With the exception of Germany and Poland, where Viktor Orbán was received with military honors, and a few rather uncomfortable meetings with José Manuel Barroso, the Hungarian prime minister did not receive invitations from the states of "Old Europe." So, he decided to initiate meetings with the heads of state in the European Union. After all, Hungary will have the rotating presidency in the first half of 2011 and therefore he had a good excuse: to discuss matters of common interest.
Normally, we can't find out much about what transpires in Orbán's conversations. Usually it is only Orbán who talks to Hungarian journalists, and sometimes the information comes not from the prime minister himself but from Péter Szijjártó, his spokesman, who accompanies him everywhere. But even if there is–and that doesn't happen too often–a joint press conference, it is rarely enlightening.
Orbán's itinerary began in Brussels where he talked with Barroso. Afterwards the two men actually gave a joint press conference. Although it was the usual meaningless performance, there were a couple of new pieces of information that may or may not be true. Orbán for example claimed that until recently he thought that Hungary's presidency could be devoted to culture and the management of water supplies. This is the first time I heard about either of these alleged priorities. There was a lot of talk about minority questions and about what kinds of advantages Hungary could reap from the presidency, but waterways? I guess Orbán felt that mentioning the minority question was not timely. After all, on the very same day as the press conference a long interview with him appeared in Le Figaro in which the French journalist expressed his surprise that, despite inheriting a very serious economic situation, the first law the new Hungarian government passed dealt with conferring Hungarian citizenship on Hungarians in the neighboring countries. And he added, "Do you understand that your European partners have been a little confused?"
But now, Orbán continued, after a severe economic crisis that will continue to affect the EU during the Hungarian presidency, there will be more important issues than culture and waterways. The countries of the European Union must coordinate their budgets and certain agreements must be revised. Thus one can surmise that the Hungarian budget for 2011 was also mentioned in some form or other during the Barroso-Orbán talks.
I also found it a little jarring that Orbán felt compelled to say that "he and many members of his government have been participants in European life for a long time by now." Did he want to emphasize that he is, contrary to appearances, a good European? After all, Orbán was asked by the journalist of Le Figaro why he has two Hungarian flags in his office and why no flag of the European Union can be seen anywhere. So, it seems, he was forced to realize that Europe watches more closely than he thought and perhaps it's better not to emphasize the nationality issues too much.
It was also new to me that the Orbán government in the last few months initiated reforms and as a result of these reforms Hungary is no longer in crisis. The truth is that no reforms were introduced, no crisis situation existed in April when the elections were held, and the exorbitant bank levies and extraordinary taxes on certain businesses, mostly foreign owned, were necessary because of an unnecessary tax cut for the well-to-do introduced by Orbán's government. But according to Orbán the "accomplishment" of the Orbán government is proof that Hungary has a real talent for problem solving.
The Hungarian prime minister only once, in Brussels, referred to the "revolution" that occurred in Hungary because this topic can also be delicate in Western Europe. After all, the European Council's president, Herman Van Rompuy, warned against the rise of nationalism, populism and anti-democratic forces within the European Union. Orbán was asked in Le Figaro whether perhaps Rompuy included Hungary among these countries. Orbán's explanation was interesting: Van Rompuy couldn't possibly think of Hungary because after all "we belong to the same political family," i.e. the Christian Democratic caucus of the European Parliament. But there is a huge difference between Orbán's Fidesz and the British Tories or the German Christian Democratic Party.
And finally, the most revealing news came from France. Today Orbán met for almost an hour with Nicolas Sarkozy. Again there was no joint press conference and Orbán talked about only that part of the conversation that centered around Hungary's role as the next rotating president of the European Union. However, the office of the French president also released some details of the conversation. It is true that the French president and Orbán talked at length about the immediate tasks before the European Union, but even here there were some differences. Orbán emphasized the expansion of the Union, in particular supporting Croatia's entrance into the EU. In addition, he mentioned Romania's and Bulgaria's joining the Schengen Zone. But Sarkozy considered these issues minor in comparison to the economic problems at hand. Orbán kept talking about agricultural policies and their importance for Hungary, but Sarkozy poured cold water on that issue too by stating that changes in agricultural policies will undoubtedly take place in the future. That most likely means cuts in agricultural subsidies.
When it came to bilateral relations Sarkozy apparently made no secret of his dissatisfaction with the way French and other European companies have been treated in Hungary. Surely, he was thinking here of Suez S.A. and what happened to it in Pécs after Zsolt Páva (Fidesz) became mayor of the city. He expressed his misgivings about the discrimination foreign firms suffer in Orbán's Hungary.
Orbán gave a lecture at the French Institute of International Relations where he claimed that in the future "Central Europe will be the key region of European competitiveness." After the crisis, Central Europe will be the "engine of economic growth" and it will achieve "double of the economic growth in Western Europe." It seems that György Matolcsy's unrealistic predictions are contagious.
And finally the truth came out about the so-called economic policy of the Orbán government. He admitted that analysts might have a difficult time trying to interpret Hungary's "unusual economic experimentation." This "economic mixture" [of low budget deficit and high crisis taxes] "can be deciphered only after careful analysis." He admitted that ahead of time "one cannot predict whether [this new kind of economic policy] will work or not. As in every experiment there is always the possibility of failure. But we want to be successful." In brief, the Hungarian people are the guinea pigs in a great experiment concocted by György Matolcsy and Viktor Orbán for purely political purposes.
At home Orbán wouldn't dare tell the Hungarian people that what the government is doing is an experiment that might end in failure. Today a woman who phoned in to György Bolgár compared the government's economic policy to a Ponzi scheme and, she added, Ponzi schemes always collapse.