Orban and Putin lay bare EU’s cultural and strategic divisions

Good morning. Europe Express is coming to you fresh from last night’s EU leaders’ summit, where Hungary’s Viktor Orban was dressed down by fellow governments heads over Budapest’s anti-LGBTI+ legislation.

A reset with Russia drew discussions out until 2am this morning after Germany and France’s contentious last-minute proposal to resume EU summits with Vladimir Putin, which was ultimately blocked.

With the second round of France’s regional elections coming up on Sunday, we thought it would be useful to list a few pointers in terms of what the results could mean for the presidential race next year.

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At the other end of the rainbow

Some of Europe’s rawest cultural and political divisions were exposed last night as EU leaders met for a charged and occasionally emotional summit in Brussels, write Sam Fleming and Mehreen Khan in Brussels. 

The sprawling agenda for the summit ranged from migration and Turkey to Covid-19 and the EU’s travel rules. But the most combative debates centred on Hungary’s drift towards illiberalism and how the EU should handle its increasingly bitter relations with Russia. 

The discussion over Budapest resembled something of an ambush.

Leaders from all countries bar two lined up to condemn Viktor Orban’s government for passing a law prohibiting gay and transgender material from appearing in schools and media aimed at under-18s. Brussels this week slammed the law for equating homosexuality with paedophilia.

Luxembourg’s prime minister and the only openly gay leader in the European Council kicked off the debate with an impassioned account of the challenges he faced being accepted by his family over his sexuality. His Belgian counterpart added that “being gay is not a choice, but being homophobic is”.

Mark Rutte, Dutch prime minister, went as far as to invite the Hungarian leader to trigger the Article 50 process for leaving the EU if he was unwilling to change course. Rutte was backed by Portugal’s António Costa, who confronted Orban over claims that the EU was an imperialistic project.

The depth of the anger directed at Orban seemed to disarm even Hungary’s notoriously thick-skinned leader, said diplomats. The veteran premier complained that he felt attacked from all sides and insisted the bill was about protecting the rights of parents and children.

The summit’s extraordinary exchanges marked a culmination of years of growing frustration in Brussels with Orban, who has opened multiple fronts of conflict with the EU over the rule of law, migration and fundamental rights as he proudly constructs his “illiberal democracy”.

The disarray over how to handle Hungary spilled over into a similarly fraught debate over relations with the Kremlin in the wake of a controversial German-French proposal to hold a summit with Putin.

The leaders’ meeting eventually broke up at 2am and it was Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, who seemed to concede defeat in what was likely to be her last EU summit as head of a sitting German government. As the FT reports, the Baltics, Poland and others blocked Paris and Berlin’s idea for Putin to be invited to meet EU27 leaders.

Merkel admitted the discussion was “not easy”.

Ultimately, she failed to convince her fellow leaders to back her strategy and resume formal EU meetings with Putin for the first time since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

“Today it was not possible to agree that we would meet immediately at leaders’ level, but what is important to me is that the dialogue format is retained,” Merkel told reporters at the end of the summit. “Personally, I would have liked to have taken a bolder step here.”

A host of leaders complained that the Franco-German intervention was designed to bounce them into talks with Russia on the eve of the meeting. One diplomat said the gambit failed as Merkel, during her final hurrah after more than 16 years of summitry, just “didn’t do her homework”.

Chart du jour: Russia’s price hike

Russian actions are behind a spike in natural gas prices in Europe, according to industry sources. Exports from Russia’s Gazprom have dropped one-fifth in 2021, even as demand has recovered and stockpiles have diminished. Some suspect the goal is to pressure European states to approve the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which some eastern European governments bitterly oppose. (Read more here)

Les régionales, round two

The message delivered by voters in France’s regional and departmental elections this weekend may have more to do with their scorn for politics in general than their party loyalties, writes Victor Mallet in Paris.

An unenthusiastic, Covid-19-weary electorate will be summoned to the polls again on Sunday for the second and final round. Politicians are nervously anticipating a repeat of the record low turnout a week earlier. 

President Emmanuel Macron told his cabinet the “abysmal abstention” was “a democratic alarm bell”, according to the government spokesperson.

Meanwhile, an Ifop-Fiducial opinion poll found that only 36 per cent of voters planned to cast their ballots in the second round — barely changed from 33 per cent in the first round and sharply down from 59 per cent in 2015.

Even so, the results will send some signals about the balance of power in France and the prospects of the main contenders in next April’s presidential election.

Here are three points to watch on Sunday night: 

  1. Will Marine Le Pen’s extreme-right Rassemblement National make history after all by winning the southern region of Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur? Last week, the anti-immigration Eurosceptic party fared much worse nationwide than expected, and than it did six years ago. But RN candidate Thierry Mariani still led the field and will face centre-right candidate Renaud Muselier in the second round. Muselier is backed by Macron’s party and a green-left candidate who withdrew in an effort to keep RN from power. But the race remains tight, with one opinion poll this week projecting Muselier’s lead at just 51 per cent to 49 per cent.

  2. To what extent will the election expose the weakness of Macron’s La République en Marche? Created in 2016 as a popular, catch-all centrist party that helped propel Macron to the presidency, LREM now governs France in alliance with François Bayrou’s MoDem party. But LREM is scarcely present in local councils and won just 11 per cent of the vote in the first round of the regional elections, trailing the centre-right Les Républicains, RN and the Socialist party. Macron’s candidates did so badly that they failed to even qualify for the second round in four of the 13 European regions of France. 

  3. Who on the centre-right will emerge with most credit from this lacklustre contest? In the northern region of Hauts-de-France, incumbent Xavier Bertrand defied the pollsters’ predictions and even boasted of smashing his rivals’ jaws. (Read more here on Bertrand’s presidential bid). Other centre-right competitors including Valérie Pécresse in the Ile-de-France region around Paris and Laurent Wauquiez in the south-east are also likely to do well — and they have their own ambitions for the Elysée. 

Who do you think stands to gain the most from Sunday’s election? Click here to take the poll.

What to watch

  1. EU leaders regroup in Brussels for a eurozone summit today, focusing on the economic recovery

  2. French voters return to the polls on Sunday for the second round of regional elections

Smart reads

  • Brexit in a nutshell: UK in a Changing Europe, a think-tank, has painted a detailed picture of Britain after Brexit, including the many economic, political and policy challenges it faces and how public opinion has evolved since the 2016 referendum.

  • EU from the outside: The US-based Pew Research Center has conducted surveys in 17 advanced economies of how respondents feel about the EU. While many of the overall views are positive, most non-EU countries rate the bloc’s coronavirus response poorly.

  • Connection interrupted: The EU could lose out on €2tn of growth by 2030 and miss targets set out by the commission’s digital decade agenda if it does not improve data flows between states, according to industry body DigitalEurope.

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Today’s Europe Express team:,,,, Follow us on Twitter: @valentinapop @mehreenkhn @Sam1Fleming @VJMallet

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