After mulling over the available reports on David Cameron’s short stopover in Budapest, I have come to the conclusion that Viktor Orbán, who is believed to be a maverick politician of mythical powers, failed miserably in his negotiations with the British prime minister. He promised to support three of the four demands Cameron formulated back in November 2015 vis-à-vis the European Union. And Cameron moved not an inch on the most difficult issue of restricting access to welfare payments for migrant workers, mostly from Eastern Europe. If Jarosław Kaczyński hoped to find a good spokesman for the cause of the Visegrád4, he was sadly mistaken. While both men emphasized the need for a strong European Union, in fact both of them have been doing their best to weaken it.
Here are the demands of the British government.
The first demand seeks a special status for Great Britain and others to be free of any obligation to accept the euro as a common currency. In addition, Britain demands that countries outside of the Eurozone should have veto power in the affairs of the Eurozone countries.
The second demand is more reasonable: less bureaucracy and fewer rules and regulations.
The third demand, in my opinion, would be the death knell of the European Union if accepted. It is bad enough that Great Britain doesn’t want to be tied by the EU constitution, which calls on member states to support an ever-closer integration of the Union. It also wants a new provision to be inserted that would allow parliaments of the member states to invalidate any EU law that doesn’t meet the approval of a certain percentage of MPs. For the time being, the details of this demand are not known. The guiding principle would be “a national solution if possible” and a European solution only when necessary.
The fourth demand is the only one that Viktor Orbán found objectionable. Cameron wants to restrict access to benefits for EU migrants both in and out of work. The British government wants to stop those who go to Great Britain from claiming certain benefits until they have been a resident for four years. Moreover, it seems that until now a migrant father or mother could get child support even if the children remained behind. That no longer would be possible. In addition, spouses who are not EU citizens couldn’t enter the country. Despite all the smiles at the press conference, it looks as if Orbán didn’t manage to convince Cameron that the hard-working Hungarians are not economic migrants in Britain.
At a time when united action should be the primary concern of the European Union, attacks on it are coming from three directions. The first is not the doing of the member states: the largely unexpected influx of refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, some by way of camps in Turkey. But the other two attacks come from the inside–from Great Britain and the Orbán-led Visegrád countries. While Viktor Orbán criticizes the European Union for its inability to show a common resolve, he has been doing nothing else for the last year but weakening the little central authority the EU has. At the same time both he and Cameron claim that they want a strong Europe.
The official government communiqué stressed Hungary’s willingness “to fully support” Cameron’s first three demands. The two men have “complete intellectual and strategic agreement” on these points. Orbán greeted “the rethinking of the role of the national parliaments” and welcomed the idea of “equality with the members of the Eurozone.”
When it came to the fourth demand he protested meekly. He mostly objected to the word “migrant,” emphasizing the importance of choosing our words. Indeed, he is the one who is a master of linguistic manipulation. His political advisers came up with the word “migráns,” a foreign word not normally used in Hungarian and now applied exclusively to the Middle Eastern refugees. The word by now has acquired a negative connotation in Hungary due to the hard-hitting government propaganda against the migrants. And here is the British prime minister who talks about Hungarians as migrants. Naturally, as far as Orbán is concerned, they are not migrants because they are EU citizens who have the right to settle and work in another member state. But the word “migrant” in English normally means a person who leaves one country to settle either permanently or temporarily in another.
Orbán didn’t really criticize the British plan to restrict benefits for EU migrants. Rather, he appealed to Cameron by emphasizing the hard-working Hungarians who greatly contribute to the British economy and who take very little in social services. He talked about 50,000 Hungarian citizens in Britain, although that sounds like a very low number to me. At the same time he indicated that the real victims of such a move would be the Poles since about 800,000 of them live and work in Great Britain at the moment. I wonder whether this means that Orbán will leave the hard work of fighting the British plan to the Szydło government. In any case, he indicated that negotiations will continue between Great Britain and the Visegrád4 countries.
The parties of the democratic opposition all criticized Orbán for not defending the interests of Hungarians living in Great Britain. Gábor Fodor’s Magyar Liberális Párt accused Orbán of having a double standard when he portrays the migrants from the Middle East as criminals while he demands special treatment for Hungarian migrants living in Great Britain. According to Együtt (Together), Orbán abandoned his own voters. Attila Mesterházy, who spoke for MSZP, accused Orbán of assisting the British prime minister, who is trying to solve his own domestic problems. In his opinion, Cameron makes no distinction between EU citizens, immigrants, and refugees, and therefore all attempts to force him to think otherwise are useless. MSZP expected a stronger stand in defense of Hungarians in the United Kingdom. LMP demanded policies from the government that would bring those Hungarians who live abroad back home. Of course, DK followed suit, but Péter Niedermüller went even further. He accused Orbán of supporting Cameron’s demands although they may lead to the weakening of Hungary’s position within the European Union. Another DK politician, Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy, even made an appeal to David Cameron on Facebook:
David Cameron is a true democrat and a wise politician. He believes in liberal democracy and free market economy and refuses an ever more integrated EU. Mr. Cameron looks for allies on these grounds. And his greatest challenge is that most of his anti-EU allies are xenophobes and extreme populists. Will statesman Cameron be ready to tame or handle the Orbáns and Kaczyńskis of our continent? These are politicians who believe in a state-controlled economy, anti-capitalism and who keep making gestures to right-wing extremists in order to build up their exclusive power. Can a British conservative agenda be legitimate, credible and efficient if it seeks support from representatives of obsolete, pre-WWII ideologies? Can a distinguished leader of one of the oldest democracies in the world afford to embrace politicians and parties that aim at destroying Churchill’s dreams?
Kaczyński, Orbán and the likes have millions of supporters as this type of politics always have and will. But, fortunately, friends of a transparent and liberal democracy are still in the majority in Europe. The notions of human dignity, civil liberties and non-corrupt state of affairs are the real grounds for cooperation; considerations of the future of the European Union only come second. I believe we can work out our differences on the EU because democrats are always ready and able to find compromises even after heated discussions. But compromise can and must not be made with those, e.g. Messrs. Orbán and Kaczyński, whose entire goal is to undermine our basic Western values. That is a warning Mr. Cameron may want to keep in mind when talking to Viktor Orbán today.
I fear David Cameron has no intention of heeding Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy’s advice.