Bashing and cashing, that is the motto of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán

Bashing and cashing, that is the motto of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán

‘Hello, dictator!’ For example, then Commission President Juncker once jokingly welcomed Viktor Orbán to an EU summit. And the Hungarian Prime Minister received another slap on the cheeks. Orbán is the black sheep in the European Union. For fourteen years. He is Europe’s longest-serving and most controversial head of government.

After a major election victory in 2010, Orbán and his followers have done everything they can to ensure that they can continue to hold sway in Hungary forever. Or like Tijn Sadée in his new book Orbán’s clan quotes a statement by the Hungarian Prime Minister: ‘We have to win big once, then we will never hand it over again.’

A comfortable two-thirds majority for his Fidesz party in parliament made it possible for Orbán to completely bend Hungary to his will. The result: democracy has been eroded, independent judges and scientists have been bullied away and the media is on a leash. Fidesz consistently comes out on top during elections, except in cosmopolitan Budapest. Orbán is perhaps therefore not yet sure of his case. The ‘Sovereignty Watchdog’, launched last year, is a copy of Putin’s foreign agents law, which declared human rights organizations in Russia criminal.

The ‘illiberal’ society sought by Orbán put him on a collision course with Brussels. But the Hungarian Prime Minister simply dismissed critical reports and criminal proceedings, while billions in EU subsidies flowed mainly to friendly businessmen. There are suspicions of large-scale corruption. For this reason, the distribution of a significant part of European money has now been frozen.

Orbán has emerged as a notorious obstructionist within the EU. He links almost all important files – from support to Ukraine to Finnish and Swedish NATO membership – to financial commitments for Hungary. Or as Sadée writes: ‘bashing Brussels and cashing in on the Brussels subsidy billions at the same time’. With this, Orbán repeatedly causes headaches for his fellow government leaders.

Political brat

If anyone is equipped to understand this ‘Hungarian devil’, it is Tijn Sadée. He has followed Orbán closely for more than twenty years as a correspondent for, among others NRC, NOS and VPRO from his bases in Budapest and Brussels.

Orbán’s clan is published in the run-up to the European elections – where Orbán’s political allies are showing gains in the polls in many EU member states – and the Hungarian EU presidency as of July 1, 2024. Sadée’s central research question is therefore: ‘Does the EU ultimately her will to Orbán, or is it Orbán who is pushing the EU in a different direction?’

To answer that question, Sadée delved into his archives, went on reportage and spoke to Orbán’s friends and enemies. The result is a book with what he calls an ‘impressionistic design’. Here and there this takes revenge and Sadée repeats herself. So the reader knows after a few times that Zsuzanna Szelényi, author of Tainted Democracywho was once Orbán’s political companion but is now one of his fiercest critics.

Sadée writes in a nice, smooth reporting style. Sometimes intermezzos make the book a bit too kaleidoscopic and sometimes Sadée moves a bit too smoothly, causing actual events such as the 2022 elections to be somewhat obscured. But all in all it is a pleasure to travel with this correspondent. Fortunately, because the developments in Hungary in recent decades are certainly not cheerful.

Also read
this story

Balázs Orbán, right-hand man of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and director of the Mathias Corvinus Collegium.

In a whirlwind journey, Sadée turns back the clock to Orbán’s early years in the Hungarian countryside. We see how the political daring who in June 1989 called for free elections and the departure of the Soviet troops discovered conservative nationalism as a ‘political revenue model’. Moreover, he tapped into the widespread resentment that Hungary is the victim of what the outside world has done to the country. He won the elections in 2018 and 2022 by portraying migrants and the war in Ukraine, respectively, as a major threat to Hungarians.

According to Orbán, this is also ‘Brussels’, but it is interesting to read that Hungary was never entirely enthusiastic about the requirements for EU membership. ‘Brussels applies double standards’ was heard during the accession negotiations. At the same time, European diplomats now say that the strengthening of the Hungarian constitutional state was wrongly abandoned until the very last minute.

As prime minister, Orbán sought confrontation. But ‘Brussels didn’t really bite’, Sadée writes, while the contours of autocracy ‘were already abundantly clear then’. Orbán was building a one-party state without checks and balances, as sociologist András Bozóki already noticed in 2010. He is one of many who quotes Sadée. According to Pieter de Gooijer – former EU ambassador to the Netherlands – Orbán ‘was able to develop his modus operandi, or getting his way, because the EU repeatedly rewarded him for his difficult behavior.’ Sailing close to the wind also earned him votes at home.

Poor dissident

Only in July 2020 did the gloves come off with the introduction of a rule of law test for the distribution of EU funds. Since then there has been talk of a arm-wrestling competition between Brussels and Budapest. But, Sadée quotes historian Peter Ludlow, ‘Orbán is ultimately a poor dissident, he needs the EU money.’ At the conference table, the Hungarian Prime Minister is therefore a ‘silent pragmatist’.

Brussels diplomats take stock: ‘Orbán is slowing down, he is annoying, but none of Orbán’s blackmail has really succeeded.’ Orbán is especially detrimental to the Hungarians themselves. “They suffer most from the impossible position he has put his country in, the Hungarian economy has been completely weakened.”

The Hungarian government is boasting good growth figures, but inflation is high and domestic consumption is in decline. The money mainly flows to Orbán’s clan. He has his sheep on dry land. And Budapest is also opportunistically reaching out to Moscow and Beijing.

Sadée cannot yet give an unequivocal answer to his central question. Viktor Orbán is preparing for the next round of his duel with Brussels in Budapest Castle. He wants to create a different Europe and dreams of a large coalition of ‘sovereignists’ in the European Parliament who will again put the nation state first. Then it will not only be the Hungarians who will suffer, because European cooperation is indispensable in the current geopolitical arena.