The Brief: Orbán is the poor man’s Putin

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter

Viktor Orbán has often been described as the enfant terrible of centre-right European politics.

Have you ever called someone an “enfant terrible”? What you meant was they are an egocentric, attention-seeking, thin-skinned prima donna.

It’s a way of insulting someone self-obsessed enough to believe you think they are a maverick genius, like Jean-Luc Godard, rather than a massive pain in the neck.

Orban is no Godard. He is not even waiting for Godard. But he is worthy of contempt, what Godard would call Le Mepris.

Days after signing the Rome declaration on the future of Europe, Orban sent out “Let’s Stop Brussels” questionnaires to Magyar households.

Orban is not the first politician to indulge in Brussels-bashing and he won’t be the last.  And sometimes, the EU needs a good clip round the ear from its elected leaders.

But the self-styled strongman’s double-dealing dishonesty is just the latest in what some people call Hungary’s “illiberal drift”.  

Illiberal drift is a polite way of saying it looks like Viktor is tempted to go the whole Mugabe.

He is looming threateningly over the Central European University. 70,000 hit the streets to demonstrate against a new law targeting the university for closure over the weekend.

Budapest’s treatment of refugees is particularly revolting. Conditions are so dire that the UN has urged the EU to stop returning asylum seekers to Hungary.

Newspapers have been shut down, NGOs raided, and farcical referendums held.  

This insightful Financial Times piece has it right when it brands Orban Europe’s enemy within.

So, what is Brussels going to do about it? The European Commission will discuss the law and what action to take, if any, tomorrow.

Hungary’s education minister made the rounds in the Berlaymont today and met with Education Commissioner Navracsics, a fellow Hungarian, and Vice-President Timmermans to peddle the party line: that there’s no legal problem with the new rule.

Juncker has expressed his displeasure with Orban, who he once greeted with a cheery “Hello, dictator”.

Bigwigs in the European People’s Party have threatened Hungary with Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty. This nuclear option could see Budapest lose voting rights in the Council or even access to the single market.

Hungary’s hypocrisy is that it is hooked on EU subsidies. The EU could cut off the supply but it will probably plod down the route of stern language about rule of law instead.  

But at some point, it is going to have to pull the enfant terrible’s pants down and give him the spanking he deserves.

As for Orban, it’s time to stop moaning, get off the fence and strong-man up, Viktor. Stop wasting time and call a referendum on Hungary’s membership of the EU.   

Are you a third-rate Trump, an own-brand Erdogan, a Primark Putin or the real deal?

THE ROUNDUP

Hungary’s president approved its controversial law on foreign universities, while Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova said EU action is unlikely to change Budapest’s stance.

Concerns are growing about differences in food quality between the West and East, after a new study showed the same brand of cheese differed greatly depending on in which country you buy it.

There is “no consensus” among the G7 in favour of British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s call for fresh sanctions on Russia, according to his Italian counterpart.

The European Central Bank hailed 2016 as the eurozone’s best post-crisis year. It also fired off a shot at the Commission by insisting the executive should have enforced fiscal rules more.

Cyprus reunification talks resumed today. Securing official EU language status for Turkish was touted as a potential olive branch last year but there’s been no progress since. Reforming the Brussels-Ankara customs agreement could be the key to reviving frosty relations with Turkey.

The EU confirmed it’s the world’s leading aid donor. In 2016, the bloc increased Official Development Assistance 11% to €75.5 billion.

Commission VP Frans Timmermans wants to revise the EU’s Citizens’ Initiative Regulation, to make it “more accessible”. The executive has also teamed up with the European Investment Bank to offer loans that support nature and climate projects.

Sources close to Commission Brexit chief Michel Barnier reportedly told German media that if there is no deal in two years time, there will be “chaos at the border” and air traffic problems. Skilled British workers could keep working in the EU under a new ‘blue card’ system.

If Martin Schulz manages to topple Angela Merkel in September, he will defy Donald Trump’s 2% NATO spending ultimatum.

A French prosecutor involved with high-profile political cases is eagerly awaiting the launch of the European Public Prosecutor Office, and the boost it will bring to anti-corruption efforts.

Slovakian authorities are ready to start enforcing a bizarre law from the mid-1990s. Any publications using unofficial country names face fines of over €6,000, so no more calling the United Kingdom ‘Britain’.

There will be a mobile sauna parked outside of the Parliament and BOZAR on 24 and 25 April. Brussels decision-makers have been invited to “sweat for Europe” at the “hottest discussion event” of the spring. If you go, remember to stay hydrated.

Sam Morgan contributed to this Brief.

LOOK OUT FOR…

EU Commissioners will discuss Hungary in tomorrow’s college meeting.

Views are the author’s. 

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