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Pompeo begins a divisive march through Europe

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(Zsolt Szigetvary)

On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Hungary, the first destination on a five-day trip through Europe. He’s also scheduled to visit Slovakia and Poland, where he will chair a conference on the Middle East, before heading home via Brussels and Reykjavik, Iceland. The State Department billed his stops in Central Europe as a return to a part of the world that 30 years ago “tore down the Iron Curtain to reclaim their freedom and sovereignty.” Pompeo would champion the region’s ties to the West at a time of “increased pressure from Russia and China,” the statement read.

But there are other politics at play, as well. In Hungary and Poland, Pompeo is calling on two right-wing governments that have been a thorn in the side of the European Union. In Slovakia, he’ll arrive a year after the assassination of a journalist investigating a network of corruption that went deep into the government.

Critics warn that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, along with his Polish counterparts and far-right leaders to the west, is inspiring a new illiberal vanguard on the continent that is eyeing major gains in May’s European parliamentary elections. Domestically, the creeping authoritarianism of Orban’s rule saw Hungary’s democracy get downgraded to “partly free” in the annual index released last week by Freedom House, a Washington think tank — a move that places it among nations such as Zimbabwe and Pakistan.

On Monday, Pompeo told reporters in Budapest that he has had private discussions with his Hungarian counterparts about their troublesome politics. “You can do it all,” he said. “You can walk and chew gum at the same time. We’ve never been bashful about that. We have NATO partners that we wish were doing better on these issues. We talk about it openly with them.”

Yet Pompeo has repeatedly voiced sympathy for an Orban-inspired nationalist bloc. In a speech in Brussels in December, he celebrated countries that “reassert” their “sovereignty” and provocatively admonished European governments to place the interests of their citizens “before those of bureaucrats” at the European Union. Among Europe’s liberal establishment, those remarks went down like a lead balloon. But they were probably cheered in Budapest.

At a joint briefing with Pompeo on Monday, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said both his government and the Trump administration were “patriotic in terms of their policies,” eager to defend their borders and “Christian heritage,” and closely aligned to the right-wing government in Israel. Those connections probably outweighed the Trump administration’s concerns over Hungary’s flirtations with the Kremlin, the penetration of a major Chinese tech company in the Hungarian market and Orban’s systematic squeezing of independent media and civil society.

“Too often in the recent past, the United States was absent from Central Europe,” Pompeo said. “That’s unacceptable. Our rivals filled those vacuums. Today we reaffirm our determination to compete for positive influence in the region.”

When Pompeo arrives in Poland on Wednesday, he will be hosted by another illiberal government. It was in Warsaw where President Trump delivered a startling blood-and-soil ode to nationalism less than six months into his term. And as the Trump administration faces tensions with Britain, Germany and France over its anti-Iran agenda, it has found in Poland a willing partner for a summit on the future of the Middle East. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be in attendance; the E.U.’s chief foreign affairs official will not. “We were approached by the U.S. to act as co-host — we are one of the most pro-American nations in the E.U. and want to underscore that we should cooperate, especially in security issues,” a Polish official told Politico.

But rather than build consensus, the summit may only underscore the widening gulf between Washington and its traditional European partners. A report issued ahead of this weekend’s Munich Security Conference — a high-profile gathering of dignitaries that will include a U.S. delegation led by Vice President Pence — accused Trump of harboring “an irritating enthusiasm for strongmen across the globe” and suggested “that this administration is living in a ‘post-human rights world.’ ” It poured cold water on Pompeo’s stated ambition in Brussels to “build a new liberal order.”

“For longtime trans-Atlantic allies, it is still hard to stomach when Trump praises illiberal leaders from Brazil to the Philippines,” the report noted. European officials feel similarly queasy about the White House’s seeming embrace of figures such as Orban, who had been shunned for years by the Obama administration.

Analysts warn of a growing impunity. “Poland and Hungary are marching to the beat of authoritarian nationalism,” wrote Josef Joffe, a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “They will gladly take the goodies — billions in subsidies — from Brussels but refuse to obey its dictates of liberal-democratic virtue.”

That’s also a reflection of the fecklessness of the European establishment. George Soros, a Jewish-American financier long targeted by Orban’s government (often with messaging that critics argue is nakedly anti-Semitic) for his role in funding certain civil society groups in the country, blasted the political cynicism that preserves Orban’s status at the heart of Europe. The European People’s Party, a center-right bloc that includes parties such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, has resisted calls to oust Orban’s Fidesz party from its ranks.

“The EPP is almost entirely devoid of principles, as demonstrated by its willingness to permit the continued membership of . . . Fidesz in order to preserve its majority and control the allocation of top jobs in the EU,” Soros wrote in a recent essay. “Anti-European forces may look good in comparison: at least they have some principles, even if they are odious.”

He bleakly styled the leadership in Brussels as “reminiscent of the politburo when the Soviet Union collapsed,” issuing its diktats “as if they were still relevant.” If such a gloomy end is near, very few in Europe see Pompeo riding to the rescue.

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This story was originally published by Washington Post

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