Tag Archives: Angela Merkel

The leaders of Visegrád 4 meet with Angela Merkel

The European Union has gone through some rough times in the last year and a half. The Brexit decision certainly shook an EU already battered by the influx of almost two million refugees and immigrants. But at least the British departure, whenever it actually happens, will not undermine the foundations of the European Union. Some commentators, in fact, think that further integration, which they consider a necessity for the long-term survival of the EU, can be more easily achieved in the absence of a reluctant United Kingdom, which in the past consistently opposed any changes to the already very loose structure of the Union.

Closer cooperation would have been necessary even without the refugee crisis, but the presence of so many asylum seekers–mostly in Greece, Italy, and Germany–makes a common policy and joint effort by the member states a must. Thus, Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to launch a series of consultations with European leaders. To date she has talked with 17 prime ministers.

Her first trip was to Italy where she, Matteo Renzi, and François Hollande met first on the Italian Aircraft Carrier Giuseppe Garibaldi and later visited the grave of Altiero Spinelli on the Island of Ventotene. There, while a prisoner of Benito Mussolini’s regime, he composed the Ventotene Manifesto “For a Free and United Europe,” which envisaged a European federation of states. After this trip Merkel continued to meet with leading politicians. From newspaper reports it looks as if they more or less agreed that greater cooperation and a common security apparatus are necessary to handle the refugee crisis. Just this past weekend she met with the prime ministers of Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, and Bulgaria. According to Miro Cerar, the Slovenian prime minister, “there was no great difference of opinion between the German chancellor and her visitors.”

Only the so-called Visegrád 4 countries are unmovable in their opposition to common action and sharing the refugee burden. Merkel traveled to Warsaw to meet the four recalcitrant prime ministers. Although Hungarians are apt to think that it is their prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who creates the most trouble within the European Union, this might not be the case. Orbán is belligerent mostly at home. Once he gets to Brussels or, in this case, to Warsaw, he remains rather subdued. His Slovak and Czech colleagues, on the other hand, were widely quoted in the western media, not in the best light. Fico, for example, said that he would “never bring even a single Muslim into his country.” Bohuslav Sobotka of the Czech Republic, although more tempered, announced that he doesn’t want a “large Muslim community—given the problems we are seeing.” Fico, just before his meeting with Merkel, had paid a visit to Moscow, after which he renewed his call for the European Union to end sanctions against Russia. The Polish foreign minister accused Germany of selfishness and an unwillingness to compromise. Poland’s deputy foreign minister, Konrad Szymański, after the meeting hit back at Angela Merkel for criticizing those member states that are refusing to give refugee protection to Muslims.

Photo by Rafal Gruz MTI/PAP

Photo by Rafal Gruz MTI/PAP

Viktor Orbán’s views didn’t receive much coverage, but at least one of the four propositions he arrived with in Warsaw–the creation of a common European army–has enjoyed some limited support. Whether the creation of a European army is his idea or not is debatable. Orbán did talk about such an army in July in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad, but apparently already in May The Financial Times reported a German plan to set up such an army. And Zsolt Gréczy of Demokratikus Koalíció claims that the idea was actually stolen from Ferenc Gyurcsány, who suggested the creation of such an army a year ago.

The reception of the other three suggestions remains unknown. Let’s start with the most weighty one which would, if accepted, reinvent the European Union by practically annulling the European Commission. To quote it verbatim, first in the original Hungarian: “az Európai Tanács vezesse és csak ő vezesse az Európai Uniót. Az Európai Bizottság a politikai szerepjátszást fejezze be.” (The European Council should lead, and it should be the only one that leads the European Union. The European Commission should end its political pretensions.) I suspect that Viktor Orbán never presented this idea in such stark terms to Angela Merkel during their talks because, as an eagle-eyed friend of mine discovered, the English translation of the above passage on the official government website reads as follows: Viktor Orbán “went on to say that institutions such as the European Council and the European Commission should go back to fulfilling their ‘original roles’.” The first one for Hungarian consumption, the second for foreigners.

His next suggestion was economic in nature. Orbán suddenly discovered the benefits of austerity. This is quite a switch from his position six years ago, when as the new prime minister he visited Brussels in the hope of getting permission to continue running a 7% deficit instead of having to bring the deficit down below 3%. Now he is a firm believer in a tight budget, which made Hungary, in his opinion, an economic success. I’m not quite sure why Orbán felt the need to lobby for the continuation of this economic policy which, according to many economists, is responsible for Europe’s sluggish economic growth. I suspect that he might be responding to a perceived movement toward an economic policy that would loosen the current restrictions for the sake of more robust economic growth. Merkel has been talking a lot lately about higher living standards that would make the European Union more attractive to Europeans.

Finally, Orbán insists that the European Union should keep pouring money into the East European countries as part of the cohesion program, which in his estimation “has been a well-proven policy.” Sure thing. Hungary’s questionable economic success is due largely to the billions of euros Budapest receives from Brussels. Naturally, he wants to keep the present agrarian subsidies as well, a program severely criticized by many experts.

Whatever the prime ministers of the Visegrád 4 countries told Angela Merkel, it didn’t sway her from her original plans for solving the crisis. It doesn’t matter what Fico said, Merkel thinks “it is wrong that some say we generally don’t want Muslims in our country, regardless of whether there’s a humanitarian need or not.” She keeps insisting that “everyone must do their part” and that “a common solution must be found.”

Meanwhile Russian propaganda against Merkel is growing. Just today sputniknews.com portrayed her as the chief obstacle to an understanding between Moscow and the European Union. According to Russian political analysts, “Merkel is a supporter of the idea that it is Germany’s natural role to become the leader of Eastern Europe … and to drive the economic development of these countries,” naturally in line with German interests. According to these political scientists, Washington is actively working to turn Germany into a stronghold of anti-Russian influence, which “means that we will have to encounter a Germany that is strengthened not only in economic and political terms but perhaps militarily as well.”

In adopting an anti-German policy, the Visegrád 4 countries are implicitly allying themselves with Russia. I think they are playing with fire.

August 29, 2016

Hungarian public opinion on world leaders: Putin favored over Merkel

I ended yesterday’s post saying that Hungarians still favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump despite the biased reporting by Judit Járai, Washington correspondent of MTI, the Hungarian Telegraphic Agency. This is especially surprising in view of the constant attacks on Hillary and Bill Clinton in the right-wing, pro-government press. See, for example, the many articles dealing with Clinton, always in a negative light, in Magyar Idők.

Thanks to a recent public opinion poll by the Pew Research Center conducted in ten European and four Asia-Pacific countries as well as Canada and the United States, we have a fairly up-to-date assessment of opinions about the United States, the American people, President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Angela Merkel, and Vladimir Putin. The following European countries were included in the survey: France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

pew2

President Obama has remained a very popular leader in most of the ten European countries studied. The Swedes (93%), the Dutch (91%), and the Germans (86%) are most enthusiastic about him. In Poland and Hungary enthusiasm for the American president is less than overwhelming (58%). As for the Greeks (41%), even the Chinese (52%) have a higher opinion of Obama. Obama’s median score in Europe is 77%.

Hillary Clinton is less popular than Obama, but she still has a 59% median approval rating in Europe. Her regional pattern of approval is similar to that of Obama. The Swedes, the Germans, and the Dutch have a very high opinion of her while only 44% of Hungarians have confidence in the Democratic candidate as opposed to 33% who do not. The rest (23%) have no opinion, which indicates that far too many Hungarians don’t have enough information to make a choice. Citizens of western European countries are, on balance, much better informed.

Opinions about Donald Trump are strongly negative in Europe. Again, the greatest lack of confidence in the Republican candidate is in western Europe: Sweden (92%), Germany (89%), the Netherlands (88%), France (85%). In Poland and Hungary only 43% and 42% of the population have a negative opinion of Trump. Again, we see that Poles and Hungarians don’t know enough about the American candidates. In the case of Hungary,  37% of those questioned didn’t have an opinion on Trump. In Poland, the situation was even worse: 42% didn’t answer or didn’t have an opinion. The percent of Trump sympathizers is highest in Italy (21%), Hungary (20%), Poland (15%), and the United Kingdom (12%). Greece is an interesting case. Greeks have no confidence in either Clinton (78%) or Trump (76%).

The Pew survey released more detailed data on Italy and the UK. They wanted to know whether the Forza Italia and UKIP voters had more confidence in Trump than voters of other parties. And indeed, 30% of Forza Italia and UKIP voters preferred Trump to Clinton. This breakdown of Trump supporters in Italy and the United Kingdom inspired Magyar Nemzet to approach the Pew Research Center for more detailed data on the Hungarian situation. On the basis of the information provided, they came to the conclusion that 26% of Fidesz and 28% of Jobbik voters have confidence in Trump as a world leader. Higher than the national average of 20%.

Even if the anti-Clinton propaganda didn’t quite succeed, the Orbán government’s anti-Merkel campaign certainly did. While a month and a half ago the Swedes (84%), the Dutch (83%), the Germans (73%), the French (71%), and the Brits (69%) believed that Merkel is a competent world leader, the majority of southern Europeans (Italians, Spaniards, Greeks) had no confidence in her. She is, not surprisingly, most unpopular in Greece (89%). But Hungary’s rejection rate is also very high, 63%, and its approval rate of Merkel, at 29%, is the second lowest in Europe.

When it comes Vladimir Putin as a responsible world leader, Hungary has the dubious distinction of being the most confident (38%) in the Russian president of any country surveyed in Europe. I may add that Poles have the lowest number of Putin fans (7%). Putin’s popularity in Hungary is boosted by Fidesz and Jobbik voters. Forty-nine percent of Fidesz voters and 48% of Jobbik sympathizers trust Putin as a world leader, a good 10% higher than the Hungarian median. As Gábor Horváth, foreign affairs journalist of Népszabadság, wryly remarked, “it is a strange turn of history that the right- or extreme-right respondents trust a former KGB colonel more” than Angela Merkel. And if we add to this result the high number of Trump admirers, an interesting picture emerges. Hungarians don’t seem to realize that Putin is a danger to their own region and that, based on what he has said about alliances, Trump would be as well. This is what happens when nine-tenths of the media is under the thumb of an autocratic ruler served by minions like Judit Járai.

August 15, 2016

 

George Soros before the European Parliament and the Hungarian government’s reaction

Every time George Soros makes a public statement, which he does frequently, the Hungarian political right launches a frenzied attack against him. Interestingly, the Hungarian media didn’t spend much time on an article that appeared in The New York Review of Books (April 9, 2016). In it he explained that European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans had invited an open debate on the refugee crisis, to which he was responding in his article. The solution, according to Soros, is “at least €30 billion ($34 billion) a year [which] will be needed for the EU to carry out a comprehensive plan.” He suggested that “Europe has the financial and economic capacity to raise €30 billion a year, [which] is less than one-quarter of one percent of the EU’s combined annual GDP of €14.9 trillion, and less than one-half of one percent of total spending by its twenty-eight member governments.”

Soros, however, realized that some members would vehemently object, especially Germany. So, instead, he offered all sorts of financial arrangements that would yield the necessary money without triggering the opposition of Germany and others. The task is urgent because “the refugee crisis poses an existential threat to Europe.”

On June 30 Soros delivered a speech to the European Parliament in Brussels, which was a revised version of the ideas he had spelled out in his New York Review of Books article. The result of the British referendum had a shocking effect on Soros who, upon hearing of the calamitous vote for Brexit, was certain that the disintegration of the European Union was “practically inevitable.” And since, in his opinion, “the refugee crisis … played a crucial role” in the British decision, the EU must act in one way or the other to raise money to solve the crisis and at the same time save the European Union.

I believe he is wrong in thinking that the refugee crisis per se had a substantial influence on the outcome of the referendum. In fact, a quick poll conducted after June 23 showed that “the question of sovereignty was the determining factor for the majority that voted for exit from the European Union.” Unlimited immigration from EU countries was also an important consideration.

George Soros in the European Parliament. Left of him Péter Niedermüller, DK EP MP

George Soros in the European Parliament. To his left, Péter Niedermüller, DK EP MP / Photo: European Parliament

But Soros’s linkage of the refugee crisis and Brexit strengthened his argument that the refugee crisis must be solved as soon as possible. In his fairly lengthy speech he talked about the necessity of “profound restructuring” and “fundamental reform of the EU.” He lashed out at “the orthodoxy of the German policymakers,” specifically Angela Merkel, who “ignored the pull factor” created by her initial acceptance of the refugees. Soros also severely criticized her for “her ill-fated deal with Erdoğan” and for her “imposed quotas that many member states opposed and [that] required refugees to take up residence in countries where they were not welcome.”

One would think that Viktor Orbán would have been happy to find an ally in George Soros, but it seems that there is nothing Soros can say or do that would please the Hungarian governing coalition. In fact, they launched a new campaign against him after he addressed the European Parliament. The reason for the government outcry was three sentences he uttered in the course of outlining ways in which the EU could raise the requisite €30 billion yearly. He said,“Finally, I come to the legacy expenditures that have crippled the EU budget. Two items stand out: cohesion policy, with 32% of expenditures, and agriculture with 38%. These will need to be sharply reduced in the next budget cycle starting in 2021.”

The first Hungarian politician to respond to Soros’s suggestion was György Hölvényi, KDNP member of the European People’s Party, followed by György Schöpflin, Fidesz EP member, who accused Soros of trying to make money on his financial advice to the European Union. Magyar Hírlap announced the news of Soros’s speech with this headline: “There are already signs of Soros’s latest speculations.” Naturally, János Lázár also had a few words to say about Soros’s speech in Brussels. He described him as someone who “presents himself as the voluntary savior of Europe” and who “wants to implement wholesale immigration.” Soros has no mandate from the European voters to offer any kinds of proposals, and it is not at all clear who invited him to the European Parliament. An editorial in Magyar Idők portrayed Soros as an emissary of the Clintons: “the face of Washington shows a striking similarity to that of George Soros.” The author added that if Hillary Clinton wins the election, this unfortunate situation will remain in place. Soros’s disapproval of compulsory quotas was dismissed as nothing more than a queen’s gambit.

The spokesman of Fidesz-KDNP on the issue was István Hollik, a member of parliament who was practically unknown until recently. He expressed the governing party’s strong objections to all of Soros’s suggestions, especially cutting back the cohesion funds and the agricultural subsidies “in the interest of the immigrants.” Fidesz-KDNP “expressly calls on the European Union to reject the proposals of the financial Forex speculator.” Naturally, Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó also commented on Soros’s “totally astonishing ideas.”

None of the Hungarian politicians, or for that matter commentators, spent any time on Soros’s other suggestions, some of which merit consideration. They were fixated on the two items–cohesion funds and agricultural subsidies–that would really hurt the Hungarian government and its coterie of oligarchs. Can you imagine the plight of those who are the beneficiaries of the money pouring in from the European Union? And what will happen to the new landed gentry who purchased agricultural property for the express purpose of getting free money for every hectare from Brussels? Indeed, that would be a calamity.

And then there was the reaction of László Csizmadia, president of Civil Összefogás Fórum (CÖF), a phony NGO most likely financed by the government. In his scenario Hillary Clinton sent her number one scout to the European Union to test her future policies and their reception. Behind global capitalism there is “the financial hidden power,” without which no one can overthrow a political system. Soros has been banned in many countries, and Csizmadia knows that “some kind of Hungarian measure is under consideration that would be similar to a ban.” I do hope that Csizmadia’s information is only a figment of his imagination.

July 5, 2016

Viktor Orbán, the “great supporter” of European common action

A couple of days ago we pondered the true meaning of the Kohl-Orbán joint communiqué, which emphasized a coordinated European response to the refugee crisis. What could have transpired during the hour Viktor Orbán spent with the ailing Helmut Kohl? What did the former chancellor tell the Hungarian prime minister to entice him to sign a document that emphasizes common action in the face of one of the greatest challenges the European Union has confronted in its existence? We now have the answer.

Today Viktor Orbán gave his customary, carefully choreographed Friday morning interview on Kossuth Rádió. About three-quarters of the conversation was devoted to Orbán’s views on the migration issue. His message was unequivocal. It matters not what he signed after his meeting with Kohl, he hasn’t budged an inch. He totally rejects a common European solution to the refugee problem–unless, of course, the rest of Europe accepts his solution. One could ask why he signed a document that goes against his deeply held beliefs. Because such a gesture at the moment was to his political advantage. For him it was only a scrap of paper without legal consequences.

Today’s interview began with a “little white lie.” Orbán claimed that “every time I visit the southern regions of Germany I visit Chancellor Kohl.” Sure thing, he just calls the Kohl residence announcing that he is somewhere nearby and the next thing we know he is sitting in Kohl’s living room.

He continued the interview by systematically misrepresenting the current German position on the refugee question. He claimed that although it is true that in the past there was “a significant difference between Germany and Hungary on the handling of the migrant crisis,” by now “the Germans have changed their position.” They recognized that Viktor Orbán was right all along, although “Europe doesn’t want to admit that.”

Viktor Orbán in the studio / MTI

Viktor Orbán in the studio / MTI

It was inevitable that the issue of compulsory quotas would surface in this particular Friday session. After all, the Orbán government is already hard at work preparing the ground for a referendum on the question of quotas. The Hungarian people are supposed to refuse, through a democratic process, to allow any refugees to be settled in Hungary. Orbán is adamant on the issue. His view is that if Angela Merkel “made a decision to accept migrants without any control, then she should take full responsibility for that decision.” Since other member countries, including Hungary, were not consulted, they are not obliged to take responsibility for the consequences of this action.

The reporter, who is of course carefully trained and never asks embarrassing questions, did venture to inquire whether Orbán doesn’t see a contradiction between the Kohl-Orbán communiqué’s reference to common action and Orbán’s emphasis on national sovereignty. The answer is worth translating verbatim.

No, because stronger cooperation means Schengen. My suggestion is that if a country is a member of the Schengen system and therefore enjoys its benefits, which means that its citizens can move freely within the borders, it must also accept the concomitant commitments, which include the defense of the Schengen borders. If a country refuses this obligation, the European Union should take away this country’s right to defend the borders. Well, actually, since we are talking about sovereign states, one cannot force them, but the EU should ask them to hand over the right of defense. If that country refuses to oblige, it should be expelled or its membership in the Schengen zone should be suspended.

I find it interesting that Orbán’s first thought was to use force against a truant state and that it was only a second later that he caught himself offering a solution that disregards the sanctity of sovereignty he so fiercely defends.

Relatively little time was spent on his Schengen 2.0 action plan, but the little there was is interesting. He gave the impression of such staunch German support for his plans that the interviewer summarized her understanding, saying that “there is then strong German support for your ten points.” Well, at that point Orbán had correct her and admit that “not quite, because Brussels in the meantime published its own proposals … [which are] absurd.” According to this “ridiculous idea,” Europe’s demographic situation is so grave that only immigration can solve the problem. This is a totally unacceptable idea according to Orbán, who finds it “unchristian and objectionable from the national point of view.”

The government has already prepared the ground for a forceful campaign for the totally superfluous referendum against compulsory refugee quotas. They dug up an old study the Gyurcsány government commissioned back in 2007 on the demographic problems facing Hungary. Magyar Idők, the government paper, dutifully printed a long article about the evil intentions of the socialist-liberal government. Even the headline is telling: “The left has been waiting for the migrants for the last ten years.”

Magyar Idők’s summary of the document shows it to be a well-reasoned analysis. The study maintains that, with globalization, migration is inevitable and Hungarians, especially highly qualified professionals such as doctors, will leave the country to accept better paid positions elsewhere. This exodus might be lessened by certain government policies, but selective immigration will undoubtedly be necessary to maintain the healthy demographic balance essential for a thriving economy. Natural reproduction cannot solve the demographic problems of the country, and therefore a selective immigration policy should be implemented. It is possible that by 2050 10% of the population might be of foreign origin, the study predicted.

Orbán is now using this study commissioned by the socialist-liberal government as a weapon against the opposition. The highly xenophobic population now can blame not only Brussels for its egregious refugee policies but also the Hungarian socialist and liberal politicians who wanted and most likely still want to flood the country with foreigners. “We must prevent this at all costs. We must stop not only Brussels but also the Hungarian allies of Brussels. We must stop the left because by now anybody can read what kinds of plans they were entertaining.”

This from the mouth of Viktor Orbán, who told us only a couple of days ago that he wants to have a common European solution to the refugee question.

April 22, 2016

The Helmut Kohl – Viktor Orbán meeting

I think the best description of the joint statement of Helmut Kohl and Viktor Orbán after their meeting at Kohl’s residence in Ludwigshafen is “baffling.” In Hungary at least, neither the right nor the left can decide what to make of it. The pro-government papers use the very first sentence of the communiqué “Europe cannot be the new home of suffering millions” as their headline while Népszabadság found another sentence from the text more to its liking: Kohl and Orbán “are in complete agreement with Chancellor Angela Merkel as far as her goals are concerned.” On balance, Viktor Orbán signed a document that goes against everything he previously stood for.

Until now, humanitarian considerations did not enter Viktor Orbán’s mind. Currently hundreds if not thousands of refugees camp outside the barbed-wire fence on the Serb-Hungarian border without food or drink for days on end. Last year the government made almost no effort to give food and temporary shelter to the refugees. Now, however, Viktor Orbán signed a document that emphasizes “the humanitarian aspects” of the question. What’s going on is about “the future of Europe and the peace of the world…. Angela Merkel’s efforts are toward these goals.”

The statement also talks at some length about the irresponsibility of politicians who try “to create political conflicts.” These conflicts certainly don’t help the handling of the refugee issue, which after all involves the fate of millions. Let me note in passing that, earlier, Viktor Orbán judiciously avoided describing the new arrivals in Europe as refugees.

There was an interview today on Deutschland Radio with Michael Rutz, a well-known journalist. In his opinion Kohl does not share Orbán’s policies, and therefore Rutz thought that Helmut Kohl would “send a signal of his concern at the meeting with Orbán.” From MTI’s summary of the statement it looks as if he did. My impression is that most of the conversation between the two men was about Europe today and tomorrow. Orbán seemed to agree with Kohl that “the fate of European people depends on the political union of Europe.” Also, Europe must urgently revive the idea of solidarity because the “unification of Europe” can be done together or not at all. The member states must work together. Kohl added that “solidarity is the most important prerequisite for solving the refugee crisis, terrorism, the stability of the euro and the Eurozone.

Kohl and Orban

Orbán’s answer to this lecture by Kohl was, at least in my reading, ambivalent because I don’t know what to make of the following: “Viktor Orbán again assured the former chancellor that Hungary naturally wants to contribute toward solidarity (szolidáris hozzájárulás).” This sounds to me as if the only solidarity Orbán has in mind is the amount of money he has already promised toward the 6 billion euros the EU member states will pay Turkey in exchange for giving shelter to additional refugees. As for his own thoughts, he offered his Schengen 2.0 plan as a constructive first step toward common action.

A few words about Schengen 2.0. First of all, trying to depict his ten-point plan as tangible assistance to a common policy borders on the bizarre. He himself said in Lisbon, where he presented his plan at a meeting of the Centrist Democratic International, that his proposals are necessary because the European Commission’s solutions are “wrong-headed.” The action plan is in no way a departure from Orbán’s earlier position. It is in no way based on common action. “We think that there are countries that want to solve their problems one way and there are others who think in different terms.” No solidarity here. Each nation according to its own selfish interests.

Yet after the meeting Orbán made some gestures, indicating that he might have been urged by Kohl to show a more positive attitude toward Angela Merkel’s efforts at solving the crisis. He gave an interview to Bild after the meeting in which he said, “I would like to wish all the best to Chancellor Angela Merkel. Hungary and I as the country’s prime minister stand by Berlin, and we will support Angela Merkel with further suggestions as our action plan shows.” I’m afraid his action plan is a non-starter, although Merkel graciously called Orbán’s meeting with Kohl “useful and sensible.” She found the topics covered indispensable.

Viktor Orbán has been a constant critic of Angela Merkel for years and rarely spared words when it came to the German chancellor’s refugee policies. The latest attack against Merkel came from Zsolt Bayer of Magyar Hírlap, one of the co-founders of Fidesz and a friend of Orbán. Bayer is well known for his unspeakable verbal attacks on practically anyone whose ideas or actions don’t appeal to him. It was only a few days ago that Bayer wrote a piece in which he called Merkel “a vile, lying, rotten wench … who dared to show her pharisaical mug” in the first row in the demonstration after the Charlie Hebdo attack. If Orbán wanted Bayer to stop his disgusting outbursts it would take only a telephone call. But obviously he thinks that Bayer can say certain things that he himself cannot. His old friend serves a useful political purpose: to keep the far-right of his party in line. But the somewhat more moderate pro-government paper, Magyar Idők, is not much kinder to Merkel. In one of its opinion pieces the author talks about the mediocre politicians who cannot be compared to Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, and others. In this article Angela Merkel is sarcastically called “the chosen representative of the Brussels aristocracy.” The author of another opinion piece in the same newspaper is outraged that Merkel didn’t apologize to Viktor Orbán for all those attacks on Hungary in the German press.

According to a long opinion piece that appeared in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung today titled “The Teacher and His Student,” Thomas Gutschker claims that while in Germany Orbán wanted to have meetings with Winfried Kretschmann (Green), minister president of Baden Württemberg, and Hannelore Kraft (Social Democrat), minister president of North Rhine-Westphalia, but apparently he was rebuffed by both. So, for the time being he will have to be satisfied with a meeting of the prime ministers of the Visegrád 4. Unfortunately, his staunchest ally, Robert Fico, will not be able to attend since he is recuperating in a Bratislava hospital from a heart attack. Next week Orbán is apparently planning a whirlwind trip to several capitals to promote his Schengen 2.0 plan. I’m curious who will be ready to meet him. Maybe his hearty greetings via Bild to Merkel was an opening bid for a talk. We will see whether he succeeded.

April 19, 2016

Angela Merkel, the refugee crisis, and Christianity

Today’s big news is that a joint survey for RTL and Stern magazine by Forsa shows that Angela Merkel seems to have weathered the refugee crisis. Her popularity, which suffered between August 2015 and February 2016, has been restored to levels that existed prior to the refugee crisis. Fifty-two percent of Germans now say that they prefer having Merkel as chancellor over anybody else. In the last few months her approval rating had slipped to as low as 44%, and it was Merkel’s open-door policies that were blamed for electoral losses for her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and for the rise of a right-wing populist party called Alternative Germany (AfD). But according to this last Forsa survey, AfD now has only 10% support (down from 13%) while Merkel’s conservative bloc would capture 36% of the votes if elections were held now. Her socialist rival, Sigmar Gabriel, who would be her challenger for the post of chancellor, would receive only 13% of the votes.

This boost in Merkel’s popularity is attributed by commentators to her successful negotiations, which led to an agreement between the European Union and Turkey resulting in a considerable decrease in the number of new arrivals in Greece. In fact, there are days when not a single refugee lands on any of the Greek islands. Despite all the criticism of the deal, Europe, or to be precise Germany, now has some breathing space, which will allow the German government to work out the details of the settlement and integration of about one million refugees.

This is not good news for Viktor Orbán. The scary internet site, kvota.kormany.hu, will surely not update its information any time soon and will keep repeating, as it did today, that every 12 seconds a new “migrant” arrives in Europe, with a frightening-looking timer counting down the seconds. The site, as its address indicates, is against “compulsory quotas,” which according to government propaganda would mean the forcible settlement of 160,000 migrants. Such a compulsory settlement would increase the danger of terrorist acts, it would threaten Hungarian culture, and, on top of everything else, it would cost a lot of money. According to their estimate, the upkeep of one single refugee would cost taxpayers 130,000 forints a month. The Hungarian minimum wage is only 105,000 per month.

While the government engages in such primitive propaganda, government financed newspapers are full of horror stories about the situation in Germany, Sweden, and Finland. Merkel’s policies, they argue, lead to a dead end. Here are a few op/ed articles from Magyar Idők. On March 27 a certain “retired lawyer,” who has become Magyar Idők’s favorite guest contributor, wrote a piece on Europe where people “vote here and there, keeping traitorous politicians in power who have already sold them to the forces of international financial oligarchs.” In this undemocratic Europe “Angela Merkel is a fanatical believer in immigration and the migrants’ dispersion in the member states.” The author actually calls on the German people to dispose of her because “there isn’t much time and delay is deadly.” Citizens of Europe should “take their future into their own hands and turn these traitorous politicians out.”

Merkel2

On March 18 another opinion piece was published on Angela Merkel. The author, László J. Kiss, gleefully noted that “Angela Merkel is already paying a political price” for her policies. He was, of course, referring to the elections in three German states: North Rhine-Westphalia, Saxony-Anhalt, and Baden-Württemberg. The author was ecstatic about the success of AfD, which “rejects Merkel’s refugee policies.” According to the author, the appearance of AfD may have far-reaching consequences. In fact, it may foreshadow “the possibility of the road to a new Third German Republic.” The transformation of the Bonn republic to the Berlin republic was not as spectacular as the change from the Weimar Republic to the Third Reich. In fact, it was “an uninteresting process.” A simple extension of West Germany to the East. But perhaps here is the opportunity. Although, according to Kiss, AfD is not an extremist party, its political leaders are talking about “a real revolution” which may lead to the end of the rule of the old 1968 generation. It is also possible that AfD will put an end to the left-liberal ideology that currently permeates Germany. Clearly, Magyar Idők would be delighted to see a “real revolution,” I guess the kind Viktor Orbán brought about in Hungary. “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,” one is inclined to say. Anyone who’s grounded in reality must recognize the total absurdity of an Orbán-like revolution in today’s Germany.

A few days later György Nógrádi, a national security expert with a checkered career, claimed that the German people “want a strategic about-face from their chancellor.” At the beginning of March the editors of Magyar Idők were certain that an agreement with Turkey was unlikely. The pro-government propaganda paper was keeping fingers crossed for Angela Merkel to fail and be removed from power. Such a stance is not at all surprising because, after all, Angela Merkel is the polar opposite of everything Viktor Orbán represents.

In this connection I would like call attention to an article by Professor Jan-Werner Mueller of Princeton University, who has written several articles and studies about Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. The German-born Mueller has family ties to Hungary. The article, “Angela Merkel’s Misunderstood Christian Mission,” appeared in Foreign Policy (March 18, 2016).

Mueller looks at Merkel’s negotiations with Turkey “in the context of the broader moral campaign that she has been waging.” He thinks that “Merkel is effectively forcing believers in Europe to choose between her own brand of ‘compassionate conservatism’ and the ‘Christian, national’ vision of a Fortress Europe propounded by leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński.” After summarizing in a couple of paragraphs the history of Christian Democracy in Germany, he describes Merkel’s “politics of small, carefully calculated steps [which] became her trademark, even globally.” But “everything changed [w]hen Merkel opened the borders for the refugees who were being mistreated in Hungary, she took a clear stance—and has stuck with it even in the face of ever more personal criticisms from within her own party.”

Observers have been debating her motives, and it seems that Mueller thinks that Merkel, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, is someone who would like to put the ‘C’ back into CDU. Merkel sees “both Islam and Christianity as having a place in Germany … as springs of moral conduct.” Sixty-one percent of Germans identify themselves as Christians, and “she has thrown down a moral challenge to her people … actually to live their faith.” The churches in Germany do support the chancellor, unlike some politicians in her own party who “declared that an ‘uncontrolled influx of refugees’ was ‘not Christian.’”

Merkel’s critics at home find supporters farther east. Viktor Orbán “was the first to shut the border to refugees in the name of defending a ‘Christian’ Europe. For him, Christianity designates a national culture closed in on itself, as opposed to a set of universal precepts. In [his] rhetoric, ‘openness’ means unfettered capitalism and unlimited individual choices…. For Orbán, Christianity serves as a convenient instrument to conduct identity politics; for Merkel, it is a way to talk about Europe’s moral integrity.”

At the end of his essay, Mueller quotes Rainer Bucher, a Catholic theologian according to whom Merkel “is presenting European Christians with a stark choice: Orbán or Francis?” It seems to me that Francis and Merkel are coming out on top.

March 30, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s “veto” turned out to be a hoax

The Hungarian media was abuzz for a few hours late last night with Viktor Orbán’s “veto” of the agreement between Turkey and the European Union at the March 7 summit in Brussels. If you visit the official site of the Hungarian telegraphic agency, MTI, you will find that its reporter learned from “sources in Brussels” that the summit was abruptly cancelled as a result of Viktor Orbán’s veto of the direct transfer of refugees from Turkey to the European Union. The report was filed at 20:06.

If MTI’s inaccurate reporting had remained the only source of the news, it wouldn’t have spread so fast as it did, all over the world. But Zoltán Kovács, government spokesman, decided to write on Twitter at 20:44: “Orban has vetoed EU-Turkey plan to relocate asylum seekers directly from Turkey.”

Less than an hour later, at 21:18, MTI returned to the subject of the veto. This second MTI report, written in Budapest, followed an interview with Zoltán Kovács on Channel M1 of the Hungarian state television. Here, the abrupt cancellation of the summit was changed to “cessation of the negotiations on the direct transfer of refugees from the Turkish refugee camps.”

Right-wing papers were singing the praises of Hungary’s great diplomat and statesman who had the courage to say no to the powerful heads of state of the European Union. But it didn’t take long before Hungarian reporters found out that there was in fact no decision that Orbán had the opportunity to veto. What happened was that during the discussion of the Turkish suggestion to transfer Syrian refugees directly to the European Union several member states objected to the details of the plan: Greece, Italy, Cyprus, France, and Hungary. Most likely, as Kovács indicated, the Turkish suggestion will have to be reworked to be acceptable to these countries. And indeed, discussions will take place in the next week or so between Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, and Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Turkish prime minister, to modify and fine tune the proposal.

European leaders hailed the summit as a breakthrough because Turkey offered to take back all migrants who cross into Greece in the future. Of course, the deal comes at a price: doubling EU subsidies to care for the refugees from 3 to 6 billion euros and “a commitment to take one Syrian refugee directly from Turkey for each one returned from Greece’s Aegean islands.” In addition, Turkey asked the EU to speed up visa free travel for Turkish citizens and to open negotiations about EU accession for Turkey.

Aat today's press conference Angela Merkel looks very satisfied with herself

At today’s press conference Angela Merkel seemed happy with the results

So, let’s return briefly to the issue of the direct transfer of Syrians from Turkey to the European Union, which Orbán didn’t veto but only objected to along with several other member states. What is it all about? Is it really bad for the European Union countries?

First of all, let’s see what the plan would actually entail. Let’s say that in the future, after the agreement takes effect, a boat arrives in Greece from Turkey with twenty illegal immigrants, ten of whom are Syrians, five are Afghans, and five are Iranians. All twenty will be sent back to Turkey, according to the plan, but for the ten illegal Syrians, one of the European countries could choose ten Syrians currently in Turkish refugee camps. They would already have been vetted. Moreover, the host countries could make their choices based on the professional background of the asylum seekers or on any other criteria, like educational attainment, marital status, or age. Amnesty International considers this selection process immoral, inhuman, and shortsighted.

As far as Viktor Orbán is concerned, he repeatedly stated that Hungary will never accept quotas, compulsory or otherwise. In fact, in the most recent Friday morning interview he said that in Hungary “there will be no breaking through the fence, no revolts in refugee camps, no bandits hunting for Hungarian women…. We will not create a Europe out of Hungary, which will remain a safe place.”

The impression in Turkey is that Orbán doesn’t want any Muslims in his country, period. The Turkish Gazette Vatan quoted an Orbán statement at length, where he exhibited his anti-Muslim prejudices. According to the paper, Orbán at the summit said: “In our view, countries can accept a large number of Muslim immigrants. It’s their choice, but we do not want to…. [The direct transfer plan] doesn’t apply to all EU countries. If I gave approval to this plan, people would hang me from a lamp post in Budapest.” If it is indeed the case that not all EU countries will be required to take Syrians straight from Turkey, Orbán’s “veto” becomes especially ridiculous.

Fidesz’s official assessment came this afternoon. The spokesman for the party was Deputy Chairman Gergely Gulyás, who stressed that “at last the leaders of the European Union accepted the same position that Hungary has always represented, meaning that the borders of the European Union must be defended.” This is an incredible statement because we remember only too well that Orbán first demanded that Greece defend its 10,000 km. of coastline by force and later suggested amassing an international contingent to intercept boats carrying refugees. This deal with Turkey bears no resemblance to Orbán’s plans. But such discrepancies have never bothered any of the high-level Fidesz politicians.

Gulyás stressed, however, that the Hungarian government considers the agreement as it now stands “not in Hungary’s interest,” and therefore “in its present form it cannot be signed.” The government mouthpiece, Magyar Idők, followed suit and collected a host of negative opinions about the results of the summit, mostly from French papers. Magyar Nemzet, on the other hand, criticized MTI, Zoltán Kovács, and the state television for misinforming the public.

At the end, Angela Merkel herself set things straight when this morning she gave a press conference, during which a reporter asked her about Viktor Orbán’s “veto.” “There was no talk about a veto but about some disputed questions. You are familiar with the Hungarian point of view concerning quotas. They even went to court on this issue. This standpoint hasn’t changed. We still have to find answers for a score of questions or have to discuss them in the different parliaments. That’s why we said that we welcome the Turkish proposal but we haven’t given the nod yet.”

Orbán may have strenuously objected, but he still approved the final statement, which contained the provision for compulsory quotas. That’s why Zsolt Gréczy, spokesman of the Democratic Coalition (DK), said that the only thing Orbán is doing at the moment is trying to divert attention from the fact that within two weeks he twice voted for the compulsory quotas. Gréczy pointed out that the final document specifically mentions the necessity of speeding up the dispersion of refugees in order to lighten Greece’s burden. I am really looking forward to that final nod, to which Merkel referred. I’m sure that, despite all the theatrics, Viktor Orbán will be one of the signatories.

March 8, 2016