A casual viewer of the White House’s upcoming schedule might ask: “Why are Central European leaders getting invited to descend on Washington this spring?”
Last month, President Trump hosted Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis at the White House. This Friday, he will do the same for Peter Pellegrini, prime minister of Slovakia. And later this month, on May 13, the U.S. president will host Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban — his first visit to the White House since 2001. (The last of the prime ministers of what is known as the Visegrad group, Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki, was supposed to visit Washington last month, but his visit got postponed.)
That the Central European leaders would eventually get a Trump meeting is not, in itself, so surprising. Since former assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia Wess Mitchell, who was confirmed in the fall of 2017, came on the scene, the Trump administration’s approach to Central Europe has looked dramatically different from Obama’s.
The Obama administration, critics say, largely overlooked the region, refusing to engage until its increasingly illiberal leaders improved on human rights. The Trump administration, with a policy shaped by Mitchell, chose to not focus on human rights and instead to engage the region to compete with and counter Russia and China. In Mitchell’s last week on the job, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled through the region, literally announcing that they were going to engage in the region by competing with Moscow and Beijing.
“I think there is a growing concern in Washington about great power competition in Central Europe (which you touched on in your earlier piece), especially with China’s Belt & Road, Huawei, etc. Following in Wess Mitchell’s footsteps, the administration’s idea is to engage, be present in Visegrad countries, and not rattle anybody’s cage too much,” Dalibor Rohac, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute focused on European politics, wrote in an email.
But the White House meetings aren’t happening because the countries visited have done what Pompeo asked. On the contrary. Since Pompeo’s trip to Central Europe, Hungary has moved ahead with plans to welcome in a Russian development bank, and the Czech president (who, it should be noted, does not control Czech foreign policy) went to China to meet with the head of Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications company that the Trump administration has been working to counter in Europe.
And issues highlighted by the United States in Hungary-U.S. relations — for example, the expulsion from Budapest of Central European University, the institute founded by Hungarian-born American billionaire George Soros and Hungary’s diplomatic spat with Ukraine — remain.
It’s “clear [the policy of re-engagement] hasn’t worked — countries like Hungary and the Czech Republic continue to deepen their ties with Moscow and Beijing,” wrote Christopher Maroshegyi, senior director at Albright Stonebridge Group.
In addition to welcoming the Russian development bank and giving it diplomatic immunity, Hungary has also welcomed Huawei.
“Huawei runs its largest logistics center outside of China in Budapest and in a meeting with Huawei in April Hungary’s Finance Minister said they would roll out Huawei equipment across the country,” Maroshegyi wrote. Hungary has done one thing the Trump administration asked, or at least has said it will: Hungarian officials are reportedly negotiating a “high-value arms deal” with the U.S. government.
But the White House visits aren’t, or aren’t just, about trying once again to use Russia and China as leverage, nor are they just about arms deal money, experts say.
“The goal of the visits seems more likely aimed at deepening Trump’s club of autocratic leaders and shoring up populist leaders ahead of European [Parliament] elections on May 23,” Maroshegyi wrote. “Otherwise it’s hard to justify inviting such a controversial leader [as Orban] that is trying to raise his international profile to the White House just weeks ahead of a pivotal election.”
The Visegrad leaders, like Trump, are outspokenly opposed to immigration and ardent nationalists. Orban has said that the upcoming European Parliament elections will be about the issue. “We will decide whether to defend our Christian European culture or yield the terrain to multiculturalism,” he told members and supporters of his party, Fidesz.
“I think Pompeo’s visit to Budapest made a difference in detoxifying Hungary — Orban made a big impression on him and they’re seeing him now as an important European player who’ll only grow in influence after the European election,” said Rohac.
And so Orban is coming to the White House. And the other, less controversial but still generally anti-immigrant leaders of Central Europe are, too.
The twist is that some in Central Europe don’t appreciate being painted with the same brush: They may all take a hard line on immigration, but Hungary and Poland have run afoul of the European Union, and Hungary has even launched an anti-Brussels campaign.
“My hope is that Pellegrini can help de-homogenize Visegrad at his meeting with Trump tomorrow: affirm that Slovakia sees its place in Europe very differently from [Poland’s Law and Justice] and Fidesz and also tell Trump that Central Europeans in general do not appreciate the administration’s attitude toward the EU,” wrote Rohac, who is originally from Slovakia.
“But I wouldn’t bet on it.”
It is, after all, the perceived ideological sameness that has likely helped get them, one by one, to the White House.