BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES
Weekly analysis and untold stories
With SAM MORGAN
Orbán and friends
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán played host this week to America’s right wing as the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) came to Budapest, where big ideas like replacement theory and media tampering were in full view.
Orbán recently won Hungary’s election in a landslide, brushing away the challenge of a united opposition, in a vote that observers said was free but not nearly fair.
That is because the long-serving prime minister has spent the last decade using his power to stack the deck in his favour: media restrictions, gerrymandering, laws rewritten to suit his party, Fidesz, the whole shebang.
So you can see why the American right is so interested in Orbán’s political fortunes. He is winning matches from a playbook that resembles theirs and with midterm elections and 2024's presidential poll already looming large, they want to make maximise their chances of victory.
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“I was very honoured to have endorsed him. A little unusual endorsement, usually I’m looking at the 50 states, but here we went a little astray, I did that just because he’s a good man,” former US President Donald Trump said in a video message played at the event.
Tucker Carlson, Fox News’ high-priest of rightwing conservatism and faux outrage at ‘wokeism’, has hosted his talkshow from Hungary and now CPAC has landed in Budapest as well. It is quickly becoming the right's home-from-home in Europe.
Orbán told the conference that the route to power is to “have your own media. It’s the only way to point out the insanity of the progressive left,” adding that “the western media is adjusted to the leftist viewpoint.”
The US has already learned that lesson. Ever since Fox first broadcast in the 1990s and even before then, the Republicans have built up a propaganda machine that can effectively inoculate its massive readership against whatever wrongs the party engages in.
Twenty-four-seven indignation at everything and anything may pay off later this year when the Supreme Court publishes a ruling that is expected to strike down Roe vs Wade, a landmark case that protects abortion rights.
That will be the culmination of work by Republican presidents, right-leaning Senates and the vagaries of time to stack the Court with judges aligned with their values. Something that Orbán can certainly appreciate after his own decade-long effort along the same lines.
Whether Hungary’s prime minister can teach his transatlantic admirers anything new is doubtful but this week’s CPAC at least shows the US-based faithful that their politics are working to their liking in countries other than America.
As far as Orbán is concerned, this is all about how to make friends and influence people, as he is quickly running out of allies on this side of the Pond. Trump is an ally and if reelected in 2024 would provide safe harbour for his Hungarian friend.
However, Marine Le Pen, the French far-right’s two-time presidential race loser, was meant to be a guest of honour at the conference but her name was removed from the agenda mid-week.
It is unclear if Orbán does not want to associate with 'losers' -- as Trump would say -- or if Le Pen withdrew herself.
The Hungarian government’s stance on Ukraine is also fracturing the Visegrad 4, a mini-grouping also comprising of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland which Orbán has tried to position as a power-brokering bloc within the EU.
Poland in particular has been outraged at Hungary’s attitude towards Ukraine, which has included blocking weapons transfers over its territory, accusing Kyiv of meddling in its elections and an ongoing veto of a Russian oil embargo.
This may yet translate into bigger, more serious problems for Budapest in Brussels. Poland has been a willing co-pilot for Orbán’s Brussels-bashing and safety in numbers has negated any chance of the other member states removing Hungary’s voting power.
With Poland perhaps onside as the European Commission does everything it can to shepherd along Warsaw’s stalled application for hundreds of millions of euros in Covid recovery funds, Orbán may be isolated.
A first crunch point comes next week when ministers from the 27 EU members meet. Article 7 of the treaties – which allows for the stripping of Council voting rights in certain instances – is on the agenda.
“We have to take back the institutions in Washington and Brussels,” Orbán told CPAC. It is quickly becoming clear that there are few other leaders in Europe who see the EU as the problem.