DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orban, leads a nationalist movement that calls for immigrants out of Europe. His government condemns EU leaders even as the EU pays for schools, roads, even vanity projects. But NPR's Joanna Kakissis explains that his war against Brussels may have gone too far.
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: In the cozy town of Hatvan just outside Budapest, Erika Gazdag (ph) sits on a bench outside the hospital where her husband just had surgery. The EU paid to remodel this hospital, but she's no fan of Brussels.
ERIKA GAZDAG: (Through interpreter) I wish EU leaders would stop letting in migrants because these guys do really bad things in Europe. They rape our women and kill our people. It's all over the news.
KAKISSIS: She's seen giant billboards showing the president of the European Commission, John-Claude Juncker, with Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros. Hungary's government falsely claims Soros is planning to flood Europe with migrants. You have a right to know what Brussels is planning to do, the billboard reads.
These billboards are all over Hungary, and they've enraged leaders in Brussels. European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas called the message fake news that...
MARGARITIS SCHINAS: Seeks to paint a dark picture of a secret plot to drive more migration to Europe allegedly.
KAKISSIS: Schinas said Brussels would fight back. And the European People's Party, the largest in the European Parliament, is threatening to kick out Prime Minister Viktor Orban's party, Fidesz. But at party headquarters in Budapest, Orban loyalists defend the campaign.
BALAZS HIDVEGHI: Hi.
KAKISSIS: I'm Joanna. Nice to meet you.
HIDVEGHI: Nice to meet you.
We just call things as they are, and we talk about reality.
KAKISSIS: I meet Fidesz spokesman Balazs Hidveghi in his seventh-floor office overlooking the Danube. The EU has reduced the number of migrants arriving to European shores to the lowest level in five years. Yet, he insists EU leaders are promoting migration.
HIDVEGHI: Politicians are saying that, well, the European population is decreasing; there are not enough children born. So what we need to do to help our economies, etc., is to bring in people from Africa, from the Middle East and Asia. We don't believe that's the right answer.
KAKISSIS: His government is instead giving tax breaks to Hungarian mothers with four or more children. The baby making is supposed to make up for a growing labor shortage, partly the result of tens of thousands of Hungarians leaving for better wages in other EU countries. Hidveghi says the EU has benefited from Hungary.
HIDVEGHI: We've opened our markets. We've opened our economies. It's also beneficial for the investors, the companies - the multinational companies, mostly from Western Europe, who bought up entire industries and taken advantage of, for example, cheaper labor.
KAKISSIS: So he does not see the EU money that goes into Hungarian roads and schools and hospitals as a gift. But millions have also gone into vanity projects that anti-corruption activists say enrich government cronies.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Hungarian).
KAKISSIS: Just around the corner from the EU-financed hospital in Hatvan, there's a bicycle road, an adventure park that costs the EU almost $4 million.
(SOUNDBITE OF GATE CREAKING)
KAKISSIS: It's damaged and deserted. The entrance is locked, so local councilman Jozsef Biro lets us in. He says it's only had 41 visitors since opening in 2015.
JOZSEF BIRO: (Through interpreter) The EU gives us money to promote tourism. This was supposed to be a park for extreme cyclists, but it looks like a half-finished construction site. It's like telling the EU - keep sending us the money, but this is how we'll spend it.
KAKISSIS: At a nearby cafe, middle-aged dock worker old Zsolt Czsiszar (ph) is having lunch with his wife. He calls the bicycle park embarrassing and the anti-Brussels campaign cringe-worthy. But he does not expect EU leaders to punish Hungary.
ZSOLT CZSISZAR: After Brexit, no chance. They want to keep the EU together.
KAKISSIS: And if Viktor Orban gets his way in European elections this spring, it will be a very different EU, one run by anti-immigrant nationalists.
Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Hatvan, Hungary.
(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBOOK SONG, "THREE KINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.