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Two critical reports on Hungary from Washington

Two less than complimentary analyses of Hungary were just published in as many days. The first was Freedom House’s report “Nations in Transit 2016” and the second, the U.S. State Department’s “2015 Human Rights Reports.”

A few prefatory words about Freedom House. It is an independent watchdog organization “dedicated to freedom and democracy around the world.” It was established in 1941 in New York City to battle the isolationist sentiment prevalent in the United States at the time. Freedom House was an “aggressive foe of McCarthyisim” and a “strong supporter of the movement for racial equality.” It was only in the 1970s that Freedom House turned its attention to the erosion of freedom in many parts of the developing world. With the end of the Cold War, it expanded its activities to the study of conditions in the post-Communist world. The annual “ Nations in Transit” report concentrates on former Soviet-controlled areas in Eurasia, 29 countries all told. Freedom House’s headquarters nowadays is in Washington, D.C.

I recommend reading the full report, written by Nate Schenkkan, because it covers several important aspects of Europe’s political and economic problems, in addition to evaluating human rights issues in the post-communist countries. Here I will deal only with Freedom House’s assessment of Hungary, the country that holds the dubious distinction of being responsible for “the decline of the average democracy score for Central and Eastern Europe by 12 percent from its peak in 2006.”

freedom house 2016

Freedom House divides the geographical area into three regions: the Balkans, Central Europe, and Eurasia. Countries considered to be Central European are Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. In addition to analyzing these regions as wholes, Freedom House looks at aspects of political life in individual countries: electoral process, civil society, independent media, national democratic governance, local democratic governance, judicial framework and independence, and corruption. The final overall “democracy score” is a combined “grade” on all these issues that are essential for the functioning of a democratic society. This “grade” is based on a scale of 1 to 7; the higher the number, the worse the “democracy score.” If we compare this year’s score to those of 2015 there are three countries in Central Europe whose score hasn’t changed: the Czech Republic, Latvia, and Romania. The scores of four countries have improved: Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, and Slovakia. Finally, there are three countries with worse records than a year ago: Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia.

Sorting the Central European countries from highest to lowest “democracy scores,” we get the following results: Estonia (1.93), Slovenia (2.00), Latvia (2.07), Czech Republic (2.21), Poland (2.32), Lithuania (2.32), Slovakia (2.61), Bulgaria (3.25), Hungary (3.29), and Romania (3.46). In brief, Hungary’s score is getting closer and closer to countries like Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. It is sinking to the level of the countries of the Balkans. Details can be found in a separate section on Hungary.

Hungarian media reactions to “Nations in Transit 2016” were predictable. Opposition sites took the report seriously and pointed out that it was the scores on corruption, freedom of the media, and national democratic governance that dragged the country down to the unenviable position in which it currently finds itself. What really shocked Hungarian journalists was that even Bulgaria received a slightly better score than their own country. If Viktor Orbán remains in power for a couple more years, which is likely, and if he tries just a bit harder, Hungary will become the country with the worst “democracy score” in Central Europe.

Magyar Idők ignored the report and simply published MTI’s story, according to which Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó called the report “nonsense.” How can “people hanging around in American offices thousands of miles away tell anything about the situation in any country?” Well, the multitude of footnotes indicates that most of the material was gathered from Hungarian sources, and it is likely that some of the anonymous authors also live in Hungary. Szijjártó is convinced that Freedom House came out with these figures only because the United States doesn’t like Hungary’s position on immigration. Moreover, it is bizarre that such critical remarks come from a country that erected not a simple fence like Hungary did but a massive wall to keep migrants out of the country. “We were elected by the citizens of this country and it is our duty to act in their best interest.” He added that they don’t care what Freedom House writes about them.

The U.S. State Department’s “2015 Human Rights Reports: Hungary” is just as critical of Hungarian conditions as Freedom House’s analysis. The report is a long, devastating description of the Hungarian situation last year. The Hungarian government’s handling of migrants and asylum seekers is severely criticized, but the report also points to prison overcrowding, lengthy pretrial detention, the politically determined process for recognizing churches, government corruption, media concentration that restricts editorial independence, government pressure and intimidation of civil society, violence against women, inhumane treatment of institutionalized persons, discrimination against Roma, verbal abuse and harassment against LGBTI people, and human trafficking.

The pro-government media’s reaction was again predictable. Pesti Srácok gave this headline to its article on the report: “Washington’s chief problem with Hungary: Migrants couldn’t move freely in the country.” Quite a misrepresentation of the document. Magyar Idők complained that “America again lectures us on human rights.” Tamás Deutsch, currently Fidesz EP MP and one of the original founders of the party, was more expansive. First of all, according to Deutsch, the report “is crawling with factual errors, many half-truths, and a pathological bias against Hungary.” But in Deutsch’s opinion all this is really beside the point. The important question is: “How does the honorable government of the United States of America have the temerity to grade the countries of the world like a screaming home room teacher with a distinct body odor because of his nylon gown who whirls a key ring around his forefinger?”

I suspect that Deutsch’s comments will not be the last on the subject. I expect, especially from Magyar Idők, massive anti-American rhetoric. The editors of Magyar Idők have been specializing in anti-American and anti-German opinion pieces, all the while expressing great admiration for Russia. I am waiting for a juicy editorial on the State Department’s “Human Rights Report.” After all, they haven’t had time to translate it yet.

April 14, 2016

Government conspiracy to prevent a referendum

Critics of the democratic opposition in Hungary often charge both journalists and politicians with abandoning stories about the corrupt Orbán government. A huge scandal surfaces and is on the front page of every newspaper, but a few days later the whole thing is forgotten. The dogged perseverance so necessary for both reporters and politicians seems to be missing from Hungarian political life, although in the few cases where it was at work the administration had to retreat.

The most spectacular success of that kind of investigative journalism was the resignation of President Pál Schmidt after it became known that his so-called doctoral dissertation was a Hungarian translation of a book originally written in French. HVG, the paper that received the original scoop, simply didn’t let the issue die. They kept at it. Although it took four months, eventually Schmidt was told to retire quietly. I’ll bet that Viktor Orbán has regretted that decision ever since. In fact, in the last couple of years he has smuggled Schmidt back into the government circle. Schmidt received government assignments in connection with Hungary’s bid for the 2024 Olympic games.

It seems that this same ability to stay with a project and see it through to completion is now being exhibited by MSZP’s István Nyakó, the man who was prevented from submitting his referendum question on Sunday retail store closings to the National Election Office (NVH). Of course, he needed the assistance of the media. Both HVG and Index have been giving ample coverage to the story. Today, after a month of back and forth, both NVH and the National Election Committee (NVB) finally decided to ask the police to investigate the skinheads’ role in the events that allowed Mrs. Erdősi, wife of Herceghalom’s mayor and a devoted admirer of Viktor Orbán, to turn in her question about the Sunday closings while the hired heavies prevented Nyakó from submitting his question. The very fact that the case has gotten this far is an unexpected success, which says a lot about the state of democracy in Hungary. Or, rather the lack thereof. A dictatorial regime like Viktor Orbán’s does not tolerate dissent and will do everything in its power to stifle it.

István Nyakó in front of the National Election Office / 24per7

István Nyakó in front of the National Election Office / 24per7

I devoted several posts to the topic of the seemingly hopeless task of submitting a referendum question on the Sunday closings issue. Sunday closings are very unpopular, and if such a referendum were actually held it is quite possible that the closings would be overwhelmingly rejected, which could be interpreted as a rejection of Viktor Orbán’s whole political system. Thus, a variety of tricks have been employed to prevent such an outcome. This cat and mouse game has now been going on for about a year. Thanks to Nyakó’s insistence and the media’s help, today we have some evidence that there was a joint effort between Fidesz and individuals allegedly representing independent agencies, like NVH and NVB and the National Data Protection and Freedom of Information Authority (NAIH), to prevent something that is against the wishes of the government. Such a concerted effort is less kindly called a “conspiracy,” which is a very serious crime.

The alleged crime took place on February 23. Within a few hours important information emerged, including the identity of Mrs. Erdősi and the connection between the skinheads of the Ferencváros (Fradi) Football Association, and Gábor Kubatov, president of Fradi, vice-chairman of Fidesz, and the maverick election campaign manager of the party. A few days later I followed up my initial post with more facts. Since then even more details have emerged. I’m pretty certain that by now we have a very good idea of how the ruse was conceived and executed. The only thing missing is definite proof, which can be obtained only if the police take the investigation seriously.

What we know now is that the chairmen of both NVH and NVB hid an important piece of evidence: a seven-hour surveillance video from outside the building of NVH. Members of the election committee today claim that they would have immediately launched an investigation if they had had the opportunity to see the video, which shows the arrival of the skinheads and the distribution of copies of Mrs. Erdősi’s referendum question enclosed in plastic folders. Thus, Mrs. Erdősi and the skinheads worked together. They were one team. Initially, however, Ilona Pálffy of NVH and Sándor Patyi, chairman of NVB, convinced members of the committee that there was nothing interesting on the video. Only the lone MSZP representative on the committee insisted on looking at it, but he was voted down by the Fidesz-Jobbik majority. Moreover, Pálffy and Patyi also “forgot” to submit the video along with other documents when the Kúria wanted to take a second look at the case. So, from what we know now there is a good likelihood of Pálffy’s and Patyi’s involvement in the conspiracy.

There is also the possibility that one or more employees of the National Data Protection and Freedom of Information Authority (NAIH) are also involved. What does this office have to do with referendums? Anyone who wants to submit a referendum question has to start at NAIH in order to receive permission to collect the necessary 20-30 supporting signatures. MSZP members in the past received these permissions after a fairly lengthy waiting period. MSZP’s Zoltán Lukács, who submitted a referendum question earlier, asked for permission on January 27 and received the answer on February 18. Nyakó’s request was submitted on February 12, and he had to wait 10 days for an answer. Behold, Mrs. Erdősi’s application arrived on February 21, a Sunday, and a day later permission was granted. The deadline to submit a referendum question was February 23, Tuesday. Someone at NAIH clearly wanted to expedite matters to make sure that Mrs. Erdősi would be able to turn in her referendum question in time.

Now it is up to the police and the prosecutors to handle the case. Odds are, if recent history is any guide, that the case will never be solved.

March 31, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s latest attempt to introduce “martial law” under the pretext of terrorism

Let’s start with the Hungarian regime’s latest outrage. Viktor Orbán, under the pretext of the terrorist attacks in Brussels, is trying to push through his controversial amendments to the constitution that would create a new category of emergency called “state of terror threat” (terrorveszélyhelyzet).

I wrote twice about the proposed amendments, which were uniformly rejected by the opposition parties. Once right after István Simicskó, minister of defense, called for a “five-party” discussion on security measures that would involve amendments to the constitution. At that point only bits and pieces of information were available, but even from the little that was known it sounded truly frightening. The emergency measures would have been introduced for thirty days and could have been extended without limit. Moreover, only “a threat of terrorism” would have been necessary to declare such a state of emergency.

A few days later, when all the details of the proposed amendments became available, I wrote another piece in which I listed thirty restrictions, including eviction of people from their homes, prohibition of the entry of foreigners, limitation or prohibition of contact and communication with foreigners and foreign organizations, prohibition of demonstrations, control of the internet, etc. I could go on and on. All that without parliamentary approval. These draconian measures could be announced by the government without any parliamentary oversight. No opposition party could possibly have voted for these amendments, and I was happy to see that none of them did. Not even Jobbik. It was clear to everyone that the “state of terror threat” was not so much about terror as about domestic dissatisfaction with the government. The only thing that was needed to quell anti-government protest was a so-called “terror threat.”

The terrorist attacks in Brussels came in handy for Viktor Orbán’s diabolical plans. At the time of the explosions in the Belgian capital Hungary was already under a state of emergency #3. As soon as the news of the Brussels atrocities was received in Hungary, the terror alert was upgraded to state of emergency #2.

Anyone who’s unfamiliar with Hungarian regulations might well think that under the circumstances such a move was justifiable. Those of us who know the rules, however, became suspicious that Orbán was not worried about an actual terrorist attack on Budapest but was simply raising the ante. A #2 state of emergency can currently be declared only if a “verifiable terror threat exists against the country.” And, as it turns out, the Hungarian security services have not received any such information. After many attempts, Olga Kálmán of ATV finally managed to get the truth out of György Bakondi, the government commissioner who is supposed to be an expert on emergency matters: Hungarian authorities haven’t received any verifiable terror threat. The security forces are simply wondering whether the arrest of Salah Abdeslam might trigger an attack on Budapest because Abdeslam traveled to Hungary twice to get some of his comrades out of the country back in September 2015. A rather far-fetched hypothesis.

A few hours after Bakondi’s admission about the lack of evidence of a verifiable terror threat, the security services managed to convince even the opposition members of the parliamentary commission on national security that raising the level of the state of emergency was justified. Bernadett Szél of LMP announced that the information received from the security services “was convincing.” Knowing this government, I suspect that the officers of the national security forces are just about as truthful as the other members of the government, including Viktor Orbán. Therefore, I for one don’t believe that Hungary received a credible threat, but I understand that members of the opposition are reluctant to stick their necks out.

Even before the meeting of the committee, Viktor Orbán announced that the #2 state of emergency will remain in force, and it might even be changed to #1 at the borders. Yesterday Sándor Pintér, minister of interior, said at a press conference that the #2 state of emergency would remain in effect “until it becomes clear exactly what happened in Brussels and what is expected in other countries of Europe.”

Since then Viktor Orbán decided that Hungary needs more than these terror alert levels. He instructed Pintér to return to the amendments to the constitution, which fell by the wayside “because of political quarrels.” He will try to push through this unacceptable change in the constitution, justifying it by appealing to the tragic events in Brussels.

Viktor Orbán today posed as an ardent supporter of a united Europe when he said: “The target of the explosions was not Belgium but Europe, and therefore we have to look upon this attack as if it was also against Hungary.” I wonder what he will say in a few days when the ministers of interior are told about plans for closer cooperation on security, which may involve setting up a European border guard whose members could be sent even to those member countries that do not want their assistance. This way the European borders could be better secured. I doubt that Orbán would be thrilled if that plan was approved by a “qualified majority.” As for Hungary’s preparedness for a terrorist attack he said little, but he did admit that “Hungary must obtain certain technological equipment that will make the country’s secret service equal to the best equipped ones. We will buy the latest technology, we will introduce training programs,” he promised.

MSZP came to the conclusion that Orbán’s announcement was an admission that Hungarian security forces are not up to snuff. A few hours later both Fidesz and the government condemned MSZP because, as far as they are concerned, “the opposition party in the last few months has stood by the migrants and has tried to hinder the government’s measures.” They have no right to say anything about the government’s lack of preparedness.

24.hu published a picture of the meeting Orbán held with those officials most closely involved with national security, saying that “it shows everything about Hungarian national security.”

The picture had been posted on Viktor Orbán’s Facebook page. On the picture one can see:

torzs

  • 0 computers
  • 0 smart phones
  • 2 nonfunctioning live streams
  • 9 notebooks with notations
  • 1 TV on which M1 can be seen
  • 1 monitor on which a building can be seen

A rather good description of what’s going on in Hungary. Hungary may have a fence, but it’s ill-prepared for a real terror threat. The government has been battling the refugees and inciting the people against them but has done practically nothing to develop a decent counter-terrorism task force.

Conclusion. Most likely there is no terror threat against Hungary at the moment, which is a blessing because these guys are totally incompetent. And constitutional amendments that infringe on human rights won’t help that situation.

March 23, 2016

Thank you

I want to thank everyone who contributed to support this forum. I appreciate it enormously.

The “beggar maid” post will now be relegated to its rightful chronological place, and the intrusive “Donate” button will be removed from the homepage. Anyone who hasn’t yet contributed but would like to can use the “Donate” tab at the top of the page, in the grey strip.

February 27, 2016

No referendum, no matter what it takes to prevent it

February 23 may be remembered as a “day of infamy” in the life of the Orbán government because it was today that, behind the scenes, somebody whose name we don’t yet know committed a criminal act. In a conspiratorial manner he organized an action that prevented a Hungarian citizen from exercising his constitutional rights.

István Nyakó, a former MSZP member of parliament, arrived at 6 a.m. in front of the building of the National Election Office, waiting for the office to open. He came with a question to be submitted for consideration about holding a referendum on the question of the Sunday closure of retail stores. (Yes, I know it sounds like Groundhog Day but, trust me, the story changes.)

Upon his arrival he encountered about 15 or 20 hefty skinheads, each with a folder in hand as if he were there on official business. As it turned out, the skinheads’ sole task was to prevent Nyakó from reaching the time clock ahead of an elderly woman and her young male companion, who was entrusted with handing her question to the authorities. And indeed, Nyakó clocked in four seconds after the woman’s companion did, although he tried his best to break through the human barricade in front of him.

Once the deed was done, the skinheads left without a word. The elderly woman steadfastly refused to answer any questions about either her identity or her referendum question. It didn’t take long, however, for the right-wing Pesti Srácok’s reporters to recognize the faces of at least two of the skinheads: Tibike Karkowski and Lóci Juhos who, according to their Facebook page, acted as security guards at the latest match of FTC’s women’s handball team. Juhos also works as a security guard at FTC’s Groupama Arena. According to Pesti Srácok, these two are not really hard-core extremists, but who knows what the reporters of this particular paper consider hard-core. Pesti Srácok’s hunch is that the heavies are freelancers.

Pesti Srácok might want to shield Gábor Kubatov, president of FTC (Ferencváros / Fradi) and vice-chairman of Fidesz. After all, as we learned recently, Pesti Srácok is in the pay of the Orbán government. In the last few weeks they published twelve pro-government articles, for which they were paid 1.5 million forints. Apparently, in Budapest journalist circles Pesti Srácok is known as Prosti Srácok, “prosti” being the abbreviation of “prostitute.” Others, like Magyar Nemzet, are not so accommodating; they point the finger at Kubatov. According to website of FradiMob, a Fradi fan club, the people who prevented Nyakó from reaching the time clock are “Kubatov’s men” who are employed as security guards by the club.

Then there is the elderly lady, whose identity didn’t remained secret for long. She is the wife of László András Erdősi, mayor of Herceghalom, a village of about 2,000 inhabitants 26 km. from Budapest. Erdősi is described by Index as someone who was a Fidesz supporter from the earliest times of the party. At first he was involved in Budapest politics, but by 2010 he ran and won as the Fidesz candidate for the mayoralty of Herceghalom. Something must have gone wrong between him and the party, however, because in 2014 he ran as an independent, and Fidesz ran its own candidate against him. But Erdősi won anyway. Whatever went wrong between Fidesz and Erdősi didn’t shake his wife’s devotion to Viktor Orbán. During her husband’s campaign against the Fidesz-appointed candidate, she was seen wearing a campaign button with Viktor Orbán’s picture captioned: “My prime minister.”

People on the scene at the National Election Office noticed that the word “Herceghalom” was visible through the transparent cover on the skinheads’ folders. So, I suspect that each of the men held a copy of the referendum question in case Mrs. Erdősi and her young companion had difficulty getting to the time clock ahead of Nyakó.

Of course, the intriguing question is who arranged for the skinheads to guarantee Mrs. Erdősi’s success. It is hard to imagine that Mrs. Erdősi, wife of an electric engineer, has skinheads among her acquaintances. It is also hard to fathom that this latest chapter in the battle against ever holding a referendum on the Sunday closing of stores doesn’t have something to do with Fidesz, which has every reason to fear the result of such a referendum.

Magyar Nemzet has it right on Fidesz and referendum Photo: Balázs Székelyhidi

Magyar Nemzet got it right on Fidesz and the referendum / Photo: Balázs Székelyhidi

Fidesz’s reaction was to blame the ineptitude of the socialists for this latest fiasco. In their opinion, the socialists are just stupid. They haven’t managed to learn the simple rules of submitting a referendum question to the National Election Office. Moreover, they themselves created the whole incident, and therefore “Fidesz condemns the whole affair and the socialists’ scandal-mongering.” This is what Magyar Nemzet called an “astonishing statement.” Origo asked its readers to vote on whom they suspect of organizing the anti-referendum action of Mrs. Erdősi and the skinheads. About 9,000 people have voted so far and 72% suspect Fidesz as the culprit.

Fidesz wasn’t alone in this dirty business. The party had its accomplices. First of all, the National Election Office, which has no intention, at the moment at least, of investigating the case. Then there were the policemen who went by the building but didn’t think it was necessary to stop by and check what the skinheads were up to. And, naturally, there is Mrs. Erdősi, who lent her name to such a disgraceful act. By the way, her referendum question was the following: “Do you agree that that the retail stores—according to Law CII of 2014—should remain closed on Sundays in the future?” This referendum question was accepted by the National Election Office. That by itself is an abomination.

Viktor Orbán wants to make sure that holding a valid referendum in this new illiberal Hungary will be impossible. He knows what a referendum can do to a government. It was Fidesz that pushed through the referendum on the question of co-pay and college tuition in 2008 which was so overwhelmingly rejected by the electorate that it shook the Gyurcsány government to its very foundations. He must have sworn that this would never happen to him. And he knows that his harebrained idea of closing stores on Sunday is very unpopular. If enough people voted in a referendum, this law would be rejected overwhelmingly. Such an action might gravely damage his government, which at the moment is under pressure from several quarters.

One of the MSZP MPs, Zoltán Gőgös, described this morning’s event as “the last flurry of a hapless dictatorship.” Perhaps this is too optimistic an assessment of the situation, but the government is in the kind of position that frequently leads to serious blunders. This latest assault on basic democratic rights may further add to the troubles of a party already feeling besieged.

February 23, 2016

The beggar maid

The literary allusion may be sorely misplaced (no one would ever describe me as “more fair than words can say”), but I’m back playing the uncomfortable role of the beggar.  A year ago, with your financial support, Hungarian Spectrum got a home of its own, with amenities that I think on balance have worked quite well for our community. It’s now time for me to renew these services. If you appreciate this forum, I would greatly appreciate your support once again.

I have placed a PayPal button in the right-hand column of the home page. With this button, using any recognized credit card, you can either make a one-time donation or opt for a monthly subscription. Let me stress that this blog will remain open to everybody. Subscribers won’t get anything special, except for my undying gratitude.

Many, many thanks for all you have done to make Hungarian Spectrum a success.

The Visegrád Four and the “Prague Declaration”

Today is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the formation of the Visegrád Group (Visegrád Four or V4), an alliance of four Central European states: the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. The original purpose of the alliance was to further these countries’ integration into Europe. In addition, the member countries aimed at improving their military, economic, and energy cooperation. The agreement was signed in the castle of Visegrád. Why Visegrád? It was there that in 1335 Charles I of Hungary, Casimir III of Poland, and John of Bohemia agreed to create new commercial routes to bypass Vienna and obtain easier access to European markets. Today the leaders of the four countries gathered in Prague to contemplate a plan that might isolate them from the rest of the European Union.

torta

Michal Kořán, a Czech foreign policy expert who was interviewed today on the Czech public radio station, said that what concerns him is that “the Visegrád group was conceived as a means to overcome borders” but “today’s summit is aimed at recreating borders again.” He is not at all sure which way the Visegrád Four is heading. These countries are at a crossroads. They can either think about “how to make the region more competitive, more interconnected” or, and he is afraid the Visegrád Four is heading in this direction, take a stance of “being defensive, … being closed, and … being obstructive.”

Slovakia’s president, Andrej Kiska, reminded the members of the Visegrád Group of its original purpose: European integration. “The voice of four is more effective and more convincing” but, he added, “the member states must learn to make common decisions and take responsibility for the European Union as a whole.” Kiska, who in 2014 squarely defeated Fico in the campaign for the presidency, is a rare voice not just in Slovakia but also in the region. His counterpart in Poland, Andrzej Duda, holds a very different view. He is convinced that the views expressed by the current leaders of the Visegrád countries are “logical and well established.” According to him, “rich Western Europe doesn’t understand us. Since no one else helps us, we must help each other.” Mr. Duda’s memory seems to be very short.  He conveniently forgets the European Union’s financial assistance as well as NATO’s protective umbrella over the Central European states, including Poland.

Yesterday Angela Merkel warned against the plan put forth by Viktor Orbán, which is now being contemplated by the Visegrád Group, to erect a fence to seal Greece off from Macedonia and Bulgaria. In fact, as Reuters reported, Berlin officials have already sent letters to the governments of the Visegrád Four expressing Berlin’s disapproval of the plan. This letter was most likely strongly worded because Martin Schäfer, the spokesman of the German foreign office, said in reply to a question by a reporter that “it is not a mistake to call [the letter] a démarche.” Schäfer also expressed the German belief that Greece should have been invited to the V4 summit. After all, a fence along its border is also Greece’s concern. Steffen Seibert, the de facto press secretary of the Chancellor’s office with the title of undersecretary of state, emphasized that it is a mistake to suppose that Germany wanted to prevent the meeting in Prague. “It only wanted to call attention to the common European responsibility,” which the Visegrád Group is ignoring at the moment.

How much do we know so far about the meeting? The four prime ministers released the “Prague Declaration” in which they called attention to their concern about a divided Europe. They fear that the West European countries will form their own Schengen zone and will leave them behind. The declaration emphasized that they, for their part, will do their best to prevent such an event, and they expressed their hope that “our European partners share our aspiration and will work with us in this spirit.” All that sounds innocent enough, but what Viktor Orbán said after the meeting is less promising. He recalled that in 1991 and for a while afterward the main aim was the integration of these former communist countries into Europe. But “now we want to be equal partners,” especially since the European Union needs these countries more than ever because they are the engine of Europe’s economic growth. In his opinion, whatever the EU has done up to now concerning the refugee issue “has failed.” The member states must “contemplate the erecting of a second line of defense” along the northern border of Greece. Hungary is ready to share all its resources to build such a fence. He predicted that 38.5 million refugees may descend on Europe in the future.

Orbán was strongly supported by Beata Szydło, the Polish prime minister. According to her, the “Prague Declaration” aims at achieving “a better European understanding of the common viewpoint of the Visegrád Group.” And Fico strongly supports Plan B, which Szydło found absolutely harmless as far as Greece or anyone else is concerned. Fico immediately offered 300 Slovak policemen who could stand by this second line of defense. The Visegrád Four wants “a strong Europe, and a stronger European Union needs a strong Visegrád Group.” This sentence echoes Viktor Orbán’s overblown ideas about the importance of Hungary and the region in general to the well-being of Europe.

I suspect that the Czech Republic is less sanguine about building a second line of defense, closing Greece off from the rest of the continent. I base this opinion on what Bohuslav Sobotka had to say after the meeting. He expressed his hope that the understanding with Turkey will bring results. He added that “the Visegrád countries support a common solution because the problem cannot be solved by any one country.” He emphasized that Greece must obey all the rules laid out by the Schengen agreement. I consider these statements an indication that the Czech Republic at least didn’t wholeheartedly line up behind Viktor Orbán’s dangerous, unworkable ideas.

February 15, 2016