His comments would not have fallen on deaf ears. While metropolitan London would have been aghast at his pedigree and remarks, a Brexit-audience in the rustbelts and areas of deprivation, would have felt a twang of appreciation. For them, migration has not been a boon and glory. For Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, it has been an opportunity to make valuable enemies and court new friends.
The meeting between UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Orbán on May 28 did more than raise eyebrows and prompt head scratching. The statement released by No 10 was anodyne enough, filling space and not much else. “The leaders discussed the importance of the UK and Hungary working together bilaterally to increase security and prosperity in our countries and to address global challenges such as climate change.”
Johnson is also said to have “raised his significant concerns about human rights in Hungary, including gender equality, LGBT rights and media freedom.” In terms of foreign policy, Johnson saw his Hungarian counterpart as a man of influence. “The Prime Minister encouraged Hungary to use their influence to promote democracy and stability.”
The critics, notably those drenched in the juice of Britannic values, were bemused and baffled. Labour MP Alex Sobel outlined Orbán’s resume ahead of the visit: “a renowned anti-Semite, fuelled violence against the Romany, clamps down on the LGBT and Muslim communities.” He had also “suppressed democratic norms and press freedom”. Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy took issue with the visit given Orbán’s record on attacking “press freedom and democracy”, refugees as “Muslim invaders” and was “a cheerleader for Putin and Lukashenko.”
Nandy then turned on that resource so commonly drawn upon when faced with discomforting leaders. Orbán, being one of Europe’s “most regressive leaders” was effectively undermining “the values the UK government says it wants to defend”.
The government of Boris Johnson may well spout the values argument, but Brexit has meant courting and entertaining widely. The world is less its opportune oyster than a pressing necessity. Friends need to be won over, agreements inked and secured. As a No 10 spokesman put it, “As president of the Visegrád group of Central European nations later this year, cooperation with Hungary is vital to the UK’s prosperity and security.” UK Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng was put it: the UK had to, at times, speak to the unsavoury and approach the unlikeable. “I think Viktor Orbán’s views on migrants are things I would not endorse in any way.”
Kwarteng distils the amoral British position with accuracy, though it also says much about what Timothy Garton Ash described as “the dilemma of self-inflicted weakness” that burdens post-Brexit Britain. Arms contracts with Saudi Arabia while a theocracy maims and molests remain a matter of course. The relationship with China privileges the business imperative, despite claims about holding a liberal international order together. Deals are to be made, even with authoritarian regimes and those with a sketchy record on human rights.
Orbán, by comparison to some of the UK’s trading partners, is almost civil. And more to the point, he never disappoints as one of the great critics of the EU, even as he remains in its tent. The abundant admiration for Brexit, described as the opening of a “fantastic door, a fantastic opportunity”, has not gone unnoticed.
Then there is that niggling issue that Johnson and his party members might not be entirely at odds with the Hungarian PM. While the official statement on the No 10 meeting mentions a concern for rights and liberties, Johnson could hardly have disagreed with some of his counterpart’s views, notably on Islam. The recent Singh report into claims of Islamophobia within the Conservative Party found degrees of discrimination from the Prime Minister to grass roots organisations, though it rejected claims of “institutional racism” made by such prominent Tory members as Baroness Warsi. The Prime Minister’s previous remarks, mocking those wearing burqas as “looking like letterboxes” were also picked up in the report. “I am obviously sorry for any offence taken,” Johnson said in response, though he also added a rounding qualifier: “My writings are often parodic, satirical”.
Orbán’s views on immigration and Islam are far from satirical, though they do not resist unintentional parody and farce. Reprising himself as a nationalist warrior fending off a modern Ottoman surge, the grave Hungarian leader wears the habitual costume of a defender of European civilisation.
And what of anti-Semitism? Specifically referring to his troubled relationship with George Soros, the billionaire was described as “a talented Hungarian businessman… he is very much in favour of migration, financing and helping the NGOs who are doing that. We don’t like it but it has nothing to do with ethnic identity.”
The shambolic rollout of the EU vaccination program has also gifted much room to Orbán to mock opponents and stifle detractors. Vacillation in Europe on how best to approach COVID-19 and poor planning has meant the courting of other countries for vaccines. The EU is not working, he can say, and this is how we respond. The result is a range of options for Hungarians, sourced from Russia and China. As he has done so, Orbán has pursued an aggressive campaign against contrarians within his country. The pro-government media mobbing of political scientist Peter Kreko, who cautioned against the speed the Orbán government was seeking the Sputnik V vaccine, was typically sinister.
In the indignant storm surrounding the visit, a White Hall source may have provided the most accurate summary that reflects the British PM’s approach to policy in general: “Number 10 has walked into a bear trap.”