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24th Mar 2019

Hungary offers cautious support to Bannon project

The Hungarian government is cautiously supporting plans by US firebrand Steve Bannon to unite Eurosceptic and populist forces ahead of next year's European parliament election.

Zoltan Kovacs, Hungary's chief government spokesperson, on Monday (10 September) said they "welcome novel political ideas and approaches" when asked about Bannon's initiative - but noted Budapest will lead its own agenda.

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"If we find partners that are talking about political - if you like philosophical - social issues, according to the mandate we have from the Hungarian people, we welcome that but we are very cautious about any foreign influence," he told reporters in Brussels.

Bannon, the US far-right former chief strategist to Donald Trump, has over the summer founded his anti-establishment group, the Movement.

He was warmly received over the summer by Hungary's right-wing prime minister Viktor Orban as part of a wider push to infuse and possibly replace liberal democratic thought with conservative political dogma.

Orban and Bannon had met and spoken together in Budapest, share similar anti-liberal views, and perceive asylum seekers and refugees through a national security prism.

But Hungary appears to be keeping Bannon at arm's length - while at the same time finding more in common with the anti-migrant rhetoric pushed by Italy's far-right interior minister Matteo Salvini.

Orban and Salvini in late August vowed to work together to stem migration flows in a strategic allegiance that also aims to tackle the progressive political movement led by French president Emmanuel Macron ahead of the next year's European parliament election.

"If they wanted to see me as their main opponent, they were right to do so," said Macron last month.

Salvini has since joined the Movement, posing alongside with Bannon in a photo dated 7 September following a meeting in Rome.

"He is in!" tweeted Mischael Modrikamen, a Belgian politician who is also a member of Bannon's group.

The political allegiances shaping up ahead of the European parliament election reflect a hardening tone against migration and refugees.

The European Commission is this week set to unveil new measures to deter migrants, in terms of shoring up external borders and getting foreign states to prevent them from leaving. It means further boosting the EU's border agency Frontex and stepping up returns of rejected asylum seekers.

The reported measures reflect how the EU states appear more willing to coordinate and work together on external aspects of migration but wrangle and dither over sharing responsibilities across their own borders.

For Hungary, it also exposes political party tensions in the European parliament over a damning report on the country by Dutch Green MEP Judith Sargentini, set to be debated at the European parliament plenary in Strasbourg on Tuesday.

Some dozen Orban Fidesz party loyalists sit in the European parliament's largest political group, the centre-right EPP.

Last week, EPP leader Manfred Weber, announced his candidacy to become president of the European Commission.

But the German conservative then declined questions from the international press, in a move that raised further questions given Sargentini's looming report.

Meanwhile, Hungary says it has no intention to split from the EPP, or join or create another political entity within the EU institution.

At Monday's press conference, Kovacs was clear.

"We belong to the EPP and instead of leaving, which many would probably like to see, we would rather take it the other way around and demonstrate for the EPP, that our stance, our perspective, is something that could help the EPP," he said.

Hungary vote exposes EU rift on populism

MEPs will vote next week on whether to urge member states to investigate Hungary on EU values. Budapest calls it "liberal fundamentalism", with the EPP in a difficult position.

EUobserved

Weber in balancing act en route to Berlaymont

The German centre-right MEP initially refused to take press questions. Meanwhile, he will have to find a way to distinguish himself from current commission president Juncker.

Orban's allies want concessions ahead of critical vote

MEPs in Strasbourg debated triggering the Article 7 sanctions procedure against Hungary, for infringing EU rules and values - while prime minister Viktor Orban claimed the parliament was about to punish Hungarians for protecting Europe's borders from immigrants.

Opinion

'The kids aren't alt-right'

Steve Bannon's demolition derby is behind the curve of EU politics, writes Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in 't Veld.

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