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The Orbán/Trump alliance is a threat to Europe

Viktor Orbán’s support for Trump and Putin could give rise to a terrifying axis, and with it bring about the end of liberal democracy

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and Donald Trump take each other as role models and send one another messages of support. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty

Viktor Orbán is a Trojan horse. But unlike the Trojan horses you normally come across, this one makes no attempt to pretend that he’s not one. He is clear about being the friend of the enemies of his friends. He plays a permanent double game and doesn’t even hide it.

Orbán is a special case. The prime minister of Hungary, who has been in power for 14 consecutive years and 18 years in all, is the only leader of the European Union and Nato to support the two main declared enemies of the European Union and Nato: Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. 

The former has declared that he is at war, not just with Ukraine, but with the collective west. Trump said that if Russia attacked a Nato country that did not pay its defence dues, he would not only “not protect it” but would also “encourage” the Russians to wage war against it. 

Orbán was the only EU and Nato leader to congratulate Putin on his phoney “re-election”, where all the others were careful to be silent. “The death of Alexei Navalny and the banning of all his opponents mean that we cannot congratulate anyone on an election hemmed in by the death of those who fought for pluralism in Russia,” said Emmanuel Macron.  

Viktor Orbán, for his part, waited for the “official” results of the Russian election on March 21 before taking up his pen and writing a letter to his president friend. He assured him that “Hungary is on the side of peace” and that Budapest was ready to develop bilateral cooperation with Russia in all areas “not restricted by international law”. 

Mr Orbán’s spokesman, Bertalan Havasi, informed the official Russian agency Tass of the content of the letter. He said that the prime minister was pleased that “cooperation between Hungary and Russia is based on mutual respect and that this makes it possible to discuss important issues, even in the current very difficult geopolitical situation”.

Orbán is the only EU and Nato leader to play Putin’s game by trying to block European support for Ukraine (which he eventually voted for), by putting the brakes on sanctions against Russia (which he also voted for), and by opposing Sweden’s membership of Nato for as long as possible (although he eventually agreed to it). 

By demanding quid pro quo, he is exasperating his partners to the utmost, but is taking care to play both sides, up to the limit of acceptability. The European Council requires unanimity to remove one of its members, and the Hungarian prime minister knew that, at the time, he could count on his populist nationalist ally in Poland, and now his populist nationalist ally in Slovakia, to veto the decision.

Orbán is the only EU and Nato leader to have relayed and endorsed Donald Trump when the former US president, up for re-election, declared that he would not give “a single penny” to fight Russian aggression in Ukraine, and that this would be his way of ending the war in a day – by handing victory to Putin. 

Orbán is also the only EU and Nato leader to be actively involved in the US presidential campaign. In March, the Hungarian prime minister visited the United States. Not to support Joe Biden, the current president, who is up for re-election and a staunch EU ally who has been committed to supporting Ukraine and strengthening the transatlantic alliance since Russia’s war of aggression. 

No. The candidate for whom Viktor Orbán crossed the Atlantic, the one he showered with praise and to whom he offered loyalty was Trump. He was his guest, along with a delegation from the Hungarian government, at Mar-a-Lago.

“President @realDonaldTrump was a president of peace. He commanded respect in the world and created the conditions for peace. During his presidency, there was peace in the Middle East and peace in Ukraine. We need him back now more than ever! Thank you for your invitation, Mr President.” 

Against all odds, these sentences should not be taken as ironic or as second-degree sycophancy. They are a tweet signed by Viktor Orbán on his return from Florida on March 10. In an interview in the Hungarian media – which he controls – Orbán was asked what the re-election of Joe Biden would mean: “That would be bad,” he replied.

Donald Trump, who is now in a good position to be re-elected, is cultivating Orbán. Already in 2019, he welcomed him to the White House, hailing him as “a strong leader respected by all” who “has done powerful and wonderful work” against illegal immigration and for the rights of LGBT people in particular. He now mentions him in his campaign speeches. Trump and Orbán compliment each other, take each other as role models and send each other messages of support.

So how does Orbán fit in with Trump and Putin? At the head of a small country of 10 million inhabitants wedged in the middle of Europe, he doesn’t play in the same league as the other two. 

Could it all be a misunderstanding? Trump can’t even locate Hungary on a map, and during the New Hampshire primaries at the end of January, he told his fans: “There’s a man, Viktor Orbán. Has anyone ever heard of him? He’s probably one of the most powerful leaders in the world. He’s the leader of Turkey…” 

The association with Trump undoubtedly lends Orbán more power than he really has, but even so, Hungary is nowhere near the demographic, economic, military and strategic capacity of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey.

But the Trump-Putin-Orbán alliance goes deeper than the former American president’s crass ignorance. These three were made to get along. They have the recognition and respect for each other that thugs have in their shared contempt for the rule of law.

Trump is seeking a new term in office while facing 91 charges in at least four criminal proceedings. Putin came to power and remains in power by combining the methods of the KGB, in which he was an officer, with those of the Saint Petersburg mafia. Viktor Orbán is facing a new infringement procedure from the European Commission for undermining the rule of law.  

They also share many of the same ideological principles: nationalism, the cult of the leader, white and Christian supremacism, traditionalism and the aspiration to autocracy, even dictatorship.

For Trump, as for Putin, Orbán has become a model European who has implemented “illiberal democracy” by following a basic strategy. Principle number one: come to power by democratic means such as free elections. Principle number two: once in power, ensure you stay there by rejecting individual rights and the separation of powers. Whoever wins the elections becomes the owner of the state.

Orbán has applied an “authoritarian playbook” to secure his grip on Hungary. He has sacked independent judges and replaced them with his supporters, and had his oligarch friends buy up almost all the private media groups. These now put out fake news and Kremlin-backed conspiracy theories about “foreign threats”. 

Dictator Putin figured out the trick a long time ago. Trump part 1 missed it, Trump part 2 is dreaming about it, saying: “I will be a dictator for a day.” In the White House, Trump said “my judges”, “my generals”, “my senators”. On a visit to North Korea, he admired and envied the submissive crowds. 

He would like to get rid of the checks and balances devised by the fathers of the American constitution, which constrain the president’s power and are there to ensure that the US does not find itself burdened with a king. 

He made Hungary his model and illiberal democracy his inspiration. It is no coincidence that the Conservative Political Action Conference, the major gathering of American conservatives designed to forge links between radical right wingers on both sides of the Atlantic, has already been held twice, in 2022 and 2023… in Budapest.

It was also in Budapest, on March 14 2024, that the US ambassador to Hungary, David Pressman, took Orbán to task in a speech in which he denounced the prime minister’s “dangerously unhinged anti-American messaging”, as well as his “expanding relationship with Russia”.

Orbán, who is Trump’s and Putin’s Trojan horse in Europe, knows that 2024 could be the year. There may well be an alignment of nationalist-populist stars: a surge in far right voters in the European Parliament in June; Donald Trump’s re-election in November; Putin’s ensuing victory in Ukraine; and, while we’re at it, the arrival of his friend Marine Le Pen at the Elysée Palace in 2027. At the same time, the Hungarian leader in the European Parliament is considering integrating his party into one of the two fast-growing Europhobic far-right groups.  

The Trump-Orbán-Putin axis, if it comes to pass, would breathe new life into the ambitions of Steve Bannon, the former Trump adviser, who dreamed of a populist international. With Trump re-elected, they could hope for an “illiberal” transatlantic alliance to conquer power and institutions from Brussels to Washington. 

In other words, it would bring about the end of liberal democracy.

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