Skip to content Skip to footer

Out with Orban

Plus: the right Canadian model for Brexit Britain; the coming trade war over European cars

For all her faults, Angela Merkel has done more to help refugees in recent years than any other European leader. So it is incongruous – indeed, shameful – that the German Chancellor’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is in the same political group in the European Parliament as Fidesz, the party of Hungary’s vehemently xenophobic prime minister, Viktor Orban (on the left in the photo).

Orban is not just a far-right nationalist who makes Donald Trump look liberal on immigration issues. He is also an increasingly authoritarian populist who tramples on Hungary’s democracy in outrageous ways that make a mockery of the EU’s fundamental values.

Orban has muzzled the press, politicised the judiciary and corrupted the state, using his power to shovel contracts – and EU funds – to his cronies. NGOs can no longer assist undocumented migrants and academically unimpeachable Central European University is been driven out of Budapest because it receives foreign funding.

Were Orban’s Hungary applying to join the EU now, it would be inadmissible until it complied with EU norms of liberal democracy. As an EU member, its voting rights ought to be suspended – but this could only happen if all other EU governments agreed to sanction Hungary, something which Orban’s Polish allies would veto. But at the very least Orban’s party ought to be expelled from the European People’s Party (EPP), the ostensibly centre-right group that runs most EU institutions.

To their credit, some EPP member parties have finally demanded a vote on whether to expel (or at least suspend) Fidesz at a meeting on 20 March. The final straw was Orban’s latest vile poster campaign, which anti-Semitically portrays George Soros, the Hungarian-born philanthropist who founded the Open Society Foundations, in cahoots with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (who like Orban is in the EPP) to flood Hungary with threatening refugees.

But for now Germany’s CDU, the largest EPP member, has yet to say what course of action it will back. Merkel’s successor as CDU chair, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (commonly known as AKK), remains strenuously non-committal. That is a mistake.

The case for expelling Fidesz is not just one of principle: that a far-right anti-EU party has no place in a supposedly centre-right pro-EU group. It is politically pragmatic too. Polls suggest the EPP will need the support of pro-EU greens and liberals such as Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche to muster a parliamentary majority after the European Parliament elections in May. While the EPP would be smaller without Fidesz, it would find it much harder to garner wider support with Fidesz on board.

The other political argument for keeping Fidesz in the EPP – that it’s better to have Orban in the tent pissing out than outside pissing in – is outdated. Orban is both a wrecking ball inside the EPP and a Trojan horse for the far right. As I have argued previously for Brussels Times, his aim is to capture first the EPP and then EU institutions and advance his xenophobic nationalist agenda from within. To save itself and safeguard the EU, the EPP needs to expel Orban.

The coming trade war over European cars

Beware enemies hiding in plain sight. The Audi in the driveway and that BMW creeping around the corner are threats to national security. These days, it’s not the reds under the bed Americans need to worry about—it’s the Mercs on the lurk.

With the US trade deficit hitting a ten-year high last year, Donald Trump is itching for a fight with the EU over its car exports, which a leaked Commerce Department ludicrously deems a threat to US national security. Trump has until May to decide whether to slap punitive tariffs on European cars – and if he does go ahead the consequences would be severe, not least for the US itself.

Read my piece for Foreign Policy in full.

The right Canadian model for Brexit Britain

Hardline Brexiteers think the UK’s future relationship with the EU should be much like Canada’s – limited to a free-trade agreement that does not constrain the UK’s ability to set its own trade policy, regulations and immigration controls.

But there is a better way in which Canada could be a model for Brexit Britain. The UK ought to emulate the modest realism with which Canada approaches relations with the economic giant on its doorstep, explains Jack Graham in a great piece for OPEN.

In negotiating the US Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA) – which is to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – Canadians were painfully aware of the limits of their leverage. While their government was firm and pushed back wherever possible, it refused to overpromise to the public on how much it could realistically achieve. Ultimately, Justin Trudeau’s government had to swallow certain hard truths. When negotiating with a bigger partner that has less to lose than you do, compromises have to be made.

In contrast, Britain’s politicians have often opted for bombastic nationalism in Brexit negotiations – to disastrous effect.

Read Jack’s piece in full.

Brexit psychodrama Part 366

With 17 days until the UK is due to leave the EU, today sees yet more votes on the UK’s EU Withdrawal Agreement, which Parliament rejected in January by an unprecedented 230 votes. Not much has changed since then, but as I argued for Aspen Italia, the most likely option is still that the exit deal will ultimately be approved, because it is better than the alternative of no-deal chaos, and regrettably there is not sufficient support for a second referendum.

Read my piece in full.

The World Refugee Council has called for a major overhaul of the global refugee system in order to protect the interests of the forcibly displaced, as well as those of the countries and local communities that host them. OPEN Advisory Board member Ratna Omidvar was a member of the Council.

Among the Council’s key recommendations:

  • create an independent Global Action Network for the Forcibly Displaced;
  • promote leadership roles for women and youth, thereby giving a voice to more than half of those who are forcibly displaced globally;
  • develop a new peer review system to spotlight those in the international community who are not fulfilling their commitments to protect and assist refugees;
  • mobilise innovative financing systems, including refugee bonds and private equity instruments, for the benefit of refugee-hosting states;
  • promote special measures through the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation for countries hosting large numbers of refugees in the developing world;
  • strengthen protection for IDPs, including through the establishment of a Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General to coordinate international responses; and
  • confiscate and repurpose frozen assets of corrupt or violent regimes to support those who are forcibly displaced by those regimes.

David Miliband, the head of the International Rescue Committee, quoted OPEN’s research which shows that one euro invested in welcoming refugees can yield nearly two euros in economic benefits within five years.

Have a great week.


Spread the word: please share this with your friends and colleagues and tell them about OPEN.

Contribute: OPEN’s mission is to defend and advance open liberal societies. If you read anything particularly good that is relevant to our work, please let us know by emailing If you have something interesting and relevant to say and would like to write for our blog, please get in touch too.

Privacy update: OPEN only makes use of the personal data that you provide us to send out emails we think you’ll want to read like this newsletter. Our updated GDPR-compliant privacy policy makes this clear.


Leave a comment