Viktor Orbán’s planned meeting yesterday with Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s youthful new chancellor, was made public almost a week ago which, given the secretiveness of the Orbán government, was quite unusual. As for the physical trip itself, the Hungarian prime minister opted for an ordinary train ride between Budapest and Vienna. But one of his Volkswagen minibuses was waiting for him in the Austrian capital. A strange arrangement.
There was something else that was out of the ordinary regarding this trip. During the train ride Viktor Orbán had a video made, on which he announced that “in Vienna he wants to sign an agreement on migration, the two countries’ joint defense, and mutual assistance.” This was certainly an ambitious agenda. If Orbán actually meant to say that he would like to return with concrete assurances from the Austrian government concerning those issues, he must be disappointed. What the talk produced was merely a reiteration of long-held views shared by the two governments. No, they don’t want to harbor “illegal migrants”; they want to strengthen the Schengen borders; they don’t think that the quota system is working.
As far as Austria’s joining the Visegrád 4 alliance is concerned, the Austrian right-wing coalition wants to be only “a bridge” between Brussels and the not-so-steady Visegrád 4, even though the far-right Austrian Freedom party said before the October 15 election that it wanted Austria to join the group. Their plans were obviously quashed during the coalition negotiations. What Orbán’s views are on Austria’s joining is not known, but I would be surprised if he didn’t covet such a development.
The Austrian and Hungarian papers, by and large, consider the meeting of little consequence, which might be the reason for the Hungarian party’s reluctance to have any contact with the media after the negotiations were over. According to Die Presse, a conservative Austrian daily, Orbán originally didn’t even want to hold a press conference after his meeting with Kurz. It took some cajoling by Kurz to convince him to allow four questions, two from each country. On the Hungarian side, only M1 TV and the new Fidesz favorite, Echo TV, got a chance to ask questions, which were safe from Orbán’s perspective. The Austrian journalists naturally were more forthcoming, and the Austrian public television’s reporter managed to squeeze in a question about Orbán’s ideas on “illiberal democracy.” The encounter that followed was “politely” left out of the Hungarian news agency’s report. According to Austrian sources, Orbán insisted that his political system is called “illiberal” simply because there are no liberals in his government. “We don’t accept the equation of democracy with liberalism. The only true democracy is democracy without any adjective.” Kurz diplomatically added that he is liberal and Christian and he is happy that the people of Austria live in a strong democratic political system. He added that democracy is the best form of government for any country.
The topic that interested Hungarians most was Austria’s decision to cut child benefits for non-Austrian workers from East European countries, the largest contingent coming from Hungary. Hungarian opposition parties expected Orbán to fight hard for equal rights for these guest workers, but the general impression they got was that Orbán had not done so. This is one of those occasions when I have to defend Orbán. It is the European Court of Justice that will rule on the constitutionality of the issue. Bilateral negotiations with Kurz and his government have no relevance here. The same is true about Austria’s suit against the construction of Paks II. This is a matter between Austria and the European Commission.
Although Austrian and Hungarian commentators might believe that the meeting was a flop, one English-language paper wrote about the two politicians who came away from the meeting “with a pledge for close cooperation in Europe if not a formal alliance.” Euobserver believes that “while Kurz might seem less friendly than his anti-immigration campaign perhaps suggested to Budapest, the Hungarian leader can count on one more ally in opposing the EU’s migrant relocation scheme.” This fear might be exaggerated. Because of the presence of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) in the coalition, Kurz is trying doubly hard to assure the European Union of his trustworthiness. He tweeted after his meeting with Orbán that “Austria can and wants to make a contribution to reinforce cohesion in the European Union and reduce tensions.”
The question is whether the young, relatively inexperienced Sebastian Kurz is capable of taming Viktor Orbán. Zsuzsanna Földvári, a journalist living in Vienna, gave a lengthy interview to the Független Hírügynökség (fuhu.hu) on the encounter, which I found most perceptive. Földvári attended the press conference and gained the impression that “Orbán played the role of the fatherly elder statesman to the young Austrian chancellor, who behaved like a scared schoolboy.” Apparently, Orbán’s experience was evident in the way he handled questions. “He was more informative, more active, and more interesting than Kurz.” Of course, Orbán has the advantage of having spent decades in the political arena. Also, I would not underestimate his charm, which he exhibits on certain occasions. For a while, Orbán most likely will have the advantage, although Kurz just today showed that he can be tough when he announced that “there will be political consequences” of an FPÖ member of parliament’s membership in a neo-Nazi fraternity.
In addition to Sebastian Kurz, Orbán also talked with Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache of the far-right FPÖ. Western papers paid little attention to this meeting, although for Orbán this meeting was just as important as his conversation with Kurz. Maybe even more so. For years Orbán has been most eager to meet Strache, whom he considers “the man of the future.” In September 2015 a planned meeting between the two was reluctantly cancelled in the last minute. Although the Austrian and English-language papers didn’t say much about Orbán’s meeting with Strache, Origo devoted a detailed article to the meeting, which centered on “the closest, most professional, and friendliest relations” between the FPÖ minister of defense and minister for transport, innovation and technology and their Hungarian counterparts.
I don’t want to underestimate the importance of a right-wing government in neighboring Austria, especially after the strained relations that existed during the Social Democratic-People’s Party coalition. At the same time, I would be reluctant to call the Kurz government an absolute bonanza for Orbán, whose expectations, I believe, exceeded what he actually got in Vienna yesterday. He can only hope that with time he will be able to draw Austria closer to the Visegrád 4 Group, gaining tangible support when the Visegrád countries flex their muscles. However, if Poland’s intransigence continues, cooperation between Austria and the Visegrád Group might be out of the question. In fact, it might even threaten the continued existence of the Visegrád 4 alliance.