With EU parliamentary elections fast approaching, Victor Orban is staking out that a Christian pitch could win over a European electorate.
The last time there were European Union (EU) parliamentary elections, Brexit had not happened, Merkel had not opened the gates to more than a million refugees and Trump wasn’t around.
Populist right-wing forces were strong but seemed manageable.
Fast forward five and years the political scene in Europe could not be more different. With EU-wide parliamentary elections fast approaching in 2019, the battle lines are being drawn, and a new coalition is emerging, and its one that wants to shape Europe in its image.
Victor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister, is part a crop of EU leaders, alongside his Italian counterpart Matteo Salvini and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz amongst others who are seeking to reshape the EU along a more rightwing agenda.
In an interview with the Austrian news portal oe24.at Victor Orban set his stall for what he sees as political overreach by Brussels; saving the "Christian identity of Europe" and halting migrants from coming to European shores.
“When we joined the EU, we felt we were still free. Since then, the EU has taken a different approach. I think that's the wrong direction” said Victor Orban.
In particular, Orban lashed out at what he sees as the evolution of the European Commission, the central administrative decision-making body of the EU into a "political commission".
“It is not the job of the European Commission to lead the EU” Orban added arguing that sovereignty should remain with the member states who are ultimately responsible for running the EU.
Speaking on the upcoming EU parliamentary elections to be held on May 23rd Orban alongside his Italian, Austrian, Czech, Polish and Slovakian allies will likely tap into an issue that polls show is what most concerns EU voters: immigration.
“I have been hearing for 30 years that we have no common theme that concerns all of Europe. Now we have one topic: migration. From Lisbon to Vilnius and also in Budapest, the key issue in the elections will be migration. Now, for the first time, the European nations will vote together on a common theme” added Orban.
Immigration remains one of the most important and divisive issues facing the EU with 38 percent of member state voters viewing it as one of the top issues.
The ripple effects from the refugee influx in 2015 are still being felt across the EU with right-wing parties as prime beneficiaries.
Towards a Christian Europe
Orban expressed his hope that voters in the upcoming EU election will “want to retain and protect their national identity, as well as their Christian customs” which he views as being threatened with increasing immigration.
“There are countries that think that mixing two cultures, Christianity and Islam, creates something new and good. We see it differently. If the others want to mix their cultures, then they have a right to this attempt. But we do not want to start any trials in Hungary. We do not want to mix our Christianity-based culture, values, attitude to life with other cultures."
When Victor Orban speaks of the need to tap into and protect the Christian character of Europe he is speaking to a large constituency that resonates further afield than just his country.
A recent poll by Pew found that Christian identity remains a “meaningful marker of identity” in Europe even amongst Christians who did not attend church, a fact that politicians ignore at their peril.
Far from being a “nominal” aspect of who they are Christianity remains an important reference point.
EU Parliamentary elections
On May 23 the European Union will see more than 500 million people go to the polls to elect Members of the European Parliament (MEPs).
The EU Parliament has 750 seats representing 28 countries, after Brexit this will be 27.
The EU Parliament is the only democratically elected body in the EU, however, cannot propose legislation, a function that is normally reserved for the unelected EU commission.
Parliamentary elections in the EU suffer from low turnout rates, in 2014 only 43 percent of eligible voters turned out. For countries like Slovakia turnout can be as low as 13 percent reflecting a widespread perception that the parliament is a talking shop where nothing much happens.