Tag Archives: Andrej Babiš

Who is the real winner of the Austrian election? Perhaps not Viktor Orbán, after all

On October 16, 2017, Hungarian government propaganda papers were ecstatic. It looked almost certain that the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), led by the young Sebastian Kurz, would emerge as the strongest party after the national election. The Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) finished second, only slightly ahead of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), but most people expected Kurz to turn to Heinz-Christian Strache’s FPÖ to form a government. And indeed, four days later, coalition talks began between ÖVP and FPÖ.

The pro-government Origo exclaimed, as soon as Kurz’s victory seemed assured, that “Viktor Orbán also won in the Austrian election.” The paper quoted Russia Today, which predicted an even deeper division within the European Union with Kurz’s victory. The position of Berlin and Paris, it said, will be weakened when Austria joins the Visegrád 4 countries in opposition to open borders, which in turn will lessen the likelihood of a federalist solution in the near future.

Right-wing analysts like Ágoston Sámuel Mráz echoed Russia Today, adding that, although Austria is unlikely to join the Visegrád 4, with Kurz’s election “the Central European concept will be strengthened.” As he put it, in Austria “Sebastian Kurz was victorious, but it was Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán who won.”

After the announcement of the conclusion of successful coalition negotiations on December 18, there was general optimism concerning closer relations between Austria and Hungary under the leadership of a government without the socialists. Austrian pundits made all sorts of predictions about cooperation, especially on matters of immigration. Hungarian government experts emphasized with satisfaction that ÖVP, as far as the refugees are concerned, had adopted FPÖ’s more radical approach. They noted, however, most likely with some regret, that the coalition agreement contains a reference to Austria as an integral part of the European Union. 888.hu was especially happy about the large presence of FPÖ in the coalition and published an article on Austrian Interior Minister Herbert Kickl (FPÖ), who considers Viktor Orbán a prophet and a model for Austrian politicians to emulate.

It is not at all clear at the moment how close a relationship Sebastian Kurz wants to maintain with the Visegrád 4, especially after he warned against “overinterpreting things.” As he put it, “there are measures and initiatives where we have goodwill in western European countries … [and] there are others where we will perhaps get applause from the Visegrad countries, and still others where we agree with all other 27 EU member states.” Híradó, the official Hungarian government news outlet, put it even more bluntly when it reported that “Sebastian Kurz rejected speculation that Austria would draw closer to the V4 countries as opposed to its Western European allies.” Kurz announced that he is planning to visit Paris and Berlin in the coming weeks, stressing that Germany is Austria’s biggest neighbor and most important economic partner. In brief, it is unlikely that Viktor Orbán can rely on Kurz in his anti-Merkel moves.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache at the cabinet meeting in Seggau / Source: Der Standard

I found the comments that the new Czech Prime Minister, Andrej Babiš, made a couple of days ago amusing. He announced that the Visegrád 4 countries must convince Brussels that the refugee quotas are senseless, and he “has a clear plan how to fight against the quotas and find new allies.” In the next few weeks he is planning to visit the Bulgarian prime minister and Jean-Claude Juncker. He is also going to Davos, where he will meet the Austrian chancellor. That is his plan. If the neophyte Czech prime minister thinks that a couple of private chats will change the solid opposition to the Polish, Czech, and Hungarian refusal to abide by EU rules, he still has much to learn.

I don’t think that Viktor Orbán ever seriously believed that Austria would be part of the Visegrád 4 any time in the future, but I suspect that he didn’t anticipate a potential source of friction between the two governments only a few days after the formation of Kurz’s government. After the first cabinet meeting, Kurz and Strache announced that the Austrian government will reduce the amount of child support for children of “guest workers” whose families remain behind. In 2016, the Austrian government paid 273 million euros for 132,000 children living outside of the country. Hungary and Slovakia received the largest amounts of money: Hungary 80 million and Slovakia 63 million.

This move is part of a broader Austrian government agenda that includes cutting taxes, reducing benefits for refugees, and restricting new immigrants’ access to many social services for five years. Or, as Péter Techet wrote in a thought-provoking article on Austria, this government wants to end the Austrian welfare state as it currently exists.

Discriminating between EU citizens is illegal according to the EU Constitution. Yet Kurz seems confident that his government won’t violate EU laws by reducing family allowances. At least this is the opinion of the party’s expert, who argued that the size of the benefit should be determined by the purchasing power of the country of the child’s residence. It is ridiculous, he said, that a Romanian family with two children receives €300, which is the equivalent of an average salary in Romania. However, it may not be as simple as the Austrian labor lawyer thinks. Jean Claude Juncker’s deputy chief spokeswoman already issued a warning that the European Commission is closely monitoring the situation, and I wouldn’t be too sanguine about Austrian success in this matter. Earlier such attempts by Germany to discriminate against so-called foreigners were squashed.

In an ironic twist, Orbán, who fights so valiantly for the rights of Hungarians in the United Kingdom, may have to turn to the hated Brussels for protection against the Austrian government he greeted with such enthusiasm.

January 8, 2018

Was Orbán’s bout with the EU a “points victory”? We will see tomorrow

Viktor Orbán, along with the other prime ministers of the European Union’s member states, is in Brussels at the moment, where among other things they are supposed to come to an understanding on the thorny issue of migration. The goal is naturally unity, a common understanding, a situation in which all member states share in the solution to the problems currently facing the European Union.

The greatest obstacle to reaching this goal is the refusal of three of the four Visegrád countries to accept one single refugee in case the need arises. These countries are the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. The fourth country, Slovakia, would take a very limited number of asylum seekers.

The Visegrád Four countries have jointly come up with a plan of their own. Those countries that already have a number of immigrants from countries outside of the Union should accept most of the refugees while the Central Europeans would redeem their non-compliance with cash contributions. They came out with a figure today. They would pay 35 million euros in assistance to Italy. Hungary’s contribution would be nine million euros. This offer has not found too many enthusiastic supporters. In fact, most of the influential political leaders of the larger states deemed the Visegrád Four’s solution to be unacceptable.

The deep division within the EU became all too visible even before the opening of the summit. In October Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, introduced the idea of sending around a so-called Leaders’ Agenda prior to the summits. Its alleged purpose was to set out topics to be informally discussed. This time the topic was “Migration: way forward on the external and the internal dimension.” It is hard to tell what Tusk meant by this mysterious title, and I’m not surprised that some of Tusk’s critics considered the document badly written. The short letter was full of commonplace notions, like “secure external borders.” But what was strange and new in the document was that Tusk decided that “only Member States are able to tackle the migration crisis effectively” and that the European Commission’s approach to the migration crisis “has turned out to be ineffective.”

Eszter Zalan of Euobserver wrote that Tusk’s note on migration prompted “institutional hysteria” in Brussels. Eventually, the text had to be changed after serious concerns were raised at the meeting of EU foreign ministers on December 11. This was considered by some to be a “humiliating climb-down.” The revised note called for the EU institutions to work together. EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos called Tusk’s note “anti-European,” which might have been an overstatement, but even the official comments coming from the European Commission took umbrage at Tusk’s singular action. Its spokesman conveyed the Commission’s disagreement with Tusk’s criticism of its work.

It was not just the members of the European Council who were critical of Tusk’s move but also the political leaders of Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and even Greece, which has had to manage large numbers of refugees and migrants. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, for example, called Tusk’s comments “aimless, ill-timed, and pointless.” Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose reproofs are usually quite subdued, was openly critical, insisting that “solidarity for the management of borders” is not enough; responsibilities must be shared within the Union as well. Italy might have been pleased with the financial offer but nonetheless reiterated that “we will continue to insist that a commitment on the relocation of refugees is needed.”

The leaders of the Visegrád Four must have been elated when they received Tusk’s note, but the changes that had to be made should have signaled to them that they couldn’t expect an imminent victory for their position. Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó declared that Tusk had “spoken the truth” on mandatory quotas. He went even further in his criticism of the European Commission. “Some Brussels bureaucrats continue to organize and promote illegal migration, and Donald Tusk is now being attacked in a vile and sanctimonious manner by those who have been representing for years now the obviously misguided migration policy of the European Commission.”

The other side considered Tusk’s initiative to be an encroachment on the prerogatives of the European Council. As one unnamed EU diplomat said, “The European Council is not a legislative body.” In his opinion, Tusk couldn’t possibly mean to bypass the normal procedures of the European Union. Moreover, Tusk’s opinions bore a suspicious resemblance to the general argument put forth by the Visegrád Four, which could be a result of his national attachments.

Photo: Stephanie LeCocq / MTI-EPA

Viktor Orbán left Budapest in a combative mood with a backpack on his shoulder which, according to him, contained 2.3 million Hungarians’ rejection of the Soros Plan, which in Orbán’s domestic parlance means the plan of the European Commission. (I should add that no official results of the national consultation have yet been disclosed.) Today he seems to be flying high because his Facebook page is full of videos with English subtitles from Brussels, announcing all of the things he has been accomplishing.

Before the summit the Visegrád Four prime ministers, whose ranks included two new members, Andrej Babiš of the Czech Republic and Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland, met Jean-Claude Juncker of the European Commission and Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni of Italy. Juncker was especially open to the gesture of the four prime ministers and called the offer a sign of solidarity. Orbán was elated and declared that he was “deeply thankful to [Juncker], who was a good partner.” According to Andrew Byrne, Financial Times correspondent for Hungary, Romania, and the West Balkans, Orbán was overtaken by Juncker’s kindness. It’s no wonder that Orbán on one of his videos announced that “after the first bout we are doing well. It looks like a points victory today.”

We will see how the rest of the summit shapes up. After all, Tusk had to retreat, and there is a crucial dinner meeting tonight and another day of negotiations tomorrow.

December 14, 2017