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Hungary's far-right leader is set to take over rotating presidency of the EU

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Hungary is poised to take over the rotating presidency of the EU in just a matter of days. The country's ultranationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban will be in charge of the group of 27 countries for the next six months. Orban is a sweetheart of American conservatives, so it probably came as no surprise to his European counterparts when Hungary revealed the slogan for Orban's stint as president, make Europe great again.

Here to talk about Orban's relationship with the EU and U.S. conservatives is Kim Lane Scheppele, professor of sociology and international affairs at Princeton University. Welcome to WEEKEND EDITION.

KIM LANE SCHEPPELE: Oh, so nice to be here.

RASCOE: Briefly remind us about who Viktor Orban is and how he runs Hungary.

SCHEPPELE: Well, Viktor Orban started after 1989 as the great libertarian hero of Hungary, and he's changed a bit since that time. He's moved to the right. And when he was elected Prime Minister for the second time in 2010, he immediately started a kind of autocratic consolidation. Orban is the EU's first autocratic leader.

RASCOE: I would imagine that this has made for a rocky relationship with most of the other EU countries, right?

SCHEPPELE: Yeah. Well, at the very beginning, when Orban started consolidating power, he did so in ways that didn't automatically trigger EU oversight. Now he's gotten to the point where he's a constant thorn in the side of the EU because there are many areas, particularly with regard to foreign policy and with regard to the EU budget, where everything has to be adopted by unanimous agreement, and Orban has now taken to using his veto to leverage things that he wants from the EU.

This so-called rotating presidency is something that's built into the structure of the EU. And now his European colleagues are looking at him and saying, oh, my goodness, now what?

RASCOE: What can the other leaders do to work with him or go around him since he has been such an obstacle for much of what other EU countries support?

SCHEPPELE: No leader can do things alone in the EU, so Orban doesn't have any power to suddenly take the EU on a different track. What Orban will have a lot of power to do, however, is to block things. Whoever's in that rotating presidency is supposed to be the one that goes around to all of his colleagues and gets agreement on issues that are sticky or where there's disagreement. And, of course, Orban is not now known as the primary diplomat that's able to do all of that.

Now, there's a little bit of a good side and a bad side to Orban getting the rotating presidency now because the European elections happened a couple of weeks ago. And this period between now and November 1 is when all the new institutions are getting set up, when the Parliament is forming its committees, when the European Commission, which is the executive branch of the EU, is starting to get its act together. So not that much is going to happen in the next several months.

On the other hand, nothing much is going to happen in the next several months because all the other institutions are in flux, which means that Orban is the only one who's sitting in this chair, where he's there running things while all the other institutions don't have leaders yet. So that gives him somewhat more power to be able to sound like he's acting on behalf of the EU.

RASCOE: European leaders don't like him, but American conservatives, including former President Trump, are big fans of him, and the influential CPAC has held conferences in Budapest. What makes him so attractive to Trump and his supporters?

SCHEPPELE: Yeah, it's such a good question, and I might say CPAC has now met three times in Hungary. In addition to that, Orban and his allies in Hungary have now made an agreement where they're advising the Heritage Foundation in the U.S., which has come out with this Project 2025, which is the blueprint for the next Trump administration. And that Project 2025 is a direct copy of how Orban took over the Hungarian government by changing the civil service law, firing tons of civil servants, putting his own political appointees in place.

The reason why Trump and his allies are so fond of Viktor Orban is because Viktor Orban channels their culture wars. So Viktor Orban talks about being antiwoke. He goes after sexual minorities. He claims to be defending Christian Europe. You know, it's good that Americans have their eyes open about exactly what this cooperation could lead to.

RASCOE: That's Kim Lane Scheppele, professor of sociology and international affairs at Princeton University. Thank you so much for joining us.

SCHEPPELE: Well, thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.