If you want to get ahead as an EU troublemaker, go see Viktor Orbán.
That’s exactly what Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini will do in Milan on Tuesday, in a meeting he is so keen to attend that he cut short his holiday.
It will be an encounter between the master of European populism and the pretender to the throne — and it’s causing jitters in Brussels and in Rome.
For the EU, the talks highlight a looming problem: How to combat the threat from the right at next year’s European election. In June, Salvini spoke of a “League of Leagues” to unify European nationalists under the same umbrella. That’ll very likely be discussed in Milan.
The talks are also a problem for the coalition partner of Salvini’s League, the 5Star Movement, which is quickly learning about the challenges that come with governing alongside a firebrand. In a note on Friday, 5Star leaders in the upper and lower houses of parliament made clear that the meeting “is only and exclusively political and not institutional or at government level.”
“At this moment the meeting between these two forces is an historic opportunity to lay the ground for something new that Europe’s public is waiting for” — Mario Borghezio
The fact that it’s political won’t be reassuring for Brussels.
“It doesn’t matter what they actually say. At this moment the meeting between these two forces is an historic opportunity to lay the ground for something new that Europe’s public is waiting for,” said Mario Borghezio, a League MEP.
Mutual admiration society
Salvini has often said that Orbán is a political role model. Libero, a right-wing daily close to the League, on Monday ran a story with the headline “There’s much to learn from Orbán, he has cheated the EU.”
The meeting is important for Orbán too: It’s his first after the summer break and comes ahead of talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Hungarian prime minister has been the EU troublemaker-in-chief for some time: On migration, for example, he refused to take part in an EU mandatory relocation scheme and pushed back against the European Commission’s plan to relocate 160,000 refugees. He challenged the EU measures in court and lost — yet not a single refugee has been relocated to Hungary as part of the scheme.
That’s the sort of behavior that Salvini approves of.
But what else can Orbán teach Salvini? Here’s a look.
1. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer
The Italian government’s actions “are nothing compared to Orbán. He gets away with not respecting rulings, with breaking EU unity in foreign affairs, with proximity to Putin, with accusations of corruption, and nothing happens. But he belongs to the EPP,” said a senior Italian official, referring to the center-right European People’s Party, the largest political grouping in Europe and also home to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
The League doesn’t keep such prestigious European company (and neither do the 5Stars).
For the senior Italian official, membership in the EPP can be a shield against criticism and sanctions. (Although there have been increasing calls for Orbán’s Fidesz party to be kicked out, doing so would severely weaken the EPP ahead of next year’s European ballot.)
Part of the trick of retaining EPP support is to make its leaders believe that you have other choices. Orbán “definitely does have ambitions for a bigger role in Europe,” said a senior official from Fidesz. But “he wants to transform the EPP and if he does not succeed, he is willing to create a new alliance.”
2. Keep your economic house in order
Italy’s public debt is massive (€2.3 trillion) and that means Brussels is always watching. Salvini says he’s not bothered about annoying the EU and wants to spend more (the League and the 5Stars made some very expensive election promises) but the weakness of Italy’s economy roils bureaucrats, markets and politicians alike.
In Hungary, the spotlight doesn’t shine so bright. Its economy is small, about a tenth the size of Italy’s, and it is not a member of the eurozone, so contagion is a very remote possibility.
3. Pay lip service to the EU
Orbán is often critical of Europe’s “elites” and claims that the European Commission and European Parliament work against Hungary’s national interests, but he does pay lip service to the importance of the EU and its institutions.
Salvini does not. He flirts with leaving the euro (which would in effect mean leaving the EU), attacks the bloc on a daily basis, and even blamed it for the collapse of a bridge in Genoa that killed 43 people.
Orbán is good at “being revolutionary when talking to his own audience, but at the European Council he goes with the mainstream,” said Péter Krekó, director of the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute.
4. Control the media and prosecutors
In Hungary, a combination of legislative changes and the pumping of millions of state funds into pro-government media means that there are very few independent outlets left, and even fewer that engage in regular in-depth investigative reporting.
As a result, some controversies receive little or no attention either at home or abroad. At the same time, a loyal Orbán ally serves as general prosecutor, meaning that even when the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog raises concerns about graft, including corruption by Orbán’s own family, no real legal steps are taken.
Salvini is far away from that level of control: Prosecutors are independent, the vast majority of newspapers are against him and he doesn’t control TV stations (he has tried and, so far, failed to put an ally in charge of the Rai network), although he is very strong on social media.
The pupil has much to learn from the master. Tuesday’s meeting could be a valuable lesson.