Tag Archives: Bratislava Summit

A multi-speed Europe and the Visegrád Four

While Viktor Orbán is celebrating his “victory” in his fight with the European Commission over the expansion of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant, politicians in the western half of the continent are busily working on laying the foundation for a new type of European Union, one that might be able to avoid the pitfalls that have besieged Brussels ever since the abrupt enlargement of the Union in 2004.

On March 1 the European Commission published a White Paper on the future of Europe, “Avenues for the EU at 27.” The White Paper sets out five scenarios, each offering a glimpse into the potential state of the Union by 2025 depending on the choices Europe makes. Scenario 1: Carrying On. Scenario 2: Nothing but the Single Market. Scenario 3: Those Who Want More Do More, which means that the 27 members proceed as today but willing member states can do more together in areas such as defense, internal security, or social matters. Thus one or several “coalitions of the willing” will emerge. What will that mean exactly? To give but one example, 15 member states set up a police and magistrates corps to tackle cross-border criminal activities; security information is exchanged as national databases are fully interconnected. Scenario 4: Doing Less More Efficiently, which means delivering more and faster in selected areas, while doing less in other areas. Scenario 5: Doing Much More Together, in other words something close to a real union.

Although Juncker tried to deliver these five options in a neutral tone, it soon became evident that he and the other policy makers preferred scenario 3. “This is the way we want to go,” said an EU official to Euroaktiv.

On March 25 the White Paper will be officially handed over to the 27 governments in Rome at the sixtieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which signaled the first step toward the idea of a united Europe. It is there that the Visegrád 4 countries were planning to propose amendments to the EU treaties, but their hopes are most likely misplaced. As an unnamed EU official said, “for treaty change, there is no market.”

The idea of a multi-speed Europe has been in the air for some time as an answer to the feared disintegration of the European Union after Brexit. But it was only on February 3, at the informal summit of the European Council in Malta, that Angela Merkel spoke of such a solution publicly. Since then behind the scenes preparations for the implementation of this solution have been progressing with spectacular speed.

Today the “Big Four” officially called for a new dynamic, multi-speed Europe. In the Palace of Versailles Angela Merkel, François Hollande, Mariano Rajoy, and Paolo Gentiloni announced their support for a newly revitalized multi-speed Europe. The leaders of Germany, France, Spain, and Italy want to do more than celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the EU. They want “to reaffirm [their] commitment to the future,” said Hollande. Merkel added that “we should have the courage to allow some countries to move ahead, to advance more quickly than others.” To translate these diplomatic words into less polite language, these four countries, most likely supported by a fair number of other western and perhaps also Baltic states, are sick and tired of countries like members of the Visegrád 4. If they don’t want deeper integration and a common policy on defense, the economy, security and immigration, so be it. They will be left behind.

European leaders at the Palace of Versailles / Euroactiv.fr

What is Viktor Orbán’s reaction to these plans? As we know, the Hungarian prime minister can change his positions quickly and frequently, and it looks as if in the last month his ideas on the subject have hardened. Bruxinfo received information from sources close to Orbán at the time of the Malta Summit that the Hungarian prime minister didn’t consider the formation of a multi-speed Europe a necessarily adverse development as far as Hungary is concerned.

On March 2, however, a day after Juncker’s White Paper came to light, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary issued a joint declaration to the effect that the Visegrád 4, strongly supported by Viktor Orbán, find the idea of a multi-speed Europe unacceptable. The declaration said that the Visegrád 4 countries want neither federalization nor a return to the single market. What they find most odious, however, is Scenario 3. They look upon a multi-speed Europe as a sign that they will be treated as poor relatives, second-class citizens. Unfortunately, the four Visegrád countries, besides not wanting to be left behind, can’t agree on the extent of integration they are ready to accept.

Slovakia and the Czech Republic, unlike Poland and Hungary, are ready to cooperate with Brussels in certain areas such as asylum, migration policy, and the digital agenda in the spirit of “Bratislava Plus” adopted in September 2016. You may recall that after the Bratislava Summit Viktor Orbán was the only political leader who announced that the summit was a failure. He was especially unhappy that his Visegrád 4 friends didn’t stick with him during the negotiations. It looks as if Poland and Hungary didn’t manage to force their rigid attitude on the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Because of their differences, the common denominator of the Visegrád 4’s declaration was merely a description of their gripes. As a result, their message was defensive and weak. The four countries “express their concerns about creating exclusive clubs, they demand the equality of member states, and they want to involve national parliaments more in the political process that would control the subnational institutions,” as Vit Dostál, editor-in-chief of Euroaktiv.cz, remarked in his op/ed piece. The news about the decision of the German, French, Spanish and Italian prime ministers yesterday had to come as very bad news for the Visegrád 4. A multi-speed Europe is a frightening prospect for these countries.

Of course, they wouldn’t have to worry so much if they, especially Poland and Hungary, were more accommodating in their attitudes and would accept the fact that by joining the European Union they gave up some of their countries’ sovereignty. If they accepted the fact that the refugee problem is something that can be solved only together. As Merkel said in Versailles yesterday: “Cooperation can be kept open to those that have fallen behind.” We will see which road Orbán will choose, but cooperation is not Orbán’s strong suit.

March 7, 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