Bursting the Bubble

Europe’s troublemakers: Similar style, different motives

21 March 2016 | by

During the frequent European Council summits, two men are certain to make the headlines lately. Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán has long been the pariah – or enfant terrible, depending on one’s political standpoint – of European politics. But over the past months, his Italian counterpart, Matteo Renzi has been just as outspoken, causing headaches to Europe’s seasoned backdoor dealmakers. The two men clearly share a love for attention and belligerent rhetoric, but could hardly have a more different view on the continent’s future.

Just in the last few months, the Italian premier labelled Jean Claude Juncker’s European Commission as a puppet of Berlin, said that Italy would not be “remote-controlled” by Brussels, and demanded “more respect” for his country. He even replaced his permanent representative to the EU – a career diplomat – with a former member of his government: a clear signal that he is ready to further politicise the delicate relations. The conflict got to a point, where Juncker paid a personal visit to Rome in order to mitigate the situation.

His words certainly ring a bell to Hungarians. Viktor Orbán, who has been in power for the past six years in Hungary, often depicts “Brussels” as a source of threat to Hungarian sovereignty. In his latest speech delivered at the anniversary of the country’s 1848 revolution, he portrayed himself as the ideological heir of the freedom fights of 1848-56 and 1956, while drawing parallels between communist occupation and the EU.

The two leaders may use similar rhetoric in part due to their pugnacious personalities. Both possess the virtue of being good debaters and are great at mobilising their supporters. Renzi and Orbán seem to enjoy confrontational situations – and attention – alike. Furthermore, they both face challenges from populist parties domestically. The Hungarian PM has been using the refugee crisis to successfully steal momentum from the country’s extreme-right party, Jobbik. His Italian colleague has had to rebuke the attacks of both leftist populist Five Star Movement and radical right-wing Northern League. Loudly defending the vague notions of national pride and interest is an attempt to steal the show from these opponents.

But besides similarities in their style and in the challenges faced on the level of national politics, the two troublemakers have a sharply different vision of Europe and their respective roles in it. Matteo Renzi has made it clear on numerous occasions that he dreams of a closer-knit Europe based on solidarity. He is concerned that the EU will turn into a two-speed Europe, and even worse: that Italy is not part of its leading countries. He never really attempted to hide his personal ambitions to become a politician of European calibre. As he put it: “it’s not enough for Angela to call Hollande and Juncker and for me to read about it in the press”.

The Hungarian leader on the other hand likes to consider himself as a defender of nation states. While he is content with his seemingly inflated influence on the European stage throughout the refugee crisis, his solution lies in controlling borders and keeping any culturally heterogeneous influence away from national borders. As his right-hand man, the head of the Prime Minister’s Office explained it in an interview, the Hungarian government sees the EU as a community based on shared economic interest, but denies that it would be one of political values.

Most importantly, for Renzi communication is a tool, while for Orbán it is the goal itself. Italy’s centre-left PM has been using his very public battles to put pressure on fellow leaders. He forced the discussion on the prolongation of the Russian sanctions to a political level, and he was blocking the payment agreed for Turkey in exchange of stemming the migration flow. As a frontline country, Italy is obviously invested in any solutions to the crisis. However, he realised that the matter is quickly eroding the political capital of both Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker. In return of his approval, Renzi is trying to get concessions on the Italian budget. With the European Semester underway, the country that boasts the second highest level of debt after Greece in the EU is trying to find some fiscal room to implement tax cuts. It is clear that the decision whether or not to allow that will be partly political. These games are of course an integral part of the art of politics, but they are – especially in Brussels –mostly played behind the scenes. The Prime Minister is trying to use his trump cards to achieve his own goals, and he is doing so loudly to help his domestic position.

Hungary’s Viktor Orbán on the other hand has no clear EU-level objectives to achieve. The relocation scheme, the main tangible issue that he fiercely opposes, would put very little pressure on the country in reality. Due to its small size and relatively low level of economic development, Hungary would have to relocate a bit over 1200 refugees.  But Orbán’s position has been based solely on carefully cultivating a freedom fighter image. His communication strategy is portraying a perpetual war, in which he personally represents the last bastion of freedom that some unspecified powers want to take away from Hungarians. His 2010 electoral bid was based on wiping out the socialists, who he claimed were “driven by foreign interest”, he then went on to blame multinationals for economic hardships, likened Brussels to Moscow, and now talks about illegal migrants being forcefully sent to Hungary to undermine national security. Being in a constant state of war on the level of rhetoric is the essence of his politics. He has used this strategy successfully to unite his voters and to distract attention from a whole series of more and more frequently emerging local scandals.

It is fair to say that the two men are not fond of each other. During their encounter at a European Council meeting at the end of February, the Italian Prime Minister called for freezing EU funds for the Eastern European countries of the so-called Visegrad group if they keep refusing taking in any refugees. In response, Orbán warned the ex-mayor of Florence that he might not be in a position of power in 2020, when the current EU financing cycle expires. So far both men have capitalised skilfully on their verbal battles domestically. But it remains to be seen whose idea of Europe will prevail.

What do you think?