For more than 20 years, Viktor Orban was shut out of the White House. His last visit was in 1998, deep into Clinton’s second term, when the Hungarian prime minister, a feisty pro-democracy figurehead in the dying days of the Soviet imperium, was still regarded as a liberal centrist. As Orban and his Fidesz party drifted to the right, and embraced closer ties with Russia and China, western capitals began to freeze him out. George W Bush avoided hosting him. Barack Obama refused.
Donald Trump broke with that precedent this week when he received Orban in the Oval office, praising the far-right demagogue as a “tough” and “respected” leader. For Orban, the meeting provided a priceless portrait of solidarity between two populist leaders, united by their hostility to immigration and their disregard for the rule of law. That was largely how their opponents saw the meeting too – as another alarming sign of the nascent global alliance of nationalist strongmen. Such fears are particular acute in Europe, where next week’s elections to the European Parliament are widely expected to produce a wave of far-right populist MEPs and bring an end to the long-standing Christian v Social Democrat duopoly in the Strasbourg hemicycle.
Angst about how that new configuration will alter European politics is well-grounded. Populists of varying shades are already in power in Italy, Austria, Estonia, Poland and Hungary, and are a significant electoral force in France, Germany, Sweden, Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland and the UK. Even where they remain confined to the opposition benches, these parties have succeeded in dragging the centre-ground towards their positions on issues such as migration and the EU. Look at the Gaullist right in France, which today is reduced to the role of a Le Pen cover band.
Hostility to immigration
Yet the idea that the populists will be capable of mass obstruction assumes that they can form a coherent bloc. That’s a stretch. What unites these insurgent parties, apart from a shared vocabulary, is hostility to immigration, a preference for national decision-making and euroscepticism. Beyond those issues, there is a great deal that divides them. Sharply divergent views on Russia, for example, have been a big obstacle for Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and leader of the Lega party, in his efforts to form a pan-European nationalist alliance (the far-right is currently split across three umbrella groups in the European Parliament). While Lega, Fidesz and France’s Ralliement National (formerly the Front National) regard support for Moscow as the flipside of their euro-antagonism and see Vladimir Putin as a kindred ethno-nationalist, their far-right counterparts in Denmark, Estonia and Poland baulk at the idea of a friendly relationship with Russia, which they regard as a strategic threat. Those differences are likely to prevent Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party from joining Salvini’s new grouping.
The catch-all term “populist” masks deep differences on economic policy, encompassing as it does the protectionist Ralliement National and the free-marketeers in Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Add to the mix an array of bilateral tensions. Think of the mutual suspicion between Orban and the right-wing movements in Romania and Slovakia, countries with large ethnic Hungarian minorities. Or the dispute between Austria and Italy over Alto Adige, known in German as Südtirol (South Tyrol). To the annoyance of the Lega’s core constituency in Italy, Austria’s Freedom Party – a junior partner in government in Vienna – says it wants to offer Austrian passports to South Tyrol’s German-speaking majority. And then there are personal differences; Orban, in an interview with the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy this week, said he would have “nothing at all to do with Madame Le Pen”.
While the Trump-Orban encounter was largely framed as a meeting of ideological allies, the agenda is likely to have been dominated by questions that put them at loggerheads. Again, Russia policy divides the two capitals. Washington believes its attempts to shore up Nato’s eastern flank to counter the growing influence of Russia and China have been complicated by Orban’s close ties to both states. Orban recently gave Russia a $12 billion contract to expand Hungary’s sole nuclear power plant. And when two arms dealers were recently captured in Hungary after a US-led investigation, Orban’s government angered Washington by extraditing the dealers to Russia instead of the US. The two countries are also at odds over whether to do business with Huawei, the Chinese telecoms giant.
Some polling suggests far-right parties could take up to one-third of seats in the European Parliament this month. That would shake the institution and pose serious questions for everyone else. But populism encompasses an array of contradictory agenda and ideologies. It interprets the past in different ways, it cannot agree on its diagnosis of current problems, and it certainly cannot agree on how the EU should advance.
The more influence the insurgents attain, the more their internal tensions will hold them back.