In the debate on the challenges facing Europe, Hungary’s ambition is to use the Visegrad Group (V4) to become a leader of a conservative political movement in the EU. Hungary has also strengthened its position within the group, in part due to the government’s firm position aimed at diminishing the effects of the migration crisis. The rejection of compulsory refugee quotas has unified the V4, due to which the EU might view Hungary as the driving force of the group. At the same time, the close similarity between Polish and Hungarian government positions on several issues enables Hungary to take advantage of the potential of Poland to reinforce its political position in the EU.
Since the Fidesz victory in the parliamentary election of 2010, cooperation within Central Europe has become of key importance for Hungary. Orbán has become gradually more convinced by his belief that his influence has been increasing and his approach to politics has ever more followers in Europe. The prime minister believes that we are witnessing radical re-evaluations in politics, resulting in the formulation of a new world order, one of the main promoters of which is Hungary. Reactions of Central European and other EU countries to the migration crisis have strengthened his conviction. Orbán believes that he has managed to impose on European politicians his own view of this crisis, and thus has become one of the main ideologists of EU politics. He confronts the politically and economically inefficient “West,” including EU institutions, holding up Central Europe and the Visegrad Group as not just a political model, but the key to restoring Europe’s global political significance. In this context he underlines the importance of the characteristic features of the V4 countries, such as economic competitiveness based on fast economic growth, and commitment to Christian tradition, on which countries of the region supposedly base their responses to internal and global challenges. At the same time he blames Western Europe for its attachment to liberalism, which, due to its ideological approach to civil and human rights, hinders any resolution of the real problems facing the region.
The Hungarian prime minister is in favour of increasing the role of Member States in EU decision making. At the same time, he offers Russia, Turkey and China, considering their political systems to be more forward looking than Western liberal democracy. This approach explains both the sceptical attitude of the Hungarian government to the European Community method, and the evident strengthening of political and economic relations with Russia since 2010. The Hungarian government does not consider Russia to be a military or energy security threat, despite the country’s large (approx. 80%) dependence on Russian gas. Neither is Hungary a proponent of extending EU sanctions on Russia, although the country has not formally raised objections against them. At the same time, Orbán considers the result of the UK “Brexit” referendum, and of the U.S. presidential election, as confirmation of his political vision. These events strengthen his conviction about the need to give up liberal values.
Hungary’s perception of its own role in the Visegrad Group has been influenced by the migration crisis and the results of the parliamentary election in Poland, the latter of which led to the establishment of a new government in November 2015. Both events have helped Hungary to impose their own vision of V4 cooperation on their partners in the group.
In the summer of 2015, during the inflow of a record number of immigrants to Europe, Hungary found itself on one of the main migratory routes. The Hungarian authorities rejected the compulsory acceptance of refugees and took radical actions in order to limit their inflow. These actions including the construction of a fence along the border with Serbia, the amendment of national asylum regulations, and a campaign against immigrants. Although this approach has been criticised by most of European leaders, it broke through to the mainstream EU discourse on migration. Together with some economic policy steps (including the goal of meeting convergence criteria, the ongoing reduction of public debt over several years, and the introduction of the lowest corporate tax rate in the EU from 2017, although with only modest GDP growth), Orbán has begun to build a model of a state, which is becoming the subject of political debate in Europe. Because of the broad European context of his actions, Orbán has started to present himself in the EU as the informal leader of Central Europe. Not only that, but the German and French media have begun to perceive him as such, acknowledging him as the main opponent of European Community solutions in the region.
Cooperation with Poland has become for Orbán an important element of strengthening his position in the region. His views on many issues are very close to the position of the Polish government, which has strengthened relations with Hungary. For Hungary, these relations have become the basis of all Visegrad cooperation, because they enable Orbán to create a political opposition within the EU. The concept of the EU as a community of sovereign nation states, which would be allowed to make decisions independently from the bloc’s majority position, fits closest to the goals of the Hungarian government. As Poland is in favour of EU reform aiming at limiting the political aspirations of the European Commission, the Orbán cabinet currently sees a Polish-Hungarian alliance as a good alternative to deeper integration within the EU. Hungary wants to politicise both the V4 as a whole and its cooperation with Poland. That is why it emphasises the symbolic dimension, instead of pragmatic goals. In the rhetoric of the Hungarian government, these goals have been largely replaced with the need to strengthen relations because of common regional identity, the similarity of political programmes, and shared historical experiences, in opposition to the idea and functioning of the EU. Hungary, while it remains on this ideological level of political discourse, does not put forward new proposals for V4 action.
The Hungarian government’s political message, both domestically and for the V4, does not influence the pragmatic rhetoric directed to the broader European level, especially to Brussels. Orbán suggests solving the internal EU crisis through compliance with the provisions of the EU treaties currently in force. In this context he refers particularly to economic policy (emphasising fiscal discipline, the need for structural changes within Member States, and financial stability), the protection of external borders and maintenance of the Schengen area, and upholding the powers of the EC in accordance with the treaties. This means that Hungary, unlike Poland, does not support amendments to the EU treaties. Any suggestions of treaty reform emerged only incidentally from Budapest, at the peak of the migration crisis in the autumn of 2015. Orbán currently suggests that the direction of EU reform cannot be clearly determined before the elections in Germany and France in 2017.
Hungary’s balanced attitude towards Germany is another proof of its pragmatic approach to shaping European politics. Following tensions between Berlin and Budapest during the peak of the migration crisis, Orbán is now trying to moderate the atmosphere of bilateral relations through his statements in the German media. He has amended his previous critical remarks about Chancellor Angela Merkel, now offering recognition of her achievements and irreplaceable role in European politics, and declaring a close alliance between Hungary and Germany. Additionally, lower levels of governmental administration convey the message that Hungarian criticism about the way Europe has been dealing with increased migration was not directed towards Germany, but towards the inefficiency of the EU institutions. The Hungarian government also criticises the German center-left media for showing relations between the two countries in a negative light. Such actions prove that, for Hungary, maintaining good relations with Germany (their biggest trading partner, and an essential ally in building effective coalitions within the EU) is a priority.
In the last year Hungary has dominated both cooperation within the V4 and relations with Poland. Thanks to the role it has played during the migration crisis, it has strengthened its position within the Visegrad Group, to the extent that it might be perceived as having the greatest political influence among V4 members. Orbán ensured that the rejection of mandatory quotas for redistributing immigrants was acknowledged as the unifying element of the V4. As a result, Budapest has found itself in the spotlight among European political forces opposed to accepting refugees. This distinguishes Hungary from Poland, which has failed so far to unite the group with its concepts of EU treaty reform. The Hungarian government restrains from taking a clear position on this issue, for bigger Member States give no signs of their willingness to support treaty reform. Thus, Hungary increases its political potential by maintaining both a strong regional position and good relations with Germany and the EU institutions.
At the same time, the Hungarian government signals that it is interested in participating in the construction of a “new international order.” This might mean an unwillingness to defend the order created in Europe after 1989, one of the main beneficiaries of which is Poland. Such a conclusion might be drawn by, among other things, the differences between the Polish and Hungarian policy towards Russia since its aggression in Ukraine. Russia, under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, is one of the main promoters of this “new international order.”
Poland should aim to restore the symmetry in its relations with Hungary, the latter of which bases its dominance on Orbán, one of the most distinctive and experienced leaders in Central Europe. In order to achieve his ambitions of shaping European politics, he needs a solid background. The V4 currently offers such a foundation, and close cooperation with Poland that can be particularly valuable for Orbán in that respect.
Poland should endeavour to bring a practical dimension to the functioning of the V4 in its attempt to co-direct group activity. Warsaw may, for example, steer highly politicised Central European cooperation in the direction of pragmatic goals in fields such as sectoral and economic unity. However, Hungary’s positive attitude towards Russia should also be taken into account while defining the priority areas of such cooperation, as Orbán has, on several occasions, made it clear that he will not participate in any activities that could be perceived as anti-Russian.