the M1 report “unacceptable”, adding that Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg had called Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto to discuss the issue, with little success. That evening M1 drew the conclusion that “the European left-liberal media majority wishes to confute far-right French and Austrian parties with the new Christian Democratic power that Viktor Orbán, Matteo Salvini and Mateusz Morawiecki outlined in Budapest. Sharing an opinion disguised as a question, she indicated that these initiatives have failed in the past, for example due to anti-Semitic accusations against them. In other words, she attempted to label the new conservative national cooperation as Antisemitic,” the Hungarian news presenter added.

Perhaps the furore was designed to distract from derision that questions had not been invited at the event, or to take minds off Hungary topping the global league table for Covid deaths per capita. However, on Russia, at least, Profil had clearly asked a very pertinent question.

Propaganda de Razboi
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  • After years of sparring with Brussels over his rule of law approach, which led to increased isolation for his Fidesz party, Hungary’s Viktor Orban decided to strike back by forging an alliance with Poland’s Law and Justice Party and Italy’s Lega. The plan was to start by setting-up a new party bloc within the European Parliament. However, this may prove to be easier said than done.
  • In stark contrast to Poland, Salvini is a close associate of the Russian President Vladimir Putin, while Orban has become the country’s most loyal EU ally, enthusiastically engaging with Putin’s transactional approach to business while remaining quiet on his incursions into their common neighbour, Ukraine. On the other hand, Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party is deeply suspicious of Russia’s foreign policy and attempts to assert its influence in Eastern Europe.
  • Once the talks were over, there was no announcement of a new organisation, no platform and no EP party bloc. In the wake of Fidesz’s pre-emptive resignation from the EPP in March, after just over 20 years, Orban has been left out in the cold on the European stage.
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