BUDAPEST: Just months ago, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban was a pariah in the EU, vilified for his aggressive anti-immigrant policies which included sealing his country’s southern borders with sharp razor-wire to stop refugees from entering.
The right-wing tactics, slammed by the UN as “xenophobic and anti-Muslim,” were an antithesis to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her open-door policy towards refugees fleeing war.
Yet Orban’s water cannons and tough new laws recently earned him an unexpected accolade.
While Merkel somewhat predictably graced Time Magazine’s December cover as Person of the Year, Orban surprised many by winning the top spot on the 2015 list of news website Politico’s most influential Europeans.
The populist strongman is single-handedly responsible for having “shifted the debate from how to accommodate the flow of refugees to how to stop it,” according to Politico.
“Without apology and with great fanfare, Orban personifies the rise of illiberal politics in Europe… Love him or hate him, you have to pay heed to him. Orban shapes as much as fits the European zeitgeist.”
As Politico points out, Orban’s tough stance has achieved what umpteen EU summits have so far been unable to: putting an end to the migrant flow into Hungary.
After the country witnessed the arrival of almost 400,000 people this year up to October, hardly any have turned up since the fences went up.
In response, fellow EU states once critical of Orban are also beginning to opt for barriers rather than solidarity to tackle the continent’s worst migrant crisis since World War II.
Even Austria — which previously compared Hungary’s treatment of refugees to Nazi deportations during the Holocaust — is now building a fence on its frontier with Slovenia.
Slovenia, in turn, is erecting a barrier along its Croatian border.
Meanwhile, Brussels this week unveiled a controversial plan for a new border and coastguard force to protect the EU’s external borders.
‘Defender of Europe’
In short, all signs indicate that Orban’s call for a “fortress Europe” no longer falls on deaf ears.
Political analysts confirm there has been a noticeable shift toward what they describe as “Orbanization.”
“Orban has become a figure who now plays an important role in the EU, especially as a
sort of opposition figure to mainstream decision-makers like Merkel,” Istvan Hegedus, head of a pro-European think tank in Budapest, told AFP.
Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche even went so far as to call Orban “Defender of Europe” in a recent front-page splash.
“How much Orban is in us all?”, asked Austrian current affairs magazine Profil in the title of last month’s cover story on the migrant crisis.
Perhaps more than initially expected, judging by recent remarks made by Austria’s conservative Vice-Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner who observed that “Orban wasn’t completely wrong” in his border defense tactics.
Orban’s allies claim the mood is also shifting inside the European Parliament’s conservative bloc (EPP), the political home of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party and Merkel’s CDU.
“It’s very clear that the basic spectrum of the EPP is between Merkel and Orban,” commented Fidesz MEP Gyorgy Schopflin.
“The Politico (accolade) was a nice present for Orban. It is a turnaround as it counters the liberal narrative.” AFP