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Europe confronts its bogeyman (Washington Post illustration)

For Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, his appearance at the European Parliament on Tuesday was a voyage into the belly of the beast.

Readers of Today’s WorldView are familiar by now with the various accusations against Orban's government — its squeezing of civil society and independent media, its subverting of the judiciary, its record of alleged corruption, its attacks on the rights of minorities and mistreatment of asylum seekers and refugees. All of those charges were enumerated in a recent E.U. report, which is the basis of a resolution calling for Hungary’s censure and an investigation into whether Budapest has breached core E.U. values.

"Will you let it happen that a government . . . violates the values on which this union was built without consequences?” asked Judith Sargentini, the Dutch member who compiled the report. “Or will you ensure that the values of this union are more than just words written on a piece of a paper?"

Members of the Parliament will vote on the resolution on Wednesday. If a two-thirds majority goes against Hungary, it could trigger a process that may lead to sanctions and the stripping of Hungary’s voting rights within the continental bloc.

In a fiery speech in Strasbourg on Tuesday, Orban rejected the move. “The report in front of you insults Hungary and insults the honor of the Hungarian nation,” he declared, while some lawmakers jeered from the sidelines.

“I know that a majority will approve the report and I know that my speech here today will not manage to change your opinion,” he went on. “But still I have come here today because you are not going to condemn a government, but a country as well as a nation. You are going to denounce Hungary that has been a member of the family of Christian nations for a thousand years.”

Orban’s chief spokesman, Zoltan Kovacs, also panned the European Union's “aim to stigmatize a whole nation merely because it dared to reject illegal migration and refused to become an immigrant country."

The Hungarian leader, an ultranationalist and anti-immigration zealot, has made no secret of his animosity toward the E.U.’s liberal values. While his party, Fidesz, is a member of the EPP, the European Parliament's center-right bloc, Orban has made common cause with Europe’s far right. Last week, he met with Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and a prominent far-right leader. The duo hailed their common front against migration and looked ahead to new European elections in May.

“European elections are coming. We have to change a lot of things,” Orban said last month, drawing a line in the sand between his politics and those of liberals in Western Europe. “There are two sides at the moment in Europe. One is led by [French President Emmanuel] Macron, who is supporting migration. The other one is supported by countries who want to protect their borders. Hungary and Italy belong to the latter.”

The gains of the far right across the continent — and the potential for strong ties between far-right leaders — have fueled visions of an emboldened right-wing populist bloc exerting greater influence within the E.U. “Bilateral cooperation between like-minded parties, voter apathy and the European Parliament’s electoral system could be the perfect storm that hands Europe’s levers over to populists,” noted CNN.

Some critics suggest that Orban’s anti-Muslim fearmongering is a useful smokescreen to obscure the real effects of his rule — a consolidation of power that looks a lot like creeping authoritarianism, which has also enabled widespread graft.

Dalibor Rohac of the conservative American Enterprise Institute urged E.U. officials to focus on that growing autocracy rather than more liberal concerns. “There is definitely a time and place for a discussion of Hungary’s immigration policies, its treatment of sexual minorities, or the generosity of its welfare state,” Rohac wrote. “However, a report on the rule of law and poor health of Hungary’s democracy is not the place to delve into such issues."

Rohac argued that “effective pushback against authoritarianism, which is a problem in both Hungary and Poland, requires a truce over partisan lines on the highly contentious issues of immigration, culture, and values."

On Tuesday, at least, it seemed that truce was in play. After various centrist and leftist factions in the European Parliament indicated they would back the resolution against Orban's government, leading figures within Orban’s bloc said they would do the same.

That included the party of right-wing Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who warned that “there are no compromises on the rule of law.” Manfred Weber, a German politician at the head of the EPP — and no cheerleader for immigration or multiculturalism — panned Orban’s grandstanding against Muslims.

“If we say generally that you have to be afraid about Muslims and generally attack a religion, then we do the job of the jihadists who want to create a clash inside of our societies,” Weber said. “Europe is the idea of freedom of religion and the separation of state and the churches. We have invented human rights, and not Christian rights, on this continent.”

That’s a stinging rebuke to Orban, whose favorite role is that of the culture warrior, standing on the parapets of European Christendom, howling at both the barbarians at the gates and the venal, liberal courtiers prancing behind its walls.

He now finds himself isolated and somewhat chastened. Fidesz may well feel compelled to quit the EPP, though Orban talked tough on Tuesday and vowed “we are staying and we are fighting.” Even if his battle this week ends in defeat, there’s a wider war that he and right-wing populists elsewhere are still all too eager to wage.

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