By Patrick Müller & David Gazsi
With the rise of right-wing populism in Europe, scholars of EU foreign policy have become increasingly interested in the relationship between populism and foreign policy. Yet, we still know little about what happens to foreign policy institutions when populist parties join governments.
In power since 2010, the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is widely regarded to have re-organised domestic state institutions in line with his populist, conservative ideas. As many studies show, this came hand in hand with democratic backsliding and what we can call ‘de-Europeanisation’.
But is this also true for foreign policy?
In our research, published open access in JCMS earlier this year, we drew on works on populism and public administration and started from the premise that the approaches of populist radical right (PRR) parties to foreign policy institutions depend on two main factors, namely their ‘foreign policy preferences’ and their ‘action capacity’.
With respect to ‘foreign policy preferences’, PRR parties in power may embrace an ‘ideological agenda’ for institutional change involving the re-organization of foreign policy structures and the institutionalization of alternative sets of norms and ideas. Conversely, populists might also adopt pragmatic preferences, largely respecting established foreign policy institutions along with embedded knowledge, skills and experience, whilst displaying considerable ideological ‘moderation’. This expectation is in line with arguments that do not consider foreign policy to be of particular concern to populist actors.
Populism and foreign policy
Right-wing populism can be understood as an ideology that centres on nationalist and nativist ideas and is marked by the idea of ‘anti-elitism’ that divides society between the ‘virtuous people’ and the ‘corrupt elite’. In its political discourse and actions, the Fidesz leadership has long emphasised the primacy of Hungary’s national sovereignty and interests and constantly questioned liberal values. Therefore, it is not hard to see how its agenda might run counter to a common EU foreign policy that is informed by transnationalism, shared priorities and liberal norms.
To assess the implications of the Fidesz-government on Hungary’s foreign policy institutions, we identified three basic indicators. ‘Organisational priorities’, ‘the allocation of authority’ and ‘organisational culture’.
Europeanisation in Hungary before 2010
So, what does our analysis of these three indicators tell us about Hungary and foreign policy (de)Europeanization? To understand the transformations, we first had to go back to 2004 when Hungary joined the Union.
Following the accession, Hungary established itself as a model case for Europeanisation. The Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and its expert staff became the centre for the coordination of EU affairs. Hungarian diplomats showed a strong commitment to substantial EU norms and to professionalism. Staff at the ministry and in representations were regarded as the elite of civil service, whose training drew first and foremost on EU standards.
However, things started to change after 2010.
Slow shifts between 2010-2014
Through winning two-thirds of the seats in Parliament in 2010 – an outcome repeated in 2014, 2018 and lately in 2022 – Orbán gained a considerable capacity to shape national policies. And it did not take long for his government to re-write the constitution, undertake substantial changes to how the judiciary works and re-shape the media landscape.
By contrast, Hungary’s foreign policy remained largely untouched during the first four years. It was only after ensuing tensions with EU institutions over a growing number of controversial domestic reforms that transformations were set in motion.
This soon led to some disparity between most members of the government, including PM Orbán, and those still largely in charge of foreign policy. The MFA led by Minister János Martonyi between 2010-2014 was well known for its ardent Euro-Atlantic orientation, which it would go on to defend despite the shift in government communication.
De-Europeanisation after 2014
Following the 2014 election, minister Martonyi was replaced by Péter Szijjártó, a self-proclaimed Orbán-loyalist. Breaking with Martonyi’s value-based agenda, Szijjártó started promoting a ‘pragmatic’ foreign policy. This entailed moving trade interests and new geographical priorities outside into the focus.
The main objective became strengthening Hungary’s economic competitiveness in non-European markets. In 2014, the word ‘trade’ was added to the ministry’s name, which was now called Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade. This was followed by a substantial organisational re-structuration.
In the re-organised institutional setup, none of the MFA’s higher-level units focused specifically on EU affairs or nilateral relations with other EU members.
Norms and values related to core EU standards, such as multilateralism and human rights were now re-evaluated with relevant departments being moved under a unit focused on ‘the handling of the challenges of migration.’
Far-reaching changes were also undertaken to the composition of the ministry’s staff. In 2011, a law sponsored by the Orbán government introduced changes to the status of civil servants, making dismissals less difficult and easily dependent on political considerations.
Soon after, about 70% of the ministry’s staff consisted of new recruits, with the average age decreasing to about 32 years. Most senior positions were given to people from Szijjártó’s circle of friends who have had no relevant professional experience whatsoever.
These structural changes were coupled with the re-allocation of authority. Most importantly, decision making was not any longer directly informed by MFA staff. Neither was this done by the legal experts dealing with EU-related matters within the Ministry of Justice. While authority structures became increasingly opaque, it was clear that Orbán and his circles exercised direct control.
As part of this process, the Prime Minister’s Office (Miniszterelnökség) – an institution with the standing of a ministry – acquired a wide foreign policy portfolio. At the same time, diplomats found their role to be limited to the top-down implementation of decisions. And the sources of these decisions often remained unknown to them.
Naturally, all these changes combined had a profound impact on the organisational culture within the MFA. This was only further amplified by clear efforts at giving prominence to alternative priorities, norms and ideas in the recruitment and training of diplomats.
What does this tell us?
We believe that our research provides rich empirical insights into how Hungarian foreign policy institutions have been changed and transformed under successive Fidesz-led governments, pointing to a considerable degree of de-Europeanization.
Yet, whilst these governments enjoyed considerable capacity to influence foreign policy decisions ever since 2010, it was only after the second consecutive election victory in 2014 that foreign policy itself started to move increasingly into Fidesz’ focus. This suggests that disposing of a high ‘action capacity’ does not, by itself indicate how populists in government will engage with foreign policy institutions.
Rather, we also need to understand their foreign policy preferences, which not only involve considerations related to their ideologies but to a broader set of concerns.
Still, the significant transformation of Hungarian foreign policy institutions over the past years should be subject to concern for EU policymakers. Not only does Hungarian foreign policy making demonstrate a growing readiness to contest EU foreign policy norms and its culture of cooperation, we are also witnessing a shift in foreign policy priorities that led to a profound restructuring of the foreign ministry in organisational terms.
For the EU, this means that Hungarian foreign policy will likely be more assertive in defending national priorities in Brussels, making it a challenging partner in a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) that remains heavily dependent on intergovernmental consensus and compromise.
Patrick Müller holds the joint Chair in European Studies at the Vienna School of International Studies and the University of Vienna. Located at the interface between European Studies and International Relations, his research focuses on different aspects of the foreign policy of the European Union.
David Gazsi is PhD Candidate at King’s College London and Editorial Assistant with East European Politics (published by Taylor & Francis). His research draws on critical social theory and investigates EU external relations.