Tag Archives: Beata Szydło

Viktor Orbán turns his back on the Polish government

Although Viktor Orbán’s press conference this morning was anything but upbeat, a few hours later both the Polish left and right in addition to the Hungarian government media were full of praise for the prime minister’s superb diplomatic talents. In a Polish conservative opinion piece he was called the Talleyrand of our times who has been winning every major battle with “raging liberals and the Left in Europe.” He is a man who knows what Realpolitik is all about. Why this praise? Orbán had the good sense not to support the Szydło government in its hopeless fight against the reelection of Donald Tusk as president of the European Council.

Donald Tusk, who served as prime minister of Poland between 2007 and 2014, is the bête-noire of Jarosław Kaczyński, chairman of the Law and Justice party. Kaczyński’s enmity toward Tusk has a long history. First of all, at one point the two men were political rivals. Second, Kaczyński, who is convinced that the Russians were responsible for the death of his twin brother, President Lech Kaczyński, in 2010 when his plane went down in Russia, considers Tusk “politically responsible” for his brother’s death by allowing the Russians to investigate the case ahead of the Poles. But perhaps what is even more important, the far-right Polish government accuses Tusk, as president of the European Council, of wanting to bring down the right-wing Szydło government. The current Polish leadership decided to resist the reelection of the man who dared to criticize the present government in defense of democracy. Mind you, Tusk is not a “flaming liberal.” His party, the Civic Platform, is right of center.

Warsaw put up a counter-candidate–Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, like Tusk a Civic Platform member of the European People’s Party. To understand the dynamics of the situation we must keep in mind that the EP members of Kaczyński’s Law and Justice party belong to the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), basically a Euroskeptic lot. ECR doesn’t have the gravitas of EPP, to which Fidesz EP representatives also belong.

The Polish plan to block Tusk’s reelection didn’t go as planned. As soon as Saryusz-Wolski’s nomination was announced, he was removed from Civic Platform. And EPP removed him from all responsibilities within the party.

After this somewhat lengthy introduction let me turn to Viktor Orbán’s role in this ill-fated Polish political maneuver. Apparently, Warsaw was counting on Great Britain and the Visegrád Four for support. But it became apparent soon enough that neither Slovakia nor the Czech Republic would support Saryusz-Wolski’s nomination. The Polish government still hoped that Viktor Orbán would stand by their side, especially since, as we learned this morning from Viktor Orbán himself, at one point he promised that he would vote against Tusk. Orbán didn’t keep that promise.

As Orbán explained at his press conference in Brussels, since EPP’s only candidate was Tusk and since Fidesz is a constituent part of EPP, he had no choice. This is how the European Parliament functions, he explained. Otherwise, he claimed that he had tried his best to broker a deal but, unfortunately, he failed. He added that a couple of days ago he had informed the Polish government of his decision to vote for Tusk because circumstances didn’t allow him to do anything else.

Well, as usual, Viktor Orbán didn’t tell the whole truth. It wasn’t party protocol that forced him to vote as he did since there was another important European Council vote where he did not support the EPP candidate. I’m talking about the election of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission in June 2014. Juncker was EPP’s candidate for the post. At that time David Cameron and Viktor Orbán voted against Juncker, which didn’t prevent him from getting the job. Then, perhaps feeling safe under the protective wing of Cameron, Orbán had no trouble voting against the favored candidate. So his decision had nothing to do with party obligations. Moreover, he could have voted against Tusk as a gesture to his Polish friends because his “no” vote wouldn’t have made any difference: Tusk would have been elected anyway. But, for reasons known only to him, he decided to go with the flow. He even went so far in his press conference as to laud the European Union as the best place to live in the whole wide world. It is a place where people can be truly happy and satisfied with life. A rather amusing comment considering all his earlier talk about the EU being in decline with the attendant miseries for the people.

I don’t want to dwell on the foolish behavior of the Polish government, but I’m afraid the Polish media’s unanimous condemnation of their government’s incompetence is well deserved. The Polish government should be only too well aware of the misfortunes that have befallen the country as a result of the territorial ambitions of its neighbors. Poland is rightfully worried about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But then common sense would dictate good relations with the countries of Western Europe, especially with Germany. Yet the current Polish government treats Germany like its enemy. Perhaps this disastrous defeat will be a wake-up call, but the mindset of the present Polish political leadership doesn’t inspire confidence that it will happen any time soon.

In addition to the Polish fiasco, Orbán covered two other topics at some length in his press conference. One was the “migrant issue,” which had elicited widespread condemnation in the media and in international organizations involved with the refugee crisis and human rights. It turned out that the matter of the amendment to the Asylum Law came up during the summit. As Orbán described it, he “informed the prime ministers about the new [asylum] law, who didn’t raise any objections and did not protest.” He took this as a good sign, adding that the real fight will be with the bureaucrats of the European Union. Whether this silence was a sign of approval or an indication of a reluctance to get into a discussion of the issue we don’t know.

Orbán then explained the real meaning of the detention centers, which he compared to airports as transit zones. He was again quite explicit about the differences between the attitudes of the Hungarian government and the European Union when it comes to the refugee crisis. Hungary’s goal is not to handle the issue “humanely,” which the EU insists on, but to make sure that the refugees are stopped.

The other topic was the most recent conflict between Austria and Hungary. As is well known, an incredible number of Hungarians work in Austria. In 2016 more than 63,500 Hungarians lived in Austria, in addition to those who live in Hungary but cross the border daily to work on the other side. The Austrians recently floated the idea that Romanian, Hungarian and Czech employees would not receive extra family benefits. The Hungarians claim that as a result of such a new law Hungarian workers would receive 50% less than native Austrians for the same work. This is unacceptable for Hungary. Sophie Karmasin, the Austrian minister responsible for family affairs, visited Hungary only yesterday, and Viktor Orbán set up a meeting with Chancellor Christian Kern while in Brussels. On this topic, Orbán was forceful. He called the issue “a serious conflict” which he will take all the way to the top, meaning the European Commission and even the European Court of Justice. Hungarians cannot be discriminated against. If the Austrians discriminate against Hungarians, “we will respond in kind.” That is, if the Austrians proceed with this cut in family benefits, the Hungarian government will make certain that opportunities for Austrian businesses in Hungary will be curtailed. So, if I understand it correctly, Orbán fights against the European Commission at every turn, but once he feels that Hungarian citizens are being slighted he is ready to appeal for protection from the European Union.

March 10, 2017

The collapse of the united front of the Visegrád 4 in Bratislava

The Hungarian media hasn’t paid much attention to Viktor Orbán’s Friday morning interview on Magyar Rádió, which was aired on September 16 around 8:00 a.m. but was recorded the evening before. In it, the prime minster talked a great deal about the common agenda of the Visegrád 4 countries, on which their representatives were working furiously, even overnight. He proudly announced that while “the bureaucrats in Brussels” will most likely not be able to produce a document at the end of their negotiations in Bratislava, the Visegrád 4 will present a common set of proposals. As he said, “this is an important moment in the history of the Visegrád 4.” He added that “the Visegrád 4 are in perfect agreement on these questions.”

So, let’s see the demands of this joint statement, which Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło presented to the leaders of EU27. Its most important “ultimatum,” as some journalists called it, was “the strengthening of the role of national parliaments underlining respect for the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality.” The Visegrád 4 accused Germany and France of making key decisions alone and disregarding the opinions of the eastern European states. “European integration is a common project and all negotiations should therefore be inclusive and open to all member states.” They demanded that “efforts should be channeled to fully implement the already undertaken commitments aiming at strengthening security in the Schengen area as well as the protection of EU’s external borders.” Linked to the security issue was the question of migration, which is considered to be the key issue for the group. The solution of the Visegrád 4 to the problem of the millions of migrants is what they call “flexible solidarity,” “a concept [which would] enable Member States to decide on specific forms of contribution taking into account their experience and potential. Furthermore any distribution mechanism should be voluntary.”

If we take a look at “The Bratislava Declaration,” we can safely assume that very few of these demands were discussed or even considered. The only exception is that the Bratislava road map includes “full control of our external borders…. Before the end of the year, full capacity for rapid reaction of the European Border and Coast Guard.” The goal of the Bratislava summit was to demonstrate unity, not to argue endlessly about the Visegrád 4’s grievances. The European Union is facing difficult challenges for which the member states must find common solutions. Donald Tusk made it crystal clear to Beata Szydło that this is not the time for a public debate of these issues. He even visited Budapest ahead of the summit to try to convince Viktor Orbán to let sleeping dogs lie. It seems that Tusk failed to restrain Orbán from open criticism, although in his interview on Magyar Rádió the prime minister did say that “in the name of fairness there is improvement on this issue,” adding that Tusk is one of the people in Brussels who places “defense” as the top priority. Of course, he credited himself for the evolving change in thinking on the issue.

If Orbán found the joint document of the Visegrád 4 so significant, why didn’t he complain that the summit passed over most of the demands outlined in it? Why did he object instead merely to the European Union’s immigration policies? On this issue “The Bratislava Declaration” said only that “work to be continued to broaden EU consensus in terms of long term migration policy, including on how to apply the principles of responsibility and solidarity in the future.”

First of all, knowing Viktor Orbán, who cannot imagine life without dissent, discord, and constant battling about one thing or the other, we could expect that he, unlike his comrades in arms in the Visegrád 4, would not come out of the meeting smiling and telling the world how happy he is with the outcome. He would have to complain about something. The most obvious target was immigration, or rather sharing the burden of the newly arrived asylum seekers. He could not return home and tell the Hungarian people that all’s well with the European Union and that from here on the remaining 27 member states will try to solve their problems together. After all, the Hungarian referendum on the refugees will be held on October 2, a referendum that he deems of vital importance to his political career. So, the choice of his complaint was a given.

But, in addition to immigration policy, he could have complained that the summit ignored one of his demands: strengthening the nation states at the expense of the center. Why didn’t he? Because, as far as I can see, he lost the support of his allies: Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. They joined the rest and declared the Bratislava summit a success. Even Beata Szydło realized that in the package presented to the members there were substantial incentives to stand by the others.

The roses were not enough

The roses were not enough

From the very beginning dissension was noticeable among the four countries. Poland and Hungary were the most vocal critics of Brussels. Slovakia and the Czech Republic wanted closer relations with Germany. Of course, it is not at all to Hungary’s advantage to have a pro-government media empire that revels in anti-Merkel rhetoric, but Orbán’s political moves are not always rational. While Orbán was advocating a counter-revolution against the existing order in Europe, Ivan Korčok, the Slovak undersecretary for European Affairs, talked to Politico about “a deeper reflection process, [fearing] trenches between West and East.” Moreover, he said that “migration is a phenomenon we have to see with a long term view,” which to my mind means a realization that migration will be part of the lives of the people of the EU, from which there is no escape for individual states.

Even between Poland and Hungary, despite their close ideological ties, there is the troubling issue of Russia. Poland, fearing Russia, supports a permanent NATO force in the region while Orbán would like to see the end of EU sanctions against Russia. The Poles also don’t approve of his cozy relations with Vladimir Putin.

These four countries, in spite of their geographical proximity, are different in many ways and have different national interests. As Korčok said of the upcoming summit, “I don’t think we can surge forward together.” Well, they didn’t.

It seems that Orbán’s revitalization of the Visegrád 4 pretty well collapsed in Bratislava. This diplomatic defeat should trouble him a lot more than the European Union’s immigration policy, over which he has no control. For the sake of winning a useless referendum for domestic political purposes he might have to give up his dream of being the leader of the East European countries and ultimately a major player on the European stage.

September 17, 2016

The Bratislava Summit: No “victory lap” for Viktor Orbán

I often stress that Hungarian Spectrum is a cooperative enterprise because we have readers who, in the comment section, carry on an active exchange of ideas. That in turn enriches my own contributions. Here I would like to have a discussion with “István” on Orbán’s chances of success in Bratislava. I, of course, have the massive advantage of hindsight.

Today István, on the basis of preliminary statements ahead of the Bratislava summit, predicted that the meeting in the Slovak capital could be “Orbán’s victory lap.” He cited a report by Népszabadság about the meeting that Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, had had with Viktor Orbán ahead of the summit. According to the article, Orbán in no uncertain terms told Schulz what he thinks of the treatment Hungary receives from the European Union. He demanded greater respect for Hungary. He also accused the European Parliament and the European Commission of “dirty tricks” because they had changed the resolution of the European Council concerning voluntary quotas behind the prime ministers’ backs to compulsory ones. “I asked them not to do that ever again because the nation states cannot accept this.”

István, on the basis of this article, believes that “Orbán effectively, gently lectured the EU” and therefore came out a winner. The trouble with this interpretation is that we don’t know what Orbán said or didn’t say. But I very much doubt that he dared to lie straight to Schulz’s face about the alleged legislative trick of the EP and EC, changing voluntary quotas to compulsory ones. There may have been no “effective and gentle lecture” at all. On the other hand, we know from Schulz himself the deep division between them still exist and he wasn’t impressed by Orbán’s arguments.

István further writes that “Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister, has withdrawn his statement on the expulsion of Hungary from the EU.” But this is not quite the case. The foreign minister of Luxembourg didn’t take his words back. After all the criticism he received, he merely told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that his statement “was a wake-up call ahead of the Friday Bratislava summit.” So, if I understand this sentence correctly, it was meant, in fact, as a warning to Viktor Orbán to behave.

I also have a different reading of Donald Tusk’s letter. The sentence about the European Union as “a single state” is utterly meaningless because no such a goal has ever been stipulated in any of the EU treaties. What the member states accepted was “the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as openly as possible and as closely as possible to the citizen.” Tusk, as president, is fully aware of the true meaning of the concept of “an ever closer union.”

So, why then did he give an utterly false interpretation of the concept of the United States of Europe? I guess because he wanted to calm the nerves of the prime ministers of the East-Central European countries on the future of Europe. It will never be one state, he assured them. Right now the Visegrád 4 prime ministers are demanding a structural change of the EU in favor of the nation states, but any such modification, according to Tusk, “requires a change of attitude of the national governments towards the European Union as such.” To me this is a message to the Visegrád 4 that they are the ones who have to change their attitudes because the current problems have been aggravated by the attitude of people like Orbán, Szydło, and Fico. If you want change, you have to change.

If I understand István correctly, he believes that Orbán and Fidesz have already won their game against the European Union and doesn’t understand why they are so “greatly restrained in proclaiming victory.” He believes that Tusk and Merkel are willing to concede to the demand of Orbán and Co. that decisions should be made only by the European Council. They claim that the European Commission is pursuing an independent policy to which it is not entitled. The trouble with this argument is that it has no basis in fact. Every decision made in the EU must be and is sanctioned by the prime ministers or chancellors of the member states, including Viktor Orbán. He will not be able to go to Bratislava with this accusation because his colleagues would think he has lost his mind. Orbán, Lázár and the rest can tell this fairy tale to the Hungarian people, but they cannot carry this message to an EU summit. The reason for the restraint of Orbán and Fidesz is their knowledge that their chances of winning the game by accusing the Commission of overstepping its prerogatives or ex post facto nullifying decisions voted on by the European Council are nil.

bratislava-castle

So, let’s see what we know so far about what transpired in Bratislava. Beata Szydło was leading the charge of the Visegrád 4 because Poland is currently acting as president of the group. Yesterday she was still rather sure of herself and her cause and even named the culprits of the refugee crisis: Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker, and Martin Schulz. The incompetent politicians who reacted too late to the crisis. Visegrád 4 has the solution: a total change in the very structure of the European Union in favor of the nation states. However, the Poles, as well as the Hungarians, most likely know that they will not succeed against the majority of the member states. In fact, Szydło’s foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, was already talking about “a flexible solidarity,” by which he meant a dispersion of refugees according to the countries’ economic capabilities. He also came up with the idea that those countries that have labor shortage problems should take the bulk of the refugees. Most likely he didn’t realize that in the last few months Hungary, which refuses to take one single person, is suffering from a severe labor shortage and that Mihály Varga, minister of economics, is desperately trying to find guest workers who, of course, are “culturally close to the majority population.” The countries of the Visegrád 4 know that in the end they will have to share the burden of the refugee crisis.

On the basis of Viktor Orbán’s press conference held after the meeting, most commentators decided that Orbán “had lost that game.” He admitted that the participants had made some progress. No one wants to follow the United Kingdom and leave the Union; Bulgaria will get assistance to relieve the immigration pressure from Greece, just as Juncker had promised in his State of the Union speech; the EU will set up refugee hot spots outside the Union that will be defended militarily; and agreement was reached on a timetable: the next meeting will be in Vienna on September 24. Two demands of the Visegrád Group were not met: the promise of a change in the very structure of the European Union was postponed and no drastic change in its immigration policy was adopted. Therefore, Orbán considers the meeting a failure. As he put it: “they still talk more about speeding up the distribution of migrants than stopping them at the borders of Schengen.”

Naturally, Polish Prime Minister Szydło was equally unhappy with the outcome of the meeting on the immigration issue. But she expressed her satisfaction that there was agreement that some changes will have to be made to the structure of the European Union. Although Tusk might have expressed his belief that “giving new powers to European institutions is not the desired recipe,” it doesn’t mean that they will loosen the ties as much as she and Orbán would like. That would be the death knell of a united Europe.

All in all, in my opinion the Bratislava summit was anything but “a victory lap” for Viktor Orbán.

September 16, 2016

Viktor Orbán at the EU summit

Anyone who listened only to the Hungarian state television and radio—and unfortunately a lot of people do—would think that Viktor Orbán is the center of attention at all the negotiations that take place in Brussels. He tries to give the impression that he arrives at these meetings with a definite agenda that is radically different from all others. And by the end, as a result of hard bargaining, he conquers all. The Hungarian point of view is accepted by everyone due to the diplomatic skills and the eminently sensible suggestions and demands of Hungary’s prime minister. When one looks at the reports on these meetings by leading western papers, however, it turns out time and again that Orbán’s name doesn’t appear anywhere. Nor is the Hungarian position, which he claimed was embraced by the other EU leaders, mentioned.

Once again, with the summit on Thursday and Friday, neither Orbán nor Hungary’s position got any coverage. Although before the summit many articles appeared about Orbán as the most adamant opponent of Angela Merkel’s immigration policies and the man who was behind the more or less common policy of the Visegrád 4 countries, his absence from the pages of western papers reporting on the summit itself is glaring. Another Visegrád 4 prime minister who went unnoticed was Robert Fico of Slovakia. Beata Szydło’s discussion with David Cameron was noted by several papers. It turned out that it was not Viktor Orbán, the architect of the Visegrád 4 policy on immigration, who represented the group. Rather, Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka negotiated on behalf of the Visegrád bloc with David Cameron.

What we normally hear from the Hungarian prime minister about these summits is a tall tale à la János Háry. Only the giant sneeze is missing. Orbán usually prepares the ground by stating some alleged demands of the European Union that Hungary will resist at all cost. David Cameron, for example, never tried to put an end to the free movement of  tourists, visits to family members, or working in another member country, as Orbán claimed before the summit. Refusing to accept nonexistent demands ensures easy victory.

When it comes to Hungarians working in Great Britain, I suspect that Orbán purposefully muddied the water because it is hard to reconcile two of his statements on the subject. He said first that Hungary’s goals “include ensuring that Hungarians working in the United Kingdom are not discriminated against” and, a few minutes later, “it seems possible to realize demands that no new regulations will be introduced retroactively.” So, there will be discriminatory legislative action but it will not be applied retroactively. Considering that the U.K. is not Hungary where retroactive legislation has become commonplace of late, this last demand was empty. Another easy victory.

Orbán’s explanation of his participation in the summit again got rather confused when he tried to reconcile his position (“we have defended the most important European principle that no citizen of the Union can be discriminated against”) with the outcome that Great Britain can limit social benefits to citizens of other countries for four or seven years if necessity arises.

Another Hungarian success, according to Orbán, was that the prime ministers of the member countries clearly stated that “the masses of migrants must be stopped and that the Schengen rules must be obeyed by everyone. This is the first time that the European Union accepted the Hungarian solution.” Another blustering statement about the alleged importance of the Hungarian position.

Despite this boastful self-aggrandizement one has the distinct feeling that Orbán knows that hard times lie ahead for him. For example, he cleverly prepared the ground for a possible retreat on the topic of quotas. He announced that “the situation is getting worse in the West. Still, many countries insist that the migrants must be allowed to settle on the territory of the Union and they must be divided de jure among the member states. The voice of these representatives was very strong at the summit.” This explains to the faithful that despite all the Hungarian propaganda the western countries have not followed the Hungarian Plan B to build fences along national borders. There is still pressure on the Visegrád 4 to cooperate in trying to find a common solution.

In addition to that defeat for Orbán’s vision, French president François Hollande, in connection with the Polish and Hungarian governments, reminded his listeners in a radio interview that the European Union “has legal tools, through articles in treaties, to prevent a country from violating democratic principles. … When the freedom of the media is in danger, when constitutions and human rights are under attack, Europe must not just be a safety net. It must put in place procedures to suspend [countries]–it can go that far.”

The first report from Brussels to reach Budapest was that of Népszabadság, which called the results of the summit “a total failure from Orbán’s point of view.” Especially since Orbán and his Visegrád friends hoped that the discriminatory pieces of legislation against foreign workers would be limited to the United Kingdom, but now it looks as if the Germans, the Austrians, and the Danes would also like to introduce the same system in their countries.

The opposition parties naturally shared Népszabadság’s assessment of the results. First, István Ujhelyi, MSZP MEP, released a statement, according to which Orbán “has clearly lost this battle.” He suspects that “the European community with these humiliating decisions wants to punish the illiberal policies of Orbán and his followers.” He also reported that Orbán in his press conference claimed that there are only 200-300 Hungarian families who live in Great Britain and therefore the decisions don’t impact Hungarians very much. Of course, this is a lie. According to official statistics, in 2011 1,225 Hungarian children were born just in England and Wales.

Viktor Orbán leaving the summit. He doesn't look very happy. Photo: Eric Vidal / Reuters

Viktor Orbán leaving the summit. He doesn’t look very happy.
Photo: Eric Vidal / Reuters

Csaba Molnár, DK MEP, attacked Orbán for his signature on the final document, which included the provision to divide the immigrants among the member states, while Fidesz is currently collecting signatures to support the party and the government in its effort to keep all migrants out of the country. The slogan is: “Not one migrant in this country.” Orbán became “a political celeb who is successful only on posters but is unable to defend his own point of view in Brussels and thus cannot defend the country.” Jobbik’s spokesman, Dániel Z. Kárpát, accused Orbán of double talk when it comes to the quotas. While at home he uses combative rhetoric and collects signatures, abroad he doesn’t stand by his convictions. Orbán’s signing the final document is “an act of astonishing treason” which will allow 1,300 refugees to settle in Hungary.

Fidesz didn’t wait long with its answer: it is “the party of Gyurcsány and Jobbik who have betrayed the interests of the Hungarian people. They are the ones who serve foreign interests; they are the ones who didn’t support the erection of the fence, the tightening of the rules of immigration law.” Of course, as usual this quick Fidesz response is no answer to the problem at hand.

That Viktor Orbán signed the final document, which says that all member states must take their share of the burden caused by the influx of refugees, was difficult for the Hungarian government to explain, given the incredible government propaganda against the settlement of any refugees in Hungary. Zoltán Kovács, the spokesman for the prime minister’s office, was immediately dispatched to explain the situation. According to him, those who criticize Viktor Orbán for signing the document don’t understand how the European Union works. It is true that Orbán signed the document which includes the provision to disperse 40,000 Middle Eastern and North African refugees who are currently in Greece and Italy. But countries at that point were merely asked to voluntarily offer quotas. Neither Slovakia nor Hungary ever agreed to allow any migrants to settle in their countries. Hungary’s position today is the same as it was last summer. Nothing has changed as a result of Orbán’s signing the final document. I guess we will hear more about what his signature on the document actually means, what kinds of obligations, if any, Hungary will incur as a result of this act.

February 20, 2016

Poland at a crossroads?

After spending three days on domestic affairs, today I will concentrate on the Polish-Hungarian-European Union triangle, with a quick look at Putin’s Russia.

There is no question that Jarosław Kaczyński has been an excellent student of Viktor Orbán. The new Szydło government is copying the Orbán model step by step, just at an accelerated pace. While it took the slower-moving Orbán machinery two or three years to achieve its desired results, the eager Poles thought that a few months would suffice. It didn’t take long for Polish foreign minister Witold Waczczykowski to announce a change in the country’s foreign policy. The Szydło government will not follow its predecessor’s policy of acquiescence toward the European Union, he said. As a result of Polish belligerence, most commentators were certain that Brussels would act quickly and without hesitation. If the European Union opts to avoid a confrontation, the same thing will happen in Poland as happened in Hungary, where Orbán’s political system has solidified to the point that it may last for decades. Poland is too important a country to allow this to occur.

Cass Mudde of the University of Georgia wrote an article in the Huffington Post in which he suggested that “the success of PiS in Poland could turn out to be a poisoned chalice for Orbán” because of the possibility of EU sanctions not just against Poland but against Hungary as well.” As we know, however, Orbán made it clear on January 8 that “it’s not worth it for the European Union to rack its brains over any sanction against Poland because that would require full agreement. Never will Hungary support any sanction against Poland.”

A few days later Kim Lane Scheppele pointed out that a veto by Hungary could easily be neutralized. In an article that appeared on January 11 in politico.eu she sketched out a possible legal action that would take care of Viktor Orbán’s threat of a veto. Here is her scheme:

Sanctions require a unanimous vote of the European Council, minus the offending state, meaning Hungary does have a veto.

But Article 7 includes two separate parts: a warning system outlined in Article 7(1) and the sanctions mechanism of Article 7(2)-(3). The only way to keep the threat of sanctions on the table under Article 7(2) is for European institutions to act against both Poland and Hungary at the same time by invoking Article 7(1) first.

Those who were certain that this time the European Commission would not choose the road of appeasement as it did in the case of Hungary were correct. On January 13 the Commission launched a probe into policy changes in Poland that may clash with EU law. This is an unprecedented move with serious implications. For example, it could lead to the application of Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union.

In the wake of the announcement of the probe, the Poles even copied Orbán, who took up the challenge and faced a very angry European Parliament in 2012. Prime Minister Beata Szydło announced that she would attend the debate on Poland in the European Parliament and defend her government’s right to make changes in the structure of the constitutional court and the media. Her speech was very East European in flavor. In addition to repeating several times that Poland is as much a part of the EU as the other 27 countries, she said that Brussels, instead of “rounding on Poland, ought to be looking to engage with a country with a troubled history and which had fought at great cost for its freedom.” These words could easily have been uttered by Viktor Orbán himself. It is still too early to know what the reaction to Szydło’s speech will be, but people in the know in Brussels are certain that “the stage is set for a ‘carnage’ in the European Parliament.”

Szydlo

Beata Szydło in the European Parliament, January 19, 2016

There have, however, been voices in the western media that have cautioned the European Commission in its handling of Poland. As early as January 13, the day the European Commission decided on a monitoring procedure against Warsaw, The New York Times came out with an editorial which claimed that “punishing Poland through sanctions would be counterproductive and even hypocritical, given the proliferation of like-minded parties across Europe,” the logic of which escapes me, I’m afraid.

What the editors of The New York Times think about Polish-EU relations is neither here nor there, but what Donald Tusk thinks is something else. After all, he is the president of the European Council who is supposed to represent the interests of the Union and not the country of his birth. But although Tusk is a political adversary of Kaczyński, he felt compelled to come to Poland’s rescue. His move was interpreted by The Financial Times as a break “with the rest of the EU’s leadership … by questioning Brussels’ decision to launch a formal review into whether Poland’s new media and judicial legislation violate the rule of law.” He declared that the EU can clarify the situation in Poland “by other methods, not necessarily triggering this procedure.” He didn’t elaborate what these other methods might be.

Meanwhile, in Hungary Viktor Orbán is most likely eagerly watching what’s going on in Brussels. Will the Poles be persuaded to abandon their revolutionary zeal under domestic and foreign pressure? There are signs that President Andrzej Duda (PiS) and other PiS officials began a campaign a few days ago to ease tensions between Poland and the European Commission. If they succeed, Viktor Orbán will not be a happy man because he is counting on the formation of a large eastern bloc of 90 million people as something of an alliance against the core countries in Western Europe. Naturally, such a bloc without Poland is worth nothing.

This kind of fear is reflected in one of Zsolt Bayer’s articles titled “Lengyelek” (The Poles). After recalling all the humiliation and treachery Poland has suffered through her history at the hands of the western powers, especially the United States, Bayer doesn’t understand “Polish devotion to the United States.” Poland must choose. Either they follow Hungary’s example or they will end up with the same “base, unjust, unbearable and unacceptable harassment that Hungary had to suffer.” Poland must be careful, Bayer warns, because it is clear that the United States has been hard at work trying to persuade Poland to loosen its ties with the alliance system Viktor Orbán managed to create from the formerly ineffectual Visegrád4 group. If a 90-million strong Eastern Bloc materializes, it will be the center of a “normal” Europe as opposed to the “mentally deranged West.” So, a lot depends on Poland, a country that should be grateful to Hungary because of Hungary’s generosity toward her in her times of peril. “There is no war yet but the situation is very serious. We should not let them drive a wedge between us.”

After reading Bayer’s lines about the possibility of a war in Europe, one wonders about the psychological state of some of the Fidesz leaders who lately have been discussing ways of strengthening the military capabilities of the country. László Kövér went so far as to talk about “the catastrophe of abolishing compulsory military service” in 2004. Do they really think that war is going to break out in Europe sometime in the near future? Possibly.

Finally, a friendly warning to Poland. Putin is delighted with the growth of right-wing radicalism and the recent emphasis on the sovereignty of nation states within the European Union, as Vladislav Inozemtsev of The Moscow Times, points out. “The events in Europe are being seen with undisguised joy” in Russia. “The Kremlin supports and will support the ultra-right and ultra-left parties who seek to put Europeans back to their ‘private apartments.’” So, going along with Viktor Orbán will be useful to Poland’s archenemy, Russia. The leaders of PiS should think very seriously whether they want to play into the hands of Vladimir Putin or not. Yes, they do have a choice.

September 19, 2016

Polish-Hungarian friendship in action

The situation in Poland has become a serious concern not only for the politicians of the European Union but for the whole western world. The largest East European country among those that joined the European Union in 2004 is rapidly following Hungary on the road to becoming an “illiberal democracy” while the European Commission is trying to find proper answers to the emasculation of Poland’s Constitutional Court and the government’s attack on the freedom of the media.

Two important articles about the situation in Poland appeared yesterday, one by R. Daniel Kelemen and Mitchell A. Orenstein in Foreign Affairs and another by Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian. The Foreign Affairs article draws attention to the parallels between Kaczyński’s Poland and Orbán’s Hungary, with emphasis on the inaction of the European Union in the early years of the second Orbán government. Brussels did very little to make clear to Viktor Orbán that his destruction of Hungarian democracy cannot be tolerated by the member states of the EU. To a large extent the European People’s Party (EPP) was responsible for this shameful behavior. Fidesz’s delegation in the European Parliament is large, and its votes were deemed more important to the European Christian Democrats than was democracy in Hungary.

Meanwhile, in the last almost six years, Jarosław Kaczyński carefully watched the Hungarian prime minister’s masterful parrying with the western politicians who didn’t know how to deal with him. But although Kaczyński may have wanted to follow in Orbán’s footsteps, he doesn’t have the same political allies in the European Parliament. The Christian Democrats of EPP are a great deal more enthusiastic about “disciplining” Poland for the simple reason that Kaczyński’s party, Law and Justice / Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS), decided to join the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR) instead of EPP. I’m certain that if PiS’s 19 members sat with EPP, the Christian Democrats would be more understanding and forgiving of Polish events of late. But luckily for Polish democracy the large Polish delegation of the Civic Platform / Platforma Obywatelska (OB), now in opposition, sits with EPP.

This time there is a better chance for more forceful action against Poland than was the case with Hungary. As Kelemen and Orenstein warn, “if the European Union allows a second, much larger state to turn away from pluralist democracy and the rule of law, then the EU’s standing as a union of democracies and a beacon for liberty in the region will be damaged irreparably.” They urge the leaders of the European Union to act quickly and forcefully.

Polish demonstration, December 2015 / news.yahoo.com

Demonstration in Warsaw, December 2015 / news.yahoo.com

The message of Timothy Garton Ash in his article “The pillars of Poland’s democracy are being destroyed” is similar. “The voices of all allied democracies, in Europe and across the Atlantic, must be raised to express their concern about a turn with grave implications for the whole democratic west.” Ash wants the traditional friends of Poland to speak up: France, Spain, Italy, Canada, and naturally the United States, “especially as Poland prepares to host an important NATO summit this summer and wants NATO forces permanently based in the country.” Ash also talks about Cameron’s role in this affair. “And what about Britain? Realistically, Cameron is the politician least likely to criticize Kaczyński at the moment, because he desperately needs a deal over in-work benefits for (mainly Polish) migrants in the UK, so as to win his referendum on Britain’s EU membership. But it’s worth putting Cameron on the post, if only to hear his weasel words in reply. So will a British MP please challenge him about Poland in parliament at the next prime minister’s questions?”

How effective can outside pressure be, even if the EPP joins the others in censuring Kaczyński’s illiberal Poland? Especially after this morning, when Viktor Orbán announced in his regular radio interview that “it is not worth it for the European Union to rack its brains over any sanction against Poland because that would require full agreement. Hungary will never support any sanction against Poland.”

Viktor Orbán’s reaction is perfectly understandable. There is a strong ideological bond between him and Kaczyński. They see the world very similarly, and Kaczyński is now implementing most of those constitutional and administrative changes that Orbán introduced in Hungary, but at a much greater speed. He obviously admires Orbán’s political skills, and Orbán is most likely flattered to no end. This ideological bond itself would be enough for Orbán to stand by Kaczyński, but what reinforces these ties is the traditional Polish-Hungarian friendship. The importance of such historical traditions might be overstated, but Polish-Hungarian friendship over time has become part of the national ideologies of the two countries. A given. It is a romantic notion of long standing which, true or not, still makes an impact.

I  found a quotation from StanisƗaw Gabriel Worcell, a Polish revolutionary, written in 1849 which should make clear the depth of that feeling. “Hungary and Poland are eternal oak trees which have grown two separate branches, but their roots underground have been linked and invisibly intertwined over the years. Therefore, the existence and strength of one is the precondition of the life and health of the other.” Surely, an exaggeration but even recent history demonstrates that the two countries usually come to one another’s assistance in case of trouble. For example, Donald Tusk, who is certainly no Kaczyński, usually refrained from criticizing Viktor Orbán. As for Orbán, already in 2010 he was dreaming of an East European alliance system forming a corridor between the Baltic and the Adriatic. In order to demonstrate the seriousness of this vision, instead of going to Brussels after winning the election in 2010, Orbán’s first trip was to Warsaw. Donald Tusk, the prime minister at that time, didn’t show much inclination to make regional deals of this sort. As opposed to Orbán, he was developing good relations with Brussels.

If Hungary has the ability to veto any sanctions against Poland, then Brussels cannot rely on those countries Timothy Garton Ash suggested as possible pressure points. It is probably just as well, since we know from Hungary’s experience that a government that is bent on building an illiberal state can always outfox its critics. Orbán in the past proudly announced that, while they changed some of the wording in a piece of legislation to which EU officials objected, they managed to smuggle in something else that from Brussels’ point of view was even more objectionable. With governments like those in Poland and Hungary, only domestic forces can achieve results.

It looks as if the Poles aren’t taking Kaczyński’s autocratic rule lying down. While Hungarians passively watched the dismantling of the country’s democratic institutions, in Poland judges of the constitutional court and heads of the public media outlets resisted. If Kaczyński is not careful, he might find his hand-picked prime minister, Beata Szydło, out of office soon enough.

Viktor Orbán’s meeting with Jarosław Kaczyński

Yesterday afternoon vs.hu learned from several sources that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán will travel to Poland at the invitation of PiS, the country’s governing party. In terms of protocol it will be a private visit. At this point the word was that he will meet several “very important politicians.” From the scant information that has reached us since, however, it looks as if Orbán met only Jarosław Kaczyński, the party chairman. The meeting took place in Niedzica at the Polish-Slovak border, a town that belonged to Hungary prior to 1918. The meeting was long–six hours, including a lunch of the famous Polish delicacy zurek soup and trout.

Unfortunately, we know practically nothing about what transpired between the two men. The Polish opposition media’s guess is that Orbán was giving Kaczyński tips on how to make the constitutional court and the media serve the government’s interest. I, however, doubt that much time was spent on Polish domestic affairs since there are far too many international issues that demand the attention of the Polish and the Hungarian leadership.

Jarosław Kaczynski and Viktor Orbán in 2010

Jarosław Kaczyski and Viktor Orbán in 201

First and foremost, the two probably formulated a common policy response to David Cameron’s “new curbs on welfare payments for migrant workers.” Cameron is currently on the campaign trail to win support for his plan to limit in-work benefits for migrants. In his quest he seems to have the support of Germany, whose interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, thinks that Cameron’s “suggestions are not a matter of regulating migration but a matter of regulating welfare legislation.” Poland and Hungary, however, have an entirely different view of the matter. First of all, Hungarian officials greatly object to the word “migrant” in connection with their own nationals, who should be called either EU citizens or guest workers. “To consider Hungarians in Britain as migrants is painful to our ears,” Orbán complained in Brussels on December 18, 2015. I suspect that these two East European countries will eventually have to swallow Cameron’s bitter pill.

In addition to hammering out a common policy regarding Polish and Hungarian immigrants in Great Britain, which Viktor Orbán can relate to David Cameron, who will arrive in Budapest for a short visit tomorrow, there might have been a second item: Hungary’s relations with Putin’s Russia. You may recall my post of February 19, 2015 titled “Polak, węgier—dwa bratanki / lengyel, magyar–két jó barát—not at the moment” in which I described how Hungarian diplomats tried to convince Kaczyński to meet Orbán, who visited Poland shortly after Putin’s visit to Budapest, but the chairman of PiS refused. The answer was that such a meeting was out of the question after Hungary’s flirtation with Russia, Poland’s archenemy. Kaczyński, who hasn’t met Orbán since, most likely wanted to clear the air and to hear directly from Orbán himself about his relationship with Putin.

The third topic may well have been Poland’s unexpected decision to honor the promise of the former government and take 4,500 refugees as part of the quota system. That decision seriously weakens the position of the other three Visegrád4 countries. Viktor Orbán looks upon the joint action of these four countries, standing together against Brussels, as one of his major achievements of late. Surely, he was counting on the new PiS government to abrogate the former government’s offer, especially since in November Beata Szydło, Poland’s new prime minister, made it clear that her government was not prepared to accept the quota system because of the changed circumstances that followed the Paris terrorist attacks. Well, it seems that the situation changed again. Yesterday it was announced that, after all, Poland will take the promised number of refugees. Mind you, only during the next two years and allowing only 150 of them at a time at certain intervals. However cautiously, Poland abandoned Viktor Orbán’s rigid stance on the issue of quotas. The change of heart most likely follows the harsh criticism coming from Brussels on the arch-conservative PiS government’s moves concerning the Constitutional Court and the media.

What moves of the Polish government do EU politicians find unacceptable? I’m relying here on the assessment of Dalibor Rohac of the American Enterprise Institute, not exactly a liberal stronghold in the United States. According to Rohac, “the law changes the status of Poland’s public broadcasters to ‘national cultural institutions’—like the National  Museum or the National Ballet—placing them under direct control of the government.” As for the Constitutional Court, shortly before the October election the Sejm elected five new constitutional court judges, but after the election PiS and President Andrzej Duda sought to reverse these appointments, notwithstanding a ruling by the Constitutional Court that confirmed that the election of the new judges was valid. Both the European Commission and the European Parliament reacted, calling these moves a clear violation of the EU constitution.

Vice-President Frans Timmermans sent two letters to the Polish government asking for clarification of the bill. At the same time Günther Oettinger, EU commissioner for digital economy, told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung that “many reasons exist for us to activate the ‘Rule of Law mechanism’ and to place Warsaw under monitoring.” Although Witold Waszczykowski, the new foreign minister, immediately summoned EU ambassadors to demand an explanation, perhaps cooler heads prevailed and the decision was made to retreat, at least partially.

Waszczykowsk’s introduction to the German media hasn’t been exactly a success. In an interview with Bild he accused the former right-of-center Polish government of following a Marxist model, which is “a new mix of cultures and races, introducing a world of cyclists and vegetarians who focus only on renewable energies and fight against any form of religion. This has nothing to do with traditional Polish values, which are awareness of history, patriotism, faith in God, and a normal family life between husband and wife.”

I should add that only yesterday Waszczykowski announced an entirely new Polish foreign policy, which sounds as if it will be built on confrontation with Brussels. “Our foreign policy cannot be part of the mainstream, we cannot simply abide by Brussels’ decisions,” he announced on Polish public radio. Polish foreign policy seems to be in flux. As long as Waszczykowski’s ideas prevail, one cannot be sure that Poland will be a cooperating member state of the European Union.

Commentators are trying to find an explanation for the drastically different reaction of the European Commission and Parliament to the Polish government’s attempts to imitate Orbán’s illiberal state. How fast the EU reacted in the Polish case and how sluggish it was when Orbán was dismantling Hungarian democracy bit by bit. Professor Kim Scheppele pointed out a fundamental difference between the two cases just yesterday. The two-thirds parliamentary majority enabled Fidesz to change the constitution, so it never violated its own fundamental law. Therefore “the EU was totally at a loss in figuring out how to handle a perfectly legal coup,” she told The Financial Times. The Polish case is different. The PiS government, not having a two-thirds majority, cannot attain the kind of absolute power Orbán managed to acquire. The combination of constitutional limitations as well as internal and external pressures will most likely have a restraining effect on the Szydło-Kaczyński government.