The Irish Times view on Viktor Orbán’s trip to Washington: autocrats’ alliance

Trump and Hungary’s prime minister speak the same populist language, but there are limits to their co-operation

US president Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister at a meeting at the White House in Washington on Monday. Photograph: Chris Kleponis/Pool via Bloomberg

US president Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister at a meeting at the White House in Washington on Monday. Photograph: Chris Kleponis/Pool via Bloomberg

 

Not since the late 1990s, when Bill Clinton was US president, has Viktor Orbán been granted an audience at the White House. Back then, the Hungarian prime minister was an idealistic young centrist best known for his role in the resistance to Soviet oppression in central and eastern Europe. As Orbán drifted towards the far-right and increasingly embraced Russia and China, however, Washington began to freeze him out. George W Bush avoided hosting him in the Oval Office. Barack Obama refused outright.

Donald Trump had no such qualms. This week the Hungarian autocrat was warmly greeted at the White House, where Trump praised him as a “tough” and “respected” leader. Orbán is increasingly isolated in the EU, where he has become a de facto figurehead of the anti-migrant populist right. The erosion of democratic norms has resulted in the suspension of his party, Fidesz, from the European People’s Party. Against that background, the White House meeting has useful propaganda value for Orbán, underlining as it does the nascent populist alliance that connects not only Hungary and the US but also countries such as Poland, Italy, Austria and Brazil.

Yet there are limits to the common ground, as the Orbán-Trump meeting demonstrated. Washington’s attempts to shore up Nato’s eastern flank to counter the growing influence of Russia and China has been complicated by Orbán’s close relationship with both states. Orbán recently gave Russia a $12 billion contract to expand Hungary’s sole nuclear power plant. And when two arms dealers were recently captured in Hungary after a US-led investigation, Orbán’s government angered Washington by extraditing the dealers to Russia instead of the US. The two countries are also at odds over whether to do business with Huawei, the Chinese telecoms giant.

Trump and Orbán may speak the same language, but on key issues, their administrations remain far apart. Inviting Orbán to Washington may have been less a reward for Orbán than a carrot designed to help coax him into line.

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