Tag Archives: Bavaria

Seehofer in Hungary: A disappointment for Orbán

Horst Seehofer, minister president of Bavaria and the leader of Christian Social Union, has been pursuing an independent foreign policy of sorts lately. In December he paid a visit to Moscow where he met Vladimir Putin, a trip he is planning to repeat in the near future. His visit to Hungary yesterday was interpreted as a sign of Seehofer’s attempt to gain allies in his fight against Angela Merkel’s refugee policy. Politicians in his own party were uneasy about this trip. They were especially puzzled why the minister president decided to pay a visit to Budapest only three days before an important European summit dealing with the refugee crisis. One might add that not all Seehofer’s colleagues are happy with what has been an expensive Bavarian-Hungarian friendship. Some time back Seehofer championed establishing a subsidiary of the state-owned Bayerische Landesbank in Hungary. It flopped and was eventually purchased by the Hungarian state at a loss of two billion euros to Bavaria.

Der Spiegel was especially critical of Seehofer’s trip to Budapest, which it called “a mini-summit” against the European solution to the crisis. But almost all the German papers criticized his overly friendly relationship with Orbán, who was described by Die Zeit as “the chief ideologist of national closure.” Liberal papers especially considered the trip an outright provocation of Angela Merkel. They described Seehofer as two-faced. He keeps repeating that he and Merkel are in constant touch, but when it comes to supporting Merkel’s refugee strategy he refuses to answer questions concerning the issue.

It seems, however, that the assumption that Seehofer and Orbán are co-conspirators was misplaced. In fact, Seehofer went to Hungary to have a heart to heart with Orbán. Or at least this is what we learned from an interview with Manfred Weber, the leader of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament. The message he carried to Orbán was that “the essence of Europe is compromise” and that “if we want a European solution [he] must also move away from [his] current position.” That may mean that the EPP is no longer ready to shield Viktor Orbán from well-deserved criticism.

The press conference that followed the conversation between Seehofer and Orbán confirmed that Seehofer delivered Berlin’s message. Both men, as  Index put it, “ swore allegiance to Angela Merkel.” Orbán said practically nothing about the meeting itself except for some of his ill-phrased comments that are inappropriate and embarrassing. For example: “When two men get together, everybody is curious what their opinion is of the lady who is not present. But we know that this is man’s fate.” Otherwise, Orbán in his remarks didn’t show much inclination to follow the policies of Angela Merkel vis-à-vis Turkey, except to say that Hungary is willing to give money for the upkeep of the refugees. However, when it comes to moving Syrians out of Turkey and granting visa exemption to Turkish citizens, Orbán’s solidarity with Turkey, which he considers a strategic ally, seems to be totally absent. I wonder what President Erdoğan will think of his friend’s unyielding posture toward his country.

Seehofer was equally tight-mouthed, but he wished “with all his heart” that Merkel will succeed at the summit on Monday where she is planning to convince the prime ministers of the member states to accept as many refugees as possible.  Hungarian observers noticed disappointment in Orbán’s demeanor because it seems that he lost his most influential ally in the Bavarian minister president. Orbán’s only remaining ally is Robert Fico, who is in the middle of a national election campaign.

Seehofer and Orban2

Although Seehofer said little at the press conference, what he said in a speech delivered at the Andrássy Universität, a German-language university in Budapest, was, in my opinion, very important. He talked about the rule of law as a prerequisite of European solidarity. He called on everybody to stop “the erosion of law” in Europe. One cannot help thinking that he was referring to Hungary itself or perhaps Poland because I cannot think of any other European country that has serious problems as far as the rule of law is concerned.


After these introductory remarks he returned to the question of solidarity, the absolute necessity of European integration, and the continent’s low birthrate which, since 1946, reduced its population to only 7% of the world’s. The countries of Europe, he maintained, can achieve their individual interests only through a common policy. When it comes to important issues the European Union actually needs more integration, not less.

Seehofer went against Orbán not only on the question of integration but also on the treatment of the refugees. Bavaria’s immigration policy is built on three pillars, he said: humanity, integration of those who are deemed to be true refugees, and limits on immigration. In the past 25 years Bavaria has taken in two million immigrants. The integration of these people has been a great success.

He concluded by saying a few nice words about Hungary’s economic recovery and its generosity in 1989 when the country opened its border with Austria to the East German refugees.

Seehofer’s speech was followed by László Kövér’s harangue against the refugees, against immigrants in general, and against integration. According to him, “today the national, religious, family, and sexual identity of the European people is under attack.” If artificial European identity devoid of national consciousness materializes, it would be as unrealistic as the artificial Soviet or Yugoslav identity. It could be maintained only through force, relative well-being, and geopolitical interest which can collapse once force no longer can be sustained, the welfare state ceases to exist, or global interests change.” He went on and on in this vein. His tirade was dutifully reported at length in the far-right Magyar Hírlap, which found his message much more palatable than Seehofer’s. I wonder what Seehofer, who is a very conservative man, must have thought of Kövér’s speech, since it went against everything that European politicians west of Hungary think about the world.

All in all, I don’t think Orbán is a happy man today, especially since his fence, which he is planning to extend along the Romanian-Hungarian border soon, has turned out to be porous. Daily at least fifty people break through the “impenetrable” fence, which was supposed to save Hungary from the bandits who want to rape Hungarian women, from the migrants who can no longer be shipped off to the Croatian or the Austrian border. One temporary shelter after the next is being built and Orbán, I think, will soon enough have to ask for help from his enemies in Brussels.

March 5, 2016

Immigration as a curse in Hungarian history?

A couple of days ago I read an article in Gondola.hu, a right-wing internet publication, with an intriguing title: “The left-liberals’ fate is never to govern.” Well, that’s quite a tease. No liberal or socialist party, the argument went, will ever be allowed to govern the country because they are enemies of the nation. They would allow immigrants to settle in Hungary “when all through history great influxes of immigrants resulted in great harm.” The author added that “the left-liberals knowingly misinterpret the admonitions of St. Stephen to his son and parrot the lie that the presence of immigrants strengthens the country. Apparently they think that the greater their number the better.” This nonsense was written by a man with a law degree who is currently heading one of the new government offices created between 2010 and 2014.

Although in the past there have been scholarly debates about the proper translation of an important sentence in St. Stephen’s Admonitions to his son, Prince Imre, ordinary mortals accepted the translation of the crucial sentence in which Stephen urges his son to attract foreigners and guests (“adventicii” and “hospitis”) “because a country using only one language and having only one custom is weak and frail” (Nam unius lingue uniusque moris regnum inbecille et fragile est). It is this translation that is now, in the middle of the debate on immigration, being questioned in the mostly right-wing press. One such article bears the title: “Saint Stephen, the neo-liberal,” making fun of people who “misinterpret” the saintly king’s words. The crucial word is “regnum,” which indeed can mean either royal power or kingdom/realm. Surely, the proper translation of this word ought to be a scholarly question, not a political one. The important historical fact is that Hungarian kings throughout the country’s history encouraged immigration to the great benefit of all.

The earliest western “hospitis” came from Northern France (Walloons), Lorraine, and Lombardy, followed by Germans in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries from Bavaria, Swabia, and Saxony. By the thirteenth century even foreign artisans and peasants were called “guests.” They came with promises of privileges, including reduced taxes, limited self-government, their own judges, etc. These people greatly accelerated the formation of Hungarian towns and cities, which lagged behind the large cities of Western Europe. The Saxons settled in Transylvania and in Szepesség (Spiš region of Northern Slovakia) during the reign of Géza II (1130-1162). Esztergom and Székesfehérvár were settled by Italian, Walloon, and French immigrants. They were the first truly western-style Hungarian cities, even if on a small scale.

During the Mongol invasion of Hungary in 1241 most of the important cities, including Esztergom, Buda, and Pest, were pretty well razed. Béla IV (1206-1270) is often called the “second founder of the state” because he managed to rebuild a devastated country. Once again foreign settlers were invited to aid in the reconstruction work. This time from the Czech lands, Moravia, and Germany. He also asked the Cumans, who had fled from the Mongols, to return. And he supported the immigration of Romanians to Transylvania. Late Hungarian medieval towns were largely German-speaking, but slowly assimilation had started to take hold, only to be interrupted by the Turkish invasion of Hungary in the sixteenth century.

After most of the Hungarian territories were freed from Turkish occupation, the necessity of settling new immigrants from the west became an issue. Nationalist Hungarians today like to portray this large-scale immigration as the attempt of a “foreign” and anti-Hungarian king to undermine the power of Hungarians in their own country. But history tells a different story. It was the 1722-23 Diet of the Hungarian nobility that in fact urged the king to act in order to revive the country’s economic life.

Hajós in Bács-Kiskun County settled by Germans in 1722

Hajós in Bács-Kiskun County settled by Germans in 1722

Even before that date, between 1689 and 1740, returning landlords decided on their own to send agents to various parts of Germany to initiate “private” immigration by recruiting farmers/settlers to till their land. These landlords were mostly Catholics, and therefore they preferred to recruit in areas of Catholic Germany. The exception was the group of German settlers from Hessen who settled in Tolna County around the village of Gyönk. They came during 1722-23.

There was another wave of immigrants during the second half of the reign of Maria Theresa. She offered settlers generous benefits, including financial assistance to build their houses. After the Seven Years’ War the number of settlers multiplied, coming especially from Alsace Lorraine, Baden, Luxembourg, and Rheinland-Pfalz. These so-called Theresian immigrants settled along the country’s southern borders in an area that belongs to Serbia today. The third wave of immigrants came after 1782, during the reign of Joseph II, from Pfalz, Saarland, the areas surrounding Frankfurt and Mainz, Hessen, and Württenberg. Without these German settlers, a Hungarian economic recovery would have been unimaginable.

And I haven’t even touched on the Jewish immigration to Hungary. Although Jews have lived in the country for the last thousand years, if not longer, it was only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that their numbers swelled. In 1784 they constituted only 1.3% of the population; by 1910, 5.0%. Their story certainly deserves a separate post. Here only briefly: these immigrants came both from the west (Czech lands and Moravia) and from the northeast (Galicia). The immigration from the Czech lands and Moravia was prompted by the limits imposed on the number of Jews by Charles VI (1711-1740). Large numbers of Jews arrived from Galicia between 1830 and 1870 because of the extreme poverty of the region and because of the peasant rebellion of 1846, known as the Great Slaughter.

By 1910 citizens whose first language was German constituted over 10% of Hungary’s population, while 5% of the population declared themselves to be Jewish “izraelita vallású/religion.” Both groups made enormous contributions to the modernization of Hungary and to its scientific and artistic accomplishments. Hungarians should remember this when they want to close the doors to newcomers.

German-Hungarian dialogues: Munich and Berlin

A few months ago, on August 7, 2014, Professor Charles Gati wrote an important article about Viktor Orbán’s Hungary,”The Mask Is Off.” The article was inspired by the Hungarian prime minister’s infamous speech on his plans to finish the job of building an “illiberal state” in Hungary. “Orbán has now dropped his democratic mask,” Gati announced. What followed was a thorough analysis of Orbán’s political system. At the end of the article Gati listed options the United States had for influencing Hungarian domestic politics. Among them, he mentioned the possibility of the United States “actively encouraging the European Union . . . to put the question of Hungarian membership in the EU firmly on the agenda.” That is, the European Union should no longer stand by helplessly watching Hungarian domestic developments and the increasingly anti-EU rhetoric of Orbán and his pro-Russian orientation.

If you watched the Budapest Beacon‘s interview with Kim Lane Scheppele, you undoubtedly noticed her rather optimistic assertion that now that Jean-Claude Juncker has finished creating his “cabinet,” Hungary’s case will finally be put on the agenda. If that happens, the question will be how the sides line up. Just today an article appeared entitled “EU allies alarmed at Hungary’s Kremlin drift,” which indicated that opposition to Orbán is growing even in the German Christian Democratic Party, which is in many ways the most important ingredient in an anti-Orbán coalition within the EU.

One of the few places west of Hungary where Viktor Orbán is still welcome in an official capacity is Bavaria, where on November 6 he was greeted by Horst Seehofer, minister president of Bavaria, as the democratically elected head of a coalition government. Hungarian reports indicated that Orbán’s visit was not without its critics but that Seehofer, the leader of the very conservative Christian Social Union, stood by Orbán. However, in an interview that appeared in the conservative Die Welt on November 8 one can see several not so subtle differences between the two men.

Horst Seehofer and Viktor Orbán in Munich Source: Die Welt / Photo Jörg Fokuh

Horst Seehofer and Viktor Orbán in Munich
Source: Die Welt / Photo Jörg Fokuh

Seehofer wholeheartedly supports the European Union and does not see the kind of crisis Orbán invokes every time he has the opportunity. Seehofer talked about big union projects while Orbán thinks that each country is responsible for its own economy and that joint projects must wait. Seehofer wants to widen the eurozone and urges countries outside of that zone to introduce the structural reforms necessary to be eligible for membership. Orbán spoke sharply against the euro and made it clear that he wants none of it. At this point Seehofer became just a tad sharper in his response. He defended the euro as “the basis of our high standard of living.” Orbán did not give up. For him “the future of the euro is unclear.” Well, that was too much for Seehofer, who said that “the euro stays!”

Seehofer might be a good friend of Orbán, but he firmly believes in the founding principles of the European Union: “a value system based on democracy, justice, tolerance, and Christianity.” These values are much more important than a community based only on economic interests.

Finally there were questions concerning the Ukrainian crisis and, although Orbán tried to be diplomatic and not show his true colors on the subject, he indicated that helping Ukraine financially would be difficult. It would cost too much and “I have no idea where we are going to get that much money.” As for Putin, naturally Orbán said nothing about his relationship with Russia, but Seehofer made it clear that he no longer trusts the Russian president.

German-Hungarian relations, even in the most favorable case of Bavaria, are not without their problems. Other German politicians have been more outspoken about Hungary’s place in the European Union. Let’s start with Michael Roth, undersecretary of the German foreign ministry, who was also interviewed by Die Welt (November 12). The whole interview is about Hungary. According to Roth, “we are currently conducting an intensive debate on democracy and the rule of law in the European Union.” He expressed his satisfaction that the new Commission attaches such great importance to this issue. He is especially glad that Frans Timmermans, deputy president, “wants to increase the EU’s credibility in constitutional questions.” Roth was obviously talking about Hungary when he said that western countries press for democratic rights in China and Russia, but how can they be credible if they tolerate the lack of such values within the Union.

Roth brought up Article 7 of the European Constitution, which would take away rogue nations’ voting rights in the case of a gross violation of European values, and indicated that as far as he was concerned this measure “was an appropriate means in many cases,” certainly in cases like Hungary because he sees no improvement in Hungary as far as individual liberties, the rule of law, and the fight against corruption are concerned. All in all, Roth is watching the developments in Hungary with “great concern” because the existence of “liberal democracy is seriously in doubt in Hungary.”

And if that weren’t enough, there was the warning from Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German foreign minister, a couple of days ago when Péter Szijjártó visited Berlin. Steinmeier called on the Hungarian government to comply with fundamental democratic values.”There can be no doubt that all members of the European Union must be committed to the rule of law and the canon of civil rights,” Steinmeier said. How much Szijjártó understood is unclear, especially since in his answer he talked about Hungary’s “balanced, healthy, and pragmatic relations with Russia.” He also tried to assure his German counterpart that any “violation of international law,” presumably by Russia, is “unacceptable to Hungary.”

Péter Szijjártó and Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Berlin Source: Die Welt / Photo Bernd von Jutrczenka

Péter Szijjártó and Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Berlin
Source: Die Welt / Photo Bernd von Jutrczenka

Not only does Szijjártó seem to be impervious to words of warning in Germany and elsewhere, his prime minister is practically taunting western politicians to go to battle with him. I’m almost certain that there will come a time when his wishes will be fulfilled.