Transatlantic relations

Orbán and Boris. Why?

I have been looking forward to the Orbán-Boris meeting to find out what they have been up to. Now that it is over, I still don’t know.

Orbán Viktor was allowed to enter the UK and meet Boris Johnson despite having been inoculated with the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine (according to his own Facebook).

Normally, such a visit would be followed by a triumphant announcement that Hungarians are now allowed to travel to the UK with their useless immunity cards – despite the fact that it doesn’t contain the type of the shot or the date of the second jab. (The Hungarian authorities issue these useless plastic cards without the vaccine information so that European countries supposedly can not reject Hungarians based on the type of jabs they received – notably Sinopharm and Sputnik. Guess what, they can.)

But such a triumphant announcement didn’t happen. After the meeting with Boris and the press conference Orbán was reduced to meeting with some Hungarians who work in London and then he came back. Of course, there could have been background meetings and messages exchanged, but that is only speculation. So what was this meeting for?

Whatever was the hope for the meeting, it failed to materialize – even though money was no object for Orbán’s team to spark at least a little bit of success out of it. If it were only about bribing Boris’ men into letting Orbán shine, it would have been done. But it looks like Boris Johnson’s clueless dysfunction met Orbán’s autocratic ambitions and the nationalist internationale failed to materialize – again.

The things the two have in common are populism, an appetite for autocratic powers, and a vicious disregard for reality. And of course a beef with the EU. But the latter takes different shapes.

Boris made his political bones by lying about the EU until his entire country fall out of it so now he can rule it. Orbán has been running a few anti-EU campaigns and keeps vetoing every move by Brussels that might limit his ability to steal EU funds with legal impunity – but so far he has failed to stoke hatred for the EU among his own citizens. Hungarians are staunchly pro-Europe. Many no doubt noticed that their lives got better despite Orbán’s best efforts, because they were at least Europeans. Orbán wouldn’t need a referendum to take Hungary out of the EU but the EU currently enjoys an 80-90% approval rate and leaving it would even diminish the amount of money Orbán can use to run his clientelist system of influence.

Apparently, Boris didn’t enjoy looking in the political mirror and seeing a fellow populist who lies straight into your face and then revels in your inability to prove him wrong. Who knows what this BBC journalist was thinking when he asked Orbán about the state of the media in Hungary. Maybe he would say that it is bad indeed?

The entire British press was taken aback by Orbán’s visit. Especially since he was only the second foreign leader (and the first one from the EU) to visit since Brexit – and one that has nothing important to discuss with Johnson.

According to the BBC, Orbán initiated the visit and the Downing Street defended inviting him by calling him an EU leader and that one must have a good reason not to let him in. Isn’t that what the Remainers want? Closer ties? The Independent pointed out that Orbán is “accused of running antisemitic and Islamophobic hate campaigns, notably against Jewish philanthropist George Soros” and that “Orbán himself has decried “Muslim invaders”, described migrants as “a poison”, and said he wants to end liberal democracy”. This is not normal in the UK.

The Guardian argued that only Orbán stood to benefit from this meeting because it would raise his profile, but even the pro-Brexit Express thought that Boris can only lose. After all, Orbán is China’s and Russia’s Trojan horse in the EU, blocking resolutions against China’s actions in Hong Kong and defending Belarus. (Indeed, Hungary seems to allow Belarussian flights to cross, despite the EU’s sanctions Orbán reluctantly didn’t veto.) Timothy Garton Ash concluded in the Financial Times that Johnson showed his own weakness by showing his “need to court this illiberal leader of a small EU member state” and that it “illustrates a central dilemma of post Brexit Britain. It is the dilemma of self-inflicted weakness.” Even stale AF Telegraph called Orbán a right-wing populist, Putin’s man and worse. If Boris left the EU for this, it wasn’t worth it.

Normally, such a high profile visit by Orbán himself is preceded by the Orbánist media (and Orbán himself) discussing the shared ethnic origin of the Hungarians and the other autocratic nation in question. We are now related to the Japanese, the Kirgiz, the Mongolians, the Uzbeks, the Azeri, and then some – at least if you read the Orbánist media.

Then the meeting is followed by bombastic announcements. We buy horribly expensive shit from the other country’s military industry. The two autocrats sign some cooperation intention declaration document about innovatively researching potatoes together. Money is poured into shady intermediary companies which then disappear.

Neither of these things happened this time. (I was disappointed to see that no imaginary blood ties have been invented between Hungarians and the Brits.) It is as if the two political cultures are not as close as the comparisons between the two populists may let us believe.

The new Orbánist modus operandi is shunning international alliances and hoping for bilateral miracles. Orbán’s dream world is a world where two men sit down, face to face and make agreements, man to man. He likes to imagine that things still work in the old way, even if it’s an imaginary past, or one that history has left behind for good reason. And a such a bilateral, man-to-man oiling of the machinery of international cooperation is a manly business. It should thus take place in cigar fog over fine cognac. Or eating greaves and washing it down with pálinka.

Oh my, maybe that was it. Maybe they couldn’t work the bromance because of the cultural gap between sipping whiskey by the fireplace and downing pálinka during a pig slaughter. Well, the curse of bilateral agreements. With the promise of smoother cooperation IF the two men hit it off is dampened by the possibility that it all fails if they don’t. Do we want to rely on these bros for conducting our lives? No, we don’t.

One of the lure must have been that Orbán was willing to praise Brexit as a monumental success – and Boris clearly craved that. But Boris may just learn that it matters who delivers the praise. Inviting Orbán and then scolding him on the state of democracy, LGBT rights and the media sounds clueless. Boris claimed that he told Orbán to promote democracy to his overlords in Russia and China. It is almost as good as telling Putin to start exporting democracy instead of autocracy in the world.

It is a poor consolation that at least we saw Orbán giving a press conference. No such thing happens to him any more. But I would be hugely surprised if the vague references of stronger cooperation in energy and military matters would actually materialize. Boris should work hard to forget Orbán was ever there (like throwing in bombastic news of his secret wedding to distract), not follow up on the meeting.

And Orbán’s creepy Facebook remarks about the “two liberated countries” on the verge of great economic opportunities were just awful to Hungarian ears. Hungarians didn’t want a Huxit even when Brits thought it was a good idea in 2016. And now not even the Brits may think that.

It looks like this entire meeting was just a big mistake by Boris – and not even Orbán could communicate it as a success. Apart from, of course, having raised his own profile.

Featured image: Boris pointing at Orbán’s belly, the most amusing photo of the meeting inspiring thousands of memes BEN STANSALL/AFP

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