By Peter Krekó
“Tough guys have emerged in European politics” – this is how Viktor Orbán greeted the new Italian government after its formation in June. More recently, Orbán called Salvini his hero.
The recent meeting between Viktor Orbán and Matteo Salvini – two favorite politicians of Steve Bannon, who wrote they are “redefining” European democracy - made big waves in the international media, creating widespread speculations that the two politicians will run a joint political platform and totally change the political landscape in Europe.
Is it really going to happen? It is highly unlikely, and here are the reasons why.
First: while Viktor Orbán and Matteo Salvini unquestionably have a lot in common - illiberal instincts, a hatred towards George Soros, and anti-immigrant and anti-EU rhetoric, they belong to different Party families. In the European Parliament, Salvini is three blocks’ distance from Orbán now, and despite widespread speculation that Orbán may gravitate more towards the right in the European Parliament, it would not be in his interest to do so. Why would he? The EPP provided him a protective political umbrella that defended him from the article seven procedure and other, more severe consequences of his authoritarian policies and breaches in rule of law. Orbán even made it crystal clear during the meeting that he wants to stay within the EPP. He also claimed he asked for permission to meet with Salvini from his longtime friend Berlusconi in advance. Of course, as calls to expel Orbán from the EPP grow, he’s made it clear that the group needs him – that’s why he sent the message with an open blackmail letter to the conservatives: “if you push me out, I can destroy you”. The EPP expelling Orbán before the EP elections, though, is a scenario with zero likelihood: amid a general shift to the right, with conservatives focusing more and more on security issues, he is seen more as an asset. With Orbán in, the EPP can still be the biggest group in the next European Parliament, according to predictions.
Second: it was an unofficial meeting. Salvini is the deputy prime minister of a coalition government and the Five Star Movement was very quick to distance itself from the meeting, making it crystal clear that they regard Orbán as a more destructive than constructive player. While Viktor Orbán is selling himself on the European stage as a politician who can sit down and talk with the “tough guys” within and outside the European Union – Salvini, Erdogan, Aliyev, etc. - the Italians are far from universally siding with him on every question.
And this is the third point: while both governments could be seen as mere anti-immigrant, this meeting covers serious policy disagreements on the refugee question. While The Five Star movement wants the EU funds going to Hungary to get suspended because of the Hungarian government’s clear unwillingness to take refugees in a quota scheme, Orbán just replicates his support for Salvini’s policies about not letting the refugees into Italy and pushing them back to Africa. But, as Gerald Knaus’s analysis on the two politicians revealed, the policies of Salvini have not resulted in lower refugee arrivals to Italy so far - only in a dramatic rise in refugee deaths at sea. This means that the problem stays with Italy. So, Hungary blocking all solutions based on European solidarity could be one of the most important rivals to Italy’s interests on this issue. Orbán might have a good friendship with the interior minister, but he can expect more pressure from the prime minister in the European Council’s meetings.
There is one question, though, of which the Hungarian and the Italian government are on the same side: their support to Vladimir Putin and hostility towards Ukraine. Hungary, for example, recently asked Italy to help to put a pressure on Ukraine to grant minority rights to ethnic Hungarians in Transcarpathia. Hungary is the only country that is blocking Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration multilaterally. And while both governments recently begrudgingly supported the prolongation of the sanctions against Russia, together with the Austrian government, they can take steps to lift the sanctions at a time when Germany and other big countries are warming up to Russia as well and Trump’s Euro-hostile policies are bringing Europe and Russia closer to each other.
In fact, even if not without importance, this meeting was mostly about raising the public profile of these politicians, presenting themselves as the counterpoint to Emmanuel Macron. While this meeting indicates an important shift in European politics, a public relations move like this should be assessed accordingly.
_Peter Krekó is director of Political Capital Institute, Budapest_
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