Orbán and Le Pen: breaking the EU’s cordon sanitaire?


The European Union (EU) is trying to keep its version of the cordon sanitaire intact. But rather than being designed to quarantine or isolate an “infection” – in this case right-wing illiberal populism in the style of Putin and Trump – it simply aims to keep the ideology from coming into the EU’s core, Western Europe.

Two people are currently trying really hard to put stress on the cordon, trying to break it. These are Hungary’s Viktor Orban and France’s Marine Le Pen.

The "infection" advances...
The “infection” advances…

Orbán vs. CEU

Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary, has been head of the Fidesz political party since 1998.

It was originally a center-right, liberal and pro-European integration party; but under Orbán’s leadership, it has shifted towards a nationalist and illiberal platform. He even termed his party’s new ideological platform “illiberal democracy.”

Since 2010, when Orbán became prime minister for a second time, his party has gained a qualified majority in parliament. This has allowed him to pass laws, even constitutional changes, with ease.

Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” is following on Putin’s footsteps.

It seeks to consolidate power by, among other measures, undermining internal opposition. This is where the Hungarian prime minister’s attempts at closing down the Central European University (CEU) come in.

The CEU is an American style university founded by George Soros, Hungarian-American liberal billionaire. Recently, Hungary’s parliament, controlled by Orbán’s party, passed an amendment to the country’s higher education law that could cripple the CEU. It reduces the curricular and financial freedoms of non-EU universities operating in Hungary, and without campuses in their home countries.

Although the law does not mention the CEU specifically, one can easily interpret that it is aimed against them. The CEU is precisely the university operating in Hungary that matches the description enshrined in the amendment.

The above-mentioned law would restrict the curricular liberties and research of the CEU, which might lead to it closing. This is because what makes this university attractive is its liberal and American-style research and learning environment.

Budapest, Hungary. Home of the Central European University.
Budapest, Hungary. Home of the Central European University.

The university’s spread of liberalism in Hungary has made it a target for Orbán – who also is seeking to curtail the work of NGOs in the country that push for “pesky” measures such as separation of powers and freedom of the press.

Also, Orbán and CEU founder Soros have come head-to-head over European integration and the handling of the refugee crisis since 2015.

Soros, as a liberal, finances promotion of pro-EU and pro-immigrant policies in Hungary. It represents a serious obstacle for Orbán’s illiberal dreams, since Soros has the wallet and political clout to challenge his politics. This is why the Orbán government now aims to curtail or even close the CEU.

The timing of such decision rests, of course, in the fact that other political actors like Marine Le Pen threaten the EU’s cordon sanitaire as well.

Le Pen vs. EU

The BBC did a great biographical account of the woman making EU leaders nervous: Marine Le Pen. Her biography shows someone who grew up within a cordon sanitaire built around her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. He founded the Front National (FN) party already as an ultra-nationalist and anti-integration political party.

The Le Pens always had support from a segment of French society, but never over 20 percent of the electorate, and never had political parties willing to join in a coalition with them. The scenario is changing now.

Orbán’s illiberal democracy is problematic, but Hungary’s need for EU funds places limits on his anti-European policies. Also, empires don’t fall by peripheries breaking away; their downfall comes when the core melts. This is the great danger posed by Le Pen’s FN party and the nationalistic, anti-EU movement behind it.

If Marine Le Pen wins France’s presidency, she has vowed to trigger a Brexit-like referendum for France.

Because of France’s presidential system, one of the few in Europe, a Le Pen victory would mean that she has a majority of France’s electorate behind her. This would make a “Frexit” likely.

One of the latest polls puts Le Pen in second place in the race for the presidency, narrowly behind front-runner Emmanuel Macron. It predicts that she will get 23 percent of the votes on the first round of voting scheduled for Sunday, 23 April, and centrist Macron 23.5 percent.

Very far from the 50 percent needed to win the first round outright, but enough to make it to the second round. If no candidate passes the 50 percent mark on April 23, the two candidates with the most votes go through to the second round on 7 May – two weeks later, on a Sunday too.

France gets ready for election day - which will be crucial for the future of the EU.
France gets ready for election day – which will be crucial for the future of the EU.

Le Pen securing over 20 percent of votes in an election would be a dramatic first for the Front National. It would mean that the far-right movement has gained significant momentum lately. In 2002, when her even more radical father Jean-Marie made it to the second round of the presidential election, he received about the same number of votes as in the first round: just under 20 percent.

Current front-runner Macron is a former banker and economy minister – running on the newly created and centrist political party En Marche (“On the Move”). He had a larger lead a few weeks ago. However, the political field is tightening as the crucial first round of voting for French president approaches – which is a normal political behavior.

Undecided voters start to make up their minds at this point. This has meant gains for the third and fourth place candidates, center-right François Fillon and far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon. Both have just under 20 percent of votes, according to the same poll.

Hence, the ticket for the second round hasn’t quite been secured. Benoît Hamon, candiate of the ruling socialist party, is the only major candidate not enjoying the effect of election day approaching. He is at a very distant and hopeless fifth place.

Hypothetical polls suggest that Macron should easily beat Le Pen on 7 May, if they are the two top candidates on the first round.

This is because Macron appeals to both left-leaning and right-leaning sectors of the electorate. His is a pro-EU, pro-job growth economic platform that at the same time includes conservative precepts such as labor policy deregulation and fiscal responsibility.

However, it is too early to make a call on what will happen on 7 May. Macron’s party is too new. It doesn’t have a coalesced electoral base, making his voters fickle and unpredictable.

Cracks widening in the union…

First we’ll have to see what the French people decide on 23 April, but I suggest to stock up on wine for the second round. It will be a nail-bitter and we will need to keep our heart pressure under control. It will be up to the French electorate to decide whether the EU’s cordon sanitaire holds, or if Orbán’s illiberal democracy will continue to spread.

A political scientist who follows global events with pious devotion. A Venezuelan by virtue of being born in that interesting tropical place, but who has lived and studied in several places around the world. He will write some analysis on important global issues, especially if they have an impact on Germany or Leipzig.

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