I really didn’t think that by the time I normally sit down to write my posts we would have much information about the outcome of Viktor Orbán’s negotiations in Brussels. So, originally I thought that I would return to my original calling, history, and write something about World War I, specifically about the enthusiasm of Hungarian writers and poets for the war.
However, I think I will be able to scrawl a few preliminary notes on the Hungarian prime minister’s trip to Brussels that was described by a fellow politician as “Orbán’s Canossa.” I got the distinct impression that Viktor Orbán was almost certain that “a political deal” would be sealed during his conversation with José Manuel Barroso. The conversation lasted two solid hours and, although Orbán tried to put on a good face and announced his great satisfaction with the way the talks had proceeded, the very fact that Barroso was nowhere to be seen after the meeting was not a good sign.
Here are two pictures taken on the occasion. The first one was shot before the talks with Barroso and the other after he talked to Martin Schulz. On the first picture one is struck by the forced grin Orbán is capable of, especially when he is in a tight spot:
This is exactly the same smile he put on when, shortly after becoming prime minister, he tried to convince Barroso that the European Union should allow Hungary to have a 7% budget deficit.
And as long as we’re in the picture gallery mode, let’s see how Orbán looked after his talk with Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament.
Yes, Orbán’s day in Brussels started with Martin Schulz. One ought to know that Schulz is a German Social Democrat. Until about a week ago when he was elected president of the EU parliament, he was the leader of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats caucus. So, Schulz’s political views are far removed from those of the populist right-winger Viktor Orbán. Another problem the Hungarian prime minister had to face while negotiating with Schulz was that the German Social Democrat is very well informed about the political situation in Hungary. He has visited the country innumerable times, and naturally his closest ties are to the Hungarian socialist politicians. Also, he seems to be doing his homework and knows only too well that Orbán is a master of double talk. He talks in Brussels as a real democrat and a trustworthy ally while in Budapest he compares Brussels to Moscow in the Soviet times.
It is quite clear that Mr. Schulz doesn’t like Viktor Orbán. In fact, according to Brussels gossip there are few people among EU politicians who actually like the Hungarian prime minister. He managed to alienate most of them. And that is a real drawback when it comes to negotiations of this sort.
But at least Schulz agreed to a joint press conference after their talk, which is more than Barroso did. According to the reporter for the BBC, during the press conference Orbán was largely quiet while Schulz lambasted him for using “European rhetoric” in Brussels and attacking it in Budapest. This is an “inadmissible approach.” And he continued: “So, the Europeans should take into account that he is a clever man as a party leader, but he should take into account that the European leaders are not stupid.” Finally, Schulz shared his feeling that his talk with the Hungarian prime minister “would lead Prime Minister Orbán to reflect.” Or, as the correspondent of CBS put it: “Orbán found himself standing by listening while Schulz doled out criticism.” Put it this way, I wouldn’t have wanted to be in Orbán’s place at that moment.
It was evident even before Orbán’s talk with Barroso began that he couldn’t expect much better treatment from the president of the European Commission. As it turned out, Barroso and Schulz had agreed on a common platform before Orbán’s arrival in Brussels.
What do we know about the Barroso-Orbán conversation? Not much because unlike Schulz, Barroso said nothing after the meeting and unfortunately Orbán’s descriptions of such negotiations are normally misleading. He did mention a few unimportant items that Barroso insists on, but otherwise he was quite vague. He praised his own performance (I had a good day!) but had to admit that he has no idea “how some of the open questions will influence the start of the credit negotiations with the IMF,” adding that “we can only offer our good intentions and therefore we hope for a speedy beginning.” Hungary received the legal objections and the Hungarian government will answer them soon.
From the rather incoherent summary of his press conference it seems that even the question of György Matolcsy’s dismissal must have been discussed, but currently Orbán’s attitude is that “Hungary is a serious place with serious ministers” so I assume the prime minister is not moving toward Matolcsy’s departure. But to show his earnestness to be a willing and serious partner in the Union, suddenly he offered Hungary’s adherence to the financial pact of the eurozone countries. The one he originally vetoed together with David Cameron of Great Britain.
However, I don’t think that this impressed Barroso. After the meeting he released a communiqué in which he emphasized that the talks were “constructive” and that the Hungarian prime minister stressed his willingness to come to an understanding. He is looking forward to the Hungarian answers to the points raised in the accelerated infringement proceedings against Hungary. However, Barroso also made it clear that small legal changes will not be enough because “it is necessary for a member state over and above the laws of the community to also embrace the common values of the Union.” And finally, and perhaps this is the most weighty line in the communiqué, “even after the negotiations there are political misgivings in the wider sense about Hungary which must be handled by the government.”
Orbán’s fellow politicians, government and party spokesmen were belligerent this morning. Tibor Navracsics said that the retirement age of judges is not negotiable and Gabriella Selmeczi, Fidesz’s spokeswoman, announced that Klubrádió will “not ring out.” She emphasized that Klubrádió offered only a fraction (sic!) of the money the winner of the frequency did. This is the law of the land and no one will tell Hungary what to do. However, at about the same time András Arató, the owner of Klubrádió, was received by Neelie Kroes, European Commissioner for Digital Agenda, who promised her help in making sure that the only opposition radio station will continue in Hungary.
Orbán’s misfortune is that by now everybody knows his game and no one trusts him. So I have the feeling that the EU will keep holding his feet to the fire.