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Why Johnson’s Meeting with Viktor Orbán Is Provoking Controversy

Hungary’s authoritarian Prime Minister will meet Johnson at Downing Street – but what will the pair find to talk about? Sian Norris sums up the controversies surrounding Viktor Orbán

Boris Johnson and Viktor Orbán meeting in 2019. Photo: Christian Hartmann/Reuters/Alamy

Why Johnson’s Meeting with Viktor Orbán Is Provoking Controversy

Hungary’s authoritarian Prime Minister will meet Johnson at Downing Street – but what will the pair find to talk about? Sian Norris sums up the controversies surrounding Viktor Orbán

Boris Johnson will hold talks today with populist authoritarian leader Viktor Orbán, saying cooperation with Hungary is “vital to UK’s prosperity and security”. 

The Hungarian Prime Minister has been accused of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia and cracking down on human rights in his country.

Downing Street has criticised some of Orbán’s comments as “divisive and wrong”. Labour says Orbán’s visit to Downing Street undermines the UK Government’s commitments to human rights. 

But what are those “divisive and wrong” comments? And how has Orbán’s increasingly authoritarian regime cracked down on human rights – including those of people seeking asylum and the LGBTIQ community?

‘The Great Replacement

While many European Union countries responded to the 2015 refugee crisis by committing to welcome more people fleeing persecution and conflict – including the UK’s Vulnerable People Resettlement Scheme and Germany’s promise to take one million refugees – Orbán took a different path.

The Hungarian Prime Minister told the German newspaper Bild: “We don’t see these people as Muslim refugees. We see them as Muslim invaders”.

Orbán refused to take part in the EU’s 2015 Refugee Resettlement Programme and attracted international censure for his regime’s often aggressive and brutal treatment of those crossing the border into Hungary.  In more recent years, he has criminalised NGOs for helping asylum seekers and, in 2020, he used the Coronavirus as a cover to suspend asylum rights. 

Orbán’s response to the refugee crisis echoed the far-right conspiracy theory known as the ‘Great Replacement’, which posits that migration from the Global South, encouraged by the EU, is ‘replacing’ the white race in Europe and ‘de-Christianising’ the region. 

“Political forces,” Orbán said in a 2019 speech, “want to replace the white European population with ‘others’. If in the future Europe is to be populated by people other than Europeans then we will effectively be consenting to population replacement.”

Orbán’s speech also reflects the natalist policies introduced to try and boost the ethnic Hungarian birth rate. These include financial incentives for large families, alongside anti-abortion rhetoric. Tim Montgomerie, once known as the most influential Conservative outside of Parliament, tweeted in 2019 that Hungary’s family policy “is worthy of close study”.

As well as incendiary comments about Muslims and migration, Orbán has also been accused of anti-Semitism, particularly in relation to billionaire philanthropist George Soros. In 2019, a Government-appointed cultural commissioner compared Soros to Hitler

Ahead of today’s meeting, UK Jewish groups have urged Boris Johnson to challenge Orbán on anti-Semitism. Mike Katz, chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, said: “On Friday, Mr Johnson must follow his own advice and call-out Viktor Orban’s hate speech against Jews and other minorities in Hungary. British Jews would expect nothing less.”

Attacks on the Free Press

In 2010, Orbán’s Government passed a law allowing the Government to elect all five members of the country’s Media Council – the body set up to monitor and enforce new media laws passed in Hungary’s Parliament.

Since then, his ruling Fidesz Party has abused its two-thirds majority by co-opting public broadcasters and other critical media outlets into its propaganda machine. 

News outlets that criticise the Government such as Klubradio have been closed down on spurious grounds, while nearly all media outlets loyal to Fidesz are centralised in an organisation called the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA). 

Research by the International Press Institute estimates that, since KESMA was set up in 2018, 80% of the news market has been financed by sources determined by the Fidesz party – meaning that it now controls more than 470 media outlets in Hungary. 

The New Scapegoat

In 2020, the Hungarian Government “upped the ante” of attacks on the LGBTIQ community, including by passing a law denying legal recognition of gender identity.

At the same time, the nation’s Constitution was updated to state that a child’s biological sex must be respected. This was followed by a ban on same-sex couples adopting children in an attack on rainbow families.

Linked to attacks on press freedom, the Hungarian Government has demanded a publisher print disclaimers on books containing “behaviour inconsistent with traditional gender roles”. A Government minister publicly shredded a children’s book featuring LGBTIQ characters. 

Even footballing legends have been caught up in the row over LGBTIQ rights. Péter Gulácsi faced attacks after defending LGBTIQ people on his Facebook page, while prominent commentator and former national player János Hrutka was fired from his television role after defending Gulácsi. His employers denied that the two incidents were connected.  

LGBTIQ rights organisation, the Háttér Society, has said that it has seen more calls to its helpline about hate crimes as Government attacks increase. 

Mutual Friends?

Viktor Orbán has met with Donald Trump’s former campaign manager and far-right ideologue Steve Bannon on numerous occasions, including at a Future of Europe conference where the pair were joined by Spectator writer and self-styled freedom of speech champion Douglas Murray. It has never been clear how Murray squares his meeting with an authoritarian Prime Minister who attacks the press, and his support for free speech. 

Bannon said he planned to work with Orbán, having set up an organisation called The Movement designed to elect right-wing nationalist and populist members in the European Parliament elections of May 2019.

Footage obtained by The Observer in 2019 suggested that Bannon helped Boris Johnson to craft his resignation speech when the now Prime Minister was Foreign Secretary. Bannon said: “I’ve been talking to him all weekend about this speech. We went back and forth over the text… all I was telling him all weekend was just to incorporate those themes. Those same themes.”

The “themes” he was referring was “lets make Britain great again” – an update to the slogan that helped secure Trump’s win in 2016. 

“Basically, he was saying that June 23 was independence day for Great Britain,” Bannon said. “Their independence day being like our July 4.”

Johnson has denied any connection with Steve Bannon. In 2018, he said that any idea that the pair were in touch was “a lefty delusion whose spores continue to breed in the Twittersphere”.

In response to the 2019 footage, a spokesman for Johnson said: “Any suggestion that Boris is colluding with or taking advice from Mr Bannon or Nigel Farage is totally preposterous to the point of conspiracy.”

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