Salvini and Orban at a press conference in Budapest, May 2019
Bernadett Szabo / REUTERS

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban will visit the White House today for a long-sought meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump. The U.S. government has been officially critical of Orban for his warm relations with China and Russia and his attempts to block NATO exercises with Ukraine. On a visit to Hungary in February, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried and failed to get Orban to return to the transatlantic fold. But for all of his disagreement with U.S. foreign policy, Orban will offer Trump ideas they share: an international anti-immigration alliance and disruption of the European Union. Trump may well find he feels closer to Orban than to the foreign policy of his own administration.

Trump’s alliance with Orban goes back to the 2016 presidential campaign, when Orban was the first European leader to support the Republican candidate. In a telephone call after the election, the two men bonded over their common status as “black sheep” under the Obama administration. But Trump and Orban have not met in person—until now.

They have much in common. Trump and Orban have both built their political fortunes on blocking immigration, building border walls, rejecting asylum seekers, and spouting anti-migrant rhetoric. They both claim to put their countries first by rejecting long-standing democratic alliances in favor of working with dictatorships. Orban, like Trump, idealizes a time before “political correctness” and issues frequent dog-whistles to the far right. He hopes to win Trump’s support for the coalition he is building between center-right and far-right parties for the upcoming European Parliament elections.

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For all that Trump shares with Orban personally, the Hungarian prime minister’s foreign policy has become a source of frustration to Washington. Hungary is now Russia’s closest friend in Europe. Orban, who has adopted a policy he refers to as an “Eastern Opening,” is the only EU leader to repeatedly welcome Russian President Vladimir Putin on official visits. In 2015, Orban signed an agreement with Russia to expand Hungary’s nuclear power capacity. Last November, the Hungarian government sent two suspected Russian arms dealers back to Russia, ignoring Washington’s request that they be extradited to the United States. And in January, Orban finalized the deal for Russia’s development bank to locate its European headquarters in Budapest. Hungary has even attempted to limit the relationship between Ukraine and NATO, for which some analysts blame Orban’s friendship with Moscow. 

China, too, has become a powerful player in Hungary. The Hungarian leader has enthusiastically supported the “16+1” initiative that links China to 16 countries in Central and Eastern Europe, and China has amply rewarded him with the lion’s share of its investment in the region. When Pompeo recently urged Orbán to reject Huawei’s construction of the 5G network in Hungary, Orbán ignored him and instead sent Hungary’s finance minister to China for a meeting with Huawei executives.

The Trump meeting is unlikely to result in Hungary falling in line with U.S. foreign policy, but Orban may have more success in winning Trump over to the Hungarian prime minister’s approach to the EU. The European parliamentary elections, which will take place later this month, offer Orban the chance to build a right-wing populist coalition across Europe. Orban sees a Trump endorsement—or even just a Trump photo-op—as crucial to that effort. 

Orban comes to his Europe-wide populist project after defying the European People’s Party (EPP), the center-right European political party that his national Fidesz party joined when Hungary acceded to the EU. For years, the EPP, and especially Manfred Weber, its leader in the European Parliament, protected Orban while Orban captured the Hungarian judiciary; attacked media pluralism; pressured civil society; stripped the independence of the central bank, election commission and prosecutor’s office; and then rigged his own reelection. But Orban seemed to reach the EPP’s redlines when his government decided to expel the Budapest-based Central European University from Hungary. The EPP backed down over that encounter. But this spring, Orban finally did something that the EPP found unforgiveable. He led a campaign in Hungary attacking European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, a fellow member of the EPP. The anti-Juncker campaign split the EPP between the member parties who had had enough of Orban’s antics and those who wanted the EPP to retain Fidesz’s votes. In March, facing nearly enough opposition to expel him from the EPP, Orban agreed to a “self-suspension.”

His suspension from the EPP has allowed Orban to more openly flirt with a powerful new European populist alliance, led by Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini. Orbán met Salvini in Budapest on May 2, and the two men were all smiles. Then Orban met with Austrian Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache of the far-right populist Freedom Party, to solidify the new pact. Right after the Strache meeting, Orban made a full break with the EPP leadership, announcing that he would no longer support his old friend Weber for European Commission President. That Orban will formally quit the EPP for good seems apparent.

In an interview last Monday with the Austrian newspaper Kleine Zeitung, Orbán explained his new European political strategy. The future of Europe is the “Austrian model,” he said, referring to Austria’s governing coalition between the center-right Conservative Party and the far-right Freedom Party (FPO). The last time the FPO joined a coalition government, in 2000, the party was so toxic in the rest of Europe that the other 14 countries of the EU sanctioned Austria. (The EU lifted the sanctions a year later after realizing they had overreacted.) The current Austrian government, however, has just finished a term in the rotating presidency of the EU, Freedom Party and all. The Freedom Party hasn’t changed much since 2000, but Europe has. The far right has been normalized. And in this normalization, Orban sees an opportunity. 

“Looking at it from Budapest,” Orban said of Austria, “this appears to be successful. There is stability, I can see goals in the economy, tax reductions, and it seems that good things are happening.” The alliance between the right and the far right has brought border control and charismatic leadership to Europe, Orban argued. “Europe should adopt the Austrian model.”

Suddenly the math seems to line up with Orban’s ambitions. The most recent polls show Salvini’s populist group winning 76 seats, putting it on track to become the fourth-largest party in the European Parliament. If Orban brings his projected 15 Fidesz seats to the bloc, and he can convince Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party to add its probable 22 seats, the bloc would grow to 113 MPs, vaulting it into third place. Orban might also be able to convince other EPP parties to join him, since he now knows well where his support lies in the EPP. He could also get lucky if the United Kingdom sorts out Brexit and leaves the EU, taking a substantial bloc of British Labour seats away from the Socialist party. Salvini’s group could then end up the European Parliament’s second-largest party, making Orban one of the parliament’s kingmakers.

Europe is about to turn in Orban’s direction—and therefore also toward Trump. Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon has been assisting the Salvini group and provides helpful connections to the White House. Orban now comes to Washington to get Trump’s blessing for this European project.

For Orban, then, the trip to Washington means something very different than it means for the Trump administration. Orban doesn’t intend to be talked out of his Eastern Opening or into splitting with China or Russia. Instead, he intends to get the U.S. president’s help in pushing the European Union farther away from the transatlantic alliance.

  • KIM LANE SCHEPPELE is Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Sociology and International Affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School.
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