Boris Johnson will welcome his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orbán, a fierce critic of Joe Biden and an ally of China, to No 10 on Friday, only the second EU leader the UK prime minister has greeted since the the country left the bloc.
Orbán is hoping to prove to Hungarian voters ahead of next year’s elections that he can forge influential alliances and that the departure of his governing Fidesz party from the European People’s party centre-right grouping does not usher in an era of political isolation.
The liberal Budapest mayor, Gergely Karácsony, has said he wants to lead a united opposition that fights corruption and does not depend on alliances with autocrats.
The shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, urged Johnson to call Orbán out over what she described as his antisemitism and degradation of civil liberties.
Downing Street said it was not going to predict whether the prime minister would raise human rights during the meeting, but asked about Orbán’s reference to Muslim invaders and asylum seekers as poison, a spokesperson said those comments had been divisive and wrong.
Johnson’s staff have described the meeting as routine, but some major European powers will see it as a sign that the UK prime minister is more interested in disrupting rather than coexisting with the EU. He has so far only met the Irish prime minister, Micheál Martin, in an effort to reform the Northern Ireland protocol.
The risks to Johnson of a close relationship with the EU’s enfant terrible are clear, given that the Biden administration has frequently described Hungary as a totalitarian regime that is too close to China.
The US deputy secretary of state, Wendy Sherman, met EU leaders in Brussels on Wednesday, when she pointedly praised a strong EU, including its stance on China. Nearly a third of the 30 MEPs who opposed the European parliament suspending its planned investment deal with China earlier this month came from Orbán’s Fidesz party.
Hungary has twice used its veto against EU criticism of China, most recently in May when it vetoed a motion criticising Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong – a move the the German foreign minister, Heiko Mass, described as “absolutely incomprehensible”.
Fidesz was suspended from the European parliament’s ruling European People’s party group in 2019, and quit before it was thrown out in March. Orbán touted a populist alliance intended to rediscover Europe’s roots when he met the leader of the Italy’s League, Matteo Salvini, and the Polish prime minster, Mateusz Morawiecki, last week.
The Conservative party was part of the European Conservatives and Reformists group. Led by Poland’s Law and Justice party , it is also where Fidesz and the League might well end up. A broader populist bloc would be a great prize for Orbán.
Pawel Zerka, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said “Orban might be interested to display an image of a leader who still matters internationally”, mostly for internal political reasons including the national election next year, he said. “It’s not much more than that.”
He said he doubted the UK would help him and others to establish a stronger populist bloc within the EU. “At most, a visit to London could serve as a further opportunity to criticise Brussels”, particularly given the UK’s successful vaccination campaign, he said.
A key theme at next month’s G7 summit chaired by the UK in Cornwall is an assertion of western democratic values against China and other autocracies such as Russia. Hungary by contrast boasts close investment and educational ties with China.
Last week it also blocked an EU statement containing criticism of Israel’s response to the rocket attacks by Hamas from Gaza. Nathalie Tocci, an adviser to the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrel, said Hungary now opposed common EU foreign policy positions as a matter of principle.
Despite its stream of criticism of the EU, Hungary, is likely to receive as much as €16.8bn (£14.5bn) under the the bloc’s resilience and Covid recovery plan.