EU - Negotiations / Populism

Johnson and Orbán: Peacocks’ Feathers Fading

As a Covid-dominated year draws to a close, the implications of EU negotiations with two renegades deserve attention. Although the structural significance of their countries is very different, Boris Johnson and Viktor Orbán have some common traits. Both have led populist movements that can be theorized as countermovements in the sense of Karl Polanyi (The Great Transformation, 1944). But what happens when the exemplary personalities of Eurosceptic populism start to lose their shine?

December 30th, 2020

Chris Hann

Boris Johnson and Viktor Orbán

It is generally agreed that contemporary populism can only be understood as a countermovement (in the sense of Karl Polanyi) to accelerated globalization, including the neoliberalization of the European Union. Of course, even within Europe, populism comes in many guises. The United Kingdom organized a referendum in 2016 and in December 2020 finally completed its tortuous severance from the EU. Hungary has maintained a high level of rhetorical criticism of “Brussels” over a long period, but has no intention of withdrawal. Each of these Eurosceptic countries has a dominant personality. In this contribution I suggest that comparing Boris Johnson and Viktor Orbán illuminates more general political configurations of our age.

At first glance, the differences far outweigh the similarities. Like Britain, Hungary has a long history of aristocratic hierarchy. This was interrupted in the middle of the twentieth century, when socialist rule was imposed forcibly for four decades. Viktor Mihály Orbán is a man of the people, born in 1963 in the provinces and brought up without a silver spoon. As a bright pupil, he was admitted to study law at the country’s best university. Though he devoted a lot of his time to oppositional politics, he completed his degree in 1987. The disciplined Lebensführung was physical as well as mental: Viktor Orbán played football at a semi-professional level for many years. But his main focus was power and in 1990 he entered parliament at the first opportunity.

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was born in New York in 1964 and pampered from birth. From Eton (the most famous of England’s exclusive schools) he proceeded to Oxford, as so many Prime Ministers had before. He did not take a first, probably because of the dissolute lifestyle he shared with a whole generation of “toffs,” many of whom went on to make careers in the Conservative party. Unlike the humourless Orbán, Johnson cultivated a taste for the comic and the fantastic. He indulged this in his journalism for the Daily Telegraph, before reaching larger audiences through the television programme Have I Got News For You. Johnson consolidated his larger-than-life personality not in parliament, which he entered in 2001, but in maverick performances on public stages as Mayor of London (2008-2016). 

Viktor Orbán  has dominated his party for over thirty years (the Alliance of Young Democrats was very much his creation and to this day he has no serious rivals inside the party).  Boris Johnson’s path to the top in the Tory party was necessarily more complex. Yet both have established their populist credentials as politicians who go against the establishment grain. Orbán has frequently presented himself as an enfant terrible, determined to break socialist shackles that the early years of democracy left substantively untouched. Johnson has had to endure brash accents very different from his own in forging new alliances to transcend elite complicity in the dilution of British sovereignty. The Brussels deal negotiated by David Cameron (a rival since schooldays and drinking companion in Oxford’s Bullingdon Club) was simply not good enough. Unlike Orbán, Johnson is a social liberal (otherwise he would hardly have been elected and re-elected as mayor of a supremely cosmopolitan city). His profile is more like that of Donald Trump, who also inherited wealth, was sent to the best schools, and developed a colourful media personality as well as a reputation for philandering. How do such persons persuade voters that they sincerely believe in conservative values? How do they persuade them to support economic policies that contradict their interests?


Populist Negotiating in December 2020

Boris Johnson has notoriously dismissed those who would prioritize the economy ahead of sovereignty. This is what you might expect from an Etonian Oxford classicist, but the cavalier approach has inevitably been modified in the course of post-Brexit negotiations with Brussels.

Viktor Orbán’s background in a poorer country being so different, it should be no surprise that he has taken great pains to ensure that the Alliance of the Young Democrats is tightly allied with a new national bourgeoisie. Family members and chums from his village are among the most prominent beneficiaries of a system that redistributes transfer income from Brussels (intended to support “cohesion” in the less developed member states) to a new class of domestic capitalists. Even if the size of those transfers will diminish following Brexit, Orbán will never call a referendum on Hunexit. Even if he did, polls indicate that few Hungarians would support withdrawal, even within his own party, which is ostensibly hyper-critical of Brussels. Everyone knows that the Hungarian economy is too deeply locked into the EU.

If this dependency is so clear, why did Angela Merkel and Ursula von der Leyen give in so cravenly in December 2020, after Orbán (together with Polish premier Mateusz Morawiecki) had vetoed the adoption of the next EU budget? At stake was the principle of connecting transfer income with observance of EU norms of law and governance. This is sometimes phrased in terms of “democratic values”. The principle has been strongly affirmed not only by the European Parliament but also by George Soros, who Orbán has pilloried for years as the author of a plan to flood Christian Europe with Muslim migrants. But for Merkel and von der Leyen it was urgent to have their budget approved forthwith. They therefore agreed to compromise: the buck was passed, and the contentious principle of linking economic redistribution to the values of liberal democracy will eventually be adjudicated by the European Court of Justice. No one knows when this might happen.

Was there a subplot in political economy? While the economies of Hungary and Poland do not matter much in the larger scheme of things, for German capital, especially the automotive branch, the Visegrád countries are important locations for outsourcing production. Within days of the Brussels decision, Mercedes-Benz confirmed a massive investment to produce electric cars at its factory in Kecskemét in Central Hungary, thereby securing thousands of jobs for many years to come. As usual, the funding depends on a significant contribution from the Hungarian government, which in turn will continue to benefit from the Brussels development support.  

Whether or not the German car bosses somehow made their preferences known, in December 2020 it was vital for Angela Merkel and Ursula von der Leyen to salvage political unity. The stakes were different for George Soros, who lost no time in deploring the climbdown. Soros’s disappointment was, in turn, the best evidence for Orbán to prove to Hungarians that he was the real victor once again. He responded to Soros’s protest with a lengthy statement on the prime ministerial homepage, in which the philanthropist was once again denigrated as the “most corrupt man in the world”.[1]

Which populist is the more hypocritical? Is it Viktor Orbán, the man of the people who attacks the liberal cosmopolitanism of the EU but fights to hold on to its subsidies in the interests of his cronies? Or is it Boris Johnson, formerly a liberal Mayor of London, who has triumphed personally but must realise deep down that his successful Brexit campaign has plunged both economy and polity into spirals of uncertainty likely to last generations? 


Emotions and Economics

Viktor Orbán has compared his carefully rehearsed diplomatic manoeuvring towards Brussels (and Strasburg) with the courting dance rituals of the peacock. The analogy also works for his relationship to George Soros. In fact, every scrap of liberal critique from western professors and journalists is grist for the populist mill. Whenever a representative of the Hungarian opposition sides with western critics in the European Parliament, this is trumpeted in the media controlled by Viktor Orbán as a betrayal of the national cause. Yet whenever European institutions come close to implementing measures that would threaten the foundations of the regime, the peacock changes his strut and rattles his trail to proclaim victory.

Observers have long argued that this ritualized dance cannot continue indefinitely. Some liberals in the west and opposition leaders at home have interpreted the compromise struck in December 2020 as a death knell for Orbánism. They are confident that the European Court of Justice will confirm the decision to couple financial aid to liberal norms of governance. But this will not happen quickly, and by the time it does the peacock may have won another election, making it impossible for foreign inspectors of the rule of law to deny his democratic mandate.

Boris Johnson has behaved similarly when bringing forward legislation that flies in the face of international law, only to withdraw it at the appropriate tactical moment. He too is very much the preening type. Yet even before his personal encounter with the Covid virus, he was beginning to seem less boisterous. No personal trainer can do much to improve that much-abused body. With his incompetent management of the pandemic, the Johnson who used to entertain his compatriots is more and more perceived as an embarrassment, especially among the young. As for Viktor Orbán, though he remains passionate about football, citizens who observe him on television alongside other leaders at summit meetings comment on his increasingly awkward gait.

What is the fate of ageing peacocks when their feathers fade? Both Johnson and Orbán have been ruthless in reshaping their parties to suit their personal ambitions. Even before Covid, there was no disguising the poor quality of those who survived the culls. The idea of grooming a successor is unthinkable. Both confirm Ernest Gellner’s dictum that a successful populist is an oxymoron.[2] Short of fascism, it is impossible to routinize populist power. Margaret Thatcher was an earlier leader who ruffled feathers for a while, finding convenient external enemies in Argentinian generals and domestic ones in coal miners and the “wets” of her own party. But it could not go on forever. Eventually some of the radicals she had promoted combined to oust her, before themselves morphing into a new stratum of “grandees” that Johnson would trash in the next generation. Viktor Orbán has outlasted most populists through inventing an unprecedented plethora of enemies: Brussels bureaucrats, good-for-nothing Roma, the supreme speculator George Soros, and waves of Muslim migrants. But there must be a limit. December 2020 also saw the fragmented political opposition in Budapest pledge to unite behind common lists in order to put an end to the “Orbán system” in the parliamentary elections scheduled for spring 2022.

It evidently suited both parties to delay the post-Brexit trade deal until there was no time left for detailed scrutiny and the eruption of further political controversy. It is unlikely that the cross-channel traffic chaos triggered by a mutation of the Covid virus just before Christmas played a decisive role. The EU certainly bargained harder with Johnson than it had with Orbán a few weeks earlier. Elements of deterrent and punishment were in play, even humiliation and Schadenfreude (this earlier loanword will surely outlast Willkommenskultur). As historian Ute Frevert has recently reminded us, in politics a great deal depends on the emotional dimension (The Politics of Humiliation. A Modern History. Oxford UP 2020). But when it comes to dealing with Britain, the economic component is vastly more important than it is in the case of peripheral Visegrád states. Boris Johnson has had to accept that the economy does matter after all (not least if he is to redeem promises to redistribute prosperity to the declining postindustrial regions that abandoned the Labour Party to support him). The EU can hardly allow unconditional market access to a turbo-capitalist competitor on its doorstep. But perhaps the need to sell all those postsocialist German cars is also important. The cars manufactured by Mercedes in Hungarian Kecskemét are not affordable for ordinary Hungarians. So long as the new electric production lines include vehicles with a steering wheel on the right, we can safely assume that Mercedes-Benz bosses are continuing to count on easy access to the British market.

[2] Isiah Berlin Archive: (page 21)

Chris Hann

Director of the Max Planck Insitute for Social Anthropology
Halle, Germany