The European Union has largely tolerated Hungary’s nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, despite his government’s crackdown on civil society and virulently anti-migrant rhetoric.
Then came the billboards depicting two elderly men who appear to be cackling. One is the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker. The other is Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, who Orban loyalists falsely claim is plotting to flood Europe with Muslim migrants.
“You have the right to know what Brussels is planning,” the billboard reads.
“It’s shocking that such a ludicrous conspiracy theory has reached the mainstream,” European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters last month.
Juncker is a prominent member of the European People’s Party, which represents conservative EU parties in the European Parliament, including Orban’s Fidesz. He has targeted Orban as “the origin of fake news.” The European People’s Party is expected to make a decision in the next few days about what to do with Fidesz. Several top officials in the European group want to expel their Hungarian partners.
“If Viktor Orban doesn’t manage to create trust in the coming days among the EPP parties and his critics, then things will be difficult,” European People’s Party leader Manfred Weber told the German magazine Der Spiegel in an interview published Friday.
The Hungarian government even tried to cover up the offensive posters when Weber recently visited Budapest for talks with Orban.
But in the cozy town of Hatvan, just outside Hungary’s capital of Budapest, the billboards have frightened some residents.
“I’m afraid of George Soros because he brought the migrants,” says Erika Gazdag, though she isn’t sure who Soros is. “Now I am afraid of the EU.”
Gazdag spoke as her husband had finished surgery at a local hospital that was revamped with EU money.
She says she fears that migrants “rape our women and kill people. It’s all over the news.”
Most of the country’s media are controlled by a foundation loyal to the government, who accuse EU leaders of mishandling the 2015 refugee crisis when more than 1 million asylum-seekers came into Europe.
Orban loyalists say his policies keep out migrants and defend his administration’s anti-Brussels billboard campaign.
“It’s about ideology,” says Bank Boros, an analyst with the conservative think tank Medianezo, explaining the campaign against who he calls the “Brussels elite.” “George Soros wants to see an open society letting migrants in, bringing down borders, and creating some kind of utopian community in the EU. His best friend, Juncker, is pretty much supporting this idea.”
At his seventh-floor office in Fidesz headquarters in Budapest, party spokesman Balazs Hidveghi says the billboards “call things as they are.”
“Maybe the Brussels elite are not used to such direct campaign methods,” says Hidveghi, who is running for European Parliament elections in May.
The number of migrants entering the EU has dropped to its lowest level in five years, in part because of measures by centrist leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She has faced criticism in Hungary and elsewhere for letting in asylum-seekers, many of them fleeing war in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
Supporters of migration argue that, in addition to offering safety and opportunities to refugees and migrants in need, more workers are needed in Germany and other countries with labor shortages.
“Politicians are saying that, well, the European population is decreasing, there are not enough children born, so what we need to help our economies, etc., is to bring in people from Africa, people from the Middle East and Asia,” Hidveghi says. “We don’t believe that’s the right answer.”
The Orban administration is instead giving tax breaks to Hungarian mothers with at least four children.
In a twist, the government printed billboards for its family campaign using the infamous couple from the “distracted boyfriend” stock photo that has launched countless memes.
The baby-making is supposed to offset Hungary’s growing labor shortage that is partly the result of tens of thousands of Hungarians leaving for better-paying jobs in other EU countries.
Hidveghi says the EU has benefited from Hungary.
“We’ve opened our markets, we’ve opened our economies,” he says. “It’s also beneficial for the investors, for the multinational companies mostly from Western Europe who bought up entire industries and took advantage of cheaper labor.”
He does not see the EU money that goes into Hungarian roads and schools and hospitals as a gift or a handout.
But Sandor Lederer, who runs the K-Monitor anti-corruption watchdog in Budapest, says the money is often misused.
“It’s often channeled into the pockets of people close to the government who overspend or simply do terrible work,” he says.
An example of the latter, he says, is a bicycle road and adventure park that cost the EU nearly $4 million.
The park is damaged and deserted. The entrance is locked so local councilman Jozsef Biro lets us in. He says the park has had only 41 visitors since 2015.
“The EU gives us money to promote tourism,” he says. “This was supposed to be a park for extreme cyclists but it looks like a half-finished construction site. It’s like telling the EU: keep sending the money but this is how we’ll spend it.”
At a nearby cafe, middle-aged dockworker Zsolt Csiszar is having lunch with his wife. He calls the bicycle park embarrassing and the anti-Brussels billboard campaign cringeworthy.
But he does not expect EU leaders to punish Hungary.
“After Brexit, no chance,” he says. “They want to keep the EU together. They will let our prime minister do whatever he wants.”
Journalist Zsuzsanna Wirth contributed reporting.