Europe fights back: Viktor Orbán may be in real trouble this time

When on April 9 I wrote about the verbal duel between Tibor Navracsics, Hungarian minister in charge of administration and justice, and Viviane Reding, EU vice-president and commissioner responsible for justice, fundamental rights, and citizenship, I should have known that this would not be the end of the story. Members of the current Hungarian government don’t have much sense about when to stop. Just as they doggedly pursued their domestic opponents and used all sorts of unacceptable methods to destroy them, they are employing exactly the same methods on the international scene: personal insults, insinuations, blackmail, lies, half-truths, and the practice of “divide and rule.” The Fidesz government’s strategy worked well at home. Just think of the trade unions and the student associations. So why not try it with the European Commission? Perhaps setting José Manuel Barroso against his vice president, Vivien Reding, both members of the European People’s Party, would bear fruit as well.

First, Navracsics questioned the integrity and impartiality of Reding. Then he said that she was not qualified. A day later Magyar Nemzet came out with a new theory. Next year there will be a new European parliamentary election and perhaps a new president of the European Commission. Reding has a chance to replace Barroso, but in order to be elected she will need the help of the European liberals and socialists. That’s why she is so tough on Hungary. It’s a career move, according to Magyar Nemzet.

On April 10 an op/ed piece by Tibor Navracsics appeared in the European Voice. Up until then these distasteful and totally counterproductive exchanges had appeared only in the Hungarian media. But now they were spread far and wide via an English-language weekly dealing with the politics of the European Union. Navracsics leveled the same accusations against Reding in the European Voice as he had in the Hungarian media. He questioned her neutrality and predicted that any decision about Hungary in Brussels will not be fair. It will be a “purely political decision.” Moreover, Navracsics challenged Reding’s authority “to question the right of a democratically elected government majority to change its own constitution.” If we take this last sentence literally, we must conclude that the Hungarian government categorically refuses to abide by the laws of the European Union. But in this case why do they bother about the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe? After all, it was Foreign Minister János Martonyi who asked the Commission to render a legal opinion on the most recent amendments to the new Hungarian constitution.

Following Navracsics’s lead, Magyar Nemzet inquired “in whose name Reding speaks.” Surely, the implication is that whatever this woman is saying cannot possibly be the opinion of the European Commission. The answer came swiftly after the appearance of Navracsics’s article in the European Voice. Newspapers rushed to Pia-Ahrendkilde Hansen, spokeswoman for the European Commission, to ask her what the real situation was. They were told in no uncertain terms that “President Barroso and Vice President Reding are in complete agreement” over the amendments to the Hungarian Constitution. So that old trick didn’t work.

But the wheels of the Hungarian campaign to discredit Viviane Reding were already in motion. The decision was apparently made that next Tuesday the government will use its very large parliamentary majority to pass a resolution condemning Viviane Reding for her statement about the Tobin case, which involved a car accident that resulted in the death of two children in Hungary a few years back. As I mentioned in my earlier post, Francis Tobin returned to Ireland and refused to go back to Hungary to serve his sentence in a Hungarian jail and the Irish Supreme Court backed him by refusing his extradition. On this occasion, Reding in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said: “I’m personally not surprised [about the decision] because lately Hungary has enacted a number of  laws that cast doubt as to the independence of the Hungarian judiciary.” Although the Tobin case will be discussed in parliament on Tuesday, details on the planned resolution are still not available. Perhaps they never will be. The government may decide that passing such a resolution against Vice President Reding a day before the Hungarian question is discussed in the European Parliament might be counterproductive.

Barroso, in order to make clear that he backs Reding 100%, decided to write another letter to Orbán. In the letter Barroso reiterated that the Commission has serious concerns over the compatibility of the Fourth Amendment to the Hungarian Constitution with Union laws and with the principle of the rule of law in general. Barroso also indicated that once the ongoing legal analysis is carried out by the Commission, it will have “to take the necessary steps in order to start infringement procedures where relevant. I strongly appeal to you and to your government to address these concerns and to tackle them in a determined and unambiguous way.”

Orbán immediately answered Barroso‘s letter and assured Barroso that Hungary is committed to European norms and pledged full cooperation with Brussels. “I will certainly pay full attention to the points you raised and I should like to inform you that I have already initiated the necessary legislative steps to follow them up.” The same meaningless stuff Orbán reiterates every time he is trouble only to renege on it at the earliest opportunity. Navracsics weighed in later, saying that one doesn’t have to take Barroso’s letter very seriously; it’s simply an empty threat.

Meanwhile a six-member delegation arrived in Budapest from the Venice Commission. The members of the Commission are internationally renowned legal scholars. The Venice Commission already tackled the problems of the original constitution. Some of the criticized sections were very reluctantly rewritten by the Hungarians, but now the Venice Commission is confronted with an entirely different document that most experts consider to be unacceptable for a member country of the European Union.

Again, it was Magyar Nemzet that learned from government sources that the Venice Commission will meet József Szájer (Fidesz EP member and allegedly the author of the original new Fidesz constitution), Róbert Répássy, and Bence Rétvári (both undersecretaries in the Ministry of Administration and Justice). The members of the Commission also wanted to talk to the party leaders of the opposition parties represented in the Hungarian parliament. Attila Mesterházy insisted that other opposition parties–DK, LMP, and Együtt 2014-PM–also be present.

The meeting with the government officials took place in the morning and by noon it was all over. Clearly, the talks didn’t go well. Répássy announced that “the members of the delegation showed partiality”; “they arrived with preconceptions.” The government had a 50-page defense of the constitutional changes but “one could hear from members that they will read it but it is unlikely that they will change their minds.” Considering their very careful  prior analysis of the text, I don’t know what the Hungarian government expected.

In the afternoon the members of the Commission met with the opposition forces. According to Attila Mesterházy, the visitors seemed to be extremely well informed but they mostly listened. I’m sure that the members of the Commission didn’t hear anything from the opposition leaders that they didn’t already know.

Maybe it is a good idea that Viktor Orbán will not attend the session of the European Parliament Here he is after his debate in the European  parliament / Reuters Vincent Kessler

Maybe Viktor Orbán is wise not to attend the session of the European Parliament.
Here he is after his last debate in the European Parliament. / Reuters Vincent Kessler

A few days ago Orbán was still not sure whether he should attend the European Parliament’s Wednesday session on Hungary. By now the decision has been made. He will not. Instead he will attend the funeral of Margaret Thatcher on April 17. Looking through the list of  invitees I could find no non-British Commonwealth prime ministers on the list. For the most part countries will be represented by their ambassadors to the Court of St James’s. But I guess he had to come up with some “obligation” to justify his absence from the European Parliament.

He is, however, supposed to attend the meeting of the European People’s Party parliamentary caucus the day before, on April 16th. Even here we may find that Orbán has another urgent meeting somewhere else on the globe because if the information coming from Dubrovnik, Croatia is correct, support of the EPP caucus for Orbán and Fidesz has evaporated.

Here are the details. Currently, the EPP caucus is holding a meeting in Dubrovnik. No Fidesz EP member was in attendance. As it turned out, the caucus made a critical decision about Fidesz during a dinner meeting last night. A reporter from Új Magyar Szó, a Hungarian-language newspaper in Romania, learned from anonymous sources present at the meeting that EPP decided to give the Hungarian government party one week to accept the resolutions of the European Union. If it does not, Fidesz will be removed from the EPP caucus. Apparently the decision was made by an important trio: Joseph Daul, the leader of the caucus, Viviane Reding, and Antonio López-Istúriz White, secretary-general of EPP.

Poor Orbán. First it was all those foreign capitalists and speculators who conspired against Hungary. Then the left-wingers and their international allies went on the attack. And now Orbán’s own conservative EU caucus is threatening him. The noose is tightening.

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Wondercat
Guest

Wonderfully sketched, Prof Balogh. Thank you. May I offer the emendation of “Court of St James”?

Wondercat
Guest

…and, to my embarrassment, the further emendation of “Court of St James’s”? Antique orthography trips me up far too often — fossilised conventions on use of the apostrophe…

An
Guest

I wonder what’s up with Navracsics. He used to be a smart person. Is following the party line made him totally lose his mind? Or, maybe, he has a secret plan to destroy Orban by following the party line to the extreme:-) If it’s the latter, it seems to be working.

petofi
Guest

Pssst, Viktor, it’s the JEWS!

Dammit, they just have it in for noble Hungary. And this conspiracy against the good name of heroic Hungary after you, Viktor I, stood out against the anti-semitic motorcycle hordes! Can you believe it?

Why did you ‘save’ them? Why do you support those filthy, commie trash? Oh Viktor, what have you forsaken us????

Those jews are just not to be trusted…

Ron
Guest

Eva: If Fidesz will not accept EPP’s request, and they are removed from the caucus, does this result in less money, speakers time, etc. in the EU parliament, as they did with DK when they split from MSZP in Hungary?

By the way I can imaging Fidesz answer to this request from EPP: Of course Fidesz accept the resolutions of the EU, it is all a misunderstanding, people do not understand Hungarian.

Gábor
Guest

The rumors concerning the possible personal configuration of the next leadership of the EU were very interesting given that almost everyone supposed to have an influential position is already in open conflict with Orbán. (Schulz, Reding, Verhofstadt etc.) I would very much enjoy if Reding and Schulz would be the two candidates for EC president. Maybe the whole fuss is not about avoiding action at the moment, but to undermine Reding as a candidate. Anyway, Fidesz would be needed to campaign on her behalf in case she would be nominated as the EPP candidate at the next EP elections and it is less harmful for Fidesz to try to avoid her nomination than to camopaign against her as EPP member party.

Kirsten
Guest

Czech PM Necas will also attend the funeral of Margaret Thatcher. Perhaps no heavyweight, and yet not a country of the Commonwealth. Perhaps OV also hopes for some support from the British Conservatives.

Gabor: “Maybe the whole fuss is not about avoiding action at the moment, but to undermine Reding as a candidate.”

As the EPP already starts to distance itself from Fidesz, these accusations will have just the opposite effect.

Eva, you write that some newspapers are describing this farce in no uncertain terms. Are there other reactions about how this is received by the people?

Guest
London Calling! And then there is Helsinki – and the OSCE. I debated with Kirsten recently about how Viviane Reding was a lone voice – but that a momentum was gaining traction. The EU appears to be getting a move on – before Helsinki – so that they can be seen to be in control of their brief. Not sitting on their hands any longer. (And sooner than I expected.) For all of us ‘Hungarian-watchers’ there is a feeling of long slow inexorable revenge about to be pronounced on two-faced Orban. Of course it shouldn’t be revenge – or mustn’t be seen to be revenge – but it is. The EU have had enough – and so have some of us. That Hungary’s democracy is a rancid democracy – and József Szájer must take joint blame with Orban – is finally being recognised. (Just an RIP note to our recently departed (again!) Johnny Boy – So you don’t think outsiders have a stake in Hungary’s democracy? Think again sunshine.) Yes – bye bye voting rights, bye bye EU funds. Orban will have to make significant changes – and he will be hobbled before his next election power-fest. The EU (and… Read more »
Maize
Guest
No trouble, no such luck. And Fidesz knows it. But even if there was trouble Fidesz would not care. And that is the greatest asset in politcs, that gives you the greatest freedom and power: that you just don’t care (and you can afford not to care or at least make people believe that you can afford it) about the consequences. Orbán cannot be defeated politically from abroad. And at home he made it impossible for anyone to win against him. The problem is that Orbán and his power network think and plans 3 steps ahead (at least with respect how to keep their power). Always. That is how lawyers think, you prepare for the contigency of a contingency. Mesterhazy and his minions or Bajnai, they don’t care to think because they cannot even be sure that they will be in politics in 2 years time. But even in that was the case, they think differently, they just don’t get the power politics of law. And worse they don’t get politics. It’s not about elaborate tax regimes and policies and what not, it’s about capturing the hearts and minds of the people. Present a world, prepared to last tiny bit,… Read more »
Kirsten
Guest

Charlie: “But his power and Hungary’s slide will be slowed.”

Hopefully.
Hungary can also end up isolated, sliding further and people still apathetic. The EU will have acted and for democratic Hungary, not much will be won.

Kirsten
Guest

Maize: ” Orbán cannot be defeated politically from abroad.”

Exactly my thoughts. But this continues to amaze me: ” it’s about capturing the hearts and minds of the people.” What exactly is it that must “capture the hearts and minds of people”? In the current Hungarian situation my guess is that it is the nation, unity, historical rights and historical size of Hungary. All of that is used to support an authoritarian system. Democracy stresses individual rights, participation, and the problem that all leaders can fail and therefore mechanisms should be in place to deal with such a situation – hence not an authoritarian approach to power. It is so sad that democracy is understood in Hungary as some cold system that knows nothing else than “elaborate tax systems” and that is unable to approach the “hearts and souls”.

oneill
Guest

“Perhaps OV also hopes for some support from the British Conservatives.”

Not beyond the realms of possibility as some in that party sould be happy to align with satan himself, if he were to declare himself “EU-sceptic”. They (the Cons) left the EPP voluntarily and set up their own anti-EU grouping within Brussels and the addition of Fidesz would strengthen that group’s voting power. Alternatively Fidesz could join the fascist grouping (Jobbik, BNP, the French NF etc) where they would probably feel more at home.

I tend to agree with Maize; from a political point of view Orban has nothing to lose and everything to gain from a concerted EU attack against his regime. Builds up the “no on likes us, we don’t care” ethoc internally. However…. the EU does hold the purse strings to the continuing dosh which keeps the evil dwarf and his corrupt cronies in the lap of luxury. Removing the regime’s speaking rights at Brussels, absolutely no effect at all. Cut the Euro pipeline then I think we’ll see Orban very quickly on his knees begging.

oneill
Guest

“sould be happy”- “would be happy”

Lili Csokonay
Guest

I quote the above article: …” ‘President Barroso and Vice President Reding are in complete agreement’ over the amendments to the Hungarian Constitution.” which of course is a “trick” (a lie?) of Hungarian spectrum for the original wording of Pia-Ahrendkilde Hansen’s statement goes like this: “… the President and the Vice President are in full agreement about the approach that we are taking to the situation in Hungary.” So their full agreement is about the “approach” not about the “judgement” over the amendments to the Hungarian Constitution… The rest of the article plays the same game of mixing true statements with own interpretations. Journalism…

Guest

Lovely! A new troll !

Wonder if there will be any more comments …

Kirsten
Guest

“Cut the Euro pipeline then I think we’ll see Orban very quickly on his knees begging.”

I am thinking about this. Perhaps there is some expert on the balance of payments and its link to the government budget here reading the blog. In 2012 according to my reading the current account was in surplus even without the EU funds. For me this implies that without EU funds there might be less (or more likely: other types of) money that can be distributed between OV’s buddies but I am not yet convinced that this alone can break his neck. For that we need a split in Fidesz into two (or more) nearly equally strong groups, competing for the money (and for the “hearts and minds”).

Kirsten
Guest

It turns out that some of the transfers are recorded in the capital account. Still, it is 10 % of all export earnings, not to speak of the direct investments of the foreign companies active in Hungary, so I doubt that EU money is the only source of income that can be distributed between the Fidesz inner circle.

Felix
Guest
Orbán will not beg. He knows he does not have to. Noone in the EU dares to be tough. Not in this issue, not in other issues. Forget this. Those supposed taskmasters are weak European burocrats who love their coffe breaks and paid language courses and tax free life and so on. They are not particularly agressive or dynamic people. They want to capture a life in the burocracy and keep it no matter what. And you know what: this is why the Fideszniks hate these people empathically. While their life was tough in the country (Kövér, Áder, Orbán etc.), and people criticize them for being corrupt for trying to build what is in the EU is considered a middle class life (I don’t mean Simicska or Nyerges here), all they see is that relatively uneducated administartors are planning their Bali vacation on their latest Iphones. Fidesz politicians instantly know that these EU guys will be no match to their toughness. Note that Fidesz has only one issue to concentrate on (the EU), while the EU has dozens of ‘priorities’. If push comes to shove, Orbán will settle the issue quickly, after all Reading and Barroso also want to have… Read more »
Kirsten
Guest
What is this about “passion”, “dreams”, “enthusiasm” that has been stressed here in the past days and that apparently is something that Fidesz is managing in raising in people currently? How does “dreams” etc relate to this sentence of Felix: “Everybody is afraid” ? How confused can people be? Are these dreams about Gulags? Really something that one can get “enthusiastic” about?? And all this talk about the charismatic politician that needs to come along. For me a proof of that an authoritarian political system is currently well reflecting the priorities of a large part of Hungarians. And lastly to help you combine this: “And they are people so they cannot be enthusiastic about a new trade policy or a draft constitution.” and this: “people criticize them for being corrupt for trying to build what is in the EU is considered a middle class life”. As it has turned out, not only in the EU, a normal middle class life needs some level of overall economic productivity and an income distribution that allows a middle class to emerge and to survive. A relative more equal income distribution will be achieved if a relatively large share of people DEMAND equal opportunities,… Read more »
petofi
Guest

“…so I doubt that EU money is the only source of income that can be distributed between the Fidesz inner circle.”

Yes, anyone remember a certain
axe-handlerer from Azerbajian?

Now that’s what I call a limitless resources…

Is there any further wonder why the little ducks stay all in a row?

petofi
Guest

correction: ‘resource’ not ‘resources’

(damn spell-check @##)

cheshire cat
Guest
@ Felix “Noone in the EU dares to be tough. Not in this issue, not in other issues. Forget this. Those supposed taskmasters are weak European burocrats who love their coffe breaks and paid language courses and tax free life and so on. They are not particularly agressive or dynamic people. ” Can you tell us – WHO do you mean? Commissioner Reding? The EPP MEPs? Or EPP member prime ministers, like Merkel? Reding is tough, influential and is of high seniority in the Commission. Navracsics totally misjudged the situation when he started to attack Reding in the usual aggressive Fidesz way of dealing with critics, for her Tobin comment. The Commission lined up in her defence, Barroso has now taken over all issues concerning Hungary. I saw Pia Ahrenkilde-Hansen’s answer during the Commission’s press briefing on Thursday. She was inpatient, very firm, almost aggressive. I have no doubts somebody is very determined at the background. Some MEPs are indeed only interested in their coffee breaks and in catching the earliest flight back home for the weekend. But not all of them, and EPP MEPs have found Orban increasingly embarrassing lately. I saw a group photo of the EPP Prime… Read more »
cheshire cat
Guest

@Kirsten
“all thall this talk about the charismatic politician that needs to come along. For me a proof of that an authoritarian political system is currently well reflecting the priorities of a large part of Hungarians.”

How true.
The difference between democracy and dictatorship is not that dictators are nasty and stupid, whereas in democracy leaders are moral and clever. The difference is that in democracy you can speak up against and get rid of a nasty and stupid “leader”.

Orban has charisma galore.
It’s the people who lack what it takes to be a democrat. And the will to learn it.

Member
I wouldn’t take the EU way to seriously at this point. Am I disappointed in the EU? Yes I am. WE are speculating what will, could, should happen, but in reality the EU so far did not put any real pressure on Hungary. Some would/will argue that it takes time to do what the EU plans to do, but the problem is that the damage is done. WHile Fidesz is moving wit the speed of a bullet to embed itself for the long term in the Hungarian justice, political, monetary, information, and cultural systems, the EU moves with the speed of a snail. If and when finally they will move, the consequences of their actions would only take course when Hungary would require support, in case a new government would come to power in 2014. Fidesz already spent all the money and stocked its card on away that they will survive a year, does not matter what. A year what they need in fact, and they are on their way. THey will be cut off from 2014? So, what? It was never about the people, it was about the power that can serve their personal gains and interests, and they… Read more »
Gábor
Guest

Kirsten :

Gabor: “Maybe the whole fuss is not about avoiding action at the moment, but to undermine Reding as a candidate.”
As the EPP already starts to distance itself from Fidesz, these accusations will have just the opposite effect.

Well, but if there will be a nominee of every European party for the EC president’s position before the election it implies that the parties should nominate someone in adavance. I don’t know who the nomination will be hzandled, but it doesn’t seem to be a long shot to expect that member parties also will have a say. Fidesz is probably alone, but still they could hope that if they clash head on with Reding they can legitimize a veto that would be otherwise almost impossible and get a more lenient candidate.

Member

Lili Csokonay :
I quote the above article: …” ‘President Barroso and Vice President Reding are in complete agreement’ over the amendments to the Hungarian Constitution.” which of course is a “trick” (a lie?) of Hungarian spectrum for the original wording of Pia-Ahrendkilde Hansen’s statement goes like this: “… the President and the Vice President are in full agreement about the approach that we are taking to the situation in Hungary.” So their full agreement is about the “approach” not about the “judgement” over the amendments to the Hungarian Constitution… The rest of the article plays the same game of mixing true statements with own interpretations. Journalism…

Here is the original video. It’s not a verbatim quote, I think it was translated back to English from the Hungarian papers, but IMHO it is true. The spokeswoman said “they have very serious concerns” and “they are in full agreement about it”. In your clever skewing you forgot to mention the first part …

http://ec.europa.eu/avservices/player/streaming.cfm?type=ebsvod&sid=227436

Johnny Boy
Guest

The court’s decision in the Tobin case commenced in late 2002.
How on Earth can you agree with Reding on that THAT decision is not reliable because the government from 2010 enacted bad laws?
How is this reasoning acceptable? In what kind of twisted and sick logic is a 2002 decision bad based on law changes from 2010?

Johnny Boy
Guest

“Navracsics weighed in later, saying that one doesn’t have to take Barroso’s letter very seriously; it’s simply an empty threat.”

This is an outright lie. He did NOT say this.
He said: “since there are no checkable facts in Barroso’s letter, one cannot argue against it by refuting the factual claims, so this can only be taken as a threat”.

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