For years, Orbán convinced the EPP that he was the victim of the European left, which supposedly resented his conservative policy choices: His government objected to same-sex marriage and was proudly nationalist. In 2015, it built a fence at the border with Serbia, a measure accompanied by a number of countrywide campaigns against Brussels and the hedge-fund manager cum philanthropist George Soros, who allegedly wanted to force the Magyars to become a country for immigrants.
How Hungary ran George Soros out of town
This strategy worked—for a while. Conservatives who felt that Angela Merkel, the de facto leader of the EPP, had become far too liberal bought the image of Orbán as the stalwart defender of what he himself began labeling a distinctly Christian-nationalist vision. What they did not see, or did not want to see, was the difference between illiberal policies, such as a ban on same-sex marriage —which can exist in a functioning democracy—and Orbán’s systematic undermining of the foundations of a liberal-democratic polity, as when Fidesz effectively ended the independence of the judiciary. They also did not see, or did not want to see, that Orbán’s theatrical performance of a pan-European Kulturkampf—the lone politician loyal to traditional values battling against what Orbán called the “liberal nihilists” running Brussels—was meant to distract from the increasing corruption of the Fidesz government and its cronies.
Starting in 2015, Orbán started to challenge Merkel directly for the leadership of European Christian democracy. This past summer, he explained that “illiberal democracy” was actually nothing more threatening than a proper understanding of Christian democracy, which, in his view, could never be liberal in any sense. To be Christian meant to oppose migration, multiculturalism, and marriages between members of the same sex. Here, Christianity only served as an identity (mainly in opposition to Islam); it was purely about belonging, not about belief, let alone any concrete ethical conduct—a militant Christendom instead of a merciful Christianity.
However, it was less this blatant instrumentalization of religion that convinced a sufficient number of conservatives to change their mind about the enfant terrible in Budapest. It was Orbán’s full-frontal attack on the EU, epitomized in a campaign to “stop Brussels” in 2017; his ostentatious fraternization this summer with Matteo Salvini, the far-right Italian interior minister (who is not a member of the EPP); and, not least, his unconditional support for the governing Law and Justice party in Warsaw, which has copied Orbán’s assault on democracy (but which does not enjoy the protective benefits of EPP membership). They had been loyal to him; it seemed he was less and less loyal to them.
Up until this week, Orbán might still have turned things around. After all, whenever the EPP leadership drew “red lines” in the past, he offered some small concessions and gestured at continuing “constructive dialogue”—the sort of talk on which the EU, that great machine of consensus, or at least compromise, de facto runs. In an unguarded moment, Orbán explained to a domestic audience that he always had to do a “peacock dance” for international critics. But when he appeared in the European Parliament yesterday to defend his government, the deputies witnessed a belligerent populist. To be sure, he tried the Kulturkampf line again, saying that Europe, while officially committed to diversity, could actually not contend with a small, plucky country devoted to traditional family values (never mind that the EU has no authority to regulate marriage or, for that matter, impose immigration policies). But, more importantly, he charged his fellow politicians with wanting to take “revenge” on Hungary; like all populists, he equated criticism of his government with an attack on “the people.” He also announced that he would fight for his vision of an authentic Christian democracy (never mind that, traditionally, Christian Democrats were precisely opposed to the narrow nationalism now advocated by Orbán).