The UK has left the EU, but the Tories remain important players
Tomorrow, Boris Johnson will be meeting the EU’s enfant terrible, Viktor Orbán, whose visit to Downing Street may give some indication into the UK’ s international and domestic post-Brexit trajectory.
No. 10 has claimed that partnership with Budapest is “vital to the UK’s security and prosperity”, but this line met with some scepticism. Yesterday, former UK Ambassador to the EU and Washington Kim Darroch warned: “I’m not sure Orbán is a massively useful ally on anything much, given his current standing in Europe and internationally”.
But is Darroch correct? In light of tense UK-EU relations, the meeting between the two leaders may be arriving at an opportune moment. Speculation about the two forging a special partnership predated Johnson’s accession to the UK premiership. In May 2018, for example, then Foreign Secretary Johnson surprised many by congratulating the Hungarian PM on his re-election in spite of concerns over the process.
And yet, for all the backslapping, this is yet to translate into anything more concrete. In Autumn 2019, there was considerable speculation that Orbán would help Johnson by vetoing an extension for Theresa May’s ‘soft’ Brexit Deal in the European Council, but this did not materialise. A year later, Budapest then surprised London by subjecting UK nationals to immigration control before the end of the Brexit transition period — a seemingly unfriendly act.
Nonetheless, there are some areas where the two leaders might be able to find some common ground. For one, the EU ‘Neighbourhood Policy’, which is responsible for the bloc’s relations with countries of common strategic significance is in the hands of Hungarian Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi. On issues like immigration from North Africa and the Middle East, the two countries are likely to join forces.
The truth, however, is that Orbán needs Johnson more than the other way round. The UK has left the EU, but the Tories remain important players in the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) — the pan-continental grouping of Euro-sceptic parties. Since leaving the European People’s Party in March, Fidesz has been politically homeless and Orbán will be looking to forge new alliances. In April, the Hungarian PM’s attempt to do this by bringing together parties from the ECR and the far-Right Identity and Democracy ended in embarrassing failure.
Meanwhile his MEP’s sit ignominiously as ‘non-inscrits’ — quite literally on the back row of the European Parliament. Beyond the symbolic position, this also deprives those MEPs of many procedural — and indeed financial — advantages that come with Euro-Party membership. If Orbán is to secure Johnson’s approval, that will go some way to bringing his party in from the cold.