1st Jun 2023

Is Orban holding out an olive branch to EPP?

  • Is Orban exploring the possibility to return to the European People's Party (EPP), the centre-right block in the European Parliament, which Fidesz left in March 2021 (Photo:
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More than three months after his landslide election parliamentary victory, Viktor Orban and his nationalistic Fidesz party are isolated in Europe like never before.

Talks permeate Budapest that in order to break this insulation Orban explores the possibility to return to the European People's Party (EPP), the centre-right block in the European Parliament, which Fidesz left in March 2021, after two years of suspension over concerns about human rights in Hungary and its attacks against the EPP.

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It is Tibor Navracsics, an ex-EU commissioner and minister without portfolio in Orban's new government, who was reportedly picked to work on closer relations between Fidesz and EPP. "He is experienced and conciliatory, although does not have his own political base," says Laszlo Andor, another Hungarian ex-commissioner.

Yet the first mission of Navracsics fizzled out.

In late May, he joined the EPP congress in Rotterdam, invited by Gyorgy Holvenyi, an MEP and the only Hungarian member of the EPP, but was refused a meeting with Manfred Weber, the bloc's new chairman.

Weber made it clear that "the times of Fidesz in the EPP are long gone and will never come back while Orban is there," says a source in the EPP, insisting on anonymity.

Maybe Warsaw?

At the same time, Orban has made efforts to repair close relations with his most loyal ally, Poland's ruling nationalistic Law and Justice (PiS) party, after the two have parted their ways over Orban's mild stance on Russia's invasion in Ukraine.

Poland has been at the forefront of deterring Putin's Russia, while Hungary has resisted tougher sanctions against Moscow and refused shipments of arms, munitions and military equipment to Ukraine.

Not accidentally, the first international trip of Katalin Novak, newly-elected as Hungary's first female president and Orban's loyalist, took her to Warsaw in mid-May. It was reciprocated a month later by a visit of Ryszard Terlecki and Marek Kuchcinski, PiS senior officials, in Budapest.

"Merkel, Kurz, Berlusconi, Borissov, Jansa are no longer on the pitch," says Andor, citing former EU leaders considered as Orban's allies. "That is why it is so important for him not to lose Poland. But it's difficult to imagine a return to the deep friendship, because the war may last for a long time and will remain a controversial topic."

Analysts say Orban sent on a charm offensive some of the friendlier faces from his regime, such as Navracsics and Novak, following the failure in creating a more radical competitor for EPP: a bloc gathering together Europe's far-right and nationalistic parties under Orban's leadership, something he himself called "reorganising the European right".

"He miscalculated," says Zsuzsanna Vegh, a research fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations. "He positioned himself as a bridge between PiS and the more radical Italian League and the French National Rally. But there were too many differences between them, including their approach to Russia, which recently has become the key problem."

A series of mistakes — an unsuccessful attempt to build a far-right fraction in the European Parliament, pro-Russian rhetoric and burning bridges with close allies, including PiS and German conservatives — has made it particularly difficult to achieve Orban's primary goal: to unlock EU funds.

In February, the European Court of Justice dismissed complaints from Hungary and Poland against a law that ties EU funds to democratic standards. This decision effectively blocked the money from the EU budget for Hungary, including €7.2bn requested by the country from the EU's pandemic recovery stimulus.

A Hungarian delegation led by Navracsics has been working to reach an agreement with the EU "in the second half of the year or toward the end of the year".

But, according to an EU diplomat who also asked for anonymity, "there is absolutely no such possibility" that the EU will compromise on Hungary's rule of law. "For many EU countries, it is the fundamental issue," they say.

In many ways, EU and Hungary are caught in a vicious circle: the EU, in a dramatic step, moved to trigger powers that may ultimately deprive Hungary of billions of euros and weaken Fidesz's regime, counting that Orban will back down.

Yet, for now, the more isolated he feels, the more unpredictable he becomes.

Patriarch Kirill problem

At the last EU summit, he won a partial exemption from the EU's oil embargo, and will continue to use cheap Russian oil sent via pipeline. But it was his firm opposition to EU sanctions against Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church and Putin's ally, that really raised eyebrows in Brussels.

According to an EU diplomat, it was hard to understand why the resistance to blacklist Kirill is in Hungary's national interest. "In the recent months Orban's position has become much less conciliatory than before," the source says. "He seems to be happy to block something if he feels it threatens his priorities."

"Until now, it was believed that Orban causes problems, but sooner or later one would manage to get along with him," says analyst Vegh. "This is not the case anymore. Many leaders are frustrated and even scared that Orban will now behave in a similar way on more fundamental issues. If someone is blackmailing you, it's hard to treat them like a partner."

According to Daniel Hegedus, an analyst at German Marshall Fund, Orban has yet to find a proper response to the war in Ukraine, a source of his current problems.

"Before the war, he managed to achieve all his foreign policy goals," says Hegedus. "He was perceived as the leader of central Europe and the voice of right-wing autocrats, he built friendly relations with Russia and China, and generously used EU funds. But, he failed to notice that with the war the circumstances have changed. Now, there's no return to the status quo ante."

Author bio

Dariusz Kalan a Warsaw-based journalist covering central Europe and with bylines in The Washington Post, The Times, BIRN Reporting Democracy, Foreign Policy, among other outlets.

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