On September 25 Viktor Orbán, after his conversations with Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann and Vice-Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner, gave a press conference in which he talked at some length about the Slovenian-Hungarian border. He categorically stated that Hungary doesn’t want to build a fence between Slovenia and Hungary. The activity along the border is merely earthwork. Hungarians are clearing the ground to make it accessible to motorized vehicles. Because Slovenia is a member of the Schengen zone, nothing can be built along the border “that cannot be moved away within a day.”
What happened in reality? Contrary to the prime minister’s claim, Hungary did build a fence, although the Hungarian government would disagree with my choice of words; they described it as a wire obstacle. Moreover, it was not the kind of structure that, in Orbán’s legal code, is prohibited between two Schengen countries. It could be moved away within a day–and it was.
The decision to build the fence had already been reached about a week before Viktor Orbán denied any such intention. On Monday, September 21, Viktor Orbán delivered a speech in parliament in which he appealed for votes from the opposition to allow the domestic use of the Hungarian army given the emergency situation created by the refugee crisis. There he explained that while the police force is sufficient to defend the Serb-Hungarian border, this is not the case along the Croatian and Slovenian sections of the country’s borders. Here the presence of the army is necessary. So, I think it is safe to assume that the decision to build a fence along the Slovenian border had already been reached sometime prior to September 21. In fact, I’m pretty certain that it was reached as soon as it became clear that the Slovenian government was allowing refugees to cross into Slovenian territory from Croatia. And that was on September 18-19. It was during that weekend that Viktor Orbán most likely told Fidesz MPs who had gathered for a weekend retreat at Lake Velence about his resolve to extend the fence farther north. Indirect evidence for that scenario comes from László Vïgh, an MP from Zala County, who when asked by a reporter from a local paper what’s going on in their region said the following: “Viktor Orbán made it absolutely clear that the erection of the fence will continue as long as is necessary. Therefore, I’m certain that we will continue to build the fence along the Slovenian and if necessary even along the Austrian border.” He should have known since he was present at that meeting.
Subsequently, this government decision was confirmed many times. On September 24, a day before Viktor Orbán’s trip to Vienna, János Lázár at his usual Thursday press conference talked about the necessity of building a fence along the Slovenian border. Zoltán Kovács, on the same day, announced that work on the fence had already begun, starting in the village of Tornyiszentmiklós. And indeed MTI reported that the barbed wire and gates had been delivered and that soldiers were busily building the fence.
Slovenian polictians were stunned. Boštjan Šefic, undersecretary in the Slovenian ministry of interior, reported that during the previous night the Slovenians noticed “unusual activity” along the Hungarian border. It was before the fact that they received official notification from Budapest. Vesna Györkös Žnidar, Slovenia’s minister of interior, complained about Sándor Pintér’s lack of cooperation with her own ministry. And Karl Erjavec, the foreign minister, charged that Budapest didn’t bother to get in touch with him about Hungarian intentions.
The Hungarian side naturally told a different story. The spokesman for the Hungarian foreign ministry insisted that Péter Szijjártó had called Erjavec and explained to him that “Hungary is not building a permanent structure.” The foreign ministry spokesman also maintained that the two ministers of interior had several conversations on the subject. He claimed that Vesna Györkös Žnidar should have been aware that if refugees cross into Slovenia, Hungary will build a fence in order to defend its borders. This last statement pretty well confirms that Pintér did not specifically inform Žnidar. She was supposed to assume that such an action would be automatically implemented.
Meanwhile Slovenia got in touch with Dimitris Avramopoulos, EU commissioner for migration, home affairs, and citizenship who in turn contacted the Hungarian government. Ljubljana also alerted Johannes Hahn, commissioner in charge of European neighborhood policy and enlargement negotiations. By the morning of Friday, September 25, it became evident that building a fence between two Schengen states was a serious matter and that such a move would have grave consequences. It was at this point that Orbán, still in Vienna, tried to minimize Hungarian activities along the border as merely earthwork that had nothing to do with the fence. But pictures taken on the spot tell a different story. The picture (above) that was published on the Slovenian internet site SobotaInfo is especially telling. And MTI’s photo, taken at Tornyiszentmiklós, shows gates waiting to be moved to block the road to Slovenian territory.
Panic must have set in because late at night on September 25 Sándor Pintér announced that although “as an experiment a wire obstacle (drótakadály) had been laid,” it had been removed during the afternoon. From the announcement we learn that Pintér rushed to the border to meet his counterpart, Vesna Györkös Žnidar. In the future, the announcement continued, the two of them will consult with each other about any activities along the border. The word from Brussels had to be quite forceful because the Hungarian government caved, something that doesn’t happen too often in EU-Hungarian relations.