I sense a change in the Orbán government’s strategy as far as its attitude toward cooperation with the European Union is concerned. Although Orbán still talks about sticking to his government’s total rejection of a common EU policy, the ground is being prepared for a strategy shift. I suspect Viktor Orbán got the distinct impression in Brussels or perhaps even earlier that the strategy he had worked out hand in hand with his colleagues in Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic has either already been rejected or will be repudiated by a large majority of the member states. Therefore, they sent István Mikola, nowadays undersecretary in the ministry of foreign affairs and earlier Fidesz deputy-prime minister candidate, to give a long interview to Népszava, of all places. What Mikola had to say to Marianna Biró almost blew the reporter’s mind.
What did we learn from this interview? Exactly the opposite of what we have heard until now about Hungary’s attitude toward a common EU policy concerning the refugee crisis. But let’s go step by step because there is a lot here to discuss.
First of all, Mikola made a liar out of Viktor Orbán when he said that “there was no secret pact” between Germany and Turkey. Not only was it not secret, but “the accord was between the European Union and Turkey,” not between Germany and Turkey.
Second, as far as the introduction of the quota system is concerned, the Hungarian attitude is no longer as belligerent as it was even a few weeks ago. Hungary now has only “misgivings” about it. It seems that if the European Court of Justice finds it legal, Hungary will oblige. Mind you, a verdict on the issue cannot be expected before the end of the year, and I doubt that the European Commission will let the policy remain in limbo for that long.
Third, we have heard over and over from Orbán and members of his government that the European Union is on its last legs. It will collapse under the weight of the refugee crisis. In this connection the reporter called Mikola’s attention to János Lázár’s assertion that the Hungarian government doesn’t want to have closer European integration. In response to this Mikola said:
Membership in the European Union is of great importance for us. The Hungarian people live in a diaspora and it is through the existence of the European Union that the borders have become virtual and permeable…. Because of our membership in the European Union the world has opened for us. We could break out from our isolation. Not only have Hungarians gotten closer to each other, but now everybody can learn foreign languages and can take jobs abroad…. For Hungarians being part of Europe is of inestimable value…. From the mixing of different people a variegated, vibrant Europe will emerge. This is something unique that must be preserved. It is our task to make sure that it will be protected. That’s why I’m not pessimistic. I believe that we will suffer for a while with the migrant crisis but at the end Europe will survive.
As I said, I don’t know what happened in the last few days or so, but Mikola’s message indicates to me a staggering about-face. I wonder whether this is in any way linked to the findings of the Bertelsmann Stiftung, the largest German non-profit foundation, which indicate that the overwhelming majority of people in the European Union want more integration and consider the quota system equitable and fair. Moreover, they want to punish those countries that refuse to abide by the common will. Until now we had no reliable data on public opinion across the continent concerning the refugees. On the right newspapers gleefully reported atrocities and anti-refugee demonstrations while the left sang the praises of the integration efforts of Germans, Swedes, and others.
I suspect that the findings of the Bertelsmann study have been known for some time by the EU decision makers, which must have given a boost to those politicians who share Angela Merkel’s vision for solving the crisis. The title of the 20-page study is “Border Protection and Freedom of Movement: What People Expect of European Asylum and Migration Policies.” I’m sure that you’ll be surprised, as I was, to read that
- 79 percent of European citizens believe that the European Union should have a common European policy on migration. 52 percent believe that the EU should be primarily responsible for this issue. 27 percent say that the responsibility should be shared by the EU and the member states. 79 percent of Europeans also consider the freedom of movement to be of great importance, and believe that it should be defended at all costs.
- 87 percent believe that the EU has a common duty to protect its external borders.
- 79 percent of European interviewees believe that asylum-seekers should be distributed fairly among the member states of the European Union.
- 69 percent of the interviewees believe that EU financial support should be reduced if member states refuse to accept their fair share of refugees.
A closer look at the data reveals a divide between public opinion in the old and the new member states (2004 Eastern Enlargement of the EU).
- Only 54 percent of the citizens in the new member states think that asylum-seekers should be fairly distributed (versus 85 percent in the old member states).
- And only 41 percent of the interviewees in the new member states think that countries which do not want to take in their fair share of asylum-seekers should have to pay a financial penalty (versus 77 percent in the old member states).
The study’s summary points out that “Europe’s politicians are once again confronted with political realities which they can no longer ignore…. Data shows that the electorate is a long way ahead of the politicians.”
Armed with that information, the European Union will feel free to take a more aggressive stance against the ideas of the eastern states that joined the Union twelve years ago. And this is not good news for Viktor Orbán and people like Fico.
Speaking of Fico. His popularity, just like Orbán’s, swelled as a result of his anti-refugee policies. A few months ago his party’s popularity reached 40%, and thus it could easily win the forthcoming elections with an absolute majority. However, since then fewer and fewer people have been concerned about the migrants. Instead, they are preoccupied with problems of education and healthcare at home. Does it sound familiar? Elections will be held on March 5 and Smer, Fico’s party, is losing voters. Fico is trying to keep the migrant issue in the forefront and now threatens to build a fence along the Slovak-Austrian-Hungarian border. Similarly, of course, Orbán is attempting to keep his people focused on the refugee issue instead of the troublesome topics of education and healthcare. I don’t know how often I read or heard that the Hungarian government is ready to build the fence at any time along the Romanian-Hungarian border. Yet no fence has emerged so far. A couple of days ago Sándor Pintér, minister of interior, announced an extension of the closed border between Croatia and Hungary. Surely, to emphasize the fear of migrants overrunning the country. Or, there is the heavy arming of the Hungarian National Bank, allegedly because of the threat of terrorism, which even Reuters called a paranoid measure. At the same time, Fidesz is collecting signatures protesting Hungary’s participation in a common solution to the fate of those refugees who either are already in western countries or are waiting in Greece to move on.
And while these measures are being undertaken domestically, Orbán is making preparations for an about-face. This will not be an easy sell, especially after the teachers’ revolt, which has already made the government retreat somewhat. However, the leaders of the movement are determined to dismantle the whole system and to restore their autonomy. Fidesz’s popularity, which stagnated between November and December, has now dropped a bit, and I suspect that polls taken after the teachers’ demonstration will show a further erosion of Fidesz’s popularity. And the realization that the “migrants” are coming will be a terrible blow to the party faithful.