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29th Feb 2024

EU 'unfazed' by antisemitic billboards despite Gaza war

  • Monday's anti-Soros billboards featured European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen (Photo: fidesz.eu.hu)
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The EU's top institution "didn't bat an eyelid" over Viktor Orbán's latest antisemitic slur, in a sign of the Hungarian prime minister's shrinking relevance in Europe.

Orbán's Fidesz party unveiled billboards in Budapest on Monday (21 November) showing European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen with a Jewish US philanthropist's son called Alex Soros.

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"Let's not dance to their tunes," the billboards said.

The Soros family is routinely vilified by antisemitic conspiracy theorists.

The billboards were Orbán's first antisemitic stunt since the Gaza war began on 7 October — potentially putting Jewish people at greater risk in times of already unprecedented levels of hate crime.

The posters also represented Orbán's first-ever personal smear-campaign against von der Leyen.

"Let's be clear — we have zero tolerance for antisemitism," her spokesman said in Brussels on Monday.

The last time Orbán put up anti-Soros and anti-EU billboards, in 2019, the EU Commission published a riposte.

But this time, von der Leyen's spokesman said: "I showed pictures [of the billboards] to the president. She didn't bat an eyelid. She didn't raise an eyebrow — completely unfazed".

"This [Orbán's jibe] isn't the first time and probably not the last time — we have serious business to take care of," the EU spokesman added, alluding to European diplomacy on the Gaza and Ukraine wars.

Orbán's billboards were accompanied by a national questionnaire with inflammatory content, such as claims the EU was funding Hamas, a Palestinian group which murdered hundreds of Israelis on 7 October.

But the EU spokesman dismissed this with a similar air of Orbán-fatigue.

"You know as well as I do, these statements are completely untrue," von der Leyen's spokesman said.

His billboards aside, Orbán is also threatening to veto EU aid for Ukraine, the opening of EU accession talks with Ukraine, further EU sanctions on Russia, and letting Sweden join Nato.

But EU budget commissioner Johannes Hahn said on 8 November "we cannot be blackmailed" by Hungary on Ukraine.

"We can find a solution, which is only including 26 member states", Hahn said.

Orbán's bark on Russia is also worse than his bite, Estonia's prime minister Kaja Kallas indicated at the last EU summit in Brussels on 30 October.

"He [Orbán] has been critical of supporting Ukraine, but he has been part of it," Kallas said after Hungary agreed to 11 rounds of Russia sanctions already despite Orbán's shows of friendship with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

And Orbán's Nato-Sweden veto is expected to melt away as soon as Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan says so, in a further show of subservience to larger powers.

"It's a shame and a joke," said Hungarian centre-left opposition MP Ágnes Vadai.

Orbán's billboards were put up in the name of defending Hungarian sovereignty from outside forces, she said.

"But the Hungarian ruling party won't ratify Sweden's Nato accession until Turkey does so — so what kind of sovereignty is that?", Vadai said.

Orbánism

The 60-year-old Hungarian leader has held office since 2010.

His illiberal and nationalist-populist rule has seen the EU withhold billions in funds for his country and his MEPs march out of the European Parliament's main group.

Orbán has also cultivated friendly ties with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who used to turn a blind eye to his Soros slurs.

But the Gaza situation meant Orbán's new billboards also risked burning bridges with Israelis.

Some 10,000 Jewish people lived in Hungary and their "primary problem" was "the open antisemitism that the Orbán government has been engaging in for over a decade," said Hungarian liberal MEP Attila Ara-Kovács.

Right-wing Hungarian MEP Márton Gyöngyösi said: "The paradox is that while the [billboard] campaign is clearly antisemitic, the Orbán government supports firmly Israel and the Netanyahu administration".

For Vadai, Orbán was incoherent because he lacked any personal political vision.

"Only business interests and keeping power [matter to him]. Nothing else. Don't look for any ideology," she said.

Orbán was bashing Soros more as a symbol of the "liberal intelligentsia" than of evil Jewish cabals, said Anton Shekhovtsov, a writer on EU far-right politics and the director of the Centre for Democratic Integrity NGO in Vienna.

But in doing so, he still looked like an outlier even in his own political pond.

Neo-Nazis

"In Europe, antisemitism is mostly associated with neo-Nazis and the unreformed far left. The party-political far right have moved away from this as they understand the toxicity of antisemitism," he said.

"Israel, for them, is a right-wing anti-Muslim regime. I doubt that antisemitism can be a vote-winner in Europe in general," Shekhovtsov added, speaking ahead of next year's European Parliament elections.

But even so, if von der Leyen, a German politician who has championed Jewish rights in light of the Gaza war, "didn't bat an eyelid" on Monday, then maybe she should have done, Vadai indicated.

Even if the EU thought he was a "joke", then Orbán was still "dangerous", Vadai said.

"Von der Leyen is too soft on Orbán and the Hungarian government's [antisemitic] behaviour," Ara-Kovács also said.

A Hungarian government spokesman didn't reply to EUobserver's questions on Monday.

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