Merkel-Orbán conversations: Serious differences of opinion

Yesterday, right after Angela Merkel’s plane left the runway at the Budapest Airport, I jotted down my first impressions. It was a busy day for the German chancellor, so I had to be very selective in my post. I concentrated on Merkel’s comments, largely because they were the most unexpected elements in the exchange. Moreover, I talked mostly about her reactions to Hungarian domestic issues and spent a great deal less time on the disagreements between the two leaders over foreign affairs.

Let’s start with their attitudes toward Putin’s Russia. According to Orbán, Ukraine is important for Hungary because it is a neighbor of Hungary, because there is a Hungarian minority across the border, and because the gas that Hungary needs badly travels through this country. Therefore, he said, Hungary “can stand only on the side of peace. We can imagine only a solution that will take us toward peace.” But let’s see what Merkel had to say. According to her, the Germans would also like to have a ceasefire and political stability in Ukraine that “can guarantee the territorial integrity of the country.” Something Orbán didn’t talk about. Merkel also gently reminded Orbán that Hungary is not the only country that is dependent on Russian gas, indicating that it is unacceptable for Hungary to have a different viewpoint on the question of Russian sanctions.

That last remark from Merkel prompted Orbán to open a discussion with his guest on Hungary’s unique position in this respect. Germany’s situation cannot be compared to that of Hungary; “one must take Hungary’s situation vis-à-vis Russia very seriously.” Hungary has to renew her long-term agreement on the price of gas for the next fifteen years, and therefore “it is difficult to fully support the Russian sanctions.”

Although yesterday I talked about their disagreements over the meaning of democracy, I said nothing about how the topic came up during the press conference. Orbán naturally did not bring it up; it was Merkel who announced that during her conversation with Orbán she “indicated that although the Hungarian government has a large majority, in a democracy the role of the opposition, the civil society, and the media is very important.” She added that later she will find time to have a conversation with the leaders of Hungarian civil society. From Orbán’s reaction it was clear that the Hungarian prime minister did not expect such direct involvement by Merkel in a matter he considers a domestic issue. It was after these points of disagreement that Merkel and Orbán had their rather sharp exchange on the nature of “illiberal democracy.” As the Frankfurter Rundschau pointed out, Merkel can at times be quite “undiplomatic,” as she was this time, and therefore “she annoyed Orbán.” You can see the prime minister’s annoyance and his determination to follow his own path on the picture below, taken during their debate on “illiberalism.”

Source: MTI / Photo Tibor Illyés

Source: MTI / Photo Tibor Illyés

Csaba Molnár,  the number two man in the Demokratikus Koalíció, thought that Orbán was cowed and “behaved like a scared little boy standing by his teacher’s side.” I disagree. I saw exactly the opposite: a combative Viktor Orbán who will not be swayed by any argument and who will continue to build his illiberal state. I’m afraid the same might be true when it comes to negotiations with Vladimir Putin. Even though he might sign on to further sanctions, he will try to make a deal with Putin regardless of EU disapproval. It is another matter whether Putin will swallow a big one and give preferential treatment to Orbán despite the meager returns he can expect from Budapest.

As even the right-wing media had to admit, the visit was not a great success, although it was designed to be a showcase of German-Hungarian friendship and a stamp of approval by the German chancellor of the Orbán regime. What does Fidesz do in such an awkward situation? After all, they cannot admit that Merkel and Orbán disagreed on almost everything, starting with Russia and ending with the nature of democracy. The simplest and the usual Fidesz response in such cases is to resort to outright lying. This is exactly what happened today.

Vs.hu is a relatively new internet news site that came out with the startling news that the real significance of the conversation was in the realm of new German investments in the Hungarian economy. András Kósa, a well-respected journalist who used to be on the staff of HVG, just joined Vs.hu. He was told by unnamed members of the government and local German businessmen that although on the surface there was visible friction between Merkel and Orbán, in fact “concrete important industrial agreements came into being on Monday.” Siemens will be involved in the construction of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant. In addition, Hungary will buy thirty helicopters from Airbus, not from the American Sikorsky or the Italian-British AgustaWestland. Kósa was told that “BMW is contemplating opening a factory in Hungary.” Only the exact location remains to be settled. And, on top of everything else, Mercedes will build a new factory to manufacture a new model.

Well, that was quite a scoop. The Hungarian media went crazy. Dozens and dozens of articles appeared within minutes, and every time the story was retold it became grander and grander. While the original article emphasized that all these favorable developments “might happen,” by the time the story got to Magyar Nemzet it became “Gigantic German investments are forthcoming as a result of the Merkel-Orbán meeting.” Válasz discovered that the real significance of the meeting was that new “gigantic German investments are coming to Hungary,” obviously all that taken care of during a short luncheon. Even such a reputable site as Portfolio.hu fell for the story.

The first word of warning came from a specialized internet site that deals with the car industry, Autopro.hu. It is possible that economic relations were discussed, but it is impossible that there could be negotiations between Merkel and Orbán regarding concrete projects, the author of the article remarked. This is not the first time that the possibility of a BMW factory is being heralded by the Hungarian media, but nothing ever came of it. Moreover, if there are such plans or decisions, they would not be discussed by Merkel and Orbán but by the top management of BMW and Hungarian economic experts. Autopro.hu didn’t manage to get in touch with BMW, but they were told by Mercedes that at the moment they have no intention of building another factory. Later the pro-government Napi Gazdaság  learned from BMW headquarters that “the BMW Group has no plans to build a factory in Hungary.” I don’t know whether the rest of the story, about Siemens and Airbus, is true or is also a figment of the imagination of certain government officials.

I consider Kósa a reliable and serious journalist who would not make up such a story. But why would government sources leak information about nonexistent projects? What do these so-called high government officials think when they concoct stories that are bound to be discovered to be false? Perhaps they think that the false news will spread like wildfire, as it did in this case, and that the correction will be reported by only very few media outlets. Therefore, it can be considered a successful communication stunt. Fidesz is good at that.

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Guest
“Merkel also gently reminded Orbán that Hungary is not the only country that is dependent on Russian gas, indicating that it is unacceptable for Hungary to have a different viewpoint on the question of Russian sanctions.” Mrs Merkel cited the German situation, saying that Germany depends on Russia for 30% of the gas supply in the country. While I am a great admirer of Mrs Merkel, regarding this comparison she was completely wrong. Germany has a dedicated pipeline between itself and Russia connecting the two countries, so this 30% supply is completely safe. As long as they can agree with each other this 30% of gas will always flow into Germany. Hungary however has an 80% gas consumption rate in the same regard, otherwise known as 2.6x times as much. That alone would invalidate the comparison with Germany, but more importantly this supply currently comes through Ukraine which siphoned gas from the pipeline in 2009, forcibly taking the gas for itself before it could arrive to European consumers. Even if the Ukraine could be considered a reliable country (never to repeat their 2009 behavior), the Russians already said that “in a few years” they will discontinue the pipeline going through… Read more »
Member

Eva, Orban’s whole government is built on lies, diversion, and deception. “Do not listen what I say” said Orban, and he kept that promise for the last five years. Honestly there is not a single surprise about the “leaks”. These were not “leaks” but well planned diversions.
On Atlatszo it was just recently posted how Orban’s son in law was able to purchase some huge estate without any tender. Orban’s daughter studies in Switzerland from money gained in very funny ways. Pal Schmitt the plagiarizing, fraudster ex-president (elected by Orban) receives some medals, the cancellation of Sunday shopping will make thousands unemployed, the list goes on. Until there is circus and lies Orban can feed Hungarians with about imaginary factories and the greatness he will create, there will be status quo, and Angela Merkel will not come in the middle to make Hungarians believe how perfect Orban is.

Roth
Guest
I am afraid what we can read here are lies and distortions. The author of this blog fell victim to the lies and distortions. They write: “I consider Kósa a reliable and serious journalist who would not make up such a story. But why would government sources leak information about nonexistent projects” But previously the same blog writes ” He was told by… GERMAN BUSINESSMEN… that although on the surface there was visible friction between Merkel and Orbán, in fact “concrete important industrial agreements came into being on Monday.”… ” First we are introduced to the fact that the information came from German Businessmen and two sentences later the blog pretends that the information came from unnamed government sources only. Lies and distortions indeed. A similar game is being played with the BMW announcement. The reliable journalist Kósa writes that there were advanced negotiations about a new BMW factory, though there are no decisions yet on where it will be. So some noname intern at a paper calls up BMW with the sentence “Is it true that you will build a new factory in Hungary?” And BMW sends back a standard reply that there is no such decision was made,… Read more »
cheshire cat
Guest

“by the time the story got to Magyar Nemzet it became “Gigantic German investments are forthcoming as a result of the Merkel-Orbán meeting.” ”

How ridiculous. Germany is a democratic country. It’s not Merkel’s decision whether or where BMW or Mercedes will open a new factory. These Orbanists are so stupid and desperate they fail to notice how out-of-this-world it all sounds.

Paul
Guest

“Perhaps they think that the false news will spread like wildfire, as it did in this case, and that the correction will be reported by only very few media outlets. Therefore, it can be considered a successful communication stunt. Fidesz is good at that.”

Exactly how it works – the seeds, once sown, continue to grow. The veracity of the story is irrelevant. The Right has been good at this for years – we’re currently going through a hurricane of it as we approach the general election in the UK.

Paul
Guest

Incidentally, I can’t post comments on the Angela Merkel in Budapest post.

Whatever happened the last time we had this problem seems to have happened again.

Paul
Guest
Straying off topic a little – an insight into the Fidesznik view of Putin. My wife, who was mildly in favour of Putin (as a ‘strong’ leader), but otherwise pretty disinterested in Russian politics, has recently become a strong supporter of Putin and is convinced that all the problems in Ukraine are down to interference from the US and the West, and that Putin is only defending Russian interests. In my wife’s case, this might have something to do with the fact that she grew up in the USSR and is a fluent Russian speaker, who has many Russian friends in the UK (all of whom seem to be determined fans of Putin). But her opinions are undoubtedly also strongly affected by the daily dose of Fidesz propaganda she gets over the phone from her mother – which has become noticeably more pro-Putin recently. The official, public, stance of Orbán may be carefully pro-Western, but with pro-Putin overtones, but what the Fidesz faithful get is very different – and at the moment it is full-on pro-Putin, anti-West propaganda. The things Orbán says publically may be worrying enough, but what Fidesz says privately is frankly terrifying. I have always regarded comparisons… Read more »
Callian
Guest

Paul wrote – at February 3, 2015 at 7:53 pm – his wife, and mother in law are Fidesz believers. Will they move to jobbik soon?
Will they look into the eyes of the next generation with calm conscience?
Will they claim that orban and the rest were not liars?

Max
Guest
Éva: You refer to an internet side of the car industry to try to dismiss the whole package of investments allegedly envisaged. I am afraid this is not a proper approach as here we are being confronted with heavy strategic decisions on military and nuclear energy industries as well. And these have to be decided by the highest echelons of politics. In the US the oil industry has an immense influence on Congress and US foreign policy. In Germany the same can be true for the car industry. Let us not forget that Helmuth Kohl’s former foreign policy adviser – and a mastermind of the entire German reunification process – Horst Teltschik retired from politics to the board of BMW and is currently also behind the globally respected Munich Security Conference. So what if the news is TRUE? For the US it means that they have again been outsmarted and after they failed to sell their second-hand F16s, this time they will again leave empty-handed with their Sikorsky military helicopter. Of course it also means an entirely new European political set-up. If it happens to be true, it also means that the whole impotent Hungarian opposition should be pensioned off… Read more »
from
Guest

@cheshire cat

But people are now happy and believe the rumors, because they are plausible and because they can now hope. One cannot unlearn these rumors. By the time it turns out that there will be no new factories people will be concerned with other things. Fidesz is masterful at this and these rumors carried the day for Orban.

VS and its journalists just as HVG are under extreme pressure to increase traffic and Fidesz is great at using their willingness to write anything down, fact checking or using two independent sources are unheard of. HVG and Népszabadság lately became notorious about accepting and spreading the government spin without any criticism (while of course the fidesznik media would never even cover critical views).

The fidesznik media was anyway satisfied how nice Merkel was, the not so fidesznik (although Vs.hu is owned by fideszniks) carried the bullshit stories and made Orban a hero, especially that the factory news totally displaced the news about other angles.

from
Guest

Max, nobody outsmarted the US because the US never had a chance in Hungary to begin with. No Hungarian politician would want to become a pawn of Americans which is what happens when you decide to import American arm systems. According to strategists Americans would have too much influence if Hungary started to use their stuff and Orban is not letting that happen especially now that the relations are not the best. He is also showing to Putin that Americans are not gaining further influence. Orban – if this offer is true – would not give up anything by opting for Airbus, as he was anyway leaning towards that, as he could then be friends with the French too. It’s the best kind of compromise – offering something you anyway wanted to do. Orban forced such “compromises” on clueless szocis so many times he can’t even remember. He hopes he can do that with Western Europeans.

petofi
Guest

Body language is everything but you’d never know it with the fine cutting by the news boys of
Orban’s media, and the distracting, false voice-overs. Fact is, no Orban TV showed Orban’s answer to ‘Illiberal Democracy’ at which Merkel almost gave up her lunch. After the press
conference, the photo op and handshake was as peremptory as Merkel could make it and retain
her dignity. Then she marched off leaving Orban trailing behind like a lost puppy.

“Can I go to the synagogue, too, please?”
“No, stay and clean up your mess.”

And of course, the exclamation mark to the whole day was the leisurely, extra 25 minutes–time
she wouldn’t dream of spending with Orban–that Merkel spent with the ‘dreaded’ jews, to whom most Hungarians would rather ‘Give Gaz’…

Guest

“Siemens will be involved in the construction of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant.”

Siemens cannot be appointed by politicians to take part in the construction of the Paks extension. It must win a public tender according to EU rules. I would expect Angela Merkel to insist on the EU rules being followed.

latefor
Guest

I cannot really understand what Orban means by ‘Illiberal Democracy” – does he mean government intervention in the economy when needed? Does he mean that his government is in total control of the Hungarian Economy? Does he follow/like some of Joseph Steiglitz (Nobel Price winning Economist) ideas? Does he believe in protectionism within the Free Markets to look after Hungarian interests first?
The government’s communication is not very clear to me.
Would somebody be kind enough to explain to me the above.

Xander
Guest
@latefor The good thing about many words used by politics is that nobody really knows their meaning, so the people can think into such terms whatever they wish to. Orban himself would probably give three different definitions if asked on three separate occasions. Having said that people just hate “Liberalism”. After Fidesz’ relentless and extremely successful campaign It came to mean everything bad, a kind of politically acceptable replacement of the figure of ‘the Jew’. The good thing is that if you hate the “liberals”, then you don’t necessarily have to hate others, you did what was expected from you. So Orban was deliberately throwing in an inherently vague term (as there is no agreement what liberalism means in the first place) and created a controversy. As they say he successfully thematized political discourse and meanwhile he scored a lot because Hungarian people just hate liberals. So whatever illiberalism is, it must be good. It was such a great idea in fact that now MSZP – ever the laggard and always lacking original ideas – now openly defines itself as illiberal, I read it yesterday. Apparently MSZP figured out that its image is too liberal and that’s scary to rural… Read more »
latefor
Guest

Xander- Thanks for your enlightening comment. You have just made my day! (I can’t stop laughing!)
Do you mean to tell me that from now on, nobody will support blow jobs at the National Theatre and all political parties will condemn exhibiting pieces of sh*t as a possible new art direction? How about that?!

Webber
Guest

There’s more than enough material from the past five years to write a Hungarian version of Al Franken’s book, Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell them. How does this sound in Hungarian?
Hazugságok és a hazudozó hazugok, akik hazudják.

Guest

@latefor. “I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.” Terence

Marcel Dé (@MarcelD10)
Guest

Xander: Orban himself would probably give three different definitions if asked on three separate occasions.

I don’t think so.

The Fidesz party line is quite consistent. The ideology is roughly that of the Salazar regime in 1950s Portugal (yes, they had elections too): organic-nationalist, ruralist, statist, conservative, corporatist etc.

The difference is Portugal didn’t need EU money, so they didn’t feel compelled to use the word “democracy” at all.

Webber
Guest

@Eva S. Balogh – It looks like Yahoo News has taken down the story. At least the link you provide above no longer works. This would not be the first time that Yahoo News has run a bit of propaganda for Orban and crew. They sometimes have stories that are clearly from Putin’s spin doctors as well – occasionally including really nutty things about the US.

Guest

Re no comments button: the last time this happened, commenters continued to comment–but used the previous day’s comment section. This seems to work well.

Kele
Guest

According to Nezopont and Szazadveg (both Fidesz propaganda machines), Fidesz is improving and importantly, not falling any further and people are satisfied with the government. The temporary blip due to the via issue and related stories is almost over and with these results Fidesz is clear winner in the present election system.

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