Besides Vladimir Putin, who has benefitted the most from the terrorist attacks in Paris and from the wave of fear that has gripped Europe? Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary, as well as several other populist leaders from Central Europe, are doing their best not to let this crisis go to waste, using it to boost their approval ratings at home and gain—and in some cases regain—friends abroad.
In past few months, the refugee crisis has enabled Orbán to lure back voters who had previously deserted Fidesz in favor of the neo-Nazi Jobbik Movement for a Better Hungary, a group that has been reinventing itself, much like Front National in France, as a mainstream, respectable group. In his opposition against the mandatory refugee quotas proposed by the European Commission in September Orbán has been joined by Slovakia’s Social Democratic Prime Minister Robert Fico, who, after the terrorist attacks in Paris, “[is] not interested in any musings about ethics, at a time when people’s lives and state security are at stake.”
The leader of Poland’s governing Law and Justice Party, Jarosław Kaczyński, famously warned against the refugees’ spreading tropical diseases. The President of the Czech Republic, Miloš Zeman, another Social Democrat, thought it a good idea to celebrate the 26th anniversary of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution at an anti-Muslim rally, whose convener is being prosecuted for inciting religious hatred.
Domestically, the posturing makes sense. Whether justified or not, fear of Islamist terrorism has shifted the focus of public discussions away from corruption and state capture. Sadly, this grandstanding blurs the fact that, after years of disinvestment and bad management, Central Europe’s military and security forces are in tatters, hardly capable of confronting ISIS or preventing radicalization (so far purely hypothetical) at home.
The attacks in Paris have also put Orbán and his ilk back on the map internationally. Over the years, his controversial economic policies at home, his opposition to the EU’s sanctions on Russia, a secret nuclear deal he reached with Rosatom, and even his deliberate use of the refugee situation for political gain have lost him many friends, including ones in conservative circles on both sides of the Atlantic.
Now, Mr. Orbán is back with a vengeance. A leader who insists he “wants to save the EU and NATO,” as he told Politico.eu in November, may appear to be a necessary, if a bit abrasive, corrective to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s naive and reckless invitation to Middle Eastern hordes bound to destroy the Continent. Orbán’s crime, after all, is only in “speaking honestly about the real problems,” as a recent National Review article puts it.
Here is a word of advice for those on the conservative center-right who think it is time to rehabilitate Viktor Orbán and other seemingly patriotic politicians of the region: don’t. The reality of the refugee crisis does raise some serious questions, which Europe’s mainstream politicians have been dodging either because of incompetence or misplaced concerns over political correctness. What should be done to discourage illegal migrant flows? How can the EU integrate the asylum seekers who are already there—or indeed the many European Muslims who seem alienated from the societies in which they live? And how do we prevent the recurrence of terrorist attacks in the future?
On all these, Europe indeed needs leaders who “speak honestly.” But it also needs leaders who are able to work together.Instead of unveiling their proposals to solve the crisis, Orbán and Fico are threatening the European Commission with a lawsuit at the European Court of Justice over the refugee quotas. If the current refugee crisis marks the end of freedom of movement in the Schengen area, one of the EU’s key claims to popular legitimacy—and perhaps the most obvious and tangible one—will disappear. The damage, should that scenario materialize, would not be repaired easily.
While Orbán has not yet commented on the issue, many of his ilk (President Zeman, most vocally) have advocated teaming up with Russia to create a grand coalition to defeat ISIS militarily. Not only would that involve throwing Ukraine under the bus, it would also be self-defeating in Syria, where President Putin’s objectives and those of the Western liberal democracies are not exactly aligned.
Above all, in order to weather the present crisis, Europe needs responsible leaders. And while they might pretend otherwise, Messrs. Orbán, Zeman, Fico, and Kaczyński are not there to solve Europe’s problems, but to capitalize on them.