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Secure in Hungary, Orban Readies for Battle with Brussels

Posted May 11, 2018 6:36 p.m. EDT

BUDAPEST, Hungary — In his victorious campaign to secure a third consecutive term as prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban had a clear, urgent message: The nation was at risk from an international cabal looking to undermine its sovereignty, and it would be overrun with migrants if he was not elected.

With his party firmly in control of this Central European country, Orban says it is time to take that campaign continental. On Thursday, in his first address to Parliament in his new term, he styled himself as the leader of a movement to reform the European Union and as defender of the sovereign rights of its member nations.

“Now we will be hunting for big game,” Orban said. He presented a vision for Europe that stood in stark contrast to the one embraced by Western leaders like President Emmanuel Macron of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, with their acceptance of political and ethnic pluralism, dissent, and fairly high levels of migration from Asia and Africa and the Middle East.

“We need to say it out loud because you can’t reform a nation in secrecy: The era of liberal democracy is over,” Orban said. “Rather than try to fix a liberal democracy that has run aground, we will build a 21st-century Christian democracy.”

He made no mention of Hungarian-American financier George Soros, whom he demonized nearly daily during the campaign, or of legislation aimed squarely at institutions connected to Soros. The laws are still likely to be enacted in some form, according to analysts, but there is no rush, as Orban made clear in his remarks. In power since 2010, he confidently suggested that he planned to lead the country until at least 2030.

As lawmakers filed into the majestic Parliament building beside the Danube for their first gathering since last month’s election, passing the Holy Crown of Hungary, worn by monarchs for more than eight centuries, as a string quartet played, the event felt more like a coronation than an inauguration.

While populist leaders in other nations look to Orban’s political success as inspiration — success that critics say was built on undermining the traditional checks and balances essential to a healthy democracy — worried EU leaders in Brussels have moved closer to tying the distribution of bloc funds to issues surrounding the basic rule of law.

Orban contended in a local radio interview that Hungary has a “moral duty” to refuse to take in refugees or asylum seekers as part of any European quota system — setting the stage for yet another bruising battle with Brussels.

“In Brussels now, thousands of paid activists, bureaucrats and politicians work in the direction that migration should be considered a human right,” Orban said. “That’s why they want to take away from us the right to decide with whom we want to live. It’s my personal conviction that migration leads in the end to the destruction of nations and states.”

“We need the union; the union needs us,” Orban acknowledged. “We are ready to be reformers in the changes that the EU can’t avoid.” In a reflection of his dominance domestically, he said nothing about his party’s legislative agenda.

“In 2014, the message was ‘Anything can happen,'” said Edit Zgut, an analyst at Political Capital, a research organization based in Budapest. “Now the message is ‘I can do what I want.'”

Stefano Bottoni, a senior fellow at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the author of “Long Awaited West: Eastern Europe since 1944,” said that Orban, having secured his position in Hungary, wanted to play on a larger stage.

“He wants to represent and give voice to a sovereign Europe, a European Union of nation-states,” Bottoni said.

To do that, he must remain part of the European People’s Party, the continental alliance of center-right parties, and influence it from within. There are already signs that he is adjusting his rhetoric, if not his agenda.

It was Orban who coined the phrase “illiberal democracy” to describe his government. Now, he has a different way of framing issues, co-opting the term “Christian democracy,” which has long been used to describe Europe’s dominant center-right political ideology.

For generations, Christian democratic parties, notably in Germany and Italy, have blended support for free-market economics and moderately conservative social policies with left-leaning stances on issues like labor rights and the welfare state.

Orban is framing Christian democracy as something different, a bulwark in a clash of civilizations, with Muslim migrants threatening Christianity and Christian values. His critics say he is hijacking the term to continue a campaign built on fear.

Michael Ignatieff, the president of Central European University in Budapest, said that Orban had succeeded in making himself a major player in Europe — a remarkable achievement for the leader of a nation of around only 10 million people.

“Is there a larger project in which he can shape Europe as a whole?” he asked. “I don’t know if he is a grand strategist or just a power player.”

It is not an academic question for Ignatieff, since the fate of his university now rests with Orban. The university was founded in 1991 with an investment by Soros, whom Orban has accused of all sorts of nefarious behavior aimed at undermining Hungarian independence.

Under current law, the university, which has the support of the U.S. government and powerful figures in the European People’s Party, will not be allowed to accept new students after Jan. 1, 2019. Unless an agreement is reached, it will be forced to close.

Whatever Orban’s ultimate goals, there is little need for him to rush. The political opposition is now almost an afterthought. Opposition parties failed to unify before their election, allowing Orban’s Fidesz party and its coalition partner, the Christian Democrats, to win a two-thirds majority.

One of Hungary’s oldest newspapers — one of the few critical voices in a country where Orban and his allies control most of the news media — closed in April, when its chief financial backer pulled out.

Orban has said he plans to impose a 25 percent tax on any foreign-funded group that supports migration — a move that would make it nearly impossible for some organizations to continue working.

University professors from 28 countries have signed a letter calling on the government not to take further action against those groups, and appealing to the European Union to “immediately take action to prevent this flagrant human rights violation from happening on its own territory.”

Janos Fonagy, a Fidesz member of Parliament, said that it would soon pass “some constitutional amendments” but that people should not be concerned.

“There is no need to fear,” he said. “Those that are afraid don’t know what is happening here.” Outside Parliament, protesters gathered this week for what might have been their last chance to make their voices heard before lawmakers got busy fulfilling the Orban agenda.

The mood was decidedly different from that in the first weeks after the election, when some 100,000 people took to the streets to protest their new government. The recent crowds were smaller — police officers outnumbered demonstrators — and their chants less full-throated. A sense of urgency seemed to be replaced by resignation.

“Our spirit has been broken,” said Laszlo Horvath, a 29-year-old organizer. “What can we do?”

As evening fell and the demonstration got underway, the skies opened up. Pouring rain and chunks of hail sent protesters scrambling for cover.

By the time the skies cleared, just a few dozen people were left, shouting into the night.