Viktor Orban’s landslide victory last weekend is not good news for the EU. But it may also turn out to be a mixed blessing for the Visegrad group of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
Few will dispute the legitimacy of Orban’s third term in office – after all, he won an absolute majority in parliament, though the extent of the triumph may have surprised even him – but it is almost certain to deepen east-west divisions inside the EU, and possibly expose cracks inside the V4 group itself.
Poland and Hungary have been the standard bearers of eastern defiance, both led by conservative, authoritarian, anti-immigration rulers
But there is a notable difference: Poland’s PiS belongs to the ECR political group, while Orban’s Fidesz is part of the powerful EPP family, which has largely shielded him from major political harm.
Unsurprisingly, Orban’s victory was greeted with enthusiasm in Poland.
“This is a signal that Hungary will continue to support Poland, just like Poland supports Hungary. This is a very good signal even for our colleagues from the European Commission, that our friendship is going well and we will support each other,” said Iwona Arent, a PiS lawmaker.
Poland’s state secretary for European affairs, Konrad Szymanski, said the victory “confirms the policy of emancipation of Central Europe”, while Andrzej Sadecki, a Research Fellow at the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), wrote that Orban would “continue to build his position as a leader of conservative scepticism about immigration”.
Unlike before, he may now find more sympathetic partners, given the likelihood of a Eurosceptic government in Italy.
But he is also vulnerable because of a possible new infringement procedure against Hungary, and because he may have to make some concessions to Brussels if he wants to continue receiving EU funding.
“The adoption of the Multiannual Financial Framework might prove to be problematic. The V4 may have many things in common, but they might not find a common ground when it comes to conditional spending of the European budget,” said Vít Dostal, a research director at Prague-based think tank AMO.
“Their (V4) cooperation could crash on the issue of the rule of law and spending control – it is without doubt that Orbán uses European funds to gain support of Hungarian oligarchs. In the event of establishing some kind of a control, the V4 might not be capable of working together,” Dostal said.
Czechs and Slovaks have largely sat on the fence and hedged their bets in recent years. They rarely criticised Poland or Hungary but were not quick to rush to their defence either.
It is not unlikely that they start diverging now. Slovakia will take over the presidency of V4 from July, which will force it to take a more active role and set the pace for the four.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis and President Milos Zeman sent Orban wholehearted congratulations, voicing hope for “a further deepening of cooperation in Central Europe”.
Babis said “we are in the same boat” in terms of migrants, refugee quotas and the EU budget, and added that he understands Orban’s “criticism of the European Union and I agree with him on some points”.
Babis’s own position is currently weak, as he still has not been able to form a majority government, after the Social Democrats officially broke off coalition talks last week.
“Finding partners in the region is something at which Orban excels,” Dostal said and added: “Nonetheless, until recently he wasn’t able to partner the Czechs because the previous social democratic government had been too cautious. Babis won’t mind Orban’s approach to migration or European institutions.”
“On the other hand, the similarity between Orban and Babis might not prove to be as beneficial to Orbán in the long term. It could give rise to a tug-of-war for the attention of Western partners and a strong position in Central Europe, which is closely connected to the former.”
“Being a strong Central European player means that you are in a better position to offer partnership to the Western member states and gain something in return,” Dostal concluded.
The Inside Track
by Alexandra Brzozowski
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Views are the author’s