Most European leaders are guarded in expressing who they’d prefer to see win the November U.S. presidential elections, but not Hungary’s firebrand Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the populist bête noire of western Europe’s leaders.
In a characteristically outspoken article earlier this month in Magyar Nemzet, a conservative newspaper, Orban declared: “We are rooting for another victory for Donald Trump because we are very familiar with the foreign policy of U.S. Democratic administrations, built as it is on moral imperialism. We have tasted it — albeit under duress. We didn’t like it and we don’t want a second helping.” He described Trump as an ally in the battle against what he dubbed “loopy liberals.”
Orban also told Hungarian public radio separately that Trump “is good for central Europe.” Orban’s endorsement wasn’t unexpected. In 2016, he became the first European national leader to back Trump’s presidential bid.
Traditionally, European leaders are careful to avoid endorsing one U.S. presidential candidate over another, fearing a backlash or retribution if the nominee they didn’t endorse wins. Sometimes they seek to assist behind the scenes, but that, too, can backfire, as British Conservatives found in 1992 when it emerged they searched the archives of Britain’s foreign ministry for embarrassing information about Bill Clinton, who had studied at the University of Oxford.
Orban’s electoral outspokenness is unusual, then. Poland’s President Andrzej Duda and senior officials of the country’s conservative nationalist Law and Justice Party, or the PiS, avoid replying when asked whom they prefer, Trump or former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden. But do Orban’s views reflect the private thinking of others in central Europe?
Europe has increasingly been polarized between East and West on a host of issues — ranging from migration to European integration, from sanctions on Russia to the rule of law, as well as democracy standards. Orban and Poland’s leaders are currently embroiled in a battle with Brussels over rule of law issues. On Tuesday, the Hungarian leader demanded the EU official charged with upholding democracy norms be sacked for calling his country a “sick democracy.”
And it’s hardly surprisingly on the coming U.S. elections there are splits, too. Throughout his term in office, Trump has polled badly in Europe generally. Only 13% percent of Germans, 18% of Swedes, and 20% of the French have confidence in him to do the right thing in world affairs, according to a survey at the start of the year by the Pew Research Center. Those percentages are much lower than for Trump’s predecessor in the White House, Barack Obama, during his last year in office.
But the picture starts to become a little more mixed moving west to east, largely due to approval of Trump by supporters of populist nationalist parties, which are stronger in central Europe, who see the Republican president as an ideological ally, especially when it comes to migration.
The Pew pollsters found a majority of Poles, 51%, had confidence in Trump doing the right thing in world affairs. In 2017, only 23% of Poles viewed Trump positively, but the numbers started to rise after President Duda visited the U.S. in 2019 and the two leaders announced plans to strengthen military cooperation.
Trump’s recent decision to redeploy a thousand of the 12,000 U.S. troops he has ordered to be withdrawn from Germany is also a popular move in Poland, according to analysts. Polish defense minister Mariusz Blaszczak has said the redeployment is “good for the security of Poland but also for NATO eastern flank countries.”
The Poles hope to host even more U.S. troops. Last month, Blaszczak announced plans to construct housing for about 20,000 U.S. troops, though Trump so far has not said he’s prepared to base as many as that in Poland. He has said he wants U.S.-Polish military relations to deepen.
A Biden win would likely derail Poland’s hopes of hosting more troops or even keeping the ones redeployed to Poland. Biden aides say he will review Trump’s decision to withdraw thousands of troops from Germany, if he is elected president.
“The potential result if Trump loses the election, might be a problem” for the PiS, according to Lukasz Warzecha, commentator at the conservative weekly Do Rzeczy. “The presence of the U.S. soldiers here in Poland and extended presence is definitely very important. It's very important for voters,” he added in an interview with the GZERO news-site, part of the Eurasia Group, a political risk analysis firm.
The central European states place an even higher value on transatlantic relations than western European states, and they share to varying degrees the Trump administration’s antipathy to Brussels.
“A key difference between the approaches of the U.S. Democratic and Republican politicians to eastern Europe seems to lie in the contrast between values promotion and security commitments,” according to academics Cristian Nitoiu, Florin Pasatoiu and Loredana Simionov.
“The Trump administration has disproportionately emphasized the latter, while the Democratic Party seems to be focused on achieving a certain level of ideological influence: especially when it comes to the promotion of liberal values, such human rights, democracy, the rule of law and more recently social justice,” they say in a commentary for the London School of Economics.
With the Democrats back in the White House, “Countries in the region will be expected to show a commitment toward closer relations across the Atlantic, not only when it comes to upholding the existing security architecture, but also closely mimicking liberal values-led developments in the U.S., especially in the area of social and racial justice. However, this is likely to cause a considerable backlash as the majority of the population in Eastern Europe tends to be rather conservative,” they add.
Western European governments, by contrast, are eager for a reset from the Trump years, and a return to more predictable and traditional transatlantic relations. “Biden has always been a staunch transatlanticist — and, over the course of his decades-long political career, he has forged close relationships with key European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel,” noted Alex Soros in commentary for the European Council on Foreign Relations, an international think-tank partly funded by his father, philanthropist George Soros.
At the Munich security conference last year, shortly before Biden announced his candidacy for the White House, western European leaders and officials privately, in the margins of the gathering, were urging him to run, anticipating the United States will then rejoin both the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and possibly return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran. Trump pulled the United States out of both agreements.