On the Limits of Europeanization: The Case Study of Prime Minister Orban

By Robbin Laird

The agenda for the West after the collapse of the Soviet Union has been defined in Europe by the “Europeanization” of the new states generated by the end of the divide and of the Warsaw Pact. Europeanization has been associated with the expansion of both the European Union and NATO eastward, and the expected assimilation of these “new” states into a 21st century version of Europeanization.

But the “new” states are not simply chips off of the West European block, or bloc so to speak. They bring with them very different histories and relationships with Russia as well, and these different histories and relationships within the Eur-Asian geopolitical domain, are exercising reverse influence within Europe as a whole, and are not leading so much to Europeanization as to differentiation within Europe and a reverse pressure on the legacies of collaborative engagement of the states in the European Union and within NATO.

No state better illustrates this challenge than Hungary, and the state which has been built by Prime Minister Orban. Orban first came to the world stage as a fiery student activist urging Hungary to rid itself of Soviet troops and to move on rapidly from the Cold War remnants which Hungary faced in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Over time, Orban has built a powerful political presence, based on party building, and oligarchic politics similar to his closest ally, Vladimir Putin.

In fact, Orbin’s process of building an authoritarian regime in Hungary parallels in many ways the approaches taken by Vladimir Putin in shaping the new Russian authoritarian state. He has built a regime around embracing capitalist oligarchs, repressing and controlling the media, working closely with religious authorities, attacked the Non-Governmental Organizations working within Hungary to promote liberal democratic solutions and capabilities and has shaped a clearly divergent national identity against the forces of Europeanization.

The European Union clearly focused on aid and engagements in the “new” Europe to build out an expanded European project. Hungary has been a major aid beneficiary of the European Union, but in spite of that, or perhaps because of that, Orban has been able to take that aid and invest in building out his authoritarian regime.

Paul Lendval in his book entitled Orban: Europe’s New Strongman has provided a very clear overview on the rise of the authoritarian state in Hungary and how the global 21st century authoritarian powers, notably Russia, China and Turkey, are working with Hungary to expand their impact and influence within 21st century Europe.  Lendval underscored in his book that “in seizing and consolidating his hold on power Viktor Orban has repeatedly demonstrated, especially when in difficult situations, an almost uncanny instinct for the mobilization of Hungarians’ deeply rooted nationalist sentiments.”[1]

One certainly could argue that Putin has clearly been able to do the same, and their convergent paths to shape their own versions of an authoritarian regime have much in common. The problem for the West is that Hungary is part of both key alliances, the European Union and NATO, yet Orban has more in common with Putin than with any Western leader.

This creates a clearly very different situation than during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s was largely an external player with covert operations within the West, as opposed to the 1950s when the Communist Parties in Western Europe openly supported the Soviet Union and sought to shape regime change.

Now Russia is using a range of military and political tools accompanied by energy capabilities as well to shape a Europe more congenial to Russian interests, but now with the Orban regime, Russia has an inside into NATO and the European Union that Soviet leaders could only have wished for.

And with regard to the impact of Europeanization on Hungary, Lendval underscored: “From the very beginning, the full-frontal assault on the EU, which provided financial aid to Hungary amounting to about 23 billion Euros between 2007 and 2013, has formed the core of the rhetorical crisis management of the ‘liberation struggle.’”[2]

Orban responded to both the Crimean crisis and to the migration dynamic within Europe in ways to reinforce his authoritarian path. With regard to Crimea, he has been a constant critic of European Union sanctions against Russia. With regard to migration, he has been out front in using the crisis to frontal attack other European states and the role of the European Union in their efforts to mitigate the impacts of migration. Rather than trying to mitigate impacts, Orban has clearly leveraged the fissures opened up to reinforce his regime domestically and to reach out to like-minded states in Europe to shape a coalition against Brussels management of the migration crisis.

While Europe was responding with a reversal of military drift and decline and to generating sanctions against Russia in the wake of the Crimean crisis, Orban was signing an energy deal with Russia. The two sides agreed to expand the Soviet-built nuclear power station at Paks, with a 12.5 billion Euro deal. “The fact that this highly controversial project as announced shortly before the EU and the US moved to impose sanctions on Moscow over the annexation of Crimea and its military intervention in Ukraine confirmed suspicions about the political consequences  of the deal, at the very time when Brussels was urging EU member states to reduce dependence on Russian energy.”[3]

To be clear, in the wake of enhanced efforts in many European states to strengthen their defense capabilities and to rework core relationships with like-minded states in NATO and the European Union, Orban’s Hungary has deepened its working relationship with Putin and expanded support for Russian diplomatic positions as well. Putin has met more often with Orban than any other European head of government since 2014. “Welcoming him as a guest in the Kremlin, Putin said: ‘Hungary is undoubtedly one of our key partners in Europe. Relations are developing in practically every direction.” Orban not only reciprocated Putin’s cordiality, but even attacked the sanctions that Brussels had imposed for causing a fall in bilateral trade, pointedly thanking his host for turning around this trend in Hungary’s favor.”[4]

In short, what is clearly emerging are states within the EU and NATO which are creating enough differentiation to pose the question of whether there is now a need to have barriers or protections within those alliances against the enhanced capability of 21st century global authoritarian powers to work with the non-integratable states who have joined the EU and NATO and to create something akin to a Trojan Horse challenge for the original institutions themselves.

















[1] Paul Lendval, Orban: Europe’s New Strongman (London: C. Hurst and Co., 2017), 111.

[2] Lendval, Orban, 114.

[3] Lendval, Orban, 224.

[4] Lendval, Orban, 245.