There was plenty of bonhomie when Viktor Orban met Donald Trump at the Oval Office on Monday during the first state visit by a Hungarian prime minister to Washington for 15 years.
On the face of it, the two self proclaimed “strongmen” have plenty to smile about. Mr Trump lauded his Hungarian counterpart for defending Europe’s Christians, his vehement stance against non-European immigration, and for being a “very good member of Nato” (although as a proportion of GDP, Hungary’s military spending lags that of Germany — a country Mr Trump often lambasts for not doing more).
“You have been great with respect to Christian communities. You have really put a block up and we appreciate that very much,” Mr Trump said.
"[He’s] respected all over Europe. Probably like me, [he’s] a little bit controversial but that’s OK. He’s a tough man but he’s done the right thing on immigration” the president told waiting journalists.
Mr Orban beamed. This was a new experience for him.
The Hungarian, who has overseen a slow dismantling of independent institutions including civil society and the media over the past nine years, had been shunned by the last two US presidents. And despite being the first EU leader to welcome Mr Trump’s election in 2016, Mr Orban has had an extended wait to visit the White House.
“Orban has been wanting this visit for two and a half years. It’s embarrassing,” a former Hungarian ambassador to the US told the New York Times in this must-read piece. There’s also an interview with the premier here.
Beneath Mr Trump and Mr Orban’s shared affinity for unilateralism and macho exteriors, there are deep reservations in Washington about Hungary’s commitment to US causes under the ruling Fidesz party.
The FT lists the litany of grievances that senior White House figures hold against the nationalist rightwing prime minister. They include Mr Orban’s cosying up to China’s Huawei, his resistance to keeping the George Soros-funded Central European University in Budapest despite US pressure, and flouting a Washington extradition request over two suspected Russian arms dealers in Hungary last year.
Benjamin Novak of the NYT has some fascinating quotes from State Department officials, accusing the Hungarian of ignoring US strategic interests on Russia and China (check out the thread in full):
“We’re treating someone who is at best a fair-weather friend and possibly not any kind of friend like our best friend. Again, what have they done to show us that what we request of them matters? It’s hard to see.”
Two weeks ahead of European elections, Brussels also watched on as Mr Trump — whose secretary of state Mike Pompeo last week unceremoniously abandoned a planned trip to Berlin — embraced the EU’s bête noire. (Mr Pompeo made a surprise visit on Monday to Brussels, where EU foreign ministers were meeting).
“Trump was sending a clear message that he is rooting for parties that want to undermine Europe,” writes Ed Luce. Steve Bannon, who once dubbed Mr Orban the “Trump before Trump”, tells the FT the US visit was “tremendously helpful” in his bid to overrun the European Parliament with “sovereigntist” far-right parties later this month.
Monday’s one-hour meeting was not the moment to tackle US-Hungarian tensions. Mr Trump skirted over Mr Orban’s authoritarianism and said defence and security co-operation wouldn’t be a point of discussion.
When faced with a pointed question over Hungary’s growing illiberalism, Mr Orban responded with a Trumpesque flourish: his policies were “from the people, by the people, and for the people”.
Chart du jour: catch up growth
The EU’s newest economies are enjoying some of the fastest rates of growth, helping foster convergence with the rest of the bloc. But not all convergence is good. Europe’s southern countries are getting poorer. More charts here via the FT’s Valentina Romei.
What we’re reading on Planet Europe
Pompeo’s crash landing
Having switched course mid-air last week to skip German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Mr Pompeo “crashed” a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday, says the Washington Post. The secretary of state was in town for surprise talks over Iran with the “E3” of France, Germany, and the UK, and was told to lower tensions with Tehran (FT). Mr Pompeo was en route to Russia where he is due to meet foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday — and possibly President Vladimir Putin afterwards.
Romania’s risk of ‘impunity’
Brussels has issued an ultimatum to Bucharest to reverse planned legal changes or face a rule of law disciplinary procedure like Poland and Hungary. The FT has more.
A triumph of German democracy
The Atlantic’s David Frum with a poignant celebration marking 70 years of German postwar democracy:
Adenauer’s gamble — democracy first, justice later — has been vindicated. And those of us in other democracies are maybe called upon to search our own consciences.
After 70 years of self-examination, modern Germany has some lessons to teach and some wisdom to impart from its own hard experience to those perhaps excessively proud of their own imperfect past and deteriorating present.
Mandate for the future
Finland’s Olli Rehn, a contender for the ECB’s top job, wants a rethink of the central bank’s priorities including its sacrosanct inflation target of just below 2 per cent. Ferdinando Giugliano at Bloomberg View thinks it’s a good place to start. In case you missed it, Jürgen Stark told Der Spiegel at the weekend that Jens Weidmann, the German in the running, can help “depoliticise” the ECB.
More than just a renaissance
Le Monde have created a handy interactive tool summarising the manifestos and MEP hopefuls across all France’s political parties. The FT’s poll tracker has Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in joint first with 21 seats each.
Hold my beer
Brussels slapped a €200m fine on beverage maker AB InBev for overcharging Belgian beer-drinkers.
Call me maybe
European consumers will enjoy cheaper intra-EU international phone calls after the European Commission introduces new price caps this week.
Formula One will return to the Netherlands next year for the first time in over three decades. (NRC)
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