Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has consistently thumbed his nose at the European Union, which has criticized him for cronyism and undermining the rule of law in his country. But through an unlikely alliance with French President Emmanuel Macron, it might be Orban helping force the EU to change its ways.
When it comes to how to approach Vladimir Putin's Russia and Donald Trump's U.S., the common ground is growing. The relationship could prove pivotal in 2020 as Britain leaves the bloc and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has served as a bridge between east and west, takes more of a backseat.
Indeed, shifting alliances threaten to make a renewed effort to bring Orban to heel all but redundant. He faces potential expulsion from the European People's Party, the largest group in the European Parliament, after former European Council chief Donald Tusk took over its leadership and vowed to purge it of populists. The EPP may vote next month on whether to boot out Orban's Fidesz party but it may no longer mean a costly isolation.
"Orban and Macron come from very different places but both seek to disrupt the status quo," said Daniel Hegedus, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. "There's now talk of an Orban-Macron axis in Europe."
Orban, the anti-immigration proponent of "illiberal democracy," and Macron, who is bidding to become the continent's main power broker, are the standard-bearers for two very different visions for Europe.
Yet the camaraderie on display in October when Orban was received by an honor guard at the Elysee Palace in Paris was unmistakable. An hour was scheduled for the meeting and it ended up lasting more than two.
That was a sharp contrast to Macron's early days in office. During his presidential campaign in 2017, he called out populists like Orban for using the EU as a "supermarket," taking its funding but leaving democratic commitments on the shelf.
Macron also made a point of skipping Budapest on his first tour of eastern Europe and he replaced his ambassador to Hungary after the latter called Orban's policies a "model" for Europe. Orban, 56, dismissed Macron, 42, as the "new kid" on the bloc who didn't understand the region.
When Orban paid a visit to the Italian nationalist Matteo Salvini in August the following year, Macron said "if they want to see me as their main opponent, they're right." A few weeks later he called a European Parliament vote censuring Orban as a first step in the fight against "illiberals" in the region.
Last year, though, saw a convergence of interests as Macron sought to broaden his alliances across the continent.
In the European Parliament during the summer, they linked up in backroom deals in Brussels to retain the supremacy of national leaders to elect the head of the next EU executive, rejecting the EPP choice for president of the European Commission.
Orban's aides see common ground on some of the biggest issues facing Europe, including how to manage relations with Russia and the U.S. The Hungarian leader has long argued for a detente with Putin over the EU's objections.
For Macron, the new entente between the two men says something about his change in tactics in Europe. He's stopped with this "us against them" approach to confront what Merkel and Tusk have called the forces of darkness.
The French president is dispatching his foreign minister to several eastern European countries early this year. His calls to toughen environmental policies and to force countries within the border-free Schengen zone to take on more migrants or risk expulsion will likely face pushback from in the region.
"They may have different points of view in detail, but both feel that the EU needs to agree on a common approach on how we deal with China, Russia or the U.S.," Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga said in an interview with German newspaper Die Welt last month.
The two men have both shown they have a keen eye for political opportunity. Both have disrupted the status quo at home and want to wield more influence abroad.
When Orban first came to power in 1998, he was the young, fresh-faced leader who represented the new Europe that emerged after the end of the Cold War less than a decade earlier. When Macron formed a new party to snatch the French presidency, he won similar accolades as the man to help steer European politics away from the nationalism that threatened to undermine the EU.
The question is how another adept political operator fits into the equation. Tusk, the former Polish prime minister and European Council president, is marshaling the EPP to fight for the political center ground. He called on members in a fiery speech in Zagreb in November to disavow populism, which was widely interpreted as an ultimatum aimed at Orban.
Orban's Fidesz party was already suspended in March for its opposition to liberal democracy and courting of far-right leaders. Macron, whose En Marche also isn't a member of the EPP, criticized the group at the time for being too soft on Orban.
The EPP has asked a trio of "wise men" to assess Fidesz and the panel submitted its report to Tusk, Hungarian newspaper Nepszava reported on Friday. Orban has said he would quit the EPP before a formal ouster could take place.
"The issue of Orban and the EPP is nested inside a much bigger battle for power and influence in the EU," said Richard Youngs, a Madrid-based analyst at Carnegie Europe, "with Macron shaking things up."
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