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14th Apr 2024

Analysis

Meloni-Orbán: the new EU 'power couple' but for how long?

  • Italian prime minister Roberta Meloni with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán ahead of the EU summit (Photo: kormany.hu)
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Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni flipped her friendly ties with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán to come out looking like a major power broker at this week's EU summit.

But their friendship is more shallow and brittle than it appeared, while Orbán may ultimately prove a burden to her ambitions, some analysts say.

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Meloni's office told Italian media on Thursday (1 February) that she was the "lead player" in getting Orbán to drop his veto on Ukraine funding.

She first met Orbán tête-à-tête at a hotel in Brussels on Wednesday night to forgive him for mistreatment of an Italian prisoner in Hungary — a case concerning Ilaria Salis, an Italian anti-fascist activist, who is on trial for assault.

Meloni then sat between the French president and the German chancellor with Orbán at a breakfast on Thursday morning, where the Hungarian leader gave way on Ukraine.

And she rewarded Orbán by being "outspoken against any Article 7 path against Hungary" at Thursday's summit, an EU diplomat said.

Article 7 in the EU treaty enables member states to suspend Orbán's voting rights in the EU Council on grounds of his grave abuse of rule-of-law in Hungary.

Meloni continued her charm offensive in her post-summit press briefing.

"This is how it works in many sovereign states, even in the West," she said, referring to how Hungarian authorities had chained Salis' hands and feet in court last week, provoking outrage by the Italian public.

Orbán told Italian newspapers La Repubblica and La Stampa that he was going ahead with plans to join Meloni's political group in the European Parliament (EP) — the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR).

"The idea was to join even earlier, but at this point we will do so after the [EP] elections [in June] ... Anyway, my answer is yes, we are ready and we will join the conservatives", he said on Thursday in Brussels.

Meloni and Orbán had shared personal values that gave their relationship some depth, said Francesco Galietti, from the Rome-based political consultancy firm Policy Sonar.

She had successfully transformed her image from that of an ex-fascist to a mainstream Western leader since her election two years ago, for instance by backing the US-led effort against Russia in the Ukraine war, but her new ideology was only skin-deep, Galietti indicated.

"Meloni's Atlanticism is an 11th-hour development in her life, her most recent mutation. It has paid off well for her so far, but she has never quite forgotten her political roots," he said.

And her friendship with Orbán could give Meloni even more weight in Western capitals if the far-right Donald Trump regained power in US elections in November.

"If Trump comes back, she will be seen as someone close to one of Trump's darlings in Europe — and Orbán is certainly one of those," Galietti said.

Power couple

But if all that sounded as though Meloni and Orbán were becoming the EU's new power couple, her influence on him might have seemed bigger than it really was.

"Success has many fathers. And mothers," a second EU diplomat said, referring to the collective pressure on Orbán over Ukraine by several other leaders at the EU summit.

"She has no actual leverage on Orbán," Galietti said.

"Even [EU] deals on migrants pushed by Meloni were torpedoed by Orbán in the past," he added.

The Italian prisoner-in-chains episode also showed how fragile their relations were, said Ágnes Vadai, a Hungarian opposition MP.

"Pro-government Hungarian media immediately attacked Meloni as being part of the Soros gang," Vadai said, referring to George Soros, a Jewish billionaire, whom Orbán routinely accuses of running a liberal cabal in antisemitic propaganda.

And the Salis case risks becoming toxic for relations once again, when MEPs debate it in Brussels next Monday.

The Ukraine-veto deal aside, Meloni's anti-Russia line, her equally Atlanticist China-hawkishness, and her calls for EU migrant-sharing will stress-test her Orbán friendship, Galietti noted.

The Hungarian leader's rapidly deteriorating image will also test the couple if Meloni aspires to join the club of top Western leaders.

"She's hedging her bets, but in the long run Orbán is an embarrassment to Meloni," Galietti said.

"She knows she can't be in the club, but she wants to be important to the club," he said.

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