Of course, the title was written in jest. The Hungarian prime minister’s performance in Brussels surpasses my lowest expectations of his ability to navigate the “High Street of Europe.” In case you’ve forgotten, it was Viktor Orbán a couple of years ago who criticized Gordon Bajnai and his government as provincial country bumpkins who are simply lost in the world of European politics. But, just wait, he will come and from there on Hungary will be strutting along on the High Street of Europe. It turned out a little differently, as we can see.
The Hungarian prime minister is most likely pegged as an unreliable politician whose words mean nothing. After all, a day before the European summit, according to The Wall Street Journal, he “called on Europe to remain united as it draws up new plans to fight its debt crisis.” So, great was my surprise when I saw a late night report of The New York Times that “efforts to get unanimity among the 27 members of the European Union, as desired by Germany, failed as Britain and Hungary refused to go along for now.” The article further stated that two other countries, the Czech Republic and Sweden, said they wanted to talk to their parties and parliaments at home before deciding.
Index, the Hungarian on-line paper, reported in the same vein in the early morning. Sarkozy named Hungary as one of the two countries that refuses to go along. Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, did not mention Hungary by name, but it was clear from his phrasing that he was talking about Britain and Hungary. The Dutch prime minister also mentioned Hungary by name.
The members of the Hungarian delegation wouldn’t talk with either foreign or Hungarian reporters, but Viktor Orbán promised a press conference for the morning. Meanwhile, journalists were busy writing about the two recalcitrant members. Nobody was terribly surprised about Great Britain, but Hungary’s “no” was inexplicable. Stefan Wagstyl of The Financial Times began his article by saying that “adversity makes strange bedfellows.” According to him, this marriage is a mesalliance. In case you are not familiar with this word it means “a marriage with a person of inferior social position.” That was not nice!
A few hours later, Orbán was no longer so firm in his opposition. He had changed his tune. He will have to turn to the Hungarian parliament which must vote on the question of adherence to the treaty. After all, it impacts on Hungarian sovereignty and he is not authorized to make such a weighty decision on his own.
Hungarian papers pondered the question: who misunderstood whom? Did Sarkozy, Rompuy and the Dutch prime minister misunderstood Orbán or did Orbán change his stance after a few hours of sleep and, I suspect, a few persuasive conversations that outlined the terrible consequences of his decision? As it was, the Hungarian forint sank 1% within a couple of hours. I’m sure the knee-jerk forex reaction gave Orbán a taste of what might follow in the next few days. This recognition might have helped change his mind.
Meanwhile the Hungarian opposition parties and the financial analysts were baffled, some of them horrified. Péter Balázs, foreign minister in the Bajnai government, simply couldn’t understand the reasoning behind Orbán’s decision. He especially couldn’t understand why Orbán would behave like this just before the negotiations with the IMF-EU delegation. Attila Mesterházy of MSZP considered Orbán’s behavior outright crazy, adding that “even stupidity and stubbornness have their limits.” LMP’s Gábor Scheiring, who normally represents the party in economic questions, said that “Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is just as incompetent as the ministers of his government.” According to Ferenc Gyurcsány of the Democratic Coalition, “Viktor Orbán with his contradictory statements and wavering viewpoints confused the world, the European Union, Hungary and perhaps he himself got confused.” In his opinion the prime minister made perhaps the most damaging foreign policy decision of the last twenty years.
Well, I think that is a bit of an exaggeration. Viktor Orbán already has a very bad reputation inside and outside of the European Union and I doubt whether anyone in that conference room expected a sterling performance from the Hungarian prime minister. Gyurcsány rather sarcastically remarked that “the market at Teleki Square [a flea market] is not the same as The City, and the Hungarian forint is not the same as the pound sterling.” He thinks that the Hungarian negotiating team’s position vis-à-vis the IMF and the EU will be a great deal more difficult after this unfortunate affair in Brussels.
In any case, Orbán sounded a lot smarter by this afternoon. He admitted that the 2012 Hungarian budget must be completely reworked. He also announced that “the Hungarians and the Brits will never sit in the same boat.” He suddenly considered the situation after the summit “new and exciting.” He was ready to give up some of his “illusions,” whatever that means. He emphasized that “Hungary made a commitment to join the euro zone while the Brits never will.” Suddenly he discovered that Hungary will have to give up some of its sovereignty. That’s called a change of heart. A very sudden change of heart.
Jobbik naturally is not at all happy about Hungary’s decision to join the other 25 members because if it depended on this neo-Nazi party Hungary shouldn’t have joined the European Union in the first place. As for Orbán’s decision to let parliament decide whether to adhere to the treaty, Jobbik’s spokesman rightly pointed out that the decision will not be that of the Hungarian parliament “but the voting machine of Fidesz which is being directed by Viktor Orbán alone.”
The prime minister’s expressed opinion about the role of the parliament is very different. He tried to emphasize the importance of this body. First, he announced that the government will not interfere with the outcome of the debate or the vote on the issue. Later he said that he expects more shades of opinion than there are parties in the Hungarian parliament.
For the time being Orbán is sticking with his original idea that there is no hurry because after all a final vote by the parliament is not necessary before March 2012. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if he changed his mind on this issue as well. It certainly would help the negotiations with IMF-EU delegation if Hungary’s commitment to the eurozone treaty were clear as early as possible. Of course, the question is whether Orbán really wants an agreement or not. My feeling, especially after today, is yes. He has no choice.