Italy’s Giorgia Meloni has been credited with overcoming Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán’s resistance to fresh EU funds for Ukraine. But far from moderating the Hungarian premier, Meloni is bringing Orbán-style far-right politics into the European mainstream.

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán talks with Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni prior to the start of an EU Summit on March 23, 2023 in Brussels, Belgium. (Thierry Monasse / Getty Images)

Giorgia Meloni is facilitating the political rehabilitation of the European Union’s most famous blackmailer and autocrat, Viktor Orbán. Widely known as the Kremlin’s Trojan horse in the EU, Orbán had for months blocked a fresh tranche of EU aid to Kyiv — only to be allegedly talked out of this line by the far-right Italian premier. In a laudatory video, CNN took this as evidence that today we are seeing “Meloni’s moment” in Europe.

Yet we should be wary of such praise. For to laud Italy’s prime minister as an influential leader who can restrain the EU’s “bad guy” would just mean playing her game. After penetrating the European conservative establishment with her postfascist Fratelli d’Italia party, Meloni is now making room for her long-standing illiberal teammates. More than neutralizing Orbán, Italy’s far-right leader is Orbánizing both her country and the EU itself.

Appeasement With the Autocrat

Across December and February, European leaders gave their green light to the start of negotiations for Ukraine’s accession and to financial assistance for Kyiv. The move was subject to veto by any one EU member state — and was long held up by Hungary’s far-right leader.

To unlock Orbán’s blackmail at the European Council, both the heads of government and the European Commission president played the same tactics as Angela Merkel did when she was in charge as German chancellor: they compromised with Orbán. Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen released €10 billion of EU funds to Hungary. French president Emmanuel Macron talked business, especially in the nuclear sector. German chancellor Olaf Scholz helped orchestrate the stratagems by which Orbán could give the green light to Kyiv without losing face at home.

But more than anybody, it was Meloni who showed “dialogue skills,” as she called it. The Italian president of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) party presents herself as the “bridge” between the European establishment and the untamed far right. She also sells herself as the leader who could bring Vladimir Putin’s friends back into the NATO fold.

The point is that she is not really taming Orbán.

On the eve of the European Council in February, Meloni and Orbán had an overnight meeting in her hotel in Brussels. On the case of Ilaria Salis, an Italian woman detained in Budapest in inhuman conditions, the Italian prime minister ended up adopting Orbán’s version of things: she accepted to wait for the trial to be held in Hungary, without pushing for Salis to be taken back to Italy. On Sweden’s entry into NATO, a few days later, MEPs from Orbán’s Fidesz party did not show up for the ratification vote: it took a few weeks for the Swedish premier to travel to Budapest to negotiate an agreement, so that the Hungarian parliament could approve Sweden’s NATO membership this week.

More than mitigating Hungary’s illiberal prime minister, Meloni has given him room to gain more power in the EU. With the blessing of the other leaders, the ECR president envisaged Fidesz to join her political group after June’s EU Parliament elections. “After the vote, we will join the ECR group,” Hungary’s prime minister announced to Italian press immediately after February’s council meeting.

The chance for Fidesz to join the ECR group in the European Parliament is at the center of Orbán’s concerns. Meloni’s ability to enact a normalization of her party’s fascist past has allowed her to penetrate the core of European power structures: she has been pursuing a tactical alliance with the mainstream Christian-democratic European People’s Party (EPP) since 2021, a strategy that is increasingly paying off, as her visible closeness to Von der Leyen indicates. While Orbán’s Fidesz got divorced from the EPP, Meloni has succeeded in seducing it.

A Shared Playbook

The “Melonization” of European politics is thus something that Orbán can truly dream about. Yet, the relationship doesn’t only work in one direction. The “Orbánization” of Italy has become a common refrain repeated by the international media as well as members of the European Parliament. Attacks against independent journalists, the ruling party’s capture of the public TV broadcaster, the identity crusade against the LGBTQ community, not to mention the propaganda on immigration — these are just some of the elements marking the influence of Orbán’s political strategies on Meloni’s tactics.

The division of roles between the two — who plays the tactics, who conceives the strategy — is part of a broader common purpose. The multiple different paths followed by Fidesz and Fratelli d’Italia in this or that moment belie a set of close connections. Budapest-based think tanks are frequented by Meloni’s entourage, and Orbán’s henchmen often take the stage in Rome.

Budapest is the headquarters of pro-government think tanks and foundations — such as the Danube Institute, the Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC), and the Center for Fundamental Rights — that have become a key point of intersection for the Italian, US, German, and French far right. Ideologues close to Meloni are habitués in Budapest, while Rome is home to newborn conservative think tanks that are networked with counterparts in Hungary. For instance, Nazione Futura, whose president, Francesco Giubilei, played a key role as Meloni’s government adviser, has recently launched a pan-European network. Giubilei has been a fellow at MCC, whose chairman is Balázs Orbán (no relation), the prime minister’s chief of staff. In 2023 Giubilei’s publisher “Historica edizioni” published La sfida ungherese. Una strategia vincente per l’Europa, the Italian version of Balázs Orbán’s The Hungarian Way of Strategy. This is only one example of a dense web of connections and mutual exchanges.

This cooperation is, indeed, shaping a shared playbook. Fratelli d’Italia has introduced the same watchwords and scapegoats as its Hungarian counterparts: Meloni emulates anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and “crusades” for “demographic renewal”; she shares Orbán´s belief in the supremacy of national law over EU “impositions.” Since coming to power, Meloni has begun to erode the rule of law by targeting the judicial system. As Hungary did previously, Italy’s ruling party is attacking independent media.

Two-Faced Meloni

The Italian premier has long used her ties with Hungary as leverage for her political ambitions: in 2021, even boycotting the project of a far-right coalition in the European Parliament (that would have brought together the “sovereigntist” group Identity and Democracy, including the likes of the Rassemblement National and the Lega, and her own ECR), in order to become the linchpin of an alliance between the EPP and the ECR. The political marriage between the EPP and the ECR is, indeed, based on a calculated betrayal. Three years ago, it was Meloni who sabotaged and eventually wrecked the far-right unity project on which Orbán and Matteo Salvini had been working.

Prompting its collapse served her for two reasons: as a negotiating tool for the alliance with the EPP, and to secure leadership in her own political camp. In January 2022, following the European Parliament’s by-elections, the EPP agreed on a tactical alliance with Meloni’s ECR. She thus staged her plan: to infiltrate the mainstream right by promising it an elixir of electoral youth. The key figure in this alignment is Raffaele Fitto, who began his career in the Christian Democracy party before joining Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia — thus placing him in the EPP’s ingroup at the European Parliament — before leaving it to join Fratelli d’Italia.

In 2021 it was Fitto who negotiated an alliance between EPP leader Manfred Weber and Meloni: at that time, he was the chief of the ECR group in the European Parliament. When Meloni became prime minister, he was then appointed as Italy’s Europe minister. While the sabotage of the far-right alliance was underway, Fitto claimed that Meloni’s priority was to gain legitimacy in Brussels as a governmental force: something that she has quite capably achieved in the past months.

When the prime minister’s office first entered her grasp, Meloni downplayed her relations with Hungary to gain credibility. She previously used to refer to the Hungarian premier as her natural ally: “Berlin and Paris? I prefer Visegràd,” Meloni said, taking a picture with the autocrat in Budapest in 2018. But then, in April 2022, immediately after the Hungarian elections that gave Orbán the broadest parliamentary majority he has ever had, the illiberal prime minister came to Rome. The Russian invasion of Ukraine had started a few weeks before. Pope Francis agreed to meet the autocrat, and so did Salvini; the Lega leader was the only one excited by taking a selfie. Meloni didn’t show up, instead. To think that just a few months earlier, in August 2021, the Hungarian prime minister had his “Roman holiday,” spaghetti carbonara, and a photo together with a smiling Meloni.

But after the war began, and with the prospect of becoming a government leader, Meloni put aside the pictures: her priority was now to show her alignment with Washington and make public opinion forget that she is a postfascist leader. Until last fall, strong connections with the Hungarian right wing were swept under the carpet. This is by no means to say that they had stopped: far from it. In late September 2022, a few days after Fratelli d’Italia’s electoral triumph, think tanks linked to Meloni gathered the far-right galaxy together. At the Hotel Quirinale, in the center of Rome, Orbán loyalists took the stage with Fitto, Meloni’s key figure in Europe, and with the Lega’s Lorenzo Fontana, the current president of the lower house of Parliament, who is in close contact with the Hungarian premier’s circles. In this context, Balázs Orbán attacked EU sanctions against Russia. Not a problem for Meloni, by the looks of things.

Fidesz and the ECR

The connections had never been broken. A few months later, in fall 2023, their common public stances also resumed. Meloni went to Budapest to take part in the Budapest Demographic Summit — focusing on boosting birth rates and resisting immigration — and to meet the Hungarian prime minister. At that time, a high-level source from Fratelli d’Italia’s European delegation admitted to me that the issue of Fidesz joining the ECR was on the table, and that the Polish Law and Justice party — which is part of the ECR, too — was willing to open the group to Fidesz after the Polish elections.

The plan came to the surface immediately before February’s European Council, so that Meloni could camouflage it under a pro-European stance. Former Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki declared that Fidesz could join the group after the elections, and Italy’s far-right prime minister claimed a role as mediator in the Kyiv issue.

The upcoming EU elections will likely make clear a crucial political shift that has been in the making for years. The cleavage between center-right and right-wing populism will become completely blurred, with a collapse of any sort of cordon sanitaire. Italy’s prime minister has played and will play a key role in this process. Orbán is aware of that, and the reason why he pushes for Fidesz to join the ECR is his awareness that sharing the same group with Meloni could bring him back to the center of decision-making. Meloni’s two-faced strategy represents a Trojan horse tactic to occupy the field of Europe-wide right-wing and far-right forces. This tactic will turn out to be crucial for Orbán’s fate, too.

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