Progressives vs populists: Macron, Orban and Europe’s faultline

It’s the progressives vs the populists, Macron vs Orban

9 April 2022

9:00 AM

9 April 2022

9:00 AM

As soon as Emmanuel Macron was sure that Joe Biden had won the American election, he tweeted: ‘We have a lot to do to overcome today’s challenges. Let’s work together!’ There was no effusive tweet this week from the Élysée when 54 per cent of Hungarian voters re-elected Viktor Orban as Prime Minister for a fourth term.

The silence from Macron was deafening. Not so his principal rival in France’s impending election. On Sunday evening Marine Le Pen tweeted an old photo of the happy couple shaking hands with the declaration: ‘When the people vote, the people win!’ Le Pen will hope that Orban’s victory is a good omen ahead of Sunday’s first round of voting; they have much in common – a shared vision of the future, what Orban described in his victory speech as ‘Christian Democratic, middle-class conservative and patriotic politics’.

It is likely that she will not unseat Macron, who is odds-on to win a second term as president in the final vote on 24 April. An upset isn’t an impossibility given the way the polls have narrowed in the past month – there are now just five percentage points between them – but Macron is the safer option in this era of grave uncertainty. Better the devil and all that.

It’s been a challenging year for Macron, not at all what he expected when France assumed the rotating presidency of the EU Council on 1 January. It was the ideal dovetail as he readied himself for re-election, the consolidation of his power as head of the Republic and, to all intents and purposes, Europe. Angela Merkel had just shuffled off the international stage and the new Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, had the appearance of a rather bland successor. Macron envisaged himself the de facto president of Europe.

Scholz, however, has proved to be the most hawkish German leader for decades. His decision in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to invest €100 billion to modernise the country’s military – and buy American F-35 fighters – has wrongfooted Macron. ‘Germany is back’ is the message, and although it will take time for the defence investment to bear fruit, France is no longer the EU’s only senior player militarily. This is a blow to Macron’s dreams of a European army. He’s been pushing the idea for a while, memorably describing Nato’s ‘brain death’ in 2019. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has strengthened his conviction.

This was a factor in Macron’s decision on 1 January to usher in France’s presidency of the EU Council by unfurling the bloc’s blue and gold flag under the Arc de Triomphe. Nationalists were apoplectic, none more so than Le Pen, who declared it an attack on France’s ‘identity’. Macron didn’t care. Indeed, the EU flag was flown again from the Arc last month when he hosted EU leaders to a summit in Versailles to discuss events in Ukraine. Orban was there, signing up Hungary to the sanctions imposed against Russia. ‘Hungary in March 2022 has returned to the fold,’ exclaimed one French diplomat. ‘Thanks, Putin!’

Not so fast. Orban remains a reluctant participant in the EU response to Russia’s invasion. He has not sent weapons to Ukraine or permitted other member states to transit their arms through Hungary. He is the only European leader critical of Volodymyr Zelensky. The disdain is mutual. Zelensky has described Orban as ‘virtually the only [leader] in Europe to openly support Putin’. Which, of course, he is.

Hungarian voters weren’t put off by the Putin factor. It’s the cheaper energy bills, stupid. That and the EU. One of the campaign slogans of Hungary’s opposition alliance of liberals and socialists was ‘Orban or Europe’. The answer was emphatic, leaving the opposition to rue that all-too-common failing among Europhiles: over-estimating the street appeal of the EU. They ignored the fact that Orban has been asking his people the same question since 2010: my way or the EU’s?

The same dynamic was evident last summer when Hungary passed legislation banning the dissemination in schools of material judged to promote homosexuality or gender change. The EU was furious. Respect LGBT rights or leave the EU, they told Orban at a stormy summit. ‘It was really forceful, a deep feeling that this could not be,’ Dutch PM Mark Rutte explained. ‘It was about our values; this is what we stand for.’ Macron described it as a ‘cultural battle’ and said: ‘To fight against homophobic laws is to defend individual freedoms and human dignity.’

Rutte and Macron spoke passionately about individual freedoms and human dignity shortly before they imposed some of the most illiberal measures ever seen in their post-war countries. In the name of enforcing lockdown policies, Dutch police in Rotterdam opened fire on protestors with live rounds and in France millions of people who refused the vaccine were shut out from society by a president who cheerfully admitted he wanted to ‘piss them off’.

Orban is credited in 2014 with coining the phrase ‘illiberal democracy’; but judging by what has gone on in much of the West in the past two years, his creed has caught on.

His response to the LGBT furore was to remind his western critics that during the days of communism in Hungary he had championed the rights of minorities. ‘Homosexuality was punished and I fought for their freedom and their rights,’ he said. He then stated that parents and not the EU should have the final say in how their children are educated about sex.

He portrays his agenda as genuinely liberal – and his opponents as hectoring, proscribing or condescending. All too often, they play straight into his hands. ‘We never had so many opponents,’ Orban said after his victory. ‘Brussels bureaucrats… the international mainstream media, and the Ukrainian president.’

Macron will never be reconciled to Brexit, because the idea of any country flourishing outside the EU is an ‘alternative truth’. In a speech to the European parliament in January, Macron said: ‘It is up to our generations to renew our Europe, to fulfil its promises of democracy, progress and peace.’

But now there is war once more in Europe, which is already testing the resolve and unity of the EU as the economic ramifications start to bite. This week Germany rejected an EU embargo on Russian gas imports, and several French companies are refusing to withdraw from Russia. On the other hand, Poland – which shares Hungary’s cultural conservatism – has moved closer to Brussels in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine. Yet Macron is the EU darling, and Hungary and Poland are the populist pariahs.

The notion of the ‘Visegrad Four’ countries as a bloc – Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia – is falling away. The Czechs and Slovaks have centre-left governments, so it’s hardly an ‘illiberal’ alliance. The Poles, more hawkish on Russia than perhaps anyone else in Europe, are appalled at Orban’s cosiness with the Kremlin. At the Visegrad Four summit in London last week, the differences were such that they struggled to agree a statement.

This leaves Orban more alone than ever within the EU, and Putin will seek to exploit this isolation, as he has for many years with prominent western politicians he considers hostile to Brussels. In congratulating the Hungarian PM on his victory, the Russian President expressed his desire to further strengthen ‘bilateral ties of partnership’.

Putin would like to send a congratulatory message this month to another European leader, but it is unlikely that Marine Le Pen will grant him that opportunity. Rather Macron will be re-elected president and Brussels will have at its heart once more its greatest cheerleader.

Whether he will be able to ‘renew’ Europe remains to be seen. Macron is desperate to be the saviour of the EU – but he might end up being its last true believer.

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