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Viktor Orbán, facing an upcoming general election, may generate domestic political capital if the German government becomes more decisive in demanding that EU member states comply with the European Union’s migration-related regulations. Although the Hungarian government objects rhetorically to the German-French vision of a two-speed integration system, it would likely not oppose a flexibly constructed policy offering more opportunities to enhance national sovereignty. 

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The Hungarian goverment would likely not oppose a flexibly constructed policy offering more opportunities to enhance national sovereignty

Even though Viktor Orbán called on his followers to “say a prayer every night for the renewal of the incumbent chancellor’s mandate” before the German general election, he was rather restrained in congratulating Merkel and pro-EU forces on their victory. Meanwhile, the government-controlled Hungarian media avidly discussed the German chancellor’s weakened position, with the majority believing that Merkel both won and lost at the same time, mainly due to her “flawed” immigration policy. 

The decline of Fidesz’s sister party and ally in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU), was not such a hot topic despite the fact that the CSU saw its support drop by 10% compared to the previous election. This is important because Viktor Orbán has a cordial relationship with the CSU, as is demonstrated by his regular visits to Bavaria in recent years. Fidesz uncharacteristically “interfered” in German domestic politics on the side of the CSU in 2015-2016 when Orbán and other government representatives repeatedly expressed near-open criticism of Angela Merkel. 

German political climate shifted slightly towards Orbán

Hungarian media outlets broadcasting the government’s propaganda, however, put considerable emphasis on the gains made by the anti-immigration AfD, which will enter the Bundestag as the third-strongest parliamentary group after having garnered 12.6% of the vote.
The success of the AfD, which has managed to alter both the balance of power and the party system in Germany, originated in immigration, which German voters still consider one of the country’s most pressing problems. The manner in which Hungarian government-controlled media have emphasised that “the lying liberal-leftist media elite have forced the AfD into the ‘racist’ category, while they simply label all their voters ‘stupid’” is indicative of the rhetoric. According to the above-mentioned media, the primary significance of the invigorated far right and the demise of the grand coalition is the fact that Orbán’s thesis about the “year of rebellion” against the “liberal global elites” continues to hold true. Thus, while it was in Fidesz’s interest for a Merkel-led government to continue in Germany for reasons of economic pragmatism and the party’s contentious relationship with the Social Democrats, the decline of pro-EU parties and the rise of the far right can now be used to justify the prime minister’s vision.  

Hungarian-German relations will in large part be defined by the members of the new governing coalition that will ultimately emerge in Germany. Currently, the “Jamaica” coalition, consisting of the CDU/CSU, the liberal FDP and the Greens, is the most likely scenario, which could be both a blessing and a curse for the Hungarian government. CSU’s poor showing in Bavaria and the AfD’s rise to second place in the region may put the CDU under even more pressure to pursue a tougher immigration policy. Certain interpretations suggest that the electorate punished the Christian Socialists for their inability to meaningfully influence Merkel’s immigration policy. Consequently, the CSU would like to put an end to the AfD’s success through a more focused strategy ahead of upcoming regional elections. Given the fact that the German chancellor agreed to limit the maximum number of asylum-seekers in Germany, the German political climate already shifted slightly towards the interests of Viktor Orbán.

Orbáns goal is to keep the migration issue at the top of the political agenda

In the short-term, it would also benefit Fidesz if the new German government took a stronger stand on enforcing the EU’s migration-related regulations (quotas, the Dublin system, etc.). Many in the CDU believe that the AfD would not have gained so much popular support if Berlin had emphasised the importance of implementing the quota decision more consistently, in order to ease the burden on Germany. A more decisive stance in the future would presumably not be opposed by the Greens or the FDP, but it is questionable whether Merkel will be willing to be more confrontational with member states that unwaveringly refuse to comply with the quota decision. Nevertheless, even a small shift could be exploited by the Hungarian government ahead of next year’s general election with another “national consultation” aimed at making voters believe that George Soros and Brussels are conspiring to settle millions of immigrants in Europe. Moreover, Orbán might try to provoke some sort of sanction against Hungary with respect to migration in order to be able to legitimise the above-mentioned “consultation”. His main goal is to keep the migration issue at the top of the political agenda in advance of the upcoming elections in April 2018. 

By making a connection before the German election between cuts to EU funding and the implementation of the quota decision, Merkel provided domestic political ammunition for Viktor Orbán’s position. The prime minister suggests that there is only one reason behind the critical voices speaking out against Hungary: the country’s contrarian stance on immigration. Besides the fact that it is unwise to link the drawing of EU funds to a Council resolution that the EU cannot enforce, such an ultimatum could feature in the Hungarian prime minister’s “freedom struggle” against Brussels. It also distracts attention away from the EU’s criticism of the lex-CEU and the NGO law, over which the European Parliament approved a resolution in the spring of 2017 potentially triggering an Article 7 procedure. Moreover, it remains to be seen whether Berlin will be willing to pressure Hungary economically. Given the fact that the Greens and the Liberals have been critical of the Hungarian and Polish governments – governments which are turning their backs on their past achievements and moving towards the establishment of a hybrid regime – bilateral tensions on the rhetorical level could also increase if the Greens or the Liberals were to take control of Germany’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The possibility of an economic sanction need not be introduced as a flamboyant measure to punish Budapest; it would be enough to refer to the economic imperatives which have arisen in the wake of Brexit (we have a smaller cake to divide) and the migration crisis. The idea of allocating additional funding to the relatively more developed regions to tackle new challenges such as integrating refugees and demographic change has also come up. This does not portend a favourable outcome for Hungary in the budget negotiations for the post-2020 period.

Whether there will be sufficient political will to do this will depend on the emergent German coalition, as the German economy and German companies operating in Hungary might also be affected by cuts to EU funding, at least according to the Hungarian government.

What will happen to European integration?

The results of the German election are also going to affect the Orbán government’s manoeuvring room at the EU-level in debates on the institutional future of the European Union, where the Hungarian government regularly speaks out against the creation of a two-speed EU. In the event of a Jamaica coalition, Merkel will have a tough time reconciling the fiscally conservative liberals, who oppose further Eurozone enlargement, and the Greens, who want member states to take joint financial responsibility. In a speech just two days after the German general election, Emmanuel Macron took a much more moderate line on Eurozone reform by omitting references to an EU monetary fund and the potential takeover of member states’ debt. The French president presumably took this step in order not to undermine Angela Merkel’s position in the upcoming coalition talks. The Hungarian government considers deeper economic cooperation to help the Eurozone succeed a possibility, but only if the unity of the single market and equality in terms of competition are ensured, and if those deciding to remain outside the Eurozone can freely opt to join later. As an ECFR study has also suggested, Hungary would support any form of more flexible integration to strengthen national sovereignty, similarly to Poland and Great Britain.  

This is important because so far the Orbán regime – unlike the governments in Slovakia and the Czech Republic – has given no indication that it wants Hungary to move towards the fast lane of deeper economic integration. Indeed, this could hardly be reconciled with Orbán’s domestic political interests and his illiberal state organisation. The German chancellor’s words suggest that Merkel has given up on keeping the 27 post-Brexit EU member states united at all costs, and that she may be willing to implement the multi-speed model – which has been tried in a limited number of areas – more often. Such efforts would presumably be supported by the Liberals and the Greens as well. It remains an open question, however, whether the existing structures (enhanced cooperation, PESCO) offer a framework suitable for achieving this goal in terms of flexibility and allowing the Hungarian government to only take part in initiatives which benefit them politically. Fidesz’s long-term interest is to maintain the “open gate” nature of EU policies, while preventing the formation of any institutional inner core with a potential veto.