Orbán, the European Union and Ukraine: Shifting from Eurosceptic Populism to Policy Realignment with the West?

by Elena Miscischia

Orbán’s Euroscepticism has been a thick ideology giving body to the thin ideology of populism. The shift in favor of the EU and NATO after the invasion of Ukraine confirms how Eurosceptic populism has been a political strategy deliberately adopted to maintain domestic legitimacy and consensus. However, the realignment with the West is not resolute. We should therefore ask ourselves, “Can we currently afford this double-cross of a member state?”

What Do We Know About Orbán?

Viktor Orbán is the incumbent Prime Minister of Hungary, and, as is known, he has been in office since 2010. He won re-election three times, in 2014, 2018, and 2022. Among some of the most significant issues addressed by Orbán during his premiership are the major Constitutional and legislative reform in 2010-2012 and the handling of the migration crisis in 2015, both highlighting a democratic backsliding and signaling a deep crisis of the rule of law in the country. Those references can provide a meaningful insight into the populist agenda pursued by Orbán and his party Fidesz. Starting from 2012, when the economic and financial crisis peaked, the populist narrative of the prime minister gained a Eurosceptic tone. But, before moving forward, what does one mean by “Euroscepticism” and “populism”?

Euroscepticism and Populism

Euroscepticism and populism tend to be interchangeably used by the media, yet the two refer to different – but intertwining – phenomena. Following the paramount work of Peter Mair and his former student Cas Muddle, populism can be defined as a ‘thin ideology’ that needs to be coupled with a substantive ‘thick ideology’. Populism considers society to be divided into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups: the pure people versus the corrupt élite. There are two basic features that characterize the populist ideology: the rejection of representative democracy due to élite corruption, and the equation of democracy as the government of the people without any constrain to the volonté générale. This ‘thin’ framework does not provide for an actual political agenda; hence, it has to be paired with a ‘thick’ ideology settling a concrete program. And here comes Euroscepticism, which is a much narrower and less abstract concept referring to an opposition to European integration and institutions: the perfect component to “thicken” a populist stance. The final product of this combination is Eurosceptic populism, a concept defined by Robert Csehi and Edit Zgut as «a political phenomenon that mingles anti-EU sentiments with populist interpretations of the world. Eurosceptic populists equate the EU with ‘the corrupt élite’ that stands in sharp contrast to ‘the pure people’, usually the nationals of a given member state».

What About Orbán’s Hungary?

The question that needs to be answered is, “Why adopting a Eurosceptic populist agenda?” First, one should notice that this kind of discourse in favor of justice, transparency and the restoration of sovereignty may have a lot of appeal for a party leader trying to raise consensus among the people of a state. This is even truer if the state in question is highly corrupted and faces major challenges in terms of citizens’ allegiance and overall political satisfaction. This was the case of 2010 Hungary, when the economic crisis peaked, and the scandal centered on the former socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány occurred. The whole country was flooded with anti-government demonstrations: without a doubt, the biggest display of political unrest since 1989. Fidesz was able to seize an unprecedented consensus, which enabled it to introduce major changes in the country – as the aforementioned Constitutional reform. Now, making a leap forward, one can observe how Orbán soon embraced a confrontational approach countering the criticism coming from the EU with regard to the new Fundamental Law. The prime minister identified “the people” as the Hungarians and opposed them to the élite of the supranational dimension. In March 2011, he claimed that, «We did not let Vienna dictate us in 1848, we did not let Moscow dictate us in 1956, and we won’t let Brussels or others dictate us now». Some people may argue – and the writer is one of those people – that this swift adoption of a Eurosceptic stance was a deliberate political strategy used by Orbán and his party to maintain consensus, hence power. This is to say, if a party wins the election thanks to its attack to the political élite in office, it may be hard for that party to hold electorate support once it becomes the political élite in office itself. Therefore, by redirecting popular discontent towards a new, supranational élite – namely Brussels – Orbán succeeded in preserving his image of true man of the people without ever cutting a poor figure at the electoral appointment.

Hungary: the Frontier of European Values?

The war in Ukraine has deeply changed the political reality in Hungary: insecurity is the feeling which permeates both society and the political élite. The Kremlin has been described as a reliable ally for years, but after the invasion of Ukraine, the illiberal democracy theorized by Orbán, which has an uncomfortable model in Russia, appears “less reassuring” in the eyes of Hungarian citizens. Orbán has been forced to drop his traditional pro-Russian line, at least in terms of narrative. The other side of the coin is represented by the hesitant attempt of the prime minister to support the EU and NATO. After all, the “tyranny of Brussels” happens to be much more desirable than the preferential relationship with the ‘strategic partner’ that the Hungarian prime minister used to see in Russian President Vladimir Putin. Fidesz could have faced serious challenges in terms of internal consensus because of this shift; however, the party succeeded in the daunting task of winning the national elections without teasing Moscow. Irrespective of the result of the recent election – which has more to do with domestic dynamics and to which this brief analysis cannot do justice – some remarks regarding the collocation of Orbán’s Hungary in the international arena can be made.  If Hungary really wanted to question the benefits of being inside EU, the Ukrainian crisis could have been a good chance of standing against Brussels, but this has not been the case. This turnabout signals the domestic instrumental function that Eurosceptic populism had in the political agenda of Orbán: Hungary’s European collocation was never a tradable term. Nonetheless, the shift towards West is not resolute nor coherent: Orbán first announced that no weapons would be sent to Ukraine and that even their transit on the Hungarian territory would not be allowed, just to back down and authorize the transit later. This incoherence can be understood considering Hungary’s energy dependency on Russian imports, which requires keeping the door open for business with Russia and dithering over economic sanctions. This stance is understandable, although this does not mean it is justifiable. National interest comes first, yet EU’s values are under a major attack. In the light of this and after understanding the rationale which moved Orbán’s Eurosceptic populist agenda and which now is pushing him towards a hesitant realignment with the EU, one final question remains still unanswered, “Can the EU afford this double-cross of one of its member states in its darkest hours?”.