Brendan Howlin: Leo Varadkar was wrong to visit Orbán

Taoiseach’s granting of credibility to Hungarian far-right leader is a matter of grave concern

Leo Varadkar and Viktor Orbán during the Taoiseach’s visit to the Hungarian prime minister last week, in Budapest. Photograph: Tibor Illyes/MTI/AP

Leo Varadkar and Viktor Orbán during the Taoiseach’s visit to the Hungarian prime minister last week, in Budapest. Photograph: Tibor Illyes/MTI/AP

 

The once outspoken minister Leo Varadkar, who opposed Enda Kenny’s invitation to US president Donald Trump to visit Ireland, has flipped his position now that he is Taoiseach. But it might be the European leaders that he chooses to visit himself that should be a cause of greater concern.

Last month, the Taoiseach proffered his congratulations to the new Austrian chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, on cementing his coalition with the far-right Freedom Party. Twenty years ago a similar coalition left progressives in Europe dismayed and Austria ostracised within the European Union.

The creeping influence of far-right politicians on EU politics will not be good for Ireland

But instead of any expression of concern or regret about the rise of far-right politics in an EU state, our Taoiseach depressingly chose merely to congratulate and celebrate the election of a fellow centre-right leader.

Last week, the Taoiseach went further, visiting Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Orbán is an opponent of liberal democracy, who is hostile not just to the EU but to its values too. He uses the threat of immigration to preside over the erosion of democratic values under the guise of a conservative nationalism. It is little wonder that few European leaders choose to visit.

EU sanctions

Indeed, within the EU, Orbán’s only close ally is the Polish Law and Justice Party, under whose rule Poland faces sanctions as they seek to undermine democracy by eroding judicial independence. The other notable visitor to Hungary last week was the Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, and the purpose of his visit shows how strange the company our Taoiseach is keeping has become.

The purpose of the Polish-Hungarian meeting was to discuss how the two could co-operate to prevent the EU imposing any sanctions on either country for breaking the democratic rules of the EU. And, as can be expected from politicians of this ilk, the rhetoric emerging from both leaders was strongly anti-migration.

A visit to a leader such as Orbán gives his extremist views greater weight and credibility within the EU. Making the controversial decision to embark upon such a visit should not have been easy. Which makes it even stranger that the visit was arranged so quickly that the Taoiseach was not in a position to tell the Dáil about it when questioned just before Christmas.

Varadkar thinks a lot about optics. He knew only too well the level of opposition to far-right politicians in Dáil Éireann when he compared Mary Lou McDonald to Marine Le Pen. So it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he deliberately chose to avoid a Dáil debate on his visit to Hungary.

So, where will our Taoiseach head next? To Poland? To Austria? It’s certainly clear at this stage that he will be heading to embrace President Trump in Washington in March. What isn’t clear is whether he appreciates what these visits say about Ireland.

This is a particularly thorny issue for leaders of Europe’s conservative centre-right parties, whose history is in part tainted with coalition with far-right forces.

The creeping influence of far-right politicians on EU politics will not be good for Ireland. The values they espouse have found some reach over recent years.

In the UK, the values of Scottish and Northern Irish peoples have been largely disregarded, as Brexit has been driven by a media and political elite almost entirely English by nationality and peddling a myth of glorious days gone by. In France, Le Pen came far too close to victory on the back of anti-immigrant, anti-EU rhetoric.

Constant vigilance

Ireland has been lucky so far. Beyond a small few fringe voices, we have not turned away from the European project that has delivered peace and relative prosperity for decades. Nor have we turned our backs to those who are fleeing appalling places of violence and repression.

Who we choose to be friends with speaks volumes about our values – as people and as a nation

But protecting our values requires constant vigilance. It requires that we call out fascism and authoritarianism wherever we see them. And it demands that we never, ever, give cover or credibility to anti-democratic or far-right forces.

What I find most chilling about Orbán is his complete disdain for constitutional limits and independent judiciaries. These are the checks and balances that have been carefully designed to prevent the excessive accumulation of power in the hands of a single man – and it is invariably a man. Orbán denigrates them because he is, at heart, an anti-democratic authoritarian.

I don’t for a moment underestimate the challenges facing Leo Varadkar. Brexit, in particular, has cast Ireland into shark-infested waters. But values matter as well as interests, and an important debate has commenced on the Future of Europe.

I’m uncomfortable when our Taoiseach asserts common ground with Orbán, just as I was when Kenny did likewise with Trump. Who we choose to be friends with speaks volumes about our values – as people and as a nation. Ireland should be clear and principled in our vision of Europe’s shared future. Varadkar should think very carefully about the friends he is cultivating.

Brendan Howlin is leader of the Labour Party

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