Viktor Orban: De Gaulle’s Hungarian Successor

Viktor Orban is at odds with mainstream but thinks in terms of a strong Europe.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban planned his referendum as a slap in the face to Brussels but instead received a clear warning from voters. Although in a political sense, he can use the outcome to his benefit, the referendum did not achieve its initial goal, and its illegitimacy has not enhanced Orban’s position either at home or in Brussels.

Orban’s half-full or half-empty glass allows a wide range of political interpretations regardless of the initial goal. At the same time Euro bureaucrats cannot retreat even now that the referendum is over. After all, Orban, whom Brussels considers “a bad guy,” defends those who support the idea of a Europe of nations, understands the importance of sovereignty, built a wall and held a referendum, which is at odds with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s migration policy and conventional views on federal Europe.

On October 2 the Hungarians had the chance to express their opinion on the European Union’s right to set quotas for the mandatory resettlement of foreigners in Hungary without the approval of its parliament. Orban declared that the referendum was aimed at protecting Hungary and sending a clear message to Brussels. While 3.3 million Hungarians said a resounding “no” to Brussels’ migration policy, in a country of 10 million, Orban cannot be thrilled because the referendum was declared invalid. Although 98.3 percent voted against the refugee quotas, the participation rate of 43.3 percent legally invalidated the results of the referendum. This happened because the current government raised the participation threshold from 25 percent to 50 percent in order to weaken the opposition. Naturally, this does not mean that the overwhelming majority of Hungarians do not agree with the prime minister’s migration policy, although the extremely aggressive campaign failed. It was directed against migrants and non-citizens rather than at preserving the country’s sovereignty in the face of Brussels. Paradoxically, turnout was not increased even by the virtual absence of migrants in Hungary due to the wall built by the prime minister on the southern border and the failure of the EU policy on migrant quotas.

Apparently, Orban got ahead of himself and could not conquer the only real enemy – public apathy. By emphasizing the overwhelming majority of no votes and the higher percentage of votes cast in support of the government’s initiative than at the referendum on joining the EU, Orban can rest on his laurels in a political sense. Two years prior to the elections he sized up the position of his party. By keeping the migrant issue front and center, he cornered his weak opposition and diverted attention from the problems that undermine his government, such as corruption. Moreover, if he learns from the mistakes of the current campaign and maintains economic stability, growth and macroeconomic indicators, after 2018 he can rule the country without needing to form a coalition. Obviously, his style of political leadership based on constant struggle irritates many people, especially abroad, but it is very effective. As one well-known local analyst put it, Hungarian society has become one with the government again. Despite the referendum’s flaws, Orban reaffirmed that Fidesz rules the country.

Needless to say, Orban will still need an enemy. Since he has no opponents in Hungary, he will have to look for one abroad. Since Hungarian society is one of the most closed and inward-looking societies in Europe, migrants came in handy as did the indifference of Brussels, which is unable to respond decisively to new challenges, and the ongoing alienation of the political elite from society. Orban’s main enemy now is the EU, or Brussels bureaucrats, to be exact. At the same time it is noteworthy that Orban scored a win with his position on migrants, which seemed very risky even a year and a half ago. The attention garnered by the referendum also shows that despite Hungary’s modest political influence on European public opinion, Orban has become the boogeyman of the political elite in Brussels and the rest of Western Europe.

Although many draw excessively sweeping conclusions from Orban’s clearly bellicose rhetoric, it should be noted that he never called into doubt Hungary’s EU membership. He would not even be able to do this because 60 percent of the Hungarian population favors membership despite the current crises. Not only the government but the entire country would find itself in trouble without EU subsidies. Orban does not want to quit the EU but to refashion it as he sees fit. He no doubt can’t imagine himself as the leader of the Euro bureaucrats. A much more realistic goal would be to use his political intuition to influence the future of Europe with bold steps and statements that produce the desired effect. Orban is often at odds with the European mainstream but he can propose solutions to EU problems. It would be wrong to consider the referendum as a step towards leaving the EU. It was merely a signal to Europe that he, like Charles de Gaulle, is focused on the nation state, a Europe of nations, a Europe independent of America and a Europe open to Russia in the spirit of Greater Europe.

In fiscal policy Orban is conservative and pro-competition. He prefers domestic capital but is not against its free flow. Despite his pronouncements intended primarily for domestic audiences and the questions they raise, Orban regards the EU and NATO as a keystone. At the same time, as his policy of “openness to the East” shows, he is prepared to consider new options.

Gabor Stier is foreign policy analyst, head, foreign affairs desk, Magyar Nemzet daily newspaper.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.