Viktor Orbán’s face literally loomed over Brussels on Tuesday, plastered as it was on the side of a van. The idea was to denounce his brand of illiberal democracy as a ‘threat to EU values’. But are cheap stunts like this really what the EU needs ahead of May’s elections?
No, it wasn’t your imagination; the Orban-van was really speeding through the European quarter at a leisurely 30 km/h, as the liberal ALDE group continued its PR war against the Hungarian leader.
Guy Verhofstadt was on hand to pose in front of the van, which depicted a smiling Orbán standing over a pile of cash, with an EU flag flying in the background and the words “first he took our money, now he wants to destroy Europe” emblazoned above him.
After a quick tour of the European institutions, it headed over to the Hungarian embassy and is now on its way to Budapest.
There can be no doubting the point ALDE is ham-fistedly making here: Orbán’s younger brother has been embroiled in a corruption case that involves EU funds and government officials reportedly charter planes and yachts for frivolous trips.
But why resort to the tactics of the very populist forces ALDE wants to defeat?
Standing in front of inflammatory posters is the modus operandi of the Nigel Farages of this world, men who have never held meaningful public office (or only turned up for work now and then), not committed European politicians.
Sending vans around town is the recourse of a schizophrenic UK government, hell-bent on pandering to the lowest common denominator of voters, not a former Belgian prime minister.
Ignoring the real issues that face society and just beating the drum of whatever flavour of the month is getting the most retweets is Trumpian, not Verhofstadtian, or even European.
Of course, it was meant to remind the EPP of its problematic relationship with Orbán’s Fidesz party and the ongoing Article 7 process that has chilled Brussels-Budapest ties even further, just as the conservative group meets in Helsinki for its congress.
But why bother? EPP members have all the information they need on Orbán and are either unwilling or unable to act on it. All this van succeeds in doing is confirming that the populism rulebook is now recommended reading for everyone involved in politics.
Verhofstadt said yesterday that the Liberals and Democrats will “lead the counter-movement against rightwing populists who conspire to bring the EU down and remove people’s rights”.
In other words, they’re going to waste all their resources fighting factions on their home turf, in the arena of migration and corruptions issues, among others. Recent history tells us that it’s not a fight the coalition of reason will win.
So why aren’t pro-EU forces like ALDE taking them on in areas where their foes have no answers? Climate change, jobs of the future, external security threats to Europe: that’s where proper politicians like Verhofstadt hold all the cards.
Commission president hopefuls Frans Timmermans and Alex Stubb have already tried to steer the discourse in that direction but van stunts drag it back down to where the populists want to hold the “battle for the very soul of Europe”.
Driving the van down the low road just isn’t very helpful.
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Look out for…
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