Budapest, Hungary – Viktor Orban and Boris Johnson have had many kind words for one another over the past years. After Orban’s electoral victory in 2018, Johnson was one of the only leading Western figures to congratulate Hungary’s Prime Minister. Johnson’s comments were reciprocated upon his winning of the 2019 general election, with Orban calling him “one of Europe’s bravest politicians” for his ability to stand up to the EU leadership.
It should not then come as a surprise that Orban became only the second EU leader to visit the UK since the final stages of Brexit were completed.
Hungary’s Orban becomes second EU leader to visit the UK since Brexit
Liberal leaders and human rights advocates lined up to criticise the Prime Minister for entertaining someone who has been so open of his crackdown on human rights, press freedoms and his strong anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric. The Liberal Democrat leader, Ed Davey, stated that “Orban’s rule has been marked by a sustained assault on Hungarian democracy, on press freedom and on human rights”.
Yet it is exactly for these reasons that we should not be shocked by Johnson’s decision to entertain someone with a history of anti-liberal and authoritarian tendencies. Although the media has consistently set up Johnson as a liberal, his policies since have been anything but.
Since entering office in July 2019, Johnson has passed an authoritarian policing bill granting extra powers to the Met Police, enforced a crackdown on protesters through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which also criminalises Gypsy and traveler communities and voter suppression through the introduction of compulsory photo IDs.
Number 10 is also planning on introducing an immigration system that allows the government to deport larger numbers of refugees, whilst the Judicial Review Bill will make it far more difficult for members of the public to challenge the government if it acts unlawfully.
A fellow maverick
After leaving the European Union, the Prime Minister and his government are desperate to forge ties with partners around the world in order to make his vision of a “Global Britain” a reality. Prior to the meeting with Orban, Johnson stated that “where we have concerns about human rights we do not shy away from raising them”. Following the meeting itself, Number 10 claimed that the Prime Minister had raised “significant concerns” with Orban regarding media freedom and human rights.
Ultimately, any real “concerns” for human rights take a back seat when it comes to the foreign policy of the UK government. Instead, the Prime Minister and his government are looking for allies in the post-Brexit environment, both economically and ideologically.
A deal with Hungary is by no means the most important in the near future. The trade deal with the United States is the priority for the UK government and there stands a huge amount to be expected over negotiations with the Americans. Nevertheless, when looking towards Europe it is clear that Johnson sees Orban as a fellow maverick who took on the European elite.
This visit encapsulates the precarity of the UK position in its future negotiations. The Prime Minister is desperate to seek new trade deals in the coming months in order to show how his vision of a “Global Britain” is becoming a reality. It is clear that the hosting of this particular authoritarian will not be the last.
By Nick Cosburn
Nick is an English student of Austrian and Hungarian descent. After studying German and Politics at Leeds University, Nick is currently studying for an MA in Political Science at the Central European University. He has strong interests in politics, football, architecture, and everything in between.