The writer is professor of European Studies at Oxford university and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution
What is the meaning of British prime minister Boris Johnson receiving the EU’s most illiberal leader, Hungarian premier Viktor Orban, in Downing Street on Friday? Populist ideological fraternity? Cynical realpolitik? Or is it just another illustration of post-Brexit Britain’s awkward balancing act between its interests and its values?
When I first met him, in the late 1980s, Orban was a fiery young student leader who warmly embraced the values of the liberal west. In 1989, I watched him give an electrifying speech in Budapest, calling on Soviet troops to withdraw from Hungary. As a student at Oxford, he visited me in my college room to explain how he and his friends in the new Fidesz party were going to build a model modern liberal democracy.
Yet over the past decade, he and Fidesz have systematically dismantled liberal democracy in Hungary, which is the first EU member state ever to be classified by Freedom House as only “partly free”. He has railed against Muslim refugees as “invaders”, called on patriotic Christian Hungarians to have more children instead of welcoming immigrants from outside Europe, and sanctioned campaign posters of his liberal arch-enemy George Soros which had clear anti-Semitic overtones. And he has argued that the future may belong to illiberal versions of modernity, such as Xi Jinping’s China.
Johnson has famously observed that his attitude to cake is that one should both have and eat it. But Orban brilliantly practises the “cakeism” that Johnson merely preaches: using billions of euros in EU funds for his own purposes while winning his last — formally free, but definitely not fair — election in 2018 by campaigning against “Brussels”. Although coming from a small country, he has made himself a leader of the illiberal, nationalist tendency across the entire EU. Indeed, as a result of Brexit, this is arguably the first time in history when a Hungarian prime minister has been more influential in Europe than the British prime minister.
When Donald Trump received Orban in the White House in 2019, that was a clear case of ideological affinity. Some Brexit-supporting Conservatives have praised the Orban regime, and Johnson himself has exploited chauvinistic sentiment, especially during the Brexit referendum campaign. But the ideological explanation does not get us very far. As mayor of London, Johnson embraced the capital’s multicultural character. If he has any consistent ideological worldview, which may be doubted, it is not the one the Hungarian leader promotes so vigorously.
More plausible is the explanation of realpolitik. Post-Brexit Britain is badly in need of friends inside the EU. Key European leaders such as French president Emmanuel Macron are framing UK-EU relations almost as a zero-sum game. Last year, Orban effusively praised Johnson’s Brexit leadership. It is well known that the Hungarian leader has no qualms about intervening in EU decision-making to protect the interests of countries such as China and Russia with which he cultivates close relations. If he is prepared to do it for Xi and Vladimir Putin, why shouldn’t he do it for Johnson? Cynical, you may say — but the 19th-century British prime minister Lord Palmerston would probably approve. Britain has a long history of playing a balancing game between European powers and is tempted to return to it.
Yet this interpretation is still not completely persuasive. For the Johnson government has been outspoken in the defence of liberal values such as human rights, democracy and free speech. It has reacted robustly to the state kidnapping of the exiled Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich. It has been forthright in criticising repression in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. In fact, having just struck a significant blow to the liberal international order by leaving the EU, the UK is now one of that order’s most outspoken defenders.
Ironically enough, one hears in this rhetoric strong echoes of the freedom-loving spirit of 1989, which had a formative influence on Conservatives of the generation of Johnson and foreign secretary Dominic Raab, and of which, back in the day, a student leader called Viktor Orban seemed such an inspiring representative.
So what this visit really shows is the acute tension, visible all across the British government’s external policy, between principle and self interest. That is always an issue for democracies, but it becomes acute when you are desperately seeking new trade deals and access arrangements, not least with the world’s largest multinational single market which you have just left. That the British prime minister feels the need to court this illiberal leader of a small EU member state thus illustrates a central dilemma of post-Brexit Britain. It is the dilemma of self-inflicted weakness.