Tag Archives: Article 7

Morawiecki’s pilgrimage to Budapest: It might have been in vain

Viktor Orbán was evidently pleased with his administration’s impressive show of diplomatic prowess when he boasted two days ago that “This is a strong beginning to the year; in two days two prime ministers of the European Union visited Budapest.” He announced this during the press conference that he and Leo Varadkar, Taoiseach of Ireland, held on Thursday. Varadkar’s was only a quick working visit. By contrast, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was received the day before with great fanfare, which included the appearance of a colorful “huszár bandérium.”

The trip to Budapest was the first official visit of the newly appointed Polish prime minister. In addition to acknowledging the historical friendship between the two countries and to reinforcing the ideological ties that bind Kaczyński’s Poland and Orbán’s Hungary, the trip was intended to serve pragmatic interests. Under normal circumstances, Hungary has to play second fiddle to the much larger and stronger Poland, but today it is Poland that badly needs the goodwill and benevolence of Hungary. The reason is that Frans Timmermans, vice president of the European Commission, announced on December 20, 2017 that “it is with a heavy heart that we’ve decided to trigger article 7 point 1 [of the EU Treaty], but the facts leave us no choice.” The expectation in Poland is that Viktor Orbán would veto the implementation of article 7 against Poland if and when such an eventuality actually takes place. In fact, Euobserver took the Hungarian veto for granted, which might be premature because that threat didn’t come from Viktor Orbán but from Zsolt Semjén, who is prone to hyperbole. While journalists in Brussels looked upon the new Polish prime minister’s visit to Hungary as a snub, Polish commentators saw the trip very differently. The consensus is that Morawiecki traveled to Budapest to receive assurance from Viktor Orbán that the expected veto would be forthcoming. Polish diplomatic moves in the next months will depend on such assurances.

There were hussars but no promise of a veto / MTI / Photo: Tamás Kovács

Polish commentaries reported that the Poles were expecting Viktor Orbán to say it out loud, right there, during the press conference that “he would not allow the EU to punish” Poland. But the word everybody was waiting for was not forthcoming, as the pro-government, conservative Rzeczpospolita pointed out. What follows in this article is a long list of Orbán’s sins, among them his pro-Russian policies and his demand for autonomy for the Hungarian minority in Ukraine during the Russian aggression against that country. The conclusion is that Hungary is a difficult and perhaps even unreliable ally. For the Poles, Viktor Orbán’s Facebook note, “Poland has not yet perished, So long as we still live,” didn’t mean much because these words are merely a line from the Polish national anthem, not a promise to stand by Poland.

Hungarians also noticed the absence of any mention of Article 7 in the hour-long press conference because surely, said Szabolcs Vörös of Válasz, it is hard to imagine that the matter wasn’t brought up during the conversation between the two men. Orbán mostly talked about Eastern Europe as the engine of the European economy, strong and economically successful member nations, and migration, which will spark serious debates in 2018. As for Morawiecki, his comments were even less enlightening. According to him, the two countries see eye to eye on current issues in Europe, member nations must be united on the question of Brexit, and, naturally, Poland has the same opinion on migration as Hungary does.

That wasn’t much, but what was really surprising was that no journalist who attended the press conference directed a question to either man on the crucial topic of Article 7, Poland’s current headache. But then a Polish paper, Gazeta Wiadomosci, revealed that the Polish journalists who accompanied Morawiecki to Budapest had agreed ahead of time to inquire about Article 7, but when it came time for the two questions they were allowed to ask of the two prime ministers their inquiries turned out to be trivial. The same was true of the Hungarian journalists. The paper came to the conclusion that “there was censorship in Budapest.”

It is true that Orbán subsequently gave a lengthy interview to Poland’s public television station in which he assured his audience that “Hungary stands by Poland,” whatever that means. Yet there are signs that the Poles don’t really trust Hungary as an ally. The spokeswoman of the liberal Nowoczesna, a liberal party, said in a radio interview: “I was just stunned; our diplomacy hasn’t changed at all. We entrust our security to Hungary, who sides with Russia. It is sad that we had to go to Hungary for Orbán’s veto, which at the end we didn’t get.”

The most detailed analysis of current Polish-Hungarian relations appeared in Független Hírügynökség. The article is simply signed as “Sikorsky,” although I suspect the author is Hungarian, someone who seems to be thoroughly familiar with Polish as well as Slovak and Czech affairs. In his opinion, the Czechs and Slovaks believed that Morawiecki’s trip to Budapest was first and foremost “a message to Brussels” that Hungary stands squarely behind Poland, and that was most likely the expectation of the Polish government as well. The new government spokesman, Michał Dworczyk, told the Polish Press Agency (PAP) that the dispute between Warsaw and Brussels will be “among the most important items on the agenda.” In fact, he pretty well admitted that it was the real purpose of the meeting. The Polish prime minister wanted to have assurances of a solid alliance before he faced the European Commission.

After Orbán’s silence, several commentaries appeared in the Visegrád countries, among them one in the Slovak Pravda, in which Ivan Drábek reminded people that the leaders of PiS haven’t forgotten Orbán’s duplicity when, instead of keeping his promise to Poland to block the reelection of Donald Tusk, he actually supported Tusk’s appointment as president of the European Council. The Polish Gazeta Wyborcza’s editorial also considers Hungary an unreliable ally. According to the author, Poland needs an ally that would be a reliable partner in the long run against both Russia and Germany. A Hungarian commentator in Népszava in a different context talked about Morawiecki and Orbán as two fantasts. Such a designation might be true of the Poles, who dream of being a great power between Russia and Germany, but it is certainly not true of Orbán, who is an unsentimental pragmatist. If he decides that it is not in his interest to support Poland, he will abandon the country without a second thought. He might already have done so.

January 6, 2018

European Union salvo against Viktor Orbán’s illiberal state

Yesterday an editorial appeared in Magyar Hírlap, a government-sponsored daily paper. The author reassured the paper’s readers that “yesterday nothing new happened; nothing was decided; the political, financial, legal, and communication war [between the EU and Hungary] will continue.” And in any case, next week there will be an important EU summit where “the power relations between Brusselites and the camp of those countries that defend sovereignty can shift further toward the latter.”

Admittedly, it is important for a government publication to spread optimistic messages, but the fact is that official statements belie these hopeful predictions. Viktor Orbán rarely gives “extraordinary” television interviews, but after the barrage of bad news coming from Brussels he felt it necessary to explain his version of the events.

What is the Hungarian government facing at the moment? Two different proceedings against the country are underway. The first is a triad of infringement procedures. The second, the beginning of the Article 7(1) process.

Infringement procedures are legal actions against a member country that fails to implement EU laws. There are stages to these procedures, which basically involve an exchange of legal opinions. After the second such unsatisfactory exchange the Commission sends the case to the European Court of Justice. In the event the judgment goes against the country and that country doesn’t rectify the situation, the Commission will propose that the Court impose financial penalties which, depending on the seriousness of the infringement, may be quite high, especially if the penalty is imposed for each day the country is not in compliance.

Hungary at the moment has three serious infringement cases under consideration at the European Court of Justice: the country’s refusal to accept a small quota of refugees, its modification of the laws regarding foreign-financed civic groups, and the amendments to the education law that placed Central European University in a precarious position. Its continued existence is still very much in question.

The other “drama” is being played out in the European Parliament, where a resolution was adopted earlier that calls for launching Article 7(1). It instructs the Committee of Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) to draw up a formal resolution for a plenary vote. On December 7 there was a hearing on the issue, where Péter Szijjártó represented the Hungarian government. The adoption of a resolution calling for the initiation of Article 7(1) proceedings, which could result in the suspension of voting rights for the targeted country, is a first in the history of the European Parliament.

These are significant matters, so I wasn’t surprised that Viktor Orbán, who rarely initiates television appearances, decided to grace the newly appointed Echo TV with his presence. Of course, Orbán’s interviews are so obviously staged that one can easily pick out all the “key words” that were supplied to the anchors ahead of time. And naturally the interviewers never ask “difficult questions.” One of the messages of government communication from here on will be that none of these “attacks” on Hungary has anything to do with the Orbán government’s transgression of European laws and values. They are inflicted on Hungary either because the Orbán government’s actions have had an adverse effect on the economic interests of foreign multinational companies or because they interfere in some mysterious way with the goals of the bureaucrats in Brussels.

In this interview Orbán renewed his claim that economic interests triggered the Tavares Report of 2013, which was a sharply worded, hard hitting report on the state of democracy in Hungary. After the European Parliament accepted Rui Tavares’s report, the Hungarian government wrote a resolution of its own which was then submitted to parliament. It was a verbose, clichéd piece of writing which included a sentence that struck me as odd at the time. It claimed that the Tavares Report was an answer to Hungary’s “reducing the cost of energy paid by families. This may hurt the interests of many European companies that for years have had windfall profits from their monopoly in Hungary.” That claim was ridiculous in 2013, if for no other reason than that the Tavares Report, which had nothing to do with economics, had been in the making for a year and a half while the Orbán government’s lowering of energy prices took place about two months before the release of the report. I really wonder whether by now Viktor Orbán actually believes this lie since he used the same kind of rationalization to explain away the report that is currently being drafted in the European Parliament.

Viktor Orbán claimed in 2013 that the very thorough analysis of the Orbán government’s transgression of democratic norms was nothing but a series of political attacks. Today he claims the same. As far as he is concerned, all disputes about democratic norms were closed before 2013. The Hungarian government has “the paper” to show that the European Commission and the Venice Commission were totally satisfied with all the changes that had been made to the media law and the constitution. It is not a lack of democracy that the Commission and the Parliament are really worried about today. EU politicians are concerned that Hungary’s stance on migration will hurt “their interests.” As if it was in the interest of the European Union to be faced with a million and a half refugees and immigrants. It is hard to fathom that anyone believes such nonsense or, for that matter, that any self-respecting politician can utter such an absurdity. And yet Orbán, with a straight face and in all seriousness, discussed the European Union’s plans to create a “continent of mixed population.” I assume I don’t have to add that George Soros and his network are behind this diabolical plan.

The key word, by the way, in this interview was sovereignty, which was kindly supplied by Orbán’s old friend Zsolt Bayer, one of the two anchors. Often, when Orbán encounters a word that is borrowed from abroad, like sovereignty (szuverenitás), used in Hungarian since 1786, he feels compelled to explain what the word actually means. This time he came up with “freedom” (szabadság) as a good equivalent. “At stake is the question of Hungarian freedom,” he claimed. The debate in the Union “touches on the question of freedom.”

With this switch from sovereignty to freedom, Orbán moved the discussion to an entirely different plane. Sovereignty means complete independence and self-government. Freedom, on the other hand, has many meanings, including “the condition of not being subject to a despotic or oppressive power,” and that can conjure up all sorts of xenophobic reactions in Hungarians. “Brussels is after us.” And indeed, some of the comments I read today in right-wing papers were revealing. One genius announced that the reason for the five-times higher living standards in Austria is Vienna’s exploitation and oppression of Hungary for five hundred years. The same can also be heard about the European Union’s plutocrats. Hungarian nationalism can easily be awakened by an appeal to “freedom,” a ploy Orbán loves to use. And it always does the trick.

December 9, 2017

Is it time for Viktor Orbán to choose sides?

Not surprisingly the Hungarian media is focused on the consequences of the resolution adopted by the European Parliament that calls for launching Article 7(1). Yesterday I could report on the reactions of Foreign Minister Szijjártó and Fidesz spokesman Balázs Hidvéghi who laid the blame for the fiasco on, who else, George Soros. Viktor Orbán, who had just returned from China, carefully avoided the topic with the exception of one sentence in a speech he delivered today at Daimler AG’s meeting. In his opinion, “it is foolish to vilify Hungary when it is first or second in the European Union in terms of economic growth; it is here that unemployment diminishes fastest; it is a country where all European fiscal rules are adhered to and the sovereign debt is decreasing.”

One can quibble about the accuracy of Orbán’s claim about Hungary’s economic growth, although it is true that the projection for this year, due to an unusually large infusion of EU convergence money, is very good. But what Orbán conveniently ignores is that the EP resolution to invoke Article 7(1) has nothing to do with Hungary’s economic performance. It is the “serious deterioration of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights over the past few years” that prompted the European Parliament to act.

It is hard to tell whether the Orbán government was prepared for the blow or not. A few days ago I read an interview with András Gyürk, the leader of the EP Fidesz delegation, who admitted that, despite the Fidesz members’ best efforts, “the most important actors” in the European Parliament still don’t understand the Fidesz version of the situation in Hungary. Hungarian opposition MEPs have been saying in radio and television interviews that from their conversations with members of the European People’s Party they gained the impression that as many as half of the EPP members have serious reservations about defending Viktor Orbán and his regime. At first I thought that number was wishful thinking on their part, but the vote pretty well confirmed their claim: 67 of the EPP members voted for the resolution and 40 abstained, so about half of the EPP caucus refused to come to the aid of the Orbán government.

Those few government officials who spoke about the debacle emphasized the size of the EPP contingent that stood fast behind Viktor Orbán. Pro-government commentators keep repeating the optimistic predictions of “political scientists” of Fidesz-sponsored think tanks like the Center for Fundamental Rights (Alapjogokért Központ) and Századvég that “there is no chance” of the procedure getting to the second stage because, given the present political makeup of the European Parliament, the necessary two-thirds majority is unachievable. But I wouldn’t be so sure, especially if it becomes evident that the Orbán government has no intention of following the recommendations of the European Parliament to, for example, “repeal the act amending certain acts related to increasing the strictness of procedures carried out in the areas of border management and asylum and the act amending the National Higher Education Act, and to withdraw the proposed Act on the Transparency of Organizations Receiving Support from Abroad.” Because the way it looks, the Orbán government has no intention of changing anything in the law on border security, as Szijjártó and others made clear already yesterday. Today we learned that the government will not give an inch on the issue of Central European University either.

László Palkovics, undersecretary in charge of education, was giving a press conference in Debrecen on another subject when, in answer to a question on the fate of CEU, he made it clear that the law on higher education will not be changed. It is a law that is applicable to all universities, not just CEU. It stands the test of constitutionality, and it conforms to the values of the European Union. The decision by the majority of the European Union was a “political act.” I should add that constitutional scholars have a very different opinion on the matter.

A couple of weeks ago the government indicated that it would form a working group to start negotiations with the administration of CEU. Today a large group of middle-level bureaucrats arrived, representing practically all the ministries, but after an hour and a half it became obvious that they had no decision-making powers. In fact, they were totally ignorant of the government’s position and plans. Neither Palkovics nor Kristóf Altusz, undersecretary in the Foreign Ministry, was present. Zsolt Enyedi, vice-rector, got the impression that Altusz, who was supposed to “negotiate” with the U.S. government, did no more than ascertain that the federal government has no jurisdiction in this case. And so he was told to negotiate directly with the university instead. The present “negotiations,” Enyedi believes, are the government’s answer to an American suggestion. No one knows whether the government has any intention of seriously negotiating with the university in the future. My guess is that it doesn’t.

János Lázár’s usual Thursday press conference gave journalists an opportunity to hear more about the government’s reaction to yesterday’s vote. He concentrated on the migration issue and said that “the Hungarian government will not meet the European Parliament’s request to terminate either the legal or the physical closure in place. The security of the Hungarian government is much more important than the political dogmas set by the European Parliament.”

This reference to the “political dogmas” of the European Union brings me to a brief press conference Viktor Orbán gave in the middle of his trip to China which, according to 24.hu, was, despite its brevity, a fuller explanation of his thinking on democracy and related matters than at any other time since his illiberal speech three years ago. The prime minister was obviously impressed by what transpired in Beijing and praised Chinese plans for the Belt and Road project. In this connection he insisted that the East has by now caught up with the West and therefore “the old model of globalization” is over. From here on money and technology will flow from East to West and not the other way around. But here comes the interesting part. According to Orbán, “most of the world has had enough of globalization because it divided the world into teachers and pupils. It was increasingly offensive that some developed countries kept lecturing the other, greater part of the world about human rights, democracy, development, and market economy.” Orbán, according to the journalist commenting on this short interview, thinks that “the time has come for Hungary to choose sides.”

Orbán’s complaints about developed nations lecturing to less developed ones about human rights and democracy provide a window into his psyche and the motivating forces of his actions. Unfortunately, Orbán’s human failings have serious, adverse consequences for the people he allegedly wants to save.

May 18, 2017