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It’s a familiar sight of the past few weeks: multiple street protests, police firing tear gas, and anger over new laws that threaten to make life harder for many. This time, though, the venue is Budapest not Paris — and the target is not smooth liberal standard-bearer Emmanuel Macron, but rugged right-wing nativist Viktor Orban.

The demonstrations against the Hungarian prime minister are a reminder that there is another side to the narrative of nationalism’s relentless rise in the EU. The anti-Orban rallies, like similar protests seen previously in near neighbours such as Romania and Poland, reveal plenty of people still resist the traditionalist autocratic style even as it prospers in central Europe and elsewhere. On Monday, several opposition MPs were assaulted or manhandled as they protested for a free media inside Hungary's public broadcaster.

President of Hungary Viktor Orban speaks at the European People's Party (EPP) congress in Helsinki, Finland, Thursday Nov. 8, 2018. The EPP, the group uniting Europe's center-right parties, has been wringing its hands over whether to keep Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Fidesz in the fold or cut them loose before European Parliament elections in May. (Markku Ulander/Lehtikuva via AP)
© AP

But the Budapest streets’ kaleidoscope of flares and pro-democracy banners are ominous as well as heartening for Brussels. They show that the Orban government, emboldened by a big re-election win fewer than nine months ago, is undeterred by EU disciplinary proceedings launched against it in September — and is, if anything, more brazen than before. 

Consider the events that triggered the demonstrations. In a chaotic pre-Christmas Hungarian parliament sitting last Wednesday, MPs pushed through legislation to tighten government control of the judiciary and increase the overtime hours companies can ask employees to work — what critics brand the “slavery law”. 

That the vote came on the eve of a European summit in Brussels seemed to hold no fear for Mr Orban’s ruling Fidesz party. Sure enough, Budapest attracted little criticism at an EU leaders’ gathering dominated by the Brexit crisis — save for an oblique swipe by Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, who railed at the Hungarian premier as an “origin of fake news” about the impact of migration.

The immediate summit aftermath has also given Mr Orban little to worry about. The commission on Monday said it shared the extensive concerns about Hungary outlined in a European Parliament-endorsed report this year, notably on fundamental rights, corruption, the treatment of the Roma people, and the independence of the judiciary.

But Brussels also made clear that it was up to EU member states to deal with the problem. The chances of that seem slim: while both Hungary and Poland are the subject of “Article 7” inquiries for alleged breaches of EU values, each has vowed to thwart the unanimity required among the other 27 countries to impose sanctions, such as suspending voting rights. The commission’s alternative strategy of nipping at Hungary’s heels through European Court of Justice challenges to contentious new laws has similarly proved inadequate in containing Orban.

This is perhaps the most important difference between events in Paris and Budapest. While the gilets jaunes protest movement soon forced Mr Macron into concessions, the Orban government has so far shrugged off the protests — and pressed on with a radical agenda that is already reshaping the EU.

Chart du jour: Britain's migration switch

Britain's vote to leave the EU started a Brexodus. Last month the ONS reported that, for the first time in nearly a decade, more EU citizens left than arrived — 3,000 more between April and June 2018. However, net-migrations from other parts of the world have increased. ( FT)

Trans-Europe Express

Cars deal
EU member states and the European Parliament have reached a deal on limiting carbon emissions on cars. The compromise requires a 37.5 per cent reduction by 2030. ( FTReuters)

Beijing ahoy 
Volkskrant has a fascinating piece on how an EU naval mission against piracy off the coast of Somalia has seen off the pirates and is turning its sights on China. (Volkskrant)

Scholz Fund 
A Bertelsmann Foundation study has found that a common EU unemployment fund would be a cost-effective way to stabilise the eurozone in a crisis. It would still be a stretch for the CDU. (Süddeutsche Zeitung

Jürgen Stark, meanwhile, makes the case for more risk-reduction measures for Project Syndicate.

The limits of the eurozone’s solidarity policies are now being tested. The proliferation of backstops not only prevents risk mitigation, but actually invites even more risk. In the event of a crisis, governments’ incapacity to assume this collective burden will be laid bare, with far-reaching implications for the sustainability of public finances and the financial and monetary stability of the eurozone.

Iceland’s comeback
Le Monde looks at how Iceland recovered from the great crash to reach a gross domestic product 15 per cent higher than 2007 levels. 

Digital tax move
France is moving early to collect a national digital tax as soon as January after having failed to convince EU countries to lead the way. ( FT)

Trump and Europe 
An almost elegiac account of Donald Trump’s singular hostility towards Germany and Angela Merkel. (New Yorker)


Rutte ad
The Dutch prime minister is taking full page ads in Dutch papers to explain that Britain “dropped the vase” on Brexit and is now “in chaos”. (Algemeen Dagblad)

Commons manoeuvres
Theresa May set her date for a vote on her Brexit deal, while Jeremy Corbyn tabled a non-binding motion of no confidence in her leadership. ( FT)

No deal is EU's problem 
Shanker Singham runs through some simple steps to ensure a no deal exit is beneficial for Britain. One example includes reducing all tariffs, quotas and barriers to food imports. Why had no-one thought of that? (The Sun)

The Corbyn-May dance of death
Rachel Sylvester is on fine form in The Times:

The parallels between Mrs May and Mr Corbyn are uncanny: the zombie prime minister is shadowed by a leader offering only an illusion of opposition. Both have survived leadership challenges from their MPs, and now cling stubbornly to power, isolated from large swathes of their party and with a bunker mentality setting in. Although socially awkward, they share a sense of moral superiority — the religiosity of the vicar’s daughter is mirrored by the spiritual certainty of the lifelong socialist. They pride themselves on being principled but in both cases the inflexibility is rapidly turning into their greatest weakness.

michael.peel@ft.com; @Mikepeeljourno

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