Boris Johnson will welcome Viktor Orban, the rightwing populist Hungarian prime minister, to Downing Street on Friday, with Number 10 claiming co-operation with Budapest was “vital to the UK’s security and prosperity”.
Orban, an ally of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, has a fractious relationship with many EU leaders and has been actively courting investment from China in recent years.
But he is a rare admirer of Johnson inside the EU and last year described Johnson and former US president Donald Trump as “the most courageous, the most dynamic and the most ready to effect change” of all the politicians in the world.
Post-Brexit tensions are high between Britain and the EU, particularly over the issue of border controls in Northern Ireland, and Johnson will be grateful for any support he can get around the summit table in Brussels.
But Orban’s visit to Downing Street sits uneasily with Johnson’s attempt at next month’s G7 summit in Cornwall to forge a coalition of western democracies to act as a counterweight to authoritarian rivals such as China.
Hungary has this year twice vetoed EU statements condemning the erosion of democracy in Hong Kong. Orban has also vetoed Ukraine’s attempts to forge closer links with Nato.
The Hungarian leader’s domestic record — he has referred to “Muslim invaders” and called migrants “poison” — has earned him many critics on the British left and the timing of the visit is awkward.
On Tuesday, a highly critical independent inquiry into Islamophobia in the Conservative party found institutional failings in how it handled complaints of anti-Muslim prejudice.
Downing Street said “where we have concerns about human rights we do not shy away from raising them” but added that co-operation with Hungary was “vital to the UK’s security and prosperity”.
A spokesman noted Hungary was president of the Visegrad group, which also includes Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and was a vital regional player in the fight against organised crime.
Lisa Nandy, shadow foreign secretary, said Johnson should press Orban on human rights, press freedom and his record on anti-Semitism and also urge him to take “a robust stance towards the Lukashenko regime in Belarus and Putin’s Russia”.
Kim Darroch, former UK ambassador to the EU, said: “I’m not sure Orban is a massively useful ally on anything much, given his current standing in Europe and internationally. But on balance I support the prime minister talking to any EU leader, even Orban.”
Budapest stands accused of backsliding on democratic standards and the rule of law by many of its EU partners and civil society groups. The European Parliament initiated sanctions proceedings against Hungary for breaching EU values in 2018 although the process has little chance of succeeding because its ally Poland can block any punishment.
Hungary’s last parliamentary elections in 2018 were deemed free but not fair by the OSCE, Europe’s election standards watchdog, because Orban’s party Fidesz “enjoyed an undue advantage because of a pervasive overlap between state and ruling party resources, biased media coverage and opaque campaign financing regulations”.
Brussels has repeatedly raised concerns over degrading democratic standards in the country, ranging from persecution of the media to increased government oversight of universities and the Orban government’s adoption of emergency decree powers.
Last June Orban urged the EU to drop sanctions against Belarus after meeting its authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk. But this week Hungary joined the EU in condemning the actions of Belarus over the forced redirection of a Ryanair flight.
In a sign of UK/EU tensions, Emmanuel Macron, president of France, this week accused Britain at a European Council meeting of failing to respect its Brexit treaty with the EU, whether regarding the Irish border or fisheries.
“We stand ready to defend our interests and ensure these agreements are applied,” he said. “We will not in any case accept any weakness.”
Macron added: “If these situations are difficult to manage it’s precisely because of Brexit and in no case because of the EU.”