The ruler of Hungary and self-appointed defender of Christendom informed the Holy See that he was determined to save European civilization by keeping out those ominous aliens coming from the east. The pope, in the Hungarian’s view, was underestimating this threat and should offer his support. 

This is the gist of a letter King Bela IV of Hungary wrote to Innocent IV in the mid-13th century, as Europe feared an invasion of the Mongols. Unexpectedly but unsurprisingly, the document turned up again this week, when the current strongman of Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, gave it to Pope Francis as a gift. 

Orban isn’t known for being subtle, nor was his message. During the 11 years of his rule, he’s in effect made Hungary — its media, courts, academia, politics and society — his personal fief, in part by wrapping himself in the mantle of Christianity, conservatism, nativism and family values. Since the refugee crisis of 2015, he’s also promised to keep out migrants, especially Muslim ones, whom he apparently considers the modern equivalent of Mongols. 

This populism has worked for him at home, but not in most of the rest of the European Union. Citing a breach of the bloc’s fundamental values under Article 7 of the EU’s treaties, Brussels has launched a sanctions procedure against Hungary as well as Poland. The two countries are accused of undermining the rule-of-law, press and academic freedoms, gay rights and other basics of a liberal and tolerant society. 

The result is a slow-motion continental war of attrition between pluralism and populism that neither side can definitively win. The EU has no mechanism to kick out errant member states. All it can do is apply pressure. Last week, the European Commission asked the bloc’s top court to impose fines on Poland for not complying with an order meant to restore the independence of the country’s judiciary. Brussels could also withhold other payments. 

But that kind of pressure bears the risk of backfiring. Orban and his counterparts in Poland enjoy caricaturing the EU as the latest alien empire — after Ottomans, Austrians, Prussians, Russians and Soviets — oppressing the native sons and daughters of eastern Europe. It’s absurd, but it energizes their base.

And yet, Budapest and Warsaw also need the EU’s money and trade. Following the U.K.’s example and exiting isn’t really an option, especially since Hungarians and Poles still overwhelmingly want to stay in the bloc. Many are also growing tired of their governments being pariahs. Those Hungarian and Polish voters may therefore be the EU’s last best hope. For Hungary is still a democracy in one sense: It will hold elections next spring, and Hungarians could send Orban packing. 

Enter the pope. He has nothing to do with the EU — the Vatican isn’t a member. But Francis cares about tolerance, not just among Christians but also toward Jews, Muslims and all others. And he defines Christian values as helping refugees rather than firing tear gas and water cannon at them, as Orban has done.

As Francis prepared for a trip to central Europe, some diplomatic finesse was therefore called for. The prime minister, it was obvious, was trying to use the pontiff as a prop for Orban’s shtick as defender of Christian values. Francis was trying to avoid precisely that, and wanted to send his own message to Hungarians, but without causing undue offense. 

So Francis did go to Budapest, but only for seven hours, and met Orban for only 40 minutes, during which he didn’t explicitly bring up migration. But Francis made himself quite clear nonetheless.

Addressing leaders of the Jewish community after meeting Orban, he warned of the resurgence of anti-Semitism. Everyone present thought of George Soros, a Hungarian-born American billionaire who is Jewish and whom Orban has shamelessly used for his anti-cosmopolitan propaganda. 

At a mass and throughout the entire visit, Francis left no metaphor unused to rally his audience to take the right side in the clash between open and closed societies. He urged Hungarians to break down walls, build bridges of dialogue, extend their arms toward everyone and embrace rather than fear diversity.

And when his seven hours were over, the pope — still recovering from colon surgery — zipped off for a full four days in neighboring Slovakia. It’s run by a president who’s female, progressive and youngish, and who defeated populists at the ballot box. Could Francis be any clearer?

Orban isn’t likely to be impressed — he’s Calvinist, anyway. But other Hungarians, and not only the many Catholics, may now be reflecting whether they want to keep being ruled by somebody who takes his role models from the 13th century.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He’s the author of “Hannibal and Me.”

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