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EU Ukraine Aid Deal Is a Pawn in Orban’s Longer Populist Game

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After months of bluster against financial aid for Ukraine, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary on Thursday yielded to intense pressure from fellow European leaders, but not before he tried to change the topic in Brussels by meeting with angry Belgian farmers beside a convoy of tractors and voicing support for the protests roiling Europe.

In what amounted to a campaign stop ahead of European elections in June that he hopes will shift Europe’s balance of power in his direction, Mr. Orban skipped a dinner with European leaders on Wednesday evening and went to talk to the farmers who had gathered outside the Brussels venue for Thursday’s make-or-break summit meeting on Ukraine.

“We need to find new leaders who truly represent the interests of the people,” Mr. Orban told the farmers, leaving little doubt that he includes himself in what he sees as an inevitable changing of the guard in Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union.

For Mr. Orban, whether to send billions of dollars to Ukraine has never been a question of immovable principle, and he folded Thursday when told that some member states were serious about isolating him, even stripping him of his vote, if he continued to block the aid. Rather, it is just one of many issues on which he has sought to establish himself as the leader of a pan-European movement in defense of national sovereignty and traditional values against what he scorns as out-of-touch urban elites.

Headlines on Thursday morning in Hungarian news media outlets loyal to Mr. Orban’s government hinted that his main objective all along has been to position himself as a guiding beacon for Europeans dissatisfied with the status quo and looking for a leader ready to discomfit mainstream opinion.

“Hungary in the lead,” trumpeted Mandiner, a pro-government weekly and online news site. “All eyes on Viktor Orban again,” said Index, an online news portal that used to be independent but is now firmly on the government’s side after it was taken over by a loyal tycoon.

It is far from clear, however, whether Mr. Orban can persuade Europeans to join his populist quest, which has had far more success attracting fervent support in the United States, where Donald J. Trump is a big fan, than in Europe. Budapest, the Hungarian capital, which has been declared the “capital of the anti-woke resistance” by officials there, will in April host American supporters and the far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders at a gathering of the Conservative Political Action Committee.

“European politics is not about kicking in the door and shouting,” said Zsombor Zeold, a former Hungarian diplomat and foreign policy expert in Budapest. “It is about making coalitions and reaching compromises.”

Driven by what Poland’s new prime minister, Donald Tusk, described early Thursday as “the very strange and egoistic game of Viktor Orban,” Hungary has also pushed itself to center stage, accompanied largely by boos and jeers, by blocking the expansion of NATO. It is the last country holding out on approving the entry of Sweden, though Mr. Orban insists his country will eventually give its assent.

A general election in Poland in October that ousted nationalist forces closely aligned with Mr. Orban and strong support for Ukraine by the deeply conservative Italian government of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni have left Hungary more isolated than ever.

But Mr. Orban, who has described Hungary as a “David-sized nation standing against a woke Goliath,” is playing a long game, confident that Mr. Trump will win the November election and that European public opinion, too, is turning his way amid growing alarm over illegal immigration and the rising cost of living.

Frontex, the European Union’s border agency, reported this week that the number of “irregular border crossings” into Europe rose last year to 380,000, a 17 percent increase from 2022 and the highest level since 2016.

Unlike Euro-skeptics in Britain who drove a successful campaign in 2016 to take their country out of the European Union, Mr. Orban, who has his eye fixed firmly on European Parliament elections this summer, does not want to quit Europe, but to lead it.

“My plan is not to leave,” he said in December, “but to take over Brussels.”

To this end, he has cycled through a wide range of issues that not only help reinforce his unassailable grip on Hungary — his Fidesz party has won four thumping election victories in a row — but also fortify his image abroad as a leader who dares to rock the boat and give voice to views that other politicians, dismissed by Mr. Orban as “woke globalists,” are too timid or beholden to special interests to express.

Speaking in Budapest on the eve of the Brussels summit, Mr. Orban’s chief of staff, Gergely Gulyás, said that “Hungary is not alone” in its doubts about the wisdom of sending money to Ukraine, but rather “the strongest in saying that war is not the solution.” Europe, he added, needs “a change of tone,” an adjustment that he predicted will take place once the European parliamentary elections show strong popular support for Hungary’s no-nonsense brand of politics.

The European Parliament is largely a talking shop that attracts little interest outside of Brussels. But elections to it serve as a barometer of public opinion across the 27 member countries, and they could boost the influence of right-wing forces that share Mr. Orban’s nationalist views.

Mr. Orban’s meeting with aggrieved farmers in Brussels brought together several potentially vote-winning themes: that bureaucrats in Brussels give short shrift to the interests of ordinary working people and, the prime minister said, that they “should represent the interests of European farmers against those of Ukraine, not the other way round.”

Mr. Orban did not mention costs rising because of inflation, one of the farmers’ main complaints. At more than 17 percent, Hungary last year had the highest inflation rate in the European Union.

Facing a general election in Hungary in April 2022, Mr. Orban and his party initially focused on denouncing “gender insanity,” claiming that the European Union wanted to indoctrinate children to become transgender. It largely dropped that line of attack after Russia invaded Ukraine and focused instead on accusing the opposition of wanting to send Hungarian men to fight against Russia. That was untrue, but it tapped into deep unease across Europe about being sucked into a war with Russia.

It resonated loudly with voters in Hungary’s neighbor Slovakia, which in September elected a new government that is deeply skeptical of aiding Ukraine. But it was present in other countries where hostility to Ukraine has, on both ends of the political spectrum, become a marker of political allegiance and defiance of mainstream opinion as well.

One position that has remained constant for Mr. Orban — and highly beneficial politically, at home and abroad — is opposition to immigration. That has been a perennial since Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015, when Hungary led the way in calling for tighter border controls, a position now embraced in most European capitals.

Mr. Orban’s abrupt retreat on Thursday from his hard-line stand against approving an aid package for Ukraine worth 50 billion euros stirred delight and also surprise in Brussels, given that he had in December used his veto power to block the money and has repeatedly said since that he would never submit to “blackmail.”

Shifting gears, however, carries no risk at home, where Mr. Orban’s grip on the Hungarian news media allows him to present whatever happens as a victory. He faced no blowback in Hungary, for example, when he went along with multiple rounds of E.U. sanctions against Moscow despite insisting he would block efforts to punish Russia for its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Mandiner, the pro-government media outlet, conceded on Thursday that the summit had “ended unexpectedly quickly” with an agreement, but said that was because “the heads of government of the member states opened up to Hungary’s compromise proposal.” European leaders, however, insisted they had stood their ground, rejecting a demand by Hungary that aid for Ukraine be put up for annual review by leaders, which would give Mr. Orban an opportunity to hold aid to ransom each year.

Mr. Tusk, the Polish prime minister, whose country stood shoulder to shoulder with Hungary for years under the nationalist government ousted by voters in October, rejected the idea that Europe is suffering from “Ukraine fatigue.”

But, he added: “We for sure have Orban fatigue now in Brussels.”

Barnabas Heincz contributed reporting from Budapest.



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