Tag Archives: Angela Merkel

President János Áder signed the anti-CEU law despite worldwide protests and massive demonstrations

President János Áder signed the changes to the higher education bill that the Hungarian parliament passed in 48 hours. His decision to do so didn’t come as a total surprise because Magyar Nemzet learned a couple of days ago that Áder found no legal reasons to reject the proposed law and either send it back to parliament for reconsideration or to the Constitutional Court for review. Still, I hoped that Áder would have the courage to make a symbolic gesture, thereby manifesting a modicum of independence, but he didn’t even dare to do that much. I suspect that the pressure on him coming from Viktor Orbán was considerable. Orbán is so obsessed with his crusade against the liberal, democratic worldview, to him symbolized by George Soros and, by extension, the university he founded, that he is throwing caution to the wind.

Those people who think that, with Áder’s signature, the case of Central European University is closed are, of course, wrong. This is just the beginning of something that may end very badly for Viktor Orbán. Yesterday 80,000 people went out to demonstrate. About half way through the demonstration it became obvious that the participants weren’t just fighting for the continued existence of a university or for the academic freedom of Hungarian universities in general. They were speaking out against the regime and what it represents.

This is a clash of two worlds: a nationalistic, xenophobic society hamstrung by an autocrat whose whims may lead the country into a diplomatic no man’s land as well as economic ruin and a free society governed by laws informed by the liberal principles of democracy. Orbán’s attack on Central European University, George Soros, and the civic organization is all about this struggle. For Orbán it is imperative to win this war. Even if his dream of transforming Europe into segmented little nation states led by far-right political groups does not materialize, as he hoped last year, he will at least stop the evil forces of liberalism at the borders of Hungary.

Orbán is confident in his own popularity and the strength of the regime he has managed to build in the last seven years. He thinks he is invincible. And why not? He sees the opposition as small, weak, and powerless. It seems that even the immense crowd on the streets of Budapest didn’t persuade him otherwise, despite the fact that the composition of this crowd was very different from earlier gatherings of mostly retirees.

Some people compare yesterday’s demonstration to the one organized against the internet tax in the fall of 2015, but the comparison doesn’t stand up. First of all, the participants in the 2015 demonstration were exclusively young internet users. Second, the demonstration was organized, in the final analysis, for grubby reasons. Third, it didn’t morph into a general political demonstration. Yesterday’s demonstration, by contrast, included young, middle-aged, and old people. They went out to show their support for ideals: free university, free thought, freedom in general, the European Union. And, finally, at one point, the gathering became a political demonstration against the regime. They sent both Orbán and the Russians straight to hell. The old 1956 slogan resurfaced: “Ruszkik haza!”

This is serious stuff that may end very badly for Viktor Orbán, but there is no way that he will abandon his holy war against the very notion of an open society. To him, this is a struggle for survival. Today’s Magyar Idők called the enemies of Viktor Orbán “the fifth column,” which obviously must be eliminated. János Somogyi, a retired lawyer and a frequent op-ed contributor, targeted the Helsinki Commission but in passing wove into his story the European Court of Human Rights and its Hungarian judge, András Sajó, who taught at Central European University before his appointment to the court. Somogyi described the situation at the moment this way: “War rages between the penniless [nincstelen] democratic forces, the will of the people, and the aggressive minority of immensely wealthy liberal imperialistic forces. Behind the Helsinki Commission there is the immensely wealthy liberal empire while the strength of the popular will is in the truth. In wartime, the rules of war must be applied because this is the only way to bring the truth to victory.” It is this war that Viktor Orbán is leading. It is a war in which enemies must be eliminated, according to the rules of war.

The world is looking at what’s going on in Hungary with growing concern, and in the past few months Germany has been translating its concern into action. Magyar Nemzet reported today that a meeting scheduled for May 5 between German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel and his Hungarian counterpart, Péter Szijjártó, has been cancelled. In February Angela Merkel celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of Germany’s signing ties of friendship with Czechoslovakia and Hungary, but only with the prime ministers of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Viktor Orbán was not invited. According to Magyar Nemzet, Szijjártó at the end of last year and the beginning of this year tried four times to initiate talks with the former German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to no avail. It is also unlikely that Angela Merkel will visit Hungary this year as was originally planned.

Hungary’s relations with Germany are just as bad as they are with the United States, but at least Orbán never aspired to close relations with the United States–not, that is, until Donald Trump became president. But Germany is another matter. Orbán announced on several occasions that he considers Germany the most important pillar of Hungarian foreign policy.

German cooperation is not the only critical pillar of the Orbán regime that is in danger of collapsing. If they start to fall, so will Viktor Orbán.

April 10, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s next victims: The civic organizations

The Orbán government, at least on the surface, is not intimidated by the growing criticism of and demonstrations against its hurriedly accepted amendments to the law on higher education, which makes Central European University’s life in Hungary impossible. On the contrary, Zoltán Kovács, spokesman for the Hungarian government, attacked those who raised their voices in defense of the university. For example, when Ulrike Demmer, deputy spokesman of the German government, expressed her government’s concern over the amendments, Kovács fired back, saying that it looks as if George Soros can mislead even the German government with his lies. He also called it regrettable that a serious and responsible government such as the government of Germany would make such a statement.

In addition to its legislation against CEU, the Orbán government decided to proceed with its long-planned move against those civic organizations that receive financial assistance from abroad. I began collecting information on this issue sometime in February when I spotted a statement by László Trócsányi, minister of justice. He accused the NGOs of being political actors without any legitimacy as opposed to parliament, which is elected by the people. Soon enough Viktor Orbán himself attacked them. By late March the situation seemed grave enough for a group of scholars from the United States and Great Britain to sign a statement, “No to NGO crackdown in Hungary.” What was remarkable about this statement was that a fair number of the signatories came from decidedly conservative organizations and think tanks, like the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute, the Atlantic Council, and the Adam Smith Institute. Their concern didn’t impress Viktor Orbán, who in Warsaw at the summit of the Visegrád Four countries accused the NGOs of being in the “migrant business,” which would require new regulations to ensure the “transparency” of their finances.

One didn’t have to wait long for follow-up action. On April 2, 444.hu obtained a copy of a proposal that would regulate all NGOs that receive foreign financial support. The reason given was long-winded and confused. Basically, the government was afraid that foreign interest groups might be able to influence Hungarian civic organizations to perform tasks that don’t serve the interests of the community but only the selfish interests of these foreign groups. Foreign-funded NGOs thus “endanger the political and economic interests … sovereignty and national security of Hungary.” For good measure, the proposed bill cited the danger of money laundering, financing extremist groups, and lending a helping hand to terrorists. The complete text of the draft can be read here.

HVG, with the help of its legal experts, took a quick look at the draft and decided that the bill in its present form doesn’t make the affected NGOs’ existence impossible. It is just nasty and humiliating. One of the humiliating items is that every time associates of these NGOs make a statement, give an interview, or provide informational material they must identify themselves as representing “an organization supported from abroad.” The experts decided that this is not as bad as the original idea, which apparently would have called the associates of these organizations “foreign agents.”

Spokesmen for these organizations were not as optimistic as HVG’s legal experts. According to Amnesty International, this new law can have the same devastating effect as the Russian law had after its introduction. Áron Demeter, Amnesty International’s human rights expert, considers the proposed bill a serious violation of the right of association and freedom of expression. Márta Pardavi of the Helsinki Commission regards the notion of “foreign subsidy” far too vague. It looks as if even EU grants are considered to be foreign subsidies and would thus be viewed as “foreign interference” that endangers Hungary’s national security. Or, there is a fund that was created from the budgets of the foreign ministers of the Visegrád Four countries. Is this also considered to be “foreign money”? She noted that churches and sports clubs are exempt from any such restrictions. Political think tanks and media outlets that also receive sizable amounts of money from abroad are exempt as well, although, as Pardavi rightly points out, they have a more direct influence on politics than, for example, the Helsinki Commission.

As it stands now, any civic organization that receives more than 7.2 million forints (about $25,000) a year from outside of Hungary must describe itself as an “organization supported from abroad.” Each time an organization receives any money from abroad, it must report the transaction to the courts within 15 days. The details of each organization’s finances will be listed on a new website called Civil Információs Portál. If an organization misses this deadline it can be fined and, in certain cases, can be taken off the list, which means that it will be shut down for at least five years.

Gergely Gulyás, one of the deputy leaders of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, invited all those parties that have individual caucuses for a discussion of the bill. At the meeting, held this afternoon, it became clear that none of the opposition parties wants anything to do with the bill, which will be submitted to parliament this week. Even Jobbik said “no” to the proposal. As Gulyás Gergely said after the meeting, “George Soros’s hands even reached as far as Jobbik.” As the Fidesz statement insisted, “every Hungarian must know who George Soros’s men are; what kind of money and what kinds of interests are behind these organizations supported from abroad.” The bill will be voted into law before the week is out.

But, as 444.hu pointed out, by attacking the NGOs the Orbán government is treading on dangerous ground because Hungary in 1999, during the first Orbán government, signed the Charter for European Security of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. In the charter we find the following: “We pledge ourselves to enhance the ability of NGOs to make their full contribution to the further development of civil society and respect for human rights and fundamental freedom.” 444.hu predicts that this piece of legislation, if passed, will prompt even greater protest in Europe and the United States than the Hungarian government’s action against CEU.

Given Hungarian political developments in the last seven years, I assume it doesn’t come as a great surprise that one of the key findings of Freedom House’s “Nations in Transit 2017” is that, with regard to democracy, “Hungary now has the lowest ranking in the Central European region,” behind Bulgaria and Romania. The trajectory of Hungary’s fall from grace is shown below.

April 5, 2017

Viktor Orbán stood alone at the EPP congress

Viktor Orbán has been headline news in the last few days. One reason for this sudden interest in the pocket dictator of Hungary is his determination to close Hungary’s best institution of higher learning, the Central European University. The other was his performance at the annual congress of the European People’s Party (EPP) in Malta, where he delivered a speech that went against everything the other EPP politicians stand for.

The new government mouthpiece Origo described the Hungarian leader’s fantastic energy, which allowed him to have so many negotiations in one day in Malta. “Even foreign journalists commented on the Hungarian prime minister’s stamina.” On March 29 he had talks with an Albanian party chairman, a former Macedonia prime minister, the Bulgarian prime minister, the Croatian prime minister, an opposition politician from Malta, and the Austrian deputy chancellor. As for politicians from the European Union, he met with Jyirki Katainen, vice president of the European Union, and an official of the European Council.

Then came the second day of the congress and speeches by European politicians, who all spoke about unity and solidarity. Donald Tusk, who has been highly praised in the international media of late, talked at length about the necessity of a united Europe as the only guarantee of its sovereignty. “For a responsible patriot there is no better alternative than a united and sovereign Europe.” Romanian President Klaus Iohannis showed himself to be a strong supporter of a unified Europe bound together by the basic values of the European Union. Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister who is one of those few European politicians striving for a United States of Europe, talked about the advantages of integration. Manfred Weber, head of the EPP’s parliamentary delegation, announced that “anyone who loves his birthplace must say yes to a strong Europe.”

Then it was Viktor Orbán’s turn. His speech was described by Bloomberg as a “litany of charges” against migration into the EU, warning of “a dominant Muslim presence” in western Europe in the coming years, and condemning a “leftist ideology” that imposed guilt “for the crusades and colonialism.” Alluding to the Syrian conflict, he said that “if you kick an anthill, we should not be surprised if the ants overwhelm us.” I don’t know how other people feel about this metaphor, but it struck me as crude and demeaning. Perhaps unfairly, it reminded me of Albert Wass’s story of the rats that the farmer allowed to take over his house. Of course, Wass was writing not about the Syrians but about the Jews.

Angela Merkel, who spoke after Orbán, didn’t directly address the Hungarian prime minister but clearly was referring to Orbán’s hard-nosed inhumanity. “Do we just want to say that we don’t have any humanitarian responsibilities here?” she asked. According to Bloomberg, this clash between Merkel and Orbán laid “bare European disunity.” What they should have added was that, of all the speeches delivered, it was only Viktor Orbán’s that went against the consensus.

We are trying to be charming / Photo: MTI

Bloomberg didn’t elaborate on the part of Orbán’s speech that dealt with human rights. Orbán is mighty upset over the European Court of Human Rights/ECHR’s verdict that fined the Hungarian government for the ill treatment of two refugees from Bangladesh. In fact, Fidesz politicians were so upset that they were quite seriously talking about withdrawing Hungary from adherence to the European Convention of Human Rights. Of course, cooler heads prevailed. The hotheads calmed down once the minister of justice said that the government, although it will appeal the verdict, has no intention of taking such a foolish step. But it seems that the Hungarian government is not satisfied with a simple appeal. Viktor Orbán wants “urgent reforms” of the ECHR because “its judgments were a threat to the security of EU people and an invitation for migrants.” It is a mystery why Orbán thought that the EPP’s annual congress was the best place to suggest reform of the court when it functions under the aegis of the Council of Europe, which is a different entity from the European Union.

Orbán also decided to bring his ideological fight to the fore when he called the European Left “fatal for Europe.” Leftist politicians “want to force bureaucratic rules in our labor market, raise taxes, and … build socialism in Europe.” He called on his fellow Christian Democrats to fight these forces. “We are the EPP. We should not be afraid of leftist criticism calling us populist.” According to Euractiv, these words were received enthusiastically, which I find strange because practically no one considers the Christian Democrats populists. We normally talk about them as politicians of the right of center. The label “populism” is reserved for politicians of the far right, for example, Viktor Orbán and leaders of populist parties all over Europe. In this regard, it should be noted, Fidesz’s presence in the EPP delegation is something of an anomaly.

My sense is that because of Viktor Orbán’s behavior in the past few years, Hungary is isolated even within the EPP. For instance, at the congress there were several panels on a range of topics where experts and politicians gave speeches or led discussion groups. There was not one Hungarian leading such a group. Hungary was represented only once, on a panel discussion organized by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in which János Martonyi, the former Hungarian foreign minister, was one of the participants. Martonyi has the reputation of being a respectable diplomat, and Viktor Orbán usually trots him out when he wants to show the better side of his government and Fidesz.

There was one piece of news from the congress about which the Hungarian government media was silent. The EPP adopted a resolution on “Russian disinformation undermining Western democracy.” We learned about the existence of this resolution from István Ujhelyi, an MSZP member of the European Parliament, who wrote about it on his Facebook page. He pointed out that Viktor Orbán signed the document, but obviously the party and the government were not too eager to advertise this fact.

The path to this resolution started with an open letter by members of the EPP to Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The letter asked her to “Please start taking the Russian disinformation threat seriously!” Apparently, she didn’t answer “nor did she acknowledge what the letter’s signatories seemed to want her to say: that Russian disinformation, as well as the separate but related issues of illiberalism and political extremism, is increasingly becoming a big problem in Europe, and specifically in the ‘Visegrad Four’ countries in Central and Eastern Europe, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia.”

Unfortunately, I very much doubt that Viktor Orbán’s signature on this declaration will make any difference in the government media’s pro-Russian orientation.

March 31, 2017

The Rome Declaration: “A Ray of Hope” according to Magyar Idők

On March 3 the prime ministers of the four Visegrád countries–the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia–held a summit in Warsaw. There they agreed on a common platform to present at the forthcoming meeting in Rome celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the birth of the European Union. Magyar Nemzet got hold of the draft document, which showed that these four former socialist countries are against any further political integration and are supporters of a “Europe of nation states.” Yet they agreed that the European Union is their best guarantee in the face of current world problems. The leaders of the four countries hoped that their ideas would be incorporated into the declaration to be issued in Rome.

The Rome Declaration is an upbeat document in which emphasis is placed on “unity” because “standing together is our best chance to influence [global dynamics] and to defend our common interests and values.” As far as the V-4’s proposals were concerned, the Declaration did mention the necessity for secure external borders, but it also included a reference to “responsible and sustainable migration policy, respecting international norms,” which doesn’t exactly correspond to the ideas of the V-4 leaders. There was a passage about the preservation of “our cultural heritage and [the promotion] of cultural diversity.” Cultural diversity is not something the more nationalistic Central Europeans are willing to embrace. The declaration also talked about “a more competitive and integrated defense industry” and “the strengthening of [the European Union’s] common security, also in cooperation and complementarity with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.” Finally, as a nod to the V-4 nations’ concerns, the document included the following sentence: “We will allow for the necessary room for maneuver at the various levels to strengthen Europe’s innovation and growth potential.”

Poland was not satisfied with the text, and until the last minute it looked as if Prime Minister Beata Szydło might not sign the document if “the declaration does not include the issues which are priorities for Poland,” as she announced a few days before the opening of the summit. These are: “The unity of the European Union, defence of a tight NATO cooperation, strengthening the role of national governments and the rules of the common market which cannot divide but unite – these are the four priorities which have to be included in the declaration.” Even though not all four of her demands were incorporated in the document, by the end Poland’s ruling PiS party thought the better of it. All 27 heads of state who were present signed the document. Szydło was smart to follow Orbán’s strategy: play to the domestic crowd yet be quite malleable at EU summits. Apparently on March 20, when the final text was being hammered out, the two Polish participants were “very constructive.”

So were the Hungarians, although Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, on the very day that his prime minister was signing the Rome Declaration, argued for the Hungarian position on the refugee question and indicated that “the struggle with Brussels will continue.” He reminded his audience that the Hungarian government “will not forget that the vice president of the European Commission wanted to have a debate with Hungary and Poland about European values.” Brussels is making a mistake when “it wants to conquer the member states and allow illegal migrants to settle.” Finally, he proudly announced that “Hungary has always contributed its share to the success of Christian Europe.”

In Rome Orbán was not as bellicose as his youthful foreign minister, but his statements were still antithetical to the key provisions of the Rome Declaration. He made two points pertaining to the Declaration: (1) we can count only on ourselves if we want a country free from danger and (2) Europe’s problems can be fixed only if each nation provides for the safety and well-being of itself. Although he obviously did not subscribe to the basic philosophy of the Declaration, he had to justify his support of it somehow. And so he said that the final document was a far cry from earlier drafts and that “many of the Hungarian suggestions are now reflected in the text.” This is his normal reaction when, despite his blustering, he signs all the documents put in front of him.

Although on the surface the Orbán government’s view of the European Union seems not to have changed at all, I see signs of a possible shift in Hungarian foreign policy. I base my opinion on an editorial that appeared in Magyar Idők. From an editorial in an American, British, German, or French paper we certainly couldn’t draw any conclusions about their governments’ policies, but we can safely say that nothing appears in Magyar Idők that is not cleared ahead of time with the appropriate government official. We learned that from the current head of HírTV, who recalled that regular instructions had come from above on topics to be covered when the station was an instrument of the government.

So the editorial by Zoltán Kottász that appeared in today’s issue of Magyar Idők, titled “A Ray of Hope from Rome,” may well be significant in trying to figure out the government’s foreign policy. For weeks we could read nothing in this paper but praise of Russia, condemnation of Angela Merkel and her migrant policy, and antagonistic attacks on the European Union. And now “a ray of hope.” According to the author, the European Union is the best of all possible structures for keeping peace in Europe.

And he continued. The European Union in the last 60 years has proved that it is an effective instrument and, as a result of cooperation, the standard of living in Europe has been steadily improving. There were occasional difficulties, but “despite the various problems, disagreements, and divisions, common sense prevailed.” Europe needs closer cooperation than at any time before. There are problems in the Balkans, “Turkey is moving away from us, and China and Russia have gained power and strength that put an end to the unipolar world order with consequences no one can predict. Therefore, Europe must be self-sufficient in all respects to be able stand on its own feet.”

I could scarcely believe my eyes. Is this the beginning of a new era in the foreign policy of Viktor Orbán or just an aberration? Did the Orbán government realize that the Eastern Opening was a bust and the friendship with Putin’s Russia might not be beneficial to Hungary under the present circumstances? Perhaps it has dawned on Viktor Orbán that Trump’s presidency might actually be a threat to the European Union of which, after all, Hungary is still a part.

One could of course argue that one shouldn’t put a lot of faith in an editorial, even if it appeared in Magyar Idők. But there are other signs of possible change in the offing. At a conference over the weekend the director of the pro-government think tank Nézőpont opined that, despite the unanimous approval of the Declaration of Rome, there is no reason to celebrate because of the crisis engulfing the European Union. Szabolcs Takács, undersecretary in charge of European affairs in the Prime Minister’s Office, disagreed. There is every reason for celebration because the joint declaration allows for the reformulation of the values of European integration.

Thus, there are signs of a possible shift in Hungarian foreign policy, but we will have to wait to see whether there is any follow-through. We can, however, be pretty sure of one thing. From here on, the Merkel bashing will stop because the Hungarian government is fearful of a new German government with Martin Schulz as chancellor. In fact, Zoltán Kottász in his editorial sees such an event as the first step toward the disintegration of the European Union.

March 27, 2017

A multi-speed Europe and the Visegrád Four

While Viktor Orbán is celebrating his “victory” in his fight with the European Commission over the expansion of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant, politicians in the western half of the continent are busily working on laying the foundation for a new type of European Union, one that might be able to avoid the pitfalls that have besieged Brussels ever since the abrupt enlargement of the Union in 2004.

On March 1 the European Commission published a White Paper on the future of Europe, “Avenues for the EU at 27.” The White Paper sets out five scenarios, each offering a glimpse into the potential state of the Union by 2025 depending on the choices Europe makes. Scenario 1: Carrying On. Scenario 2: Nothing but the Single Market. Scenario 3: Those Who Want More Do More, which means that the 27 members proceed as today but willing member states can do more together in areas such as defense, internal security, or social matters. Thus one or several “coalitions of the willing” will emerge. What will that mean exactly? To give but one example, 15 member states set up a police and magistrates corps to tackle cross-border criminal activities; security information is exchanged as national databases are fully interconnected. Scenario 4: Doing Less More Efficiently, which means delivering more and faster in selected areas, while doing less in other areas. Scenario 5: Doing Much More Together, in other words something close to a real union.

Although Juncker tried to deliver these five options in a neutral tone, it soon became evident that he and the other policy makers preferred scenario 3. “This is the way we want to go,” said an EU official to Euroaktiv.

On March 25 the White Paper will be officially handed over to the 27 governments in Rome at the sixtieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which signaled the first step toward the idea of a united Europe. It is there that the Visegrád 4 countries were planning to propose amendments to the EU treaties, but their hopes are most likely misplaced. As an unnamed EU official said, “for treaty change, there is no market.”

The idea of a multi-speed Europe has been in the air for some time as an answer to the feared disintegration of the European Union after Brexit. But it was only on February 3, at the informal summit of the European Council in Malta, that Angela Merkel spoke of such a solution publicly. Since then behind the scenes preparations for the implementation of this solution have been progressing with spectacular speed.

Today the “Big Four” officially called for a new dynamic, multi-speed Europe. In the Palace of Versailles Angela Merkel, François Hollande, Mariano Rajoy, and Paolo Gentiloni announced their support for a newly revitalized multi-speed Europe. The leaders of Germany, France, Spain, and Italy want to do more than celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the EU. They want “to reaffirm [their] commitment to the future,” said Hollande. Merkel added that “we should have the courage to allow some countries to move ahead, to advance more quickly than others.” To translate these diplomatic words into less polite language, these four countries, most likely supported by a fair number of other western and perhaps also Baltic states, are sick and tired of countries like members of the Visegrád 4. If they don’t want deeper integration and a common policy on defense, the economy, security and immigration, so be it. They will be left behind.

European leaders at the Palace of Versailles / Euroactiv.fr

What is Viktor Orbán’s reaction to these plans? As we know, the Hungarian prime minister can change his positions quickly and frequently, and it looks as if in the last month his ideas on the subject have hardened. Bruxinfo received information from sources close to Orbán at the time of the Malta Summit that the Hungarian prime minister didn’t consider the formation of a multi-speed Europe a necessarily adverse development as far as Hungary is concerned.

On March 2, however, a day after Juncker’s White Paper came to light, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary issued a joint declaration to the effect that the Visegrád 4, strongly supported by Viktor Orbán, find the idea of a multi-speed Europe unacceptable. The declaration said that the Visegrád 4 countries want neither federalization nor a return to the single market. What they find most odious, however, is Scenario 3. They look upon a multi-speed Europe as a sign that they will be treated as poor relatives, second-class citizens. Unfortunately, the four Visegrád countries, besides not wanting to be left behind, can’t agree on the extent of integration they are ready to accept.

Slovakia and the Czech Republic, unlike Poland and Hungary, are ready to cooperate with Brussels in certain areas such as asylum, migration policy, and the digital agenda in the spirit of “Bratislava Plus” adopted in September 2016. You may recall that after the Bratislava Summit Viktor Orbán was the only political leader who announced that the summit was a failure. He was especially unhappy that his Visegrád 4 friends didn’t stick with him during the negotiations. It looks as if Poland and Hungary didn’t manage to force their rigid attitude on the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Because of their differences, the common denominator of the Visegrád 4’s declaration was merely a description of their gripes. As a result, their message was defensive and weak. The four countries “express their concerns about creating exclusive clubs, they demand the equality of member states, and they want to involve national parliaments more in the political process that would control the subnational institutions,” as Vit Dostál, editor-in-chief of Euroaktiv.cz, remarked in his op/ed piece. The news about the decision of the German, French, Spanish and Italian prime ministers yesterday had to come as very bad news for the Visegrád 4. A multi-speed Europe is a frightening prospect for these countries.

Of course, they wouldn’t have to worry so much if they, especially Poland and Hungary, were more accommodating in their attitudes and would accept the fact that by joining the European Union they gave up some of their countries’ sovereignty. If they accepted the fact that the refugee problem is something that can be solved only together. As Merkel said in Versailles yesterday: “Cooperation can be kept open to those that have fallen behind.” We will see which road Orbán will choose, but cooperation is not Orbán’s strong suit.

March 7, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s vision of a new world order is fading

I was all set to ignore Viktor Orbán’s nineteenth yearly “assessment,” to skip the whole rigmarole. After all, there is absolutely nothing new to be found in his ramblings sprinkled with archaic and pious phrases mixed with affected folksiness. We have heard him speak countless times about his clairvoyant powers, predicting the coming of a new illiberal world which is partly his own creation. And this latest speech is no different from any of the others he has delivered lately. But as I was going through my early morning perusal of news in the United States and Europe, I decided that in light of the latest developments in world affairs it might be useful to spend a little time on Orbán’s latest pronouncements.

Although critics complain that the speech, which was supposed to be about the government’s achievements in the past year, was mostly about foreign affairs, I found a fair amount of bragging about the great accomplishments, economic and otherwise, of the third Orbán government. Nonetheless, I was much more interested in his “vision” of the present and the future, not of Hungary but of the world.

According to Viktor Orbán, 2017 “promises to be an exhilarating year.” There will be “surprises, scratching of heads, raising of eyebrows, rubbing of eyes.” People will ask each other: “Is everything that is coming undone and taking shape in front of our eyes really possible?” The existing world order is coming to an end. History beckons the prophets of liberal politics, the beneficiaries and defenders of the present international order, the globalists, the liberals, the influential talking heads in their ivory towers and television studios. A new world is coming, a world where populists like Viktor Orbán , Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Recep Erdoğan, Marine Le Pen, and other right-wing populists elsewhere in Europe will decide the fate of the western world.

Perhaps I have been inattentive, but this is the first time that I noticed a recurring adjective in an Orbán speech: “open world, “open world order,” “open society.” Orbán is “paying homage” to his nemesis, George Soros. He very much hopes that with the “exhilarating” 2017 the “open world order” will come to an end. As far as he is concerned, the beginning of his new world looks promising: Brexit, the American presidential election, “booting out” the Italian government, the “successful” Hungarian referendum on the migrants, all of these take us closer to the promising new world.

Orbán’s next sentence can be fully understood only if I provide its poetic backdrop. Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849) was a political radical who, in December 1848, wrote a poem titled “Hang the Kings!” The poem begins “Knife in Lamberg’s heart and rope around the neck of Latour and after them perhaps others will follow. At last, you people are becoming great!” Lamberg and Latour were high government officials who were killed in Pest and Vienna by angry mobs. So, Orbán, of course without mentioning the two murdered gentlemen, sums up the happy events of late in Great Britain, Italy, the United States, and Hungary: “after them perhaps more will follow. At last, you people are becoming great.” So, Orbán is in a revolutionary mood, no doubt about it. And he is also full of hope, although given the fate of the 1848 revolutions in the Habsburg Empire, I wouldn’t be so sanguine in his place.

As I look around the world, however, Orbán’s dream world may not come into being as fast, if at all, as he thinks. Let’s start with Austria’s presidential election last year. Orbán and the government media kept fingers crossed for Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, yet Alexander Van der Bellen, a member of the Austrian Greens, won the election by a fairly large margin. The first effort of a self-described far-right party in Europe to win high office failed.

Orbán’s next hope is for a huge victory by Marine Le Pen in France. But the centrist Emmanuel Macron’s chances of beating Le Pen look good. At least the Elabe poll shows Le Pen losing the run-off 37% to 63%. Another poll, Ifop Fiducial, predicts 36% to 64%. Two different polls, very similar results.

Then there is Germany. Former foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a social democrat, was elected Germany’s president. He won 931 of the 1,239 valid votes cast by members of the Bundestag and representatives of the 14 federal states. When the result was announced by Norbert Lammert, president of the Bundestag, there was a standing ovation. Even more importantly, Angela Merkel’s solid lead a few months ago is beginning to fade. The reason is the socialist Martin Schulz’s appearance on the German political scene. According to the latest polls, the two candidates are neck to neck. One also should mention the latest developments in the nationalist Alternative for Germany Party (AfD), which would certainly be Orbán’s choice. According to the German media, since Schulz announced his candidacy for the chancellorship, “the number of people who did not vote in 2013 and are now planning to vote for the SPD has risen by roughly 70 percent in the last 14 days.” And what is more important from Orbán’s point of view, “AfD—which brought the most non-voters to the polls in several state elections last year—also lost support dramatically. Forty percent fewer former non-voters expressed their support for the party.”

One ought to keep in mind that the Hungarian government propaganda has succeeded in making Angela Merkel generally despised by the Hungarian public. Vladimir Putin is more popular in Hungary than Merkel. But given the choice between Merkel and Schulz, Orbán should actually campaign for Merkel’s reelection because Schulz, who until now was the president of the European Parliament, is one of the loudest critics of Orbán and his illiberal populism.

Finally, let’s talk about the situation in the United States. What has been going in Washington since Donald Trump’s inauguration as president of the United States has surpassed people’s worst fears. Total chaos, a non-functioning government, and very strong suspicions about the Trump team’s questionable relations with Russian intelligence. Michael Flynn, Trump’s choice to be his national security adviser, was forced to resign because of his direct contact with the Russian ambassador to Washington. A few minutes ago, we learned that Andy Puzder withdrew as labor secretary nominee in order to avoid a pretty hopeless confirmation hearing.

Donald Trump on the phone with Vladimir Putin / Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

The list of incredible happenings in Washington is so long that one could spend days trying to cover them. What I would like to stress here is that I’m almost certain that Trump’s original friendly overtures to Putin’s Russia have been derailed. The Russians did their best to bolster Trump’s chances, but by now Putin must realize that the new American president cannot deliver.

Now let’s return to Viktor Orbán, who was an early admirer of Donald Trump. His admiration of Trump was based on the presidential hopeful’s anti-migration policies, his disregard of political correctness, and his anti-establishment rhetoric. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, Orbán found Trump’s pro-Russian views and his promise to “make a deal” with Russia and lift the sanctions against Moscow especially appealing. In such an event, Orbán believed he would play a more important role than he as the prime minister of a small country could otherwise have expected.

Now these hopes are vanishing with the tough stand both Democrats and Republicans have taken on Russia’s military occupation of Crimea and its efforts to stoke a civil war in Eastern Ukraine. Moreover, given the investigation into Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential election and the ties of members of the Trump team to Russian intelligence, Trump is not in a position to hand out favors to Russia. So Putin won’t be best friends with the American president. And Europe seems disinclined to follow the U.S. into political chaos. Orbán, if he has any sense, should tone down his rhetoric about a new, exhilarating future where the old establishment sinks into oblivion.

February 15, 2017

The Orbán regime and the Austrian presidential election

A few hours ago newspapers all over the world announced that Norbert Hofer, the far-right candidate for the Austrian presidency, had lost the election. Pre-election polls indicated that the election was too close to call, but the final result gave a healthy majority to Alexander Van der Bellen, a professor of economics and former head of the Greens. Hofer readily conceded, while Van der Bellen called the result a vote for a “pro-European Austria based on freedom, equality, and solidarity.”

Although the post of the president in Austria is mostly ceremonial, the Austrian election had acquired special significance in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory. Democrats all over Europe fear the spread of populism and looked upon a Hofer win as an event that might have a domino effect, first in France and later in other European countries where elections will be held in the near future. Now these people are relieved.

Just as a reminder, this is the second time that Van der Bellen and Hofer faced each other in this presidential contest. In May Van der Bellen won the election with a margin of about 30,000 votes, but because of some technical irregularities Austria’s Constitutional Court annulled the result and ordered a new round of voting.

The Hungarian right followed the race between the two men closely because it finds in the politicians of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) kindred spirits. Viktor Orbán certainly didn’t hide his preference for Norbert Hofer and the party’s chairman Heinz-Christian Strache, whom he considers “a man of the future.”

The Hungarian right-wing, pro-government press was already full of praise of Hofer in May before and during the election. Two days before the election Magyar Idők published a glowing editorial claiming that while the left symbolizes failure, the Freedom party is “the depository of success.” The same pro-government newspaper was looking forward to “a political earthquake,” which was likely since polls indicated that Hofer would get at least 52-53% of the votes. When this didn’t materialize, they cried foul. They questioned the results and talked about electoral fraud. Zsolt Bayer in his usual style enthused over all those votes cast for Hofer: the peasants of Burgenland, the people of Carinthia, the Alpine graziers, the yodelers of Tyrol. With the exception of Vienna and Vorarlberg, everyone voted for Hofer. Red Vienna, what can one expect? And Vorarlberg, it is “not really Austria.”

The decision of the Austrian Constitutional Court was warmly received in Hungary. The pro-government papers were again hopeful, reflecting the Hungarian government’s wishes and expectations. Hofer was critical of the European Union, which he wanted to reform alongside Viktor Orbán and his allies. He talked about his desire for Austria to join the Visegrád 4 Group. A step toward the far right in Austria nicely fit into Viktor Orbán’s plans. Therefore, a new round of optimistic and encouraging articles appeared in the Hungarian right-wing press.

At the beginning of the second campaign, the pro-government media again talked about the “historic vote” and predicted Hofer’s victory. As Magyar Idők pointed out, “FPÖ may draw strength from the victory of Trump.” Hungarian right-wing commentators were convinced that somebody who doesn’t espouse an anti-migrant stance can’t possible win, and Van der Bellen had supported Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policies during the refugee crisis and after. Mariann Őry, one of Magyar Hírlap’s interpreters of foreign news, elaborated on this theme, practically calling Van der Bellen stupid for telling the Austrians to support Angela Merkel’s policies. He is no better than the Hungarian liberals who are patronizing at home and opportunistic bootlickers abroad.

The Hungarian right's clear choice was Norbert Hofer on the right

The Hungarian right’s clear choice was Norbert Hofer, on the right

Closer to the actual election Magyar Idők reported a story from Kronen Zeitung: that a conspiracy is underway on the part of the European Parliament and Germany to influence the Austrian presidential election. The story was based on a conversation in a restaurant among Martin Schulz, the social democratic president of the European Parliament, Sigmar Gabriel, deputy chancellor of Germany who is also a social democrat, and Werner Faymann, Austria’s rejected (bukott) chancellor. Considering that the three happily consented to a photo of their meeting, claims of a conspiracy were obviously highly exaggerated.

A day before the election Mariann Őry again expressed her disdain of Van der Bellen as an inept candidate who doesn’t know what to say when. Her example is telling. According to Hofer, those Austrians who went to Syria to become terrorists should be stripped of their citizenship. Van der Bellen retorted that no valid citizenship can be revoked in Austria. “Surely, it is hard not to think that the western liberals have completely lost their minds. What kind of an Austrian is Van der Bellen” who considers these terrorists Austrians? “If for no other reason than statements like this, the Austrians should realize what is in their best interest. We will find out Sunday night.” She did. Perhaps Van der Bellen wasn’t that stupid after all.

The most detailed account of the Hungarian right’s thinking on the Austrian election came from a government-employed talking head, Zoltán Kiszelly. He gave a lengthy interview to 888.hu yesterday. I believe that the scenario he outlined here, assuming Norbert Hofer’s victory, accurately reflected the hopes of Viktor Orbán. First of all, the new president will initiate an early national election. In fact, all Austrian parties have been anticipating such an outcome. Today the FPÖ is the strongest party and as such would be the dominant party in a future coalition. The logical coalition partner would be the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), which is part of the present coalition. Sebastian Kurz, foreign minister represent ÖVP and a great pal of Péter Szijjártó, “has already adjusted his program to that of the Freedom Party.” The political changes in Austria would significantly weaken the European Union’s migration policies as represented by Jean-Claude Juncker and Angela Merkel. The Austrian move toward the right would also have an influence on German politics. Another benefit would be that the new government would support the Visegrád 4’s policies, which would force Brussels and Berlin to retreat from their current migration policies.

The journalist of 888.hu at this point reminded Kiszelly of what happened in 1999 when Wolfgang Schüssel, the leader of ÖVP, opted for a coalition with PFÖ, resulting in a long, acrimonious dispute with the European Union. Kiszelly said he was certain that nothing of the sort would happen today because “this time the PFÖ wouldn’t have to cede the chancellorship to the People’s Party just because it is a ‘moderate’ party. There have been significant changes in western politics, like the political climate in the Netherlands and Denmark, Great Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and, for that matter, the election of Donald Trump. After these events, the world that existed sixteen years ago can never return.” Finally, he added that a victory of the far right in Austria would be an event that “certainly could stir up European politics because, following the Austrian example, other countries would also opt for early elections.” So, an avalanche would follow Hofer’s win, which could result in a sharp turn to the right, perhaps sooner than we think.

If I’m correct and Kiszelly was articulating views he shared with Viktor Orbán, the loss today had to be a real blow to the Hungarian prime minister, especially since only three days ago he announced that “it is just a question of time before [real] democracy is restored because in Europe there is no democratic equilibrium now. …We just have to prevail and, in the end, we will predominate.”

Of course, one shouldn’t be unduly optimistic. This is not the end of the spread of populism, but apparently with the victory of François Fillon in the French conservative primaries, Marine Le Pen’s National Front will have a much harder time than she had anticipated. Most commentators are convinced that Fillon will be the next president of France.

December 4, 2016