Tag Archives: Antonio Tajani

Felcsút: The forbidden village for EP “bureaucrats”

Let’s return to Viktor Orbán’s choo-choo train, which runs between the two villages where the Hungarian prime minister spent his first 14 years. In his childhood this narrow-gauge railroad was still functioning, but because of insufficient traffic MÁV, the state railway company, scrapped the line sometime in the 1970s. Apparently Viktor Orbán had fond memories of that train, and once he had the opportunity he decided to revive it. His own Puskás Academy Foundation launched the project. It purchased and renovated the old run-down train station and bought newly refurbished cars and an engine. The project was declared to be of premier importance as far as Hungary’s economy was concerned. This designation was necessary in order to skip the otherwise requisite public tender procedures. It was supposed to be a great tourist attraction, with thousands of passengers.

By the time it was finished the train project had cost 3 million euros, 2 million of which was provided by the European Union as part of a 652.5 million euro package given for the development of the counties of Veszprém, Komárom-Esztergom, and Fejér. In June 2016 The Telegraph reported that OLAF, EU’s anti-fraud agency, was investigating the train, but that turned out to be a false alarm. Still, the Felcsút complex with its 3,500-seat soccer stadium only yards from Orbán’s weekend house and now a railroad going from nowhere to nowhere raised eyebrows in Brussels.

All that didn’t deter Viktor Orbán, who reportedly planned to extend the 5.7 km line, perhaps hoping that the number of passengers could be increased this way. The Hungarian government had promised between 2,500 and 7,000 passengers daily to justify the investment, but according to 444.hu, in its first month of operation Orbán’s choo-choo train attracted only 900 passengers–that is, only 30 a day. By October 2016 there were days when the train had no passengers at all. A few days ago atlatszo.hu published figures it acquired from the Puskás Academy. Since its first run on April 30, 2016, the academy reported, 48,533 people used the train. Last year 30,219, and so far this year 18,314. During that period, the railroad accumulated a 4.1 million forint loss. These dismal figures didn’t seem to bother János Lázár. In his opinion, if 20,000 people use the train, it is a profitable undertaking. Strange accounting, I must say.

From the start questions were raised both at home and in Brussels about the efficacy of this project, and therefore it was not entirely unexpected that the Budgetary Control Committee (CONT) of the European Parliament, whose fact-finding delegation will be visiting Hungary between September 18 and 20, put the Felcsút train on its agenda, alongside the huge Metro 4 construction project. Once János Lázár learned that the delegation would like to see Felcsút in all its glory, he hit the ceiling. Or, to be more precise, it was most likely Viktor Orbán who hit the ceiling. Lázár was just assigned the dirty work of fighting it out with the chair of the committee, Ingeborg Gräßle.

I have the feeling that Lázár/Orbán made a huge mistake when they decided to take on Grässle. She has been a member of the European Parliament since 2004 and is considered to be especially influential. She is known as a strong advocate of increased transparency and accountability. And, as we will see, she is no pushover. Occasionally one has the feeling that Fidesz politicians think they can intimidate foreigners as easily as they do their “subjects.” But Grässle is an especially forbidding opponent.

In any case, Lázár wrote a letter to the chair of CONT on August 9. In it, he complained that the committee was not following Hungary’s suggested list of projects and accused the committee of setting up a program of its own, which is “strongly politically motivated.” Politico quoted the following passages from his August 9 letter: “I found it outrageous that a committee of the European parliament systematically ignores and rejects a notable amount of suggestions of the Hungarian government, thus significantly interferes in the Hungarian [election] campaign.” He especially criticized the committee’s decision to include a trip to “the home village of the Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.” Grässle wasn’t impressed. She refused to change the fact-finding mission’s travel plans and politely assured Lázár that “there is no bias either behind the choice of the date of our mission or of the projects. The Budgetary Control Committee will conduct its visit in a politically neutral way, as we always do.”

Perhaps if at that point Lázár had just backed off he wouldn’t have gotten himself and the government he represents into hot water, as he ultimately did. On September 4 he wrote another letter, in the same manner as the first. Both letters struck some members of CONT as uncouth. And, further pressing their case, the Hungarian government instructed the Hungarian ambassador to the European Union to plead with Grässle to change the list of projects to be visited, or to postpone the whole visit until after the election in 2018. Grässle apparently told the ambassador that the budgetary control committee “does not accept political interference in the way it organizes its work of controlling the implementation of the budget.”

Ingeborg Grässle subsequently fired off two letters: one to Antonio Tajani, president of the European Union, and another to Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission. In her letter to Tajani she wrote: “I disapprove of the attitude to exert pressure on an EP parliamentary body with regard to the organization of a mission as well as with regards to its content.” She added that Lázár’s choice not to cooperate means that he does not comply—”in political or in legal terms”—with the requirements of mutual sincere cooperation, which is a basic rule among the institutions and member states. She considered the case so serious that she suggested to Tajani that he raise the issue with Juncker.

There is no question in my mind that it was Viktor Orbán who found the visit to Felcsút a personal attack on him by an EU body and tried to use next spring’s election as an excuse. But it backfired. As Grässle put it: “We are important but not that important.” Surely, it wasn’t the election that bothered the Lord of Felcsút. He simply didn’t want anyone from Brussels to see the place. As we know, anyone who tries to take pictures anywhere near the stadium is usually met with scores of policemen. And this case is more than the usual curious journalists trying to get close to his little empire. It is a group of European politicians who will see that whole grotesque scene Orbán managed to create in that “miserable village,” as Tamás Deutsch called it.

Orbán, with the assistance of Lázár, cast his regime in the worst possible light. One’s first response, which Grässle most likely shares, is: “These guys must have something to hide.” By the way, I wonder what the plans are for the day when the mission visits Felcsút. Will the Hungarian government order out thousands of people to ride their choo-choo train? Anything is possible in that Potemkin village called Hungary.

September 9, 2017

What really happened at the EPP meeting this morning?

Two diametrically opposed views are circulating about Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s appearance before the top leadership of the EPP. The cynical view is that once again Viktor Orbán succeeded in fooling the naïve EU politicians. The more optimistic view is that this time the EPP read him the riot act and he no longer has any maneuvering room. He will either comply with the demands of the European Commission and the leadership of the European People’s Party or else. HVG and 24.hu stand pretty well alone in concluding that today’s EPP meeting was a serious blow to Viktor Orbán. I’m inclined to side with them.

I have collected from independent sources all the information I could find about the meeting itself and comments made either before or after the meeting by responsible EPP politicians. What do I mean by independent sources? Non-Hungarian sources that gleaned their information on the spot.

First of all, I think it is important to stress that the gathering included the highest dignitaries of the EPP group, headed by Joseph Daul, its president, as well as Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, and Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament. EPP’s press release, which included Daul’s statement, began with these words: “Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán was summoned to the Presidency of the European People’s Party (EPP) this morning to explain the latest developments related to the Hungarian Higher Education Act and the national consultation ‘Let’s stop Brussels.’” Thus Orbán was not invited to discuss matters but was summoned to explain his government’s treatment of a university, its propaganda against the European Union, and its planned attacks on NGOs.

After this beginning it is not at all surprising that the presidency of the EPP thought that “dialogue alone is not enough.” Daul said that there was “an open and frank conversation,” which in diplomatic language means a tough and not exactly friendly exchange. Orbán was asked “to take all necessary steps to comply with the Commission’s request.” In turn, “Prime Minister Orbán has reassured the EPP that Hungary will act accordingly.” The statement warned that academic freedom and the autonomy of the universities must be respected. Moreover, the EPP considers NGOs an integral part of any healthy democracy. “The EPP has also made it clear to our Hungarian partners that the blatant anti-EU rhetoric of the ‘Let’s stop Brussels’ consultation is unacceptable.”

This is the EPP gathering Viktor Orbán had to face this morning

Now let’s see what other evidence we have for what transpired at this meeting between Orbán and the bigwigs of the EPP. The spokesman for President Daul, Siegfried Mureşan, said after the meeting that “Prime Minister Viktor Orbán pledged in the EPP council to follow and carry out all the demands of the European Commission within the time frame set by the commission.” That time frame is 30 days. Today Frans Timmermans reiterated that Orbán must meet the European Commission’s demands. “We’re very firm on this. I will not drop this ball.” Joseph Daul also said today that “the constant attacks on Europe, which Fidesz has launched for years, have reached a level we cannot tolerate.” Manfred Weber added that “after this discussion the ball is in [Orbán’s] court. If he reacts properly, then he is a team player. If not, there will be consequences.” According to euobserver.com, Viktor Orbán himself admitted that “they told me to behave.”

Although many of the reports on the meeting note that the question of Fidesz’s expulsion from the EPP group didn’t come up, in light of the reports and leaks I suspect that some sort of ultimatum or warning must have been issued. Given Weber’s reference to “consequences,” I assume the EPP leaders told Orbán what those consequences would be if he refuses to comply.

In light of the above, the Hungarian pessimists’ verdict that Orbán again managed to fool the naïve EU politicians is, in my opinion, without any foundation. It really doesn’t matter what Orbán said to Hungarian reporters in Brussels. As Hungarian Free Press translated the appropriate passage, “the university of George Soros, which is called Central European University, is proceeding at its own legal pace. On this, no agreement has been reached. At this moment, there is a legal discussion. We always believed that if someone does not like something, then one must choose legal means to resolve the dispute. This is a legal issue. Hungary and the Commission will discuss this in the coming months. The legal dispute will have an end result, and this end result will be implemented.”

Let me start by stating that Orbán didn’t outright lie. Indeed, “no agreement has been reached” thus far. He didn’t say at the EPP meeting that he will withdraw the law. He simply promised to fulfill the demands. He is correct in saying that it is a legal issue. However, his claim that he can discuss the matter for months on end is untrue. He received a 30-day deadline, after which an infringement procedure might be launched. By itself, this infringement procedure might not be a big deal, but we don’t know what additional threats the EPP leaders, Juncker, and Tajani made. Orbán’s claim that “at the EPP meeting we managed to defend Hungary’s point of view” is a brazen lie.

So far we have no idea what the final Hungarian position will be on the issue of Central European University. At the moment there seems to be total chaos in the communication department. For example, the official government statement, signed by Bertalan Havasi, the director of the press department of the prime minister’s office, only a couple of hours after the meeting ended is a nonstarter in my opinion. It still includes the core attack on CEU–that is, that CEU, in order to continue as an institution of higher learning in Hungary, must establish a functioning campus in the United States. Surely, no sane person can imagine that this position can be the starting point for negotiations with either CEU or the European Commission.

I suspect that we are going to read conflicting statements from government spokesmen and, in turn, innumerable guesses about the government’s true intentions. This is a crucial junction in the tug-of-war between Orbán and the European Union. Orbán’s defeat is likely, and therefore the government’s communication experts will need all the tools they can muster to sell this particular debacle as a victory.

April 29, 2017