Tag Archives: Bohuslav Sobotka

What awaits the Visegrád Four?

A couple of weeks ago an excellent article appeared in Atlatszo.hu with the striking title “Visegrád is dead—An anti-Orbán alliance is in the making in Central Europe.” The alliance the author, Botond Bőtös, is referring to is the so-called Slavkov Triangle, comprising Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Slavkov is better known to most of us as Austerlitz, where the Battle of the Three Emperors (Napoleon, Tsar Alexander I, and Emperor Francis II) was fought in 1805.

Actually, the Slavkov Triangle is not new. It was in January 2015, in the middle of the Ukrainian crisis, that on the initiative of the Czech Republic the three prime ministers–Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann, and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico–signed a declaration that envisaged close cooperation in areas of infrastructure development, traffic, energy safety, and, most important, joint consultations prior to European Union summits. At the time quite a few Polish and Czech analyses appeared, but in Hungarian I found only one, in HVG, by Csaba Tóth of the Republikon Institute, which was subsequently translated into English and published by the Budapest Sentinel under the title “Slavkov Triangle threatens to isolate Hungary from its European allies.” The Slavkov Declaration, as Tóth noted,“betrays such a level of cooperation … as to suggest that if this plan is executed, the Visegrád Cooperation will become an empty structure.”

Not much happened in the intervening months. But at the end of June Bohuslav Sobotka, Robert Fico, and the new Austrian chancellor Christian Kern sat down again to continue their project and talk about the “convergence of old and new Europe.” According to Botond Bőtös, in the last couple of years the Czech Republic in particular has become concerned that the Visegrád 4 countries are being labelled intransigent opponents of everything the European Union stands for. Czech politicians began asking whether it was in the best interests of the Czech Republic to be identified with the Polish-Hungarian dominated group.

Bőtös is convinced that Orbán was always something of an irritant to the others, but after the 2015 Polish election that brought the right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) to power, “the foreign policy of Orbán became the official strategy of the Visegrád Group.” That was too much for the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Especially after the September 2016 V4-meeting in Bratislava, it became increasingly apparent that the Czechs and Slovaks held different views from their Polish and Hungarian colleagues. They differ on European integration, and they are not happy with the authoritarian turn of events in Poland and Hungary. They came to the conclusion that the V4 has no common, positive message for the rest of Europe. And the outside political world has a very negative opinion of the V4 countries. These are the considerations underpinning the revival of the Slavkov Triangle.

Christian Kern, Bohuslav Sobotka, and Robert Fico in front of the Austerlitz Palace

A couple of days ago Austrian chancellor Christian Kern gave an interview to the German paper Handelsblatt in which he talked at some length about the Visegrád 4 Group. He began by saying that there is a visible split in the group between Poland and Hungary on one side and the Czech Republic and Slovakia on the other. Kern pointed out that the EU often reproached the Polish and Hungarian governments, to no avail, but “now this conflict must have a resolution.” If necessary, through financial retribution.

Péter Szijjártó, the Hungarian foreign minister, reacted by saying that the Hungarian government has been aware for some time that certain Western European politicians are attempting to divide the Visegrád Group. “But we have bad news for them. It will not work. The Visegrád Group is the closest and most effective alliance within the European Union.”

Yesterday Viktor Orbán himself spoke about the Austrian chancellor’s reference to Hungary and the fractured Visegrád 4 in his Kossuth Rádió interview. Let me translate the passage verbatim because it says a lot about him and his interaction with the rest of the world.

It is never fortunate in politics when someone confuses his desires with reality. I understand that the Austrians are hurt because they are not part of the Visegrád Group. Austria is a lonely country anyway, and thus we don’t even know exactly where it is trying to find its strategic interests. Since the collapse of the monarchy it has been the historical question of Central Europe where Austria belongs. Until now Austria has been a very successful country. Therefore we can tip our hats because between the end of World War II and now it has achieved the highest standard of living and the greatest economic development. So, it is a talented country, but in a foreign policy sense it is at a loss because it is not a member of NATO yet a member of the European Union, not a member of V4 although it belongs to Central Europe. So there are many uncertainties here. It is not worthwhile for our friends to hope that they can break the unity of the Visegrád 4. The basic principle of V4 is simple: one for all and all for one.

Orbán at his best. Condescending, contemptuous, and arrogant when, by the look of it, it is he and his country who seem to be in some trouble on the international stage.

July 8, 2017

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