An anti-European Union billboard campaign in Hungary turns up tensions with the Orbán government

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A government billboard reading "Let's not dance to their tune" is seen with portraits of Alex Soros and Ursula von der Leyen in downtown Budapest, Hungary, Monday, Nov. 20, 2023. A countrywide billboard campaign that flooded the streets of Hungary this week takes aim at the head of the European Union's executive Ursula von der Leyen, the start of an election campaign that marks an escalation of tensions between the country's right-wing government and the EU. (AP Photo/Denes Erdos)

BUDAPEST – A countrywide billboard campaign that flooded the streets of Hungary this week takes aim at European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the start of an election campaign that marks an escalation of tensions between the country's nationalist conservative government and the European Union.

The government-funded ads depict von der Leyen, the head of the EU's executive who has been critical of some of Hungary's policies, alongside Alex Soros, the son of Hungarian-American financier George Soros, a figure whom Hungary has long vilified as seeking to undermine its power.

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“Let's not dance to their tune," the billboards say.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has long taken an adversarial approach to the 27-nation bloc. He has accused Brussels of seeking to impose unwanted policies on Hungary, and compared membership in the EU to the 40 years of Soviet domination Hungary experienced in the 20th century.

On the other hand, the European Parliament said last year that the Hungarian government had become “a hybrid regime of electoral autocracy” that could no longer be considered a democracy. For more than a decade, the European Commission has accused Orbán of dismantling democratic institutions, taking control of the media and infringing on minority rights since he came to power in 2010.

The billboard campaign targeting von der Leyen is part of a promotional effort to encourage participation in Hungary's latest “national consultation,” an informal survey sent to every adult in Hungary on a number of divisive issues including migration, LGBTQ+ rights and support for Ukraine.

That survey, and the concurrent ad campaign, are an “escalation of the government's anti-EU rhetoric” before European Parliament and municipal elections next June, said Peter Kreko, director of the Budapest-based think tank Political Capital.

“This national consultation is by far the most anti-EU document that the government has released so far," Kreko said. "The government has moved to a highly irrational direction when it comes to its rhetoric towards Brussels, and it’s becoming self-defeating in many aspects."

One such aspect: the EU has withheld billions in funding from Budapest over the government's failure to comply with standards on the rule of law and anti-corruption, money that is badly needed after Hungary suffered through a full year of technical recession and still has the highest inflation in the EU.

The government initially made efforts to unlock the funds by carrying out a number of reforms. But after more than two years and little apparent progress, the anti-EU campaign may show that Orbán has given up on unblocking them, said Dorka Takacsy, a research fellow at the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy.

“Turning up the volume of the anti-EU messages seems to show that the Hungarian government does not intend to change its behavior and approach to common issues,” Takacsy said. "Even though these funds are painfully missing from the Hungarian economy, the government might have decided to let the money go, but not loosen its grip on the country.”

It’s not the first time that Hungary's government has taken aim at EU leadership and the Soros family, which funds liberal causes that Orbán opposes. In 2019, a similar campaign featured the laughing faces of then-European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and the senior Soros, an image that drew accusations of antisemitism.

In recent months, some observers have noted a sharpening of Orbán's anti-EU rhetoric, leading to speculation that he may be leading his country toward “Huxit,” a Hungarian exit from the bloc similar to the United Kingdom's Brexit withdrawal in 2020.

Kreko, the analyst, said that Orbán's government is “running a very harsh, targeted, state-sponsored disinformation campaign” against the EU in which “the tone is similar or even harsher than it was during the Brexit campaign."

“I think Orbán would be happy to see a euroskeptic public opinion so that he can threaten the European Union with Huxit, even if he does not plan to do so at the moment,” he said.

On Saturday, at a biannual congress of his governing Fidesz party, Orbán spoke in dismal terms about the EU's future, saying he was “deeply convinced that we must say no to the Brussels model of Europe.”

"It is unsustainable, it has no future," he said of the EU. "I am convinced that today, in Brussels, Europe is being destroyed and led to its ruins. They are driving nails into its coffin day after day.”

Despite such dire predictions, European Commission spokesperson Eric Mamer said at a briefing on Monday that he trusted the intelligence of Hungarian voters to distinguish between the EU's real aims and those claimed by Orbán.

“You know as well as I know that these statements are completely untrue,” he said of the national consultation, adding that it “certainly is not in line with the sort of practices that we use when we ask the public for their opinion.”

Mamer said he had shown the ads to von der Leyen, who, he said, “didn’t bat an eyebrow. Completely unfazed.”