Viktor Orban Prime Minister of Hungary attends the European Union Council Meeting on March 23, 2023 in Brussels, Belgium. Picture credit: Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

Orbán’s reconquista

Are the Hungarian Prime Minister and his allies poised to take over the institutions of the EU?

Artillery Row

In the age of liberal near-hegemony in Washington and Brussels, international right-wing gatherings can easily turn into loser’s group therapy. Attendees LARP their way into alternate realities where climate change is wished away, the Ukraine war is nothing but an intra-Slavic dispute lacking a clear aggressor, and a pro-life, pro-family culture can be finger-snapped into being in imaginary redoubts of Christian practice. Going into last week, the second Hungarian offshoot of Matt and Mercedes Schlapp’s franchised CPAC jamboree looked to be just that kind of meeting. Hungary, indeed, holds a peculiarly mythical place in the imagination of a conservative movement in disarray. Shyly, at first, upon Viktor Orbán’s election in 2010 (and more densely as his government has forged an ecosystem of friendly think-tanks, media outlets and universities) conservatives unable to replicate Orbán’s electoral majorities at home have withdrawn to Budapest for consolatory photo-ops, conferences, and fellowships. Tucker Carlson, Rod Dreher, Sohrab Ahmari and Gladden Pappin are the scholars at the forefront of this conservative retreat. There are dozens more.

Two EU governments have taken office since, one less hostile to Hungary (Sweden) and one decidedly friendly (Italy)

Last week’s conference seemed purposed to amplify this feel of a parallel universe. One of the speakers was Kari Lake, who has dabbled in election denialism both about Trump’s defeat in 2020 and about her own gubernatorial loss in Arizona last year. Admittedly to avoid being brought back to earth, a handful of journalists from POLITICO and The Guardian were denied press passes. The “viruses” (Orbán’s term) of wokeism and globalism were invoked as indistinguishable enemies in the same breath, lumping together two wings of a very fractious liberal coalition. Right-wing firebrands from across Europe took turns to pay lip service to Hungary’s pro-family policies, fully aware that those same policies would not yield the same results at home, Hungary’s natalist boom reflecting the kind of cultural optimism that those places have long lacked, and that nobody seems sure how to restore. Rather than avoiding the topic in the interest of displaying unity, Orbán turned the war into one of his speech’s key themes, repeatedly floating the unreal prospect that it could be ended instantly if only the West wished to (he even suggested that Trump’s return would have that effect).

Orbán’s realist stance on Ukraine is arguably his main liability abroad now that Hungary’s kerfuffles with Brussels over “rule-of-law” and LGTB “propaganda” in schools seem to have subsided. He claims that the war has become a proxy conflict, with liberals fanning the flames of military escalation by limitlessly pouring money and weapons into what they see as a fight of good versus evil, while everyone else is left to suffer the economic fallout of sanctions. For this stance, Orbán is not just shunned by liberal leaders labeling him a Putin stooge (including those, like Olaf Scholz, who keep underdelivering aid to Ukraine). Even Poland, Orbán’s erstwhile Visegrad ally and Europe’s new military powerhouse, refused to send a delegation from the ruling Law & Justice (PiS) party, admittedly over Orbán’s lukewarmth towards Ukraine. Only one Polish speaker attended from Ordo Iuris, a partner of the conference’s organizer, the Center for Fundamental Rights. Orbán’s position is in fact unpopular across the entire European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), the grouping PiS dominates in the EU Parliament, which he admittedly wants to join when the war is over.

He even suggested that the goal is taking over the EU Commission

And yet, if one abstracts away from the ceaseless grind of hostilities, the makings of a strategy to reverse Hungary’s international isolation begin to appear. To be sure, Orbán is in a less precarious position now than at the war’s start (something that may intensify as war fatigue builds). Two EU governments have taken office since, one less hostile to Hungary (Sweden) and one decidedly friendly (Italy). Two more elections are in store this year: Poland, where Orbán mustered the goodwill to wish his PiS frenemies success (which is likely per recent polls), and Spain (regionally in May and nationally in September), where the right-wing Vox party is angling to be an ally in a new government to replace Pedro Sánchez’s left-wing coalition. Vox’s two emissaries to the conference rejoiced at Orbán’s use of the term (loaded with meaning in a Spanish contest) of “Reconquista”. Crucially, these races, as the recent ones, will be a barometer of opinion on EU matters ahead of the European elections in May next year. Incidentally, Hungary will be the last country to preside over the intergovernmental EU Council in the current institutional cycle before Brussels switches its colors.

In his speech, Orbán referred to these races as a once-in-a-generation opportunity. He even suggested that the goal is taking over the EU Commission, replacing Ursula von der Leyen with a president less likely to invoke dubious rule-of-law grounds to wage blackmail against conservative governments. The question is how to get there. Since 2014, the Commission’s top post emanates from the largest group in the EU Parliament, through the so-called spitzenkandidaten procedure. Orbán enters this contest for the EU’s top job on the wrong foot. Not only is his Fidesz party isolated after being kicked out of the European People’s Party (EPP) in 2021. The mosaic of forces backing him, moreover, straddles ECR, the Identity & Democracy (ID) group, and even some EPP outliers. Besides wishing that the war will have ended by then (admittedly clearing the way for Fidesz to join ECR), Orbán’s hope is manifestly to marshal this fractious hodgepodge into a coalition that could at least extract meaningful concessions from the adversary blob of socialist-cum-liberal-cum-green-cum-EPP parties that will unfailingly form in opposition—if not to wrestle the presidency for itself.

Given the fractures apparent at the conference, this master plan may seem like yet another LARP-like fantasy, with the motto—United We Stand—ringing somewhat hollow. Although both have applauded Orbán, the US delegation was evenly split between supporters of Florida governor Ron de Santis and former US President Donald Trump. The divides ran deeper among Europeans. From France, Jordan Bardella and Marion Maréchal both spoke, the former a stalwart of the Rassemblement National, the successor entity to the controversial Front National, led by Marine le Pen, Marion’s aunt and daughter of former FN leader Jean-Marie le Pen.  

While Maréchal herself surprised her family’s watchers in last year’s presidential election by defecting to Éric Zemmour’s upstart party, Reconquête, she admittedly also wants to join in the fun by securing a foothold in Brussels and Strasbourg. Similarly for Italy, speakers from Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia and Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord took turns to praise Hungary but remain irreconcilable on whether a new meta-alliance encompassing them should be formed. And yet, across this cacophonous field, one certainty beckoned: change in Europe is needed, and Hungary shows the way. If there’s a man who can whip the European right into shape, that is Viktor Orbán.

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