Orban and Macron, Europe’s new power couple

The unlikely alliance of Orban and Macron

16 January 2021

9:00 AM

16 January 2021

9:00 AM

After Brexit, the general assumption was that France and Germany would take their place as the two rulers of Europe. But Angela Merkel’s influence has been waning and Germany is often an absent power — preoccupied as it is by redefining its own politics after 15 years of her rule. This suits Emmanuel Macron, who was never satisfied with sharing the stage with her. He has found himself another ally, one who is far more influential than people give him credit for — Viktor Orban.

Macron and Orban have a monastic attitude to power: they both rule on the basis of there being a single orthodoxy that everyone must observe. They also like to behave like monarchs, treating voters as subjects and accepting few restrictions on their personal projects. Orban has defined himself by his scornful attitude to independent judges and other checks on power. Macron isn’t in the same league, but he is taking a leaf out of Orban’s book.’

Macron is signing off deeply illiberal laws, such as the security bill — now thankfully revised — that could have made it illegal for the French media to show pictures of police brutality. Like Orban, he is no stranger to ruling by decree: early last year the French government bypassed parliament to push through a deeply unpopular pension reform. He now wants his brand of environmentalism to be written into the constitution. Good luck to those who oppose it: he is also introducing a new crime — ‘ecocide’ — with ten years in prison for offenders against his notion of what’s good for the planet.

Both leaders’ battles with Islam illustrate the way in which they want to increase their control. Orban is a coarse opportunist. He rails against ‘Muslim invaders’ to appeal to the more base instincts of voters, but tones this down in other speeches. He has praised Muslims and their contribution to the world in culture, mathematics and medicine but has made it clear he thinks the best place for these Muslims is somewhere other than Europe. His belief in religious freedom seems to be limited to that of Christianity.

In a way, Macron could not be more different: he is a typical advocate of French secularism. But Macron too is uneasy with Islam and has set out a route to make Muslim practice a matter for state regulation. He has asked Muslim leaders to agree to a ‘charter of republican values’ as part of a broad clampdown on radical Islam. But the charter vilifies Muslims who live by traditionalist values and have nothing to do with the country’s terrorists, who become radicalised outside France’s Muslim community. Restricting the freedom of faith of some Muslims on the grounds that they don’t preach sexual freedom and gender equality is illiberal: it’s the government taking charge of people’s souls.

Macron and Orban aren’t political twins. But Macron, perhaps sensing which way the wind is blowing, has come a long way since 2017, when he was saluted as the antidote to the nationalism of Brexit and Donald Trump. Just as Orban and his Fidesz party turned their backs on their founding liberalism and identity of youthful revolt, there isn’t much liberalism left in Macron. Like Orban, who was once an enthusiast for European federalism, Macron has gradually shifted his federalist view to Charles de Gaulle’s idea of a Europe des états — a Europe of government, by the government and for the government.

Orban and Macron like to pose as enemies, but in Brussels they often end up on the same side. They share a pessimistic view of the world, believing that Europe has no real friends beyond its borders. Both are pragmatists who want to defrost relations with Russia, ideally through a new ‘Ostpolitik’. The election of Joe Biden has made them feel unsafe. The exit of Trump has deprived Orban of a key member of his worldwide guild of populist-nationalist leaders. And for Macron, Trump’s disrespect for old allies became a foil for Macron’s project of disconnecting Europe from the American order. With Trump gone, he will face more opposition to his mission of cutting Europe’s dependency on the US economy and technology.

Protectionism and anti-Americanism are not new in France, but Hungary’s conversion to these causes is more surprising. Orban came to power as a staunch ally of free-market economics but now leads a group of east European nations that have spotted opportunities in the rebirth of French-style economic dirigisme. It gives them an excuse to take control of companies and market forces that were not already in the pocket of the government: the rhetoric of big government serves as a convenient cover for their sleaze.

In economic affairs, Paris and Budapest are now coming together in the desire to relax stringent rules on competition and state aid. Bruno Le Maire, France’s Finance Minister, wants to mandate the repatriation of car and medicine production to France. Orban’s system of economic patronage often works covertly, making sure contracts are given to firms with the right political connections. Foreign investors in Hungary can expect to have their profits raided by special taxes. Food retailers such as Tesco and Lidl are threatened with being kicked out of the country.

Europe’s new power couple will make it difficult for Britain to build renewed links with Brussels. In London, it is assumed that Brexit will allow the acceleration of European federalism and that the trick now is to build a new relationship with Ursula von der Leyen and the EU she will command. But that federalising might not happen so fast — or at all. It was in fact a succession of UK governments that pushed and defended the most federal aspects of the EU — a single market under common rules that individual governments couldn’t change on a whim. With Britain out, nationalist economic policy — each European nation for itself — is reasserting itself.

Macron and Orban got more than they expected out of the Brexit talks. Since they want to weaken EU rules on trade and competition, they don’t want a relationship with the UK that ties them to open markets. That instinct will guide them in future talks with Britain. The Franco-Hungarian programme for Europe has enemies, especially in the Nordics and Netherlands. Germany, as usual, hasn’t made up its mind. But this is Europe’s new direction. The old liberal vision of Europe — culturally open and free-trading — no longer has many followers. It has certainly now lost its leaders.

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