Who Speaks for the European Right? Orban. Yes, Orban.

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If you want to know what the European right is thinking about Europe and the world, listen to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Unlike most far-right leaders, Orban is a consistent winner with strong mainstream credentials, and his outspokenness stems from conviction rather than a mere desire to win protest votes.

Every year, Orban gives a speech at a summer camp for his young supporters. The latest such oration, on Friday, was different from most of the earlier ones because it presented a geopolitical creed for right-wing forces throughout the continent. This was a speech by the man President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has called “Trump before Trump.”

Orban shares an enemy with Bannon: financier and philanthropist George Soros, whose Open Society Foundation quit Budapest this year after Orban’s party, Fidesz, won its third election in a row. But Orban also sees a method to what others write off as Trump madness. To the Hungarian leader, Trump is consciously working to transform the global multilateral order into one based on bilateral agreements.

“Let us acknowledge that he started this in the past year, is making systematic progress with the precision of an engineer, and a new world political and economic order based on bilateral agreements is unfolding before our eyes,” Orban said.

In his view, the U.S. has “just one chance” in competition with China, which enjoys a demographic advantage and a technologically advanced, modern economy — changing the world order. “No one can yet know whether they will succeed — particularly whether they will succeed in doing so without armed conflict,” Orban noted. He predicted, however, that the U.S. will continue trying to eliminate trade deficits with the European Union and China, and that it would make some kind of arms-control deal with Russia.

In this changing global system, it becomes important for the EU, which, in Orban’s worldview is still a viable multilateral organization, to make deals with its most important neighbors, particularly Russia and Middle Eastern countries.

Russia, Orban told his supporters, won’t be stopped from “resolving the supply of gas to Europe, while bypassing Ukraine.” He predicted that Ukraine’s efforts to join the West won’t end in membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or the EU but rather in “debt slavery” to Western lenders. “The Russians’ goal to tip Ukraine back to its former situation does not seem unrealistic,” Orban said.

Based on this pessimism about the viability of Ukraine’s pro-Western tilt, Orban called for a new EU policy on Russia. He said that while some EU countries, namely Poland and the Baltic states, are justified in seeing Russia as a threat to their security, “it is completely clear that Hungary does not perceive such a threat, that Slovakia does not perceive such a threat, that the Czechs do not perceive such a threat, and neither does Western Europe.”

Poll data bear him out. So Orban suggests that “NATO and the European Union provided extra, heightened security guarantees to Poland and the Baltic countries” while the rest of Europe should be “finally allowed to trade, to build economic cooperation” with Russia, abandoning Ukraine-related sanctions.

At the same time, Orban said, the EU should forge stronger bilateral relationships with Turkey, Israel and Egypt as potential allies in maintaining Middle Eastern stability and keeping immigrants out of Europe. 

Meanwhile, according to Orban, the changing global order means that Europe must learn to stand on its own in defense matters:

It is absurd for Europe to be unable to create the forces necessary for its own defense. We cannot continuously live off the Americans’ money, and under their security umbrella. It’s good if they’re here, we need them and we need NATO; but Europe must have its own independent defense capability, and so we will need a European army. We have the necessary funds, we have the technological foundations; all that is lacking is the political will.

It’s often thought that European nationalists and populists are anti-EU, so it’ll be shocking to some people to hear Orban embrace the federalist idea of a common army. It should be remembered, too, that Orban isn’t a fringe loose cannon like the U.K.’s Nigel Farage, a habitual election loser like France’s Marine Le Pen or a precariously positioned figure like Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. He has successfully positioned himself within the European center-right, repeatedly repelling far-right challenges from Jobbik, a more hard-line party in Hungary, and keeping his Fidesz in the powerful European People’s Party, which also includes German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. His allies challenge Merkel from the right, but they are still mainstream politicians, not anti-establishment challengers.

When Orban rails against the liberal EU elite, as he did in Friday’s speech, he does that on behalf of the right-wingers in traditional parties. It is they whom he’s trying to rally ahead of the 2019 European Parliament elections, in which he wants to make immigration the central issue.

“In the European Parliament election, the great goal of transforming Europe and moving it towards a post-Christian and post-national era could be blocked, ladies and gentlemen,” Orban said. “And it is in our fundamental interest to block it.”

Europe’s political spectrum has long been to the left of the U.S. one, but Orban sounds like a Trumpian Republican trying to take over the EU from an entrenched elite with views and policies to the left of the U.S. Democrats. His idea isn’t to dissolve the union but to turn it into a viable competitor and partner to Trump’s U.S. To him, that’s a generational shift: the anti-communist, conservative political generation of the 1990s taking over from the leftist idealists who inherited the spirit of 1968.

This is not necessarily a winning strategy, but it’s a consistent one. To see if Europe goes in this direction, it’s worth listening for echoes of Orban in the speeches of mainstream conservatives and watching the party platforms for the 2019 European Parliament election. The shift to the right, if it continues, will not be as one-dimensional as a shift in support to the protest parties. It’ll happen from the inside of the conservative flank.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.