His real aim is to lead a populist and nativist rebellion against Europe’s liberal elite, though that campaign is showing signs of faltering.
After months of bluster against financial aid for Ukraine, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary on Thursday yielded to intense pressure from fellow European leaders, but not before he tried to change the topic in Brussels by meeting with angry Belgian farmers beside a convoy of tractors and voicing support for the protests roiling Europe.
In what amounted to a campaign stop ahead of European elections in June that he hopes will shift Europe’s balance of power in his direction, Mr. Orban skipped a dinner with European leaders on Wednesday evening and went to talk to the farmers who had gathered outside the Brussels venue for Thursday’s make-or-break summit meeting on Ukraine.
“We need to find new leaders who truly represent the interests of the people,” Mr. Orban told the farmers, leaving little doubt that he includes himself in what he sees as an inevitable changing of the guard in Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union.
For Mr. Orban, whether to send billions of dollars to Ukraine has never been a question of immovable principle, and he folded Thursday when told that some member states were serious about isolating him, even stripping him of his vote, if he continued to block the aid. Rather, it is just one of many issues on which he has sought to establish himself as the leader of a pan-European movement in defense of national sovereignty and traditional values against what he scorns as out-of-touch urban elites.
Headlines on Thursday morning in Hungarian news media outlets loyal to Mr. Orban’s government hinted that his main objective all along has been to position himself as a guiding beacon for Europeans dissatisfied with the status quo and looking for a leader ready to discomfit mainstream opinion.
“Hungary in the lead,” trumpeted Mandiner, a pro-government weekly and online news site. “All eyes on Viktor Orban again,” said Index, an online news portal that used to be independent but is now firmly on the government’s side after it was taken over by a loyal tycoon.