In last month’s ‘State of the Nation’ address in Budapest, an isolated Viktor Orbán outlined a strategy to ramp up his anti-EU disinformation campaign. European institutions must find a way to fight back.
During the speech, prime minister Orbán had a rare moment of honesty. He admitted that when it comes to Europe’s position on the Ukraine war he now stands alone.
He lamented how even Germany joined those who stand “on the side of the war,” adding that they “did not go from their own will,” and dropped a nasty insult equating the Federal Republic to Nazi Germany (musing that “they may still have the old maps”).
Orbán is correct: he is the sole EU leader who openly stands with Vladimir Putin. However, he fails to see that Putin is the aggressor, not the victim.
Completely isolated on the issue of the actual war ‒ Orbán is desperate to improve his international standing by pivoting to the culture war. And that means doubling down on an anti-EU disinformation campaign, based on Putin’s playbook.
In his speech, Orbán once again conflated the LGBTQ+ community with paedophiles, and implied that Brussels was siding with child abusers: “We do not care what repulsive aberrations some people indulge in. We do not care how Brussels excuses and explains the inexcusable.”
We are yet to hear anyone from the European Commission reply to these accusations.
The reluctance of EU institutions to counter anti-EU falsehoods is becoming more and more untenable. Orbán is keen to export his agenda abroad, propped up by considerable financial resources. He aims to inspire Eurosceptic forces in other member states from Italy through Poland and the Balkans to France ‒ presumably, to get some much-needed backing in his many fights with Brussels.
New think-tank on the block
A recent step towards this goal was launching MCC Brussels, a think-tank funded by the Orbán government by misused taxpayer money, to promote their thoughts at the heart of the EU, and to influence the EU agenda. MCC also reflects how the government has taken over the Hungarian higher education system to aggressively push their nationalist-populist ideology and agenda.
MCC is a lavishly-funded institution with ample Russian ties. British political scientist John Laughland, a visiting lecturer, was detained and interrogated by British anti-terrorism authorities for allegations of spying. He is a regular on Russian propaganda channel Russia Today (RT).
The head of the organisation, executive director Frank Füredi, is also an RT columnist, who has criticised efforts to counter populism and has described initiatives to decolonise curriculums at UK universities as the work of “cultural Taliban”.
Research director Werner J. Patzelt has been associated with the post-fascist Pegida movement that fights against the “Islamicisation of the west”. He touts an openly xenophobic worldview, including the anti-Semitic ‘Great Replacement’ theory, in which white Europeans are deliberately being replaced by a multi-ethnic population as part of an alleged plan by liberal elites.
In an op-ed for Politico, Füredi insisted that MCC Brussels offers an “alternative vision” for Europe. But in fact, what it promotes is Putin’s vision, and its aim is to destroy the EU.
Orbán’s remarks on the EU are a far cry from a legitimate disagreement on values, ideology or policy. His and his fellow party members’ violent rants against ‘Brussels’ ‒ placarded through Hungary on billboards ‒ rest on blatant lies.
Recently, Fidesz politicians have claimed that Brussels wants to ‘promote sex-change operations to Hungarian toddlers’, or that Brussels wants to ‘force Hungarians to eat bugs.’
Hungary’s taxpayer-funded public media is the EU’s number one source of Russian propaganda.
There are reports that RT abandoned plans to open an office in Budapest in the past, “as they felt that they did not need to operate in Hungary, as pro-governmental media is doing their job.” An investigation showed that Hungarian public media filtered news relating to Russia, with news agency MTI calling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “Russia’s operation”, echoing the Kremlin’s strict reference to the war as a “special military operation”.
The real problem is that the European Commission has never made an earnest effort to counter this disinformation campaign.
EU institutions’ passivity sadly shows that they failed to learn the lessons of Brexit. During the 2016 referendum resulting in the United Kingdom leaving the EU, the Leave campaign’s messaging was rife with falsehoods, which were met with a deafening silence by the EU. After stepping down as Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker said his biggest regret was that he did not fight back. “I was wrong to be silent at an important moment,” he said.
So, what should European institutions do? Countering malign influence from Russia also involves closely monitoring how it can be filtered through Orbán’s Hungary, acting as Putin’s Trojan horse in the EU. We need better vetting processes so that Russian propagandists and lobbyists cannot infiltrate EU decision-making, masqueraded as ‘independent think-tankers.’
The European Commission should also monitor anti-EU disinformation and more aggressively counter falsehoods with facts, by devising a communications strategy fit for the 21st century. If lies and hate-campaigns are all citizens hear about the European Union, the logical consequence will be a growing anti-EU sentiment. This puts the entire European project in danger.