Hungary's leader calls for change at the top in June European elections at a far right gathering

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Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks during the National Conservatism conference in Brussels, Wednesday, April 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

BRUSSELS – Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on Wednesday urged voters to reject mainstream political parties in upcoming European Union elections for their failure of leadership and said Ukraine must never be allowed to join the bloc or NATO.

Orbán, the keynote speaker at a gathering in Brussels of international far right politicians and supporters, railed against EU climate policy and agriculture rules that he said have left farmers in great difficulty. He said that Europe’s “migration crisis” is now bigger than ever.

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“The sense of this European election is: change the leadership,” Orbán told an audience of about 200 people, as campaigning heats up for Europe-wide polls on June 6-9. “If the leadership proves to be bad, it must be replaced. That’s so simple,” the right-wing populist leader said, to applause.

Orbán — a self-proclaimed “illiberal democrat” — took aim at the EU’s executive branch, the European Commission, for using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to attack his country. “The bureaucrats in Brussels tried to suffocate Hungary financially,” he said.

The commission has denied Hungary access to billions of euros over concerns about democratic backsliding in the country and the possible mismanagement of EU money.

The Hungarian leader, who has been in office since 2010, also underlined the failure of EU sanctions to stop the war in Ukraine. Addressing the fact that he’s often described in the media as a staunch ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Orbán said: “My mother is not happy.”

He said Hungary’s biggest concern is that it does not want to share a common border with Russia again and that Ukraine should not be allowed to join the EU and NATO. “Guys, you have to understand that you are a buffer zone country. You can’t change your house number,” he said.

Ukraine has applied to join both organizations, but it’s unlikely that it will be permitted to do so while the war rages on, and Hungary has routinely vetoed high-level talks with the country and funds to keep its conflict-ravaged economy afloat, standing alone against its Western partners.

Orbán said “Ukraine is now just a protectorate” relying on Western money and weapons and is “not a sovereign state anymore.” However, NATO and EU leaders insist that the war is an existential question for Europe and that Putin must not be allowed to win.

The National Conservative conference, a gathering of strident nationalists and fundamentalist Christians, resumed earlier on Wednesday after winning a legal challenge against authorities in the Belgian capital who feared the event could pose a threat to public order.

French far-right figurehead Eric Zemmour had been scheduled to criticize the EU’s new migrant and asylum rules at the event Tuesday but was turned away by police. He returned Wednesday, was quickly surrounded by media, stood for a few photos with admirers and retired to the VIP room.

Emir Kir, mayor of the Saint-Joss neighborhood where it was held, had ordered police to prevent people from entering.

Kir acted after a group of anti-fascists threatened to disrupt the meeting. Indeed, the group had harassed conference organizers in recent days, forcing them to change venues twice. No protesters were in sight hours after police began to shut the event down but around 50 gathered after most participants had left on Tuesday.

After an overnight legal challenge, a Brussels judge put stayed the closure order. On Tuesday, Nigel Farage, the man credited with taking Britain out of the European Union, addressed the crowd, saying that “a new form of evil ideology” had tried to silence the conference.

The Belgian and British leaders expressed concern about developments.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, a liberal and opponent of the far right, called the shutdown unacceptable in a post on the X platform.

“Municipal autonomy is a cornerstone of our democracy but can never overrule the Belgian constitution guaranteeing the freedom of speech and peaceful assembly since 1830. Banning political meetings is unconstitutional. Full stop,” he wrote.

A spokeswoman for Rishi Sunak said the British prime minister thought the move was “extremely disturbing.”

NatCon 2024, as the event is dubbed, is a haven for many of those on Europe's extreme right that mainstream parties fear most. Surveys suggest that centrist parties are likely to retain power after the June elections, but possibly with a reduced majority.

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