Brussels Behind the Scenes: Bros before foes?

Brussels Behind the Scenes: Bros before foes?
Credit: Janez Jansa instagram

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES

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With SAM MORGAN

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Bros before foes?

Hungarians and Slovenians go to the ballot boxes in April in a pair of elections that will decide the fate of two controversial prime ministers. Viktor Orbán and Janez Janša reignited their bromance earlier this week in a bid to bump each other up the opinion rankings.

Viktor Orbán is the longest serving current member of the European Council, since Angela Merkel hung up her chancellor cowl at the end of 2021. On 3 April, he will hope to extend that record-breaking run when Hungarians vote in a general election.

Due west of Orbán’s kingdom is Slovenia, where elections on 24 April will reveal whether Janez Janša – dubbed “Slovenia’s Trump” by some media outlets – will stay on as prime minister. This is his third stint in the job.

Neither can bank on certain reelection as the opposition in both countries are set to throw difficult curveballs at the incumbent PMs. Volatile opinion polling also muddies the waters and has driven the two PMs somewhat into each other’s arms.


BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


In Hungary, opposition forces have agreed to share a platform and put up joint candidates against Orbán’s Fidesz party, in an attempt to dislodge a party that will dominate the election otherwise.

The ruling party has spent the last decade tweaking the political system in its favour and carving out positive media coverage that gives the opposition very little exposure and Orbán a loaded deck to play with. A united stand is their only hope.

Polling suggests the opposition stand a chance. One sample puts them just a few points behind, while another indicates that they are leading Fidesz with just a handful of weeks until election day.

Slovenians look likely to hand Janša’s Slovenian Democratic Party another victory, although the emergence of a new party under the leadership of Robert Golob, a former politician and energy company chairman, is an unpredictable wildcard.

His Freedom Movement party is rivalling Janša’s SDS in some polling, while trailing heavily in other samples. Golob is still politically unaffiliated and it is hard to pin down what his policies are other than being anti-Janša.

That works in his favour for now and may pay dividends at the ballot box if his party can offer Slovenians something tangible. It is probably one of the factors that drove Janša to visit his old pal Orbán in Hungary at the beginning of the week.

Slovenia’s PM has been a staunch supporter of his Hungarian counterpart over the last few years, defending Orbán against accusations of rule of law breaches and mirroring many of his more unsavoury policies, such as free media curbs and judicial meddling.

During their meeting, Hungary’s leader said that “friendship is the most valuable currency” and that his country and Slovenia buck the trend among other European nations, as they are “coming out of the crisis stronger than when it began”.

Orbán also had some other nice words for his neighbour, insisting that during Slovenia’s EU presidency shift at the end of the last year, the Balkan country had “done its utmost” to try and warn the EU that an energy price increase was right around the corner.

That latter point is certainly debatable and is part of Orbán’s attempts to paint the EU’s Green Deal and climate policies as damaging to the personal finances of everyday people.

Some more context to the visit is that Orbán is desperate not to look isolated and stick to his playbook of mouthing off at Brussels, yet ultimately stay – mostly – within the rules, to protect his standing and lucrative sources of EU funding.

Inviting Janša to tea is part of that play, although Slovenia’s PM was probably not the first telephone number Orbán would like to have selected from his Rolodex.

His old buddy Andrej Babiš was recently defenestrated by Czech voters and Austria’s recent spate of political scandals has jettisoned Sebastian Kurz from the building. His successor as chancellor is heeding calls to keep Hungary at arm’s length for now.

Even his closest ally, Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki, is probably going to let his calls go to voicemail for now, as Hungary is as usual disrupting the EU’s united front against Russian sanctions.

Morawiecki’s government also stands a chance of escaping the European Commission’s ire about rule of law breaches and may be paid the pandemic recovery fund millions it has been allocated. Hungary, meanwhile, is in the firing line.

Everybody Loves Sasha

EU-hopeful Serbia also holds elections in April, where incumbent Aleksandar Vučić will look to cling on to his presidential office. Unlike Orbán and Janša, he is a near racing-certainty to keep his job as head of state.

Whether his party wins as big a parliamentary majority as it did last time is less certain, given that opposition forces will not boycott the election again. Vučić’s successful capture of the media also means that his allies have a near monopoly on positive coverage.

The 1.99m-tall president will also count on his chameleon-like qualities to see him through. His Instagram feed is full of photos of him meeting various world leaders, enjoying plates of food with everyday people and even presenting an award to Johnny Depp.

Vučić wants to be everybody’s friend. He is as comfortable meeting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin as jetting to Brussels to reaffirm that Serbia is sticking to its “European pathway”. Under President Vučić, Serbia is unlikely to move any closer to fulfilling its potential of joining the EU. Appetite for reform is not strong enough to meet the criteria, although there is an equal lack of appetite among the EU27 to admit new members too.

As an aside, Janez Janša said this week that the EU should open membership talks with Ukraine. Unfortunately, that is an impossible prospect right now – something Janša probably knows.

How Russia's war on Ukraine affects the fortunes of these three men will be interesting to watch. Vučić has not denounced Putin but whether voters care about that is another matter. Janša has been fairly clear in his outrage, while Orbán was only in Moscow days before the invasion happened.

Perhaps that is fuel for Hungary's opposition to paint the incumbent PM as a Kremlin stooge. All will be revealed in April.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


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