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Viktor Orbán’s man in Brussels is a former Trotskyite who made his name backing leftist causes.
In the 1980s, Frank Furedi was one of the U.K.’s most hardcore communists. By 2016, he was a Brexit-supporting contrarian fulminating against so-called cancel culture. Today, he’s pushing the Hungarian leader’s right-wing populist agenda in the heart of European politics.
Furedi — born in Budapest but based for most of his life in England — leads the Brussels branch of Hungarian government-backed college Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC). His mission? Needling the EU establishment with which Budapest has often clashed over the rule of law.
Since its launch last November, MCC Brussels has held events and published reports on topics ranging from EU technology regulation to history teaching to the Ukrainian war. The general tone is exactly what you’d expect from a college linked to Orbán: startups would be better far from the Berlaymont’s reach; history teachers are woke; the EU’s entanglement in the Ukrainian conflict reveals its democratic deficit.
“I’m trying to project an understanding of European culture alternative to the EU mainstream,” Furedi, a former sociology professor at the University of Kent, told POLITICO in MCC Brussels’ HQ, a serviced office space in the city center. He got the job after a chance encounter with Balázs Orbán — the Hungarian PM’s political director (the two are not related) and chair of MCC — in London’s Trafalgar Square.
Furedi accepted. His goal was to counter what he saw as unfair badmouthing from Europe. “Hungary was being framed as this authoritarian fascistic place, which I felt was complete bullshit,” he said. Another reason for taking the job? Furedi likes a good brawl. “It’s a chance to fight back in the culture wars,” he said.
To win those wars, Furedi has brought to Brussels a platoon of acolytes from a lifetime of activism in the U.K. Most were staffers or contributors to organizations Furedi built from the rubble of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), a Trotskyist groupuscule he launched in 1978.
The RCP had few members, but a reputation as a pursuer of then-radical causes (Irish unification, anti-racism, gay rights) and general pot-stirrer. Its métier was denunciating the British Labour Party as detached from the working class while adopting an anti-state intervention stance. The group’s beating heart was the magazine Living Marxism (later just LM), for which Furedi wrote under pseudonyms such as Frank Richards and Linda Ryan.
The RCP dissolved in 1997, and three years later, LM went bankrupt after losing a lawsuit brought by broadcaster ITN, which the mag had accused of doctoring coverage of the Bosnian war.
After that, Furedi and other RCP leaders created new political homes for their allies. Many party members moved to work for Furedi-backed outfits including libertarian online magazine Spiked and think tank Academy of Ideas. In this new incarnation, Furedi and pals cranked the libertarianism up to 11 — lambasting environmentalism, criticizing political correctness and backing Brexit.
That led British left-wing newspaper the Guardian to label the ex-RCP landscape — a gaggle of companies, charities and initiatives that share managers and shareholders — as a stooge of right-wing causes and big business. Furedi dismisses that as “a fantasy.” Yet, RCP veterans are certainly influential in conservative and Euroskeptic circles: Academy of Ideas founder Claire Fox was an MEP for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. LM regular Munira Mirza worked as Boris Johnson’s policy whizz in Downing Street.
Nearly all of MCC Brussels’ non-Hungarian staffers hail from that group. Visiting academics Bill Durodié and Ashley Frawley are prolific authors on Spiked and have spoken at Academy of Ideas events, as has Head of Communications John (a.k.a. Jon) O’Brien. Former Academy of Ideas Manager Jacob Reynolds is now MCC Brussels’ head of policy.
Furedi said he wanted to build a team that was “on the same page” as him.
“In public life, whether you’re an American president or at the lowest level, you bring your people with you,” he said. “It’s natural.” The pitch he makes to prospective employees is: “Do you want to have some fun, stir things up in Brussels, and make an impact?”
The curious result is a Hungarian think tank staffed by pundits, thinkers, and operators steeped in a distinctly Anglo-Saxon approach to cultural matters.
Ashley Frawley, MCC Brussels researcher and a former student of Furedi’s in Kent, said that some of her colleagues have dubbed her “the anti-Jordan Peterson,” contrasting her work to that of the Canadian psychology professor turned YouTube-dwelling conservative firebrand.
“There’s a lot of overlap between what I think and what Jordan Peterson thinks,” she said. “However, I think that fighting for a materially better life is one of the most important things you could fight for, and I’m not sure that material analysis comes into Jordan Peterson.”
Katalin Cseh, a Hungarian member of the European Parliament for the liberal Renew group — and an opponent of Orbán’s government — said that MCC’s alignment with Anglo-born political rhetoric is by design. “MCC as a government-funded institution serves as a platform for spreading this variation of a European alt-right populistic agenda,” she said. “I believe the installation of the Brussels office is an attempt to create an alliance in Europe around Orbán’s ideas.”
War on woke
The keynote speaker for MCC’s January event on history teaching was Spiked columnist Joanna Williams, a former Kent University professor and author of libertarian polemic “How Woke Won.”
In her talk — “The Politicization of History Teaching in the EU” — Williams warned against the influence Strasbourg-based international organization the Council of Europe (which is not an EU institution) supposedly exerts on education across the bloc. “They’re theoretically separate, but there’s clearly quite a connection,” Williams said.
Williams wants to write other reports for MCC. “It’s been very positive so far. I just like writing for anybody who will publish what I say without changing it,” she said, contrasting the experience with what she sees as heavy-handed editing in academia.
Over time, Furedi aims to bring in more staffers and speakers from other European countries, backgrounds, and political convictions. “I’m looking everywhere: we need people who are Spanish, Italian, French, German,” he said.
His higher-ups in Hungary have given him free rein when it comes to running MCC Brussels. “Frank is coming up with his own ideas,” said MCC Managing Director Zoltán Szalai.
In any case, Furedi doesn’t plan to spend more than a couple of years in Brussels. What would victory look like? “My goal is to undermine the political quarantine around Hungary,” he said. “If I can do even half of that — well done. If not, then I f**ked up.”