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What does Hungary's Viktor Orban want?

Anchal Vohra in Brussels
July 9, 2024

As he makes his way to Washington after visiting Kyiv, Moscow and Beijing, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban could be eyeing an alliance with Republican Donald Trump, should he be elected US president in November.

Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary, waves to the crowd after finishing his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, Texas, in the US. on August 4, 2022
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban openly supports Donald Trump's presidential candidacy, praising him as a 'man of peace'Image: Shelby Tauber/REUTERS

Within days of Hungary taking over the rotating presidency of the European Union Council for six months, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has hopped between Kyiv, Moscowand Beijing as a self-appointed interlocutor and self-professed peacemaker.

In a video he tweeted on Monday, Orban hailed China as the only world power "clearly committed to peace'' between Russia and Ukraine, and portrayed himself as a man on a peace mission as he wrapped up his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

"This is important for Hungary and the entire European Union,'' he said in the same video he tweeted from a tarmac in Beijing, and added, "we will continue our work.''

Although he didn't explicitly state he was representing the European Union, some believe he intended to make that impression.

Kaja Kallas, the next EU foreign policy chief, earlier said Orban was "exploiting" Hungary's presidency of the council and trying "to sow confusion" regarding EU policy on Ukraine.

In an earlier tweet on July 5, Orban acknowledged he did not have the mandate to negotiate on behalf of the EU. However, he sent mixed signals when he added, "we cannot sit back and wait for the war to miraculously end. We will serve as an important tool in making the first steps towards peace.''

The EU reprimanded him in strictest of terms after his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and said he is "not representing the EU in any form.''

Viktor Orban and Vladimir Putin shake hands during a meeting in Moscow
Hungarian PM Viktor Orban has long maintained close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin Image: Valeriy Sharifulin/SNA/IMAGO

Germany's Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck said Orban's meetings should be seen as a bilateral matter, rather than constituting an official EU engagement.

However, Orban is, once again, proving to be an enfant terrible in the 27 member bloc. Experts say Orban's latest stunt is part of a long-term plan to portray himself as the leader of the far-right in Europe, and that he is banking on US Republican candidate Donald Trump's return to power. 

What are Orban's political goals? 

There's nothing new in Hungarian Prime Minister Orban's support for Russia or flirtations with China. Over the past two years, he has steadily opposed European Union sanctions against Moscow and has tried to block aid to Ukraine.

And, at a time when the EU is trying to diversify trade away from China, and de-risk critical supply chains, Budapest has enhanced trade with Beijing, and entered an all-weather comprehensive strategic partnership in May this year.

Julien Hoez, a political advisor and expert in EU affairs, said Orban's latest shenanigans are aimed at scoring points at home after his Fidesz party notched its worst ever electoral performance in the EU elections in Hungary last month.

Although Orban's party and allies got 44% of the vote, they lost ground to Peter Magyar, an insider-turned-rival widely described as a threat to Orban.

But that's just one of the takeaways Orban wishes for. He also wants to present himself as a leader of a growing far-right in Europe and build an "illiberal axis'' from the US to Europe, said Hoez.

"He is trying to position himself as a leader of those in Europe who are euroskeptic, more interested in relations with China or Russia, or don't want to get involved and in general display isolationist tendencies of the kind you see in the US.''

On Monday, Orban's Fidesz party entered a new far-right grouping in the European Parliament, along with French far-right leader Marine Le Pen called "The Patriots. Experts say the formation of the group in conjunction with Orban's Beijing travel was a show of strength to Trump's base in the US.

Along with emerging as a leading figure in the far-right ecosystem in Europe, Orban also wants to portray himself as a kindred spirit to Donald Trump.

Viktor Orban and Marine Le Pen pictured in Poland during an event in 2021
Orban and Marine Le Pen's political parities are part of a new far-right grouping in the European ParliamentImage: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP

A facilitator for Trump in Europe?

Pierre Haroche, an associate professor of European and International Politics, and associate fellow at the Jacques Delors Institute, a think tank, said Orban is currently doing "preparatory work'' to have a ready deal for Trump if and when he regains the US presidency.

"Orban is working on a deal that he thinks Trump will accept,'' said Haroche. "Trump has said he wants to end the conflict [Ukraine war] within 24 hours. Orban wants to be able to say, look, I have already spoken to parties concerned and make himself an indispensable facilitator.''

"Having influence in the EU through a group will make him more useful to Trump,'' the expert added. 

Orban's games have rattled Brussels.  Later this week, as permanent representatives of EU member states meet, they are likely to discuss the role of the rotating presidency, and whether Hungary can be an honest broker.

Can Orban speak for the EU? DW's Teri Schultz

Experts say the EU cannot do much to punish Orban. While the "nuclear option'' that of limiting Hungary's rights under Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union has often been brought up in whispers, it is unlikely to be exercised.

Meanwhile, in a response to Orban's post on X mentioned above, Trump's son Donald Trump junior extolled the Hungarian leader as a peacemaker, "like my father."

Orban's next stop is Washington, and speculation is rife over whether he will meet Trump while in the US, or merely attend the summit marking NATOs 75th anniversary

Edited by: Wesley Rahn