It often happens, especially at Tusványos in a more relaxed atmosphere, that Viktor Orbán’s most interesting remarks come after his speech is over and when he is more willing to answer questions. While the Hungarian prime minister couched his message about the future of Europe in language that needed a great deal of parsing, his answer to the question about the military security of Europe was straightforward. He told his audience that he had changed his position on the matter of a common European army. He used to think that the existence of NATO provided an ample defense umbrella for Central Europe, but now, after Brexit, “the military strength of the continent has substantially decreased.” In these circumstances “we must create a European army that would be a truly common force with actual joint regiments, with a common language of command, with common structure.”
This new EU army would have to defend the continent from all threats coming from the east and the south. Orbán added that the establishment of such an army is also important because of the risk of terrorism and the migratory invasion. The migrants continue their efforts to gain entrance to the EU because they realize that “Europe is weak.”
Orbán’s answer was astonishing. Here is a politician who has been working hard for years to loosen the ties between the European Union and its member states and who has resisted all attempts at a level of cooperation that might lead one day to a United States of Europe. And now he comes forth with an idea that would take away the right of individual states to be in charge of their own defense. The Hungarian government put a great deal of money and effort into the country’s military academy, the Ludovika, intended to boost national pride and Hungary’s military tradition. And now this nationalistic prime minister suggests putting Hungarians into the common uniform of a European army, abandoning the uniform that was fashioned after 1990. In the newly refurbished and reorganized Hungarian military academy, cadets would have to study military science, most likely in English, and the Hungarian enlisted men would also have to learn some English, just as their predecessors who served in the common (k. und k.) army of the Dual Monarchy had to learn some German. Or perhaps, even worse, there would be no national military academies at all. Coming from Viktor Orbán, the whole idea is extraordinary.
Just to make myself clear, I would welcome the establishment of such an army. I embrace almost all suggestions for closer ties among member states because the current structure of the European Union is inadequate to its tasks. Moreover, I do think that Europe must assume a larger share of the cost of its own defense. As it stands, the United States spent 3.3% of its GDP on the military in 2015. NATO’s European members are supposed to spend at least 2.0% of their GDP on the military, but with the exception of Poland all member states consistently fall short. Therefore, strengthening the European forces either by individual states or by the formation of a common army should be welcomed. I just can’t see how this latest brainchild of Orbán is consistent with his overall attitude toward Brussels.
I also have some problems with Orbán’s justification for his change of heart on the matter of European defense. He said that it was the United Kingdom’s departure from the Union that drove home to him the necessity of a common army. It is true that the U.K. has a more robust military than the countries of the continent, but I don’t see what Brexit has to do with the security of the EU. The U.K. will remain part of NATO. Its leaving the EU makes not the slightest difference as far as the defense of Europe is concerned.
I’m also not sure what this army would be used for. György Nógrádi, the government’s favorite “security expert,” who listened to the speech live, interpreted the common military to be a force that is necessary to keep the migrants out, “if necessary not by peaceful means.” It would also be useful to know what Orbán means by the geographic designation of “East.” Could it possibly mean Russia or he is simply thinking of migrants coming through Bulgaria? Not at all clear.
Finally, in my opinion, he confused the matter mightily when he told his audience that the countries of the Visegrád 4–the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia–“are working on establishing a common army of their own which would not be part of the European common army.” Wow, the more the merrier? What would a separate V4 army do? I have searched in vain for some reasonable explanation of why the V4 would need such an army, but I can’t come up with anything.
It is typical of the pettiness of Hungarian political discourse that the two largest parties on the democratic side, MSZP and DK, began arguing over which of them first came up with the idea of a common army. I can’t pick the winner. All I know is that about eight months ago, in November of 2015, MSZP submitted a parliamentary proposal for such an army which was ignored by the Fidesz-KDNP majority, as all such proposals are. At that time Lajos Kósa, the leader of the Fidesz caucus, explained that such a proposal was meaningless. “Europe has a common army,” NATO.
Actually, the idea of a European army has been around for a long time. As early as 2009 the European Union had a plan for such an army, which was approved by the European Parliament. According to General Zoltán Szenes, professor of military science, this plan included a “synchronized military force,” which meant that all member nations would have had to relinquish their rights as far as defense was concerned and consign them to the center. The European Union would have done the recruiting, would have provided training, and would have financed the force. Naturally, nothing came of it. Moreover, a year later, in 2010, Viktor Orbán would have vetoed the plan if it had ever gotten to the European Council. But now he is all for it. At least this is what he says. Perhaps he’s afraid that his choice for the U.S. presidency will abandon both Europe and NATO and that Europe will have to fend for itself militarily.