Tag Archives: Brexit

Leo Varadkar and Viktor Orbán had “a very direct exchange of views”

The Orbán government’s secretiveness is a well-known fact of life. While in other European countries trips of the prime minister are made public way ahead of time, in Hungary the announcement is usually made only when Viktor Orbán is already on the plane. The same seems to be true of foreign visitors who come to Budapest for an official visit. The Hungarian government usually announces the arrival of a foreign politician days after his own government discloses the impending trip. This was even the case with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s visit. The Polish government released the news on December 26, but the Hungarian government’s announcement came only two days later.

The visit of Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar was not announced until about 9:00 a.m. on January 4, the very same day he was supposed to meet Viktor Orbán. But this time, the Irish government wasn’t too eager to let the world know about the Taoiseach’s visit to Hungary. The media pointed to the unusually late announcement of the trip on January 3, which, as the Irish Examiner noted, “has raised questions.” Labor Party leader Brendan Howlin wanted to know why Varadkar didn’t inform the Dáil, the Irish Parliament, about his impending trip to Hungary and Bulgaria. As Howlin put it, given Viktor Orbán’s undemocratic policies, the visit “will be seen as an implicit endorsement by the Taoiseach and Ireland of the policies that Orbán’s government has pursued including his recent propaganda campaigns against Muslims, the EU, and also on George Soros that has verged on anti-semitism.” Howlin added that he hoped “the Taoiseach will have the courage to defend both the values Ireland and the EU have upheld when he meets with Orbán tomorrow and to criticize the divisive path that Hungary is pursuing within the EU.”

First, a few words about Leo Varadkar. He made international news in June 2017 when he was elected leader of Fine Gael, Ireland’s Christian Democratic Party. He was no ordinary candidate for the job of prime minister. First of all, at the time of his election, at age 38, he was the youngest prime minister in Europe. Second, he is one of the four openly gay heads of government on the Continent. And if that weren’t enough, he is of mixed Indian-Irish heritage. In brief, he is everything Orbán and his friends hate. And now here is a one-on-one talk for a whole hour during which Viktor Orbán will have to explain why he finds the “mixing” of different kinds of people and cultures dangerous for Hungary.

The official government site, which summarized Viktor Orbán’s short speech at the press conference, wasn’t exactly expansive on the issue of refugees, but even the little he said was further reduced to a couple of sentences on the government’s official website. “Regarding migration, [Orbán] said, he made it clear to his negotiating partner that ‘Hungary is not against anyone’ but insists on its own identity, culture, and the results it has achieved. Hungary stands on the foundations of legality.”

In fact, in his statement, which it seems he didn’t want to share with the world in English on the government website, Orbán said more than that. Here is the longer version:

We touched on the question of migration. I tried to make clear to the prime minister why migration is such an important question for Hungary. I tried to clarify the historical and cultural dimensions of the question; I wanted to make clear that Hungary is not against anyone but wants to adhere to its identity, culture, and the results it has achieved. One must look at the question of migration through these lenses.

Obviously, Varadkar wasn’t convinced. He announced at the press conference that
“Ireland doesn’t agree with Hungary on the issue of migration and supports the concept of a common burden-sharing within the European Union,” a statement which was greeted by 24.hu with enthusiasm: “An unheard-of thing happened in Budapest. Leo Varadkar announced that he doesn’t share Orbán’s migration policies.” This is what Hungary has come to.

We learn more about the meeting and its flavor from the Irish prime minister, who gave an interview to The Irish Times after the encounter. Apparently they had “a very direct exchange of views” about Hungary’s refusal to resettle refugees, about the tightening government control over civil society, and about the shuttering of Central European University, which is ‘a bastion of liberal values’ in the region.” He added that he can’t tell whether this very direct exchange had much of an impact because Orbán is someone who is “very firm in his views and world views.”

Viktor Orbán, unlike Leo Varadkar, is not in the best mood

All in all, the meeting couldn’t have been very pleasant, even if the two see eye to eye on several issues. First, Hungary, whose corporate tax of 9% is the lowest in Europe, supports Ireland against the so-called tax harmonization efforts of the European Union. Earlier Ireland had a close partner in its fight against such legislation, but The Irish Times sadly announced in October that after Brexit Ireland “will have to fight its own corner.” Hungary is, however, ready to stand by Ireland, alongside Liechtenstein, which also has a very low corporate tax rate (12.5%).

Another matter the two prime ministers agreed on was the benefit of the current agricultural policies (CAP) of the European Union. Ever since his election as French president, Emmanuel Macron has been talking a lot about both tax harmonization and reform and a reduction in agricultural subsidies. Not surprisingly, neither Ireland nor Hungary is keen on reforms. Ireland is the beneficiary of low taxes, and in Hungary Orbán and his oligarchs have been madly buying up farmland precisely because of the generous EU subsidies.

The third item was Irish concerns related to Brexit. Although Hungary’s support of Irish interests in this context remains quite vague, Orbán promised to stand by Ireland in the Brexit negotiations.

Viktor Orbán didn’t look too happy after the talks were over. He is a firm believer that no other country should “meddle” in Hungary’s affairs, just as he refuses to pass judgment on the dictatorships he courts and thinks so highly of. He is also convinced that he is right and all others are wrong when it comes to the migrant issue.

Those Eastern despots who have visited Budapest in the last few years haven’t argued with him about the correctness of his positions. Orbán cannot really hide his feelings, and it was pretty obvious that, despite all those kind words about the freedom-loving Irish people and their fantastic economic achievement, he was annoyed. Most Western European heads of government simply avoid Budapest. But then one comes calling, and he gives the Hungarian prime minister a lecture — on his own turf. Can you imagine how irritating Orbán must have found that?

January 7, 2018

Western worries about Russian disinformation just “fits of hysterics”

Two days ago the foreign ministers of the European Union met in Brussels with Federica Mogherini, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, presiding. She asked the ministers to support her request to increase human and financial resources “to fight against disinformation and propaganda coming from abroad,” in particular from Russia. According to newspaper reports, “nobody inside the room was opposed to beefing up the task forces involved in such an undertaking.” This unanimity is quite a change from only a few months ago, when the European Council blocked a similar proposal.

The initiative for a joint European effort to combat Russian interference in the political processes of member states came from a Romanian member of the European Parliament, Siegfried Mureșan, who suggested in May that funds for that use be included in next year’s EU budget. It was high time to pay more attention to the problem. Russia has a small army of hackers and trolls. By contrast, the EU’s task force that concentrates on the eastern front has 15 employees and the one that focuses on the Western Balkans and the Arab-speaking world is even smaller than that.

For some time Russia has been active in Europe as well as in North America. For instance, Russian hackers got hold of nine gigabytes of e-mails from Macron’s campaign. Macron complained to Putin at their first meeting in May about Russia Today and Sputnik, financed by Russia’s defense ministry, which attacked Macron’s En Marche! Movement. But Russia’s cyber weapon against the West has proved to be very effective, and Putin has no intention of curbing his hackers’ activities.

Good examples of Russian manipulation can be seen in the Catalonian independence referendum and Brexit. Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis announced that his government had confirmed that a propaganda campaign intended to destabilize Spain came from Russia and Venezuela. They used Twitter, Facebook, and other internet sites to publicize the separatist cause and swing public opinion to support it.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh identified 419 accounts operating from the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) that attempted to influence British politics. Russian hackers also spread anti-Islamic sentiments in Great Britain after the recent terrorist attacks. According to The Guardian, hundreds of paid bloggers work around the clock at IRA “to flood Russian internet forums, social networks and the comments sections of western publications—sowing disinformation, praising the country’s president, Vladimir Putin, and raging at the west.” On Monday Theresa May addressed the issue in a speech, saying that Russia’s actions were “threatening the international order on which we all depend.”

The latest complaint came today from the Netherlands. Kajsa Ollongren, minister of the interior, accused Russia of attempting to influence public opinion in the Netherlands by spreading fake news and misinformation. She stated that her country is being “monitored by Russia’s security services which constantly search for opportunities to undermine it in ways that are easy, anonymous, fast and cheap.” She came up with specific examples, one of which was using a group of Ukrainian émigrés with Russian sympathies to try to tilt Dutch public opinion towards a no vote in the referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement—which was, in fact, rejected in 2016.

Today Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, answered these accusations. “We are quite accustomed now that some of our partners in Europe and across the ocean apparently have no better things to do than blaming our media or branding them as foreign agents. Apparently, the explanation is that people in the capitals, from which such accusations come, be that Madrid or London, are facing numerous unresolved domestic problems. And, probably, get into such sensationalized fits of hysterics to draw the attention of their voters away from their inability to solve those problems,” reported Russia Today.

Hungary’s attitude to Russian internet propaganda shows the usual ambivalence. In May 2017 the European People’s Party held its conference in Malta, where the Fidesz members of the party voted with the majority in condemning “Russian disinformation undermining Western democracy.” Two months later, however, in Budapest, the Fidesz members of parliament rejected a proposal identical with the one Fidesz MEPs voted for. The opposition party LMP translated the text of the EPP statement into Hungarian and turned it in as their own proposal. The document didn’t even get to the floor. It died in committee.

At the November 13 meeting of EU foreign ministers, Szijjártó, along with all his colleagues, voted for the expansion of EU efforts to defend against the systematic cyberattacks on EU member countries. But this piece of information didn’t make it to the Hungarian media. Foreign Minister Szijjártó gave a quick press conference in the intermission, during which he assiduously avoided talking about Russian cyberattacks and concentrated instead on the migrant issue. He also complained bitterly about Ukrainian atrocities against Hungarian symbols in Berehove/Beregszász, where someone took off the Hungarian flag from town hall and put a dirty shirt on Sándor Petőfi’s statue. This anti-Hungarian incident is probably a response to Hungary’s recent treatment of Ukraine.

Hungary has been preoccupied with Ukraine ever since Kiev passed an education law stating that minority students will be able to learn all subjects in their own language in the first four grades but, starting with grade five, with the exception of one or two subjects, the language of instruction will be Ukrainian. Péter Szijjártó said that Hungary will veto all of Ukraine’s moves to strengthen its ties to the European Union. Hungary’s first opportunity to isolate Ukraine came at the end of October when Hungary vetoed a planned December 6 meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission. The NATO-Ukraine Commission is a decision-making body responsible for developing relations between NATO and Ukraine and directing cooperative activities between them. Sputnik reported the good tidings that “Hungary announced that it will block Ukraine’s aspirations to integrate into NATO.” In the meantime, Russian hackers and trolls are incredibly active in Ukraine. In Hungary one doesn’t have to worry about Russian fake news and disinformation because Hungarians are fed the same by their own government.

November 15, 2017

Shrinking population, shrinking labor force, sluggish economy

Given the Hungarian government’s fierce opposition to accepting any refugees, I decided to take a look at the latest Hungarian population statistics.

Since Viktor Orbán became prime minister in 2010, the population of Hungary has shrunk from 10,014,324 to 9,830,485 (as of 2016). It has lost 183,939 persons, roughly the population of the second largest Hungarian city, Debrecen. If we break these figures down by age group, the situation is even more dire. Today there are fewer children between the ages of 1 and 14 (-62,408) and fewer adults between the ages of 15 and 64 (-264,527) than in 2010. What is more alarming is that the number of those over the age of 65 has grown substantially. To be precise, by 164,517, which is about the population of Szeged, Hungary’s third largest city.

Ever since the second half of the 1980s, the natural decrease of the population was around -3.5 per 1,000 annually. Last year was one of the worst, at -4.1. The Demographic Research Institute of the Central Statistical Office predicts that if the trend of the last 30 years continues, Hungary’s population will be under 8 million by 2060.

Current population statistics most likely overestimate the number of inhabitants residing in the country since many of those who moved abroad in the last few years never bothered to announce their departure to the authorities. Their number might be as high as 600,000, according to figures provided by Eurostat and assorted national statistical offices. Under these circumstances, a labor shortage in practically every sector of the economy is unavoidable.

Last summer I wrote two posts about the severe labor shortage in Hungary caused by the low birthrate and the massive exodus of Hungarians. I expressed my belief that without an infusion of foreign labor the situation cannot be remedied. A few days later the National Association of Employers and Manufacturers (MGYOSZ) suggested that Hungary would immediately need about 250,000 foreign workers, who should be enticed to come to Hungary from abroad. Mihály Varga, minister of national economy, agreed with MGYOSZ’s estimate of the situation, but in no time Fidesz published a statement saying that the Hungarian government provides work opportunities for Hungarians, not for immigrants. Both MGYOSZ and Varga got the message, but it turned out that the government “secretly” began the importation of foreign workers from so-called third countries, i.e., countries lying outside the European Union.

Hungary can hope for immigration only from countries with lower living standards than its own. Thus the government gave Samsung Magyarország, located in Jászfényszaru, a town of 5,000 in the northern portion of the Great Plain region of Central Hungary, permission to recruit workers from war-torn Ukraine. Of course, for Ukrainian speakers Poland or the Czech Republic might be more attractive given the easier linguistic communication there, so Samsung had to make its job offer especially enticing. By November of last year Samsung employed about 150 Ukrainians, and apparently their numbers are growing. In addition to their monthly pay of about 125,000 forints, they receive housing, some food, and travel expenses to return home once a month. About 100 of them live in nearby Jászberény in apartment houses; others are still in temporary housing on a camp site. The 125,000 forint salary isn’t much, but in comparison to what they would make in Ukraine it is considered to be quite good. Index interviewed a couple who are all set and ready to settle in Hungary. In a few years they will be able to save enough money to buy a house in one of the nearby villages. Another man with a Hungarian wife is learning Hungarian in order to become a Hungarian citizen.

The Ukrainians working on the Samsung assembly line were given on-the-job training. The same is most likely true of the six Indian guest workers who milk cows on a dairy farm in Sarud, close to Eger. Locals were either not interested in the job or, once hired, didn’t work out. The owner of the dairy farm heard about Indian workers at another farm who were highly praised. So he decided to follow suit. The first six have arrived. They are so hard working and reliable that the Hungarian dairy farmer has nothing but praise for them.

Sándor Csányi, head of Hungary’s largest bank, established a slaughterhouse in Mohács. He had a terrible time finding butchers because experienced Hungarian butchers had left for Germany a long time ago. Supermarkets also have a very hard time finding workers, and their management teams have been thinking of ways to fill these positions–one strategy is to retrain public workers. The few migrants who received permission to stay in Hungary quickly gain employment–mind you, mostly by foreign-owned firms.

The government is now trying to remedy the serious labor shortage by allowing retirees to accept tax-free part-time jobs. It was only a few years ago that the Orbán government insisted on a mandatory retirement age of 65. Now the government is trying to entice retirees to return to work.

Hungary, of course, is not alone in facing this problem. Germany’s labor shortage won’t easily be remedied with often unskilled migrants who don’t speak the language. But immigrants learn fast. With a well thought out plan, within a few years Germany might solve its labor shortfall. Great Britain, on the other hand, will be in trouble if Theresa May’s government succeeds in putting an end to or severely restricting immigration to the British Isles. For example, Brits show little interest in working in hotels and restaurants. In one chain, Pret a Manger, 65% of the employers are from countries outside the European Union. The hospitality industry would probably collapse without a steady flow of immigrants. Only recently Global Future, an employer-backed think tank, reported that the British economy needs an inward migration flow of 200,000 people a year “to avoid the catastrophic economic consequences” of Brexit. They warned that if the UK refuses to be flexible about labor inflow, the country could face decades of slow growth similar to that experienced by Japan. Just today The Guardian published an article that recounts the possible plight of Hall Hunter Partnership, a business that grows 10% of the UK’s strawberries, 19% of its raspberries, and 42% of its blueberries on thousands of acres. The company needs 3,000 pickers, who come from Bulgaria, Romania, and other East European countries. The opponents of EU membership talked about sovereignty and control, railed against the free movement of labor, but “what they didn’t mention is the way the British food supply chain has, over the past 30 years, become increasingly reliant on workers from elsewhere, both permanent residents and seasonal labor.” Around 20% of all employees in British agriculture come from abroad, mostly from Romania and Bulgaria, while 63% of the employees of members of the British Meat Processors Association come from outside the UK.

Indeed, the example of Japan might be a good illustration of what could happen to Great Britain if it closes its doors to immigrants vital to maintaining its economy. Japan’s birth rate has been dropping since the 1970s. “One percent shrinkage in population will slow Japan’s economic growth by about half a percentage point each year. So 0.5 percent of GDP is about 2.5 trillion yen ($2.95 billion) every year that’s potentially lost economic revenue,” according to an economic expert on Japan. He thinks that Japanese society will finally have to decide that they must embrace the idea of immigration. This is not going to be easy in insular, quasi-racist Japan.

The same holds true in Hungary, given Viktor Orbán’s insistence on “cultural purity.” It is impossible to maintain a robust economy with a shrinking workforce and an aging population. Something must be done.

May 21, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s vision of a new world order is fading

I was all set to ignore Viktor Orbán’s nineteenth yearly “assessment,” to skip the whole rigmarole. After all, there is absolutely nothing new to be found in his ramblings sprinkled with archaic and pious phrases mixed with affected folksiness. We have heard him speak countless times about his clairvoyant powers, predicting the coming of a new illiberal world which is partly his own creation. And this latest speech is no different from any of the others he has delivered lately. But as I was going through my early morning perusal of news in the United States and Europe, I decided that in light of the latest developments in world affairs it might be useful to spend a little time on Orbán’s latest pronouncements.

Although critics complain that the speech, which was supposed to be about the government’s achievements in the past year, was mostly about foreign affairs, I found a fair amount of bragging about the great accomplishments, economic and otherwise, of the third Orbán government. Nonetheless, I was much more interested in his “vision” of the present and the future, not of Hungary but of the world.

According to Viktor Orbán, 2017 “promises to be an exhilarating year.” There will be “surprises, scratching of heads, raising of eyebrows, rubbing of eyes.” People will ask each other: “Is everything that is coming undone and taking shape in front of our eyes really possible?” The existing world order is coming to an end. History beckons the prophets of liberal politics, the beneficiaries and defenders of the present international order, the globalists, the liberals, the influential talking heads in their ivory towers and television studios. A new world is coming, a world where populists like Viktor Orbán , Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Recep Erdoğan, Marine Le Pen, and other right-wing populists elsewhere in Europe will decide the fate of the western world.

Perhaps I have been inattentive, but this is the first time that I noticed a recurring adjective in an Orbán speech: “open world, “open world order,” “open society.” Orbán is “paying homage” to his nemesis, George Soros. He very much hopes that with the “exhilarating” 2017 the “open world order” will come to an end. As far as he is concerned, the beginning of his new world looks promising: Brexit, the American presidential election, “booting out” the Italian government, the “successful” Hungarian referendum on the migrants, all of these take us closer to the promising new world.

Orbán’s next sentence can be fully understood only if I provide its poetic backdrop. Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849) was a political radical who, in December 1848, wrote a poem titled “Hang the Kings!” The poem begins “Knife in Lamberg’s heart and rope around the neck of Latour and after them perhaps others will follow. At last, you people are becoming great!” Lamberg and Latour were high government officials who were killed in Pest and Vienna by angry mobs. So, Orbán, of course without mentioning the two murdered gentlemen, sums up the happy events of late in Great Britain, Italy, the United States, and Hungary: “after them perhaps more will follow. At last, you people are becoming great.” So, Orbán is in a revolutionary mood, no doubt about it. And he is also full of hope, although given the fate of the 1848 revolutions in the Habsburg Empire, I wouldn’t be so sanguine in his place.

As I look around the world, however, Orbán’s dream world may not come into being as fast, if at all, as he thinks. Let’s start with Austria’s presidential election last year. Orbán and the government media kept fingers crossed for Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, yet Alexander Van der Bellen, a member of the Austrian Greens, won the election by a fairly large margin. The first effort of a self-described far-right party in Europe to win high office failed.

Orbán’s next hope is for a huge victory by Marine Le Pen in France. But the centrist Emmanuel Macron’s chances of beating Le Pen look good. At least the Elabe poll shows Le Pen losing the run-off 37% to 63%. Another poll, Ifop Fiducial, predicts 36% to 64%. Two different polls, very similar results.

Then there is Germany. Former foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a social democrat, was elected Germany’s president. He won 931 of the 1,239 valid votes cast by members of the Bundestag and representatives of the 14 federal states. When the result was announced by Norbert Lammert, president of the Bundestag, there was a standing ovation. Even more importantly, Angela Merkel’s solid lead a few months ago is beginning to fade. The reason is the socialist Martin Schulz’s appearance on the German political scene. According to the latest polls, the two candidates are neck to neck. One also should mention the latest developments in the nationalist Alternative for Germany Party (AfD), which would certainly be Orbán’s choice. According to the German media, since Schulz announced his candidacy for the chancellorship, “the number of people who did not vote in 2013 and are now planning to vote for the SPD has risen by roughly 70 percent in the last 14 days.” And what is more important from Orbán’s point of view, “AfD—which brought the most non-voters to the polls in several state elections last year—also lost support dramatically. Forty percent fewer former non-voters expressed their support for the party.”

One ought to keep in mind that the Hungarian government propaganda has succeeded in making Angela Merkel generally despised by the Hungarian public. Vladimir Putin is more popular in Hungary than Merkel. But given the choice between Merkel and Schulz, Orbán should actually campaign for Merkel’s reelection because Schulz, who until now was the president of the European Parliament, is one of the loudest critics of Orbán and his illiberal populism.

Finally, let’s talk about the situation in the United States. What has been going in Washington since Donald Trump’s inauguration as president of the United States has surpassed people’s worst fears. Total chaos, a non-functioning government, and very strong suspicions about the Trump team’s questionable relations with Russian intelligence. Michael Flynn, Trump’s choice to be his national security adviser, was forced to resign because of his direct contact with the Russian ambassador to Washington. A few minutes ago, we learned that Andy Puzder withdrew as labor secretary nominee in order to avoid a pretty hopeless confirmation hearing.

Donald Trump on the phone with Vladimir Putin / Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

The list of incredible happenings in Washington is so long that one could spend days trying to cover them. What I would like to stress here is that I’m almost certain that Trump’s original friendly overtures to Putin’s Russia have been derailed. The Russians did their best to bolster Trump’s chances, but by now Putin must realize that the new American president cannot deliver.

Now let’s return to Viktor Orbán, who was an early admirer of Donald Trump. His admiration of Trump was based on the presidential hopeful’s anti-migration policies, his disregard of political correctness, and his anti-establishment rhetoric. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, Orbán found Trump’s pro-Russian views and his promise to “make a deal” with Russia and lift the sanctions against Moscow especially appealing. In such an event, Orbán believed he would play a more important role than he as the prime minister of a small country could otherwise have expected.

Now these hopes are vanishing with the tough stand both Democrats and Republicans have taken on Russia’s military occupation of Crimea and its efforts to stoke a civil war in Eastern Ukraine. Moreover, given the investigation into Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential election and the ties of members of the Trump team to Russian intelligence, Trump is not in a position to hand out favors to Russia. So Putin won’t be best friends with the American president. And Europe seems disinclined to follow the U.S. into political chaos. Orbán, if he has any sense, should tone down his rhetoric about a new, exhilarating future where the old establishment sinks into oblivion.

February 15, 2017

Hungarians torn apart by anti-refugee propaganda

The Publicus Institute has released the results of its poll, taken between July 1 and 6, on Hungarians’ attitude toward and assessment of the European Union. To put the results in perspective, the survey was taken a little over a week after the Brits voted to leave the European Union, the consequences of which seemed and still seem dramatic. The message Hungarians got from Brexit is that leaving the European Union can have grave consequences. If Great Britain, the fifth largest economy in the world prior to the vote, will have to endure severe financial and political dislocations, then regardless of what some Fidesz politicians say, Hungary’s place must be inside the European Union.

The last time the Publicus Institute conducted a survey on the population’s feelings toward the Union was a year ago, in June 2015, when 57% considered Hungary’s membership in the European Union advantageous to the country. Today that number is 70%. This is a dramatic change. While in 2009 only 48% and in 2015 57% of the population would have voted for EU membership if a referendum had been held on the issue, today this figure is 64%.

This recent Hungarian poll supports the conclusions of an opinion piece by George Soros that appeared in the July 8 issue of Project Syndicate. As opposed to his earlier pessimism on the fate of the European Union as a result of the refugee crisis, his spirit is now buoyed by “the grassroots involvement,” which he calls “regrexit,” that emerged in the U.K. in favor of the Union. “If this sentiment spreads to the rest of Europe, what seemed like the inevitable disintegration of the EU could be instead creating positive momentum for a stronger and better Europe,” Soros claims. The opportunity should be seized and the EU should be reformed. Soros urges a more closely integrated fiscal and monetary system for the Eurozone countries: the core EU “needs to have its own treasury and budget, to serve as a fiscal authority alongside the monetary authority, the European Central Bank.” He again urges the European Union to “put its excellent and largely untapped credit to use” not only to spend funds on the integration of freshly arrived immigrants but also, I assume, to revitalize the sagging European economy.

Almost simultaneously with the appearance of George Soros’s upbeat article on the future of the European Union, an article appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung by Viktor Orbán. In sharp contrast to Soros, Orbán advocated a further loosening of the already weak bonds between member states. Orbán urged nation states to take back their sovereignty, which some Hungarian papers interpreted as a call to dismantle the European Union.

Although, as the Publicus poll shows, Orbán’s anti-EU propaganda isn’t working, his incitement against migrants is a roaring success. The Pew Research Center conducted a survey in ten EU countries, Hungary among them, to measure  attitudes toward Muslim refugees. Anti-Muslim feelings are the highest in Hungary, at 72%. The lowest is in the UK (28%). In Hungary 76% of the respondents linked refugees with terrorism, and  Hungary leads the way on the question of whether there will be an increased likelihood of terrorism because of the arrival of the refugees (76%). Moreover, 82% of Hungarians surveyed are convinced that refugees will be a burden on the social system. Viktor Orbán can be proud of his propaganda.

moral panic2

Perhaps in response to these findings Népszabadság approached Endre Sik, a professor of sociology and CEO of Tárki, a polling company. In Sik’s opinion, what the Orbán government is doing is creating “moral panic,” a sociological term described by Stanley Cohen as a response to “a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerg[ing] to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.” According to Sik, this moral panic normally arrives quickly but also disappears rapidly. What is different in Hungary is the sustained existence of moral panic due to “an innovative, extremely wide and very brutal campaign built on the migrant case” by the government. Sik is unaware of similar efforts by any other government.

Sik contends that at the beginning of 2015, after Fidesz’s popularity had hit a low point, the government devised a complex strategy, intended to have long-term effects on Hungarian society. The government didn’t simply push the “moral panic button” once or twice. It has done so practically constantly in the last year and a half. It is a “Hungaricum” like pálinka or Tokaj wine because of its centralized nature and the techniques used by the Orbán government. As Sik explains, Fidesz “institutionalized scare mongering.”

The other day I wrote about the shortage of employable workers and the case study of a company that had to import workers from Mexico. When the eight Mexicans arrived in Szügy in Nógrád County, close to the Slovak border, the village folks wouldn’t greet them. They thought they were “migrants.” But once they learned that the newcomers were Mexicans, the children enthusiastically waved at them and the adults smiled broadly. The government propaganda is that effective. Even in a small village everybody knows about the evil migrants who may be dangerous terrorists. And how can anyone forget the ridiculous scene of a group of public workers, who might actually have been Gypsies, who were scared to death by some surveyors–and vice versa. They suspected each other of being “migrants,” a word that, thanks to the government’s efforts, prompts alarm and apprehension.

We don’t know what kinds of effects this sustained fear mongering will have on the psyche of the Hungarian people. If this “moral panic” is different from the garden variety, no one can predict its potential damage to Hungarian society.

July 12, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s pointless but possibly dangerous referendum

Although the international media has been aware, for some months, of the Orbán government’s looming referendum on the “migration quota issue,” now that President János Áder has fixed its date for October 2 the Hungarian referendum is a hot topic. Stories abound about its unfortunate nature and timing.

Within Hungary its critics viewed it, at least initially, as a stunt designed to reinforce the population’s antagonism toward the “migrants” and bolster their support for the anti-refugee policies of the Orbán government. They thought, that is, that it was primarily a domestic issue.

The democratic opposition parties opposed holding such a referendum, but first the Kúria and later the Constitutional Court agreed to let voters answer the following question: “Do you want the European Union to be able to order the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without parliament’s consent?” There are so many things wrong with this question that it shouldn’t have been approved by the National Election Commission in the first place. Not only is it a leading question, but the Hungarian Parliament has nothing whatsoever to do with the government’s relationship with the European Union. It is a bad question on a nonexistent issue. As Leonid Bershidsky of Bloomberg pointed out, the Cameron government’s original question read: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union,” but the country’s Election Commission recommended spelling out both options instead of only one. (Not that it helped.) Orbán’s illiberal state has very few independent institutions by now, and the National Election Commission is certainly not one of them.

After Brexit many people from the left-liberal opposition parties practically begged Orbán to scrap the whole idea. Their argument was that there are many countries where large and powerful anti-EU parties exist, which will try to stage referendums similar to that of the Cameron government. Such actions may fracture the very structure of the Union, already wounded by Brexit. I don’t understand the democratic opposition’s repeated appeals to reason when it comes to this government. By now they should know that once Viktor Orbán embarks on a course of action, he will go through with it no matter what.

Orbán’s goal is a valid referendum with the highest possible number of “no” votes. I have no doubt that those who take part in the referendum will overwhelmingly vote against any mandatory settlement of migrants. That’s a no brainer. The question is whether enough people will turn out to vote. To get four million voters to the polling stations out of the eight million eligible voters will not be easy. As voting patterns from earlier referendums have shown, Hungarians demonstrate a low level of awareness of the blessings of participatory democracy. In fact, the Horn government lowered the requirements for a valid referendum to 25% just before the July 1997 plebiscite on Hungary’s membership in NATO, which was a wise move because only 49% of eligible citizens voted. For the referendum on Hungary’s joining the European Union only 45.6% of eligible voters turned out. Viktor Orbán, who has a genuine fear of referendums, raised the threshold for validity to 50%. It is this hurdle the government has to overcome with a propaganda tsunami between now and October 2.

I have no doubt that nothing will be spared in the next few months to achieve the magic number. The government will use disinformation, lies, and “incentives” to convince as many people as possible to vote with a resounding “no.” Huge billboards have already appeared telling Hungarians that with their vote at the referendum “they are sending a message to Brussels.”

The democratic opposition’s fear is that, although the overwhelming majority of Hungarians view the European Union favorably, such an intensive propaganda campaign might turn a large number of Hungarians against the Union. As it stands, the EU’s strongest supporters are the Poles (72%) and the Hungarians (61%). Is it possible that Viktor Orbán would like to temper this high level of enthusiasm for the EU? Is this why we heard from the government’s second highest official, János Lázár, that he “wouldn’t be able to vote to remain in the European Union in good conscience”? Or is this outrageous remark from the man who is in charge of the dispersion of EU convergence funds merely a come-on to encourage high participation in this very questionable referendum?

Source: András Stumpf's article "It was a mistake to hold a referendum, mandiner.hu

Source: mandiner.hu

Whatever the case, anyone who doesn’t want to be a pawn in Viktor Orbán’s game should stay away from this referendum to make sure it is not valid. The lower the participation the better. The alternative of going and voting “yes” as a sign of support for the European Union is the most bizarre idea I can imagine. Who will consider a “yes” vote an endorsement of the European Union as the Magyar Liberális Párt suggests? Luckily, Gabor Fodor’s Liberal Party is a practically nonexistent entity. Otherwise all the opposition parties, excluding Jobbik of course, will be campaigning for a boycott of the referendum.

To my great surprise even András Stumpf, a journalist currently working for Mandiner.hu, a right-of-center, pro-government internet site, also considers the referendum “pointless” and Orbán’s insistence on holding it “unfortunate.” He more or less decided to join those who will stay home. According to Stumpf, the question should have been phrased this way: “Do you object to the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without parliament’s consent even at the possible cost of leaving the European Union?” Well put. But as long as the question voters will see on October 2 is what it is, the only answer is to boycott the referendum. Bershidsky is right in describing it as “manipulative” and the whole affair as a “farce.” But it’s a dangerous farce.

July 6, 2016

George Soros before the European Parliament and the Hungarian government’s reaction

Every time George Soros makes a public statement, which he does frequently, the Hungarian political right launches a frenzied attack against him. Interestingly, the Hungarian media didn’t spend much time on an article that appeared in The New York Review of Books (April 9, 2016). In it he explained that European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans had invited an open debate on the refugee crisis, to which he was responding in his article. The solution, according to Soros, is “at least €30 billion ($34 billion) a year [which] will be needed for the EU to carry out a comprehensive plan.” He suggested that “Europe has the financial and economic capacity to raise €30 billion a year, [which] is less than one-quarter of one percent of the EU’s combined annual GDP of €14.9 trillion, and less than one-half of one percent of total spending by its twenty-eight member governments.”

Soros, however, realized that some members would vehemently object, especially Germany. So, instead, he offered all sorts of financial arrangements that would yield the necessary money without triggering the opposition of Germany and others. The task is urgent because “the refugee crisis poses an existential threat to Europe.”

On June 30 Soros delivered a speech to the European Parliament in Brussels, which was a revised version of the ideas he had spelled out in his New York Review of Books article. The result of the British referendum had a shocking effect on Soros who, upon hearing of the calamitous vote for Brexit, was certain that the disintegration of the European Union was “practically inevitable.” And since, in his opinion, “the refugee crisis … played a crucial role” in the British decision, the EU must act in one way or the other to raise money to solve the crisis and at the same time save the European Union.

I believe he is wrong in thinking that the refugee crisis per se had a substantial influence on the outcome of the referendum. In fact, a quick poll conducted after June 23 showed that “the question of sovereignty was the determining factor for the majority that voted for exit from the European Union.” Unlimited immigration from EU countries was also an important consideration.

George Soros in the European Parliament. Left of him Péter Niedermüller, DK EP MP

George Soros in the European Parliament. To his left, Péter Niedermüller, DK EP MP / Photo: European Parliament

But Soros’s linkage of the refugee crisis and Brexit strengthened his argument that the refugee crisis must be solved as soon as possible. In his fairly lengthy speech he talked about the necessity of “profound restructuring” and “fundamental reform of the EU.” He lashed out at “the orthodoxy of the German policymakers,” specifically Angela Merkel, who “ignored the pull factor” created by her initial acceptance of the refugees. Soros also severely criticized her for “her ill-fated deal with Erdoğan” and for her “imposed quotas that many member states opposed and [that] required refugees to take up residence in countries where they were not welcome.”

One would think that Viktor Orbán would have been happy to find an ally in George Soros, but it seems that there is nothing Soros can say or do that would please the Hungarian governing coalition. In fact, they launched a new campaign against him after he addressed the European Parliament. The reason for the government outcry was three sentences he uttered in the course of outlining ways in which the EU could raise the requisite €30 billion yearly. He said,“Finally, I come to the legacy expenditures that have crippled the EU budget. Two items stand out: cohesion policy, with 32% of expenditures, and agriculture with 38%. These will need to be sharply reduced in the next budget cycle starting in 2021.”

The first Hungarian politician to respond to Soros’s suggestion was György Hölvényi, KDNP member of the European People’s Party, followed by György Schöpflin, Fidesz EP member, who accused Soros of trying to make money on his financial advice to the European Union. Magyar Hírlap announced the news of Soros’s speech with this headline: “There are already signs of Soros’s latest speculations.” Naturally, János Lázár also had a few words to say about Soros’s speech in Brussels. He described him as someone who “presents himself as the voluntary savior of Europe” and who “wants to implement wholesale immigration.” Soros has no mandate from the European voters to offer any kinds of proposals, and it is not at all clear who invited him to the European Parliament. An editorial in Magyar Idők portrayed Soros as an emissary of the Clintons: “the face of Washington shows a striking similarity to that of George Soros.” The author added that if Hillary Clinton wins the election, this unfortunate situation will remain in place. Soros’s disapproval of compulsory quotas was dismissed as nothing more than a queen’s gambit.

The spokesman of Fidesz-KDNP on the issue was István Hollik, a member of parliament who was practically unknown until recently. He expressed the governing party’s strong objections to all of Soros’s suggestions, especially cutting back the cohesion funds and the agricultural subsidies “in the interest of the immigrants.” Fidesz-KDNP “expressly calls on the European Union to reject the proposals of the financial Forex speculator.” Naturally, Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó also commented on Soros’s “totally astonishing ideas.”

None of the Hungarian politicians, or for that matter commentators, spent any time on Soros’s other suggestions, some of which merit consideration. They were fixated on the two items–cohesion funds and agricultural subsidies–that would really hurt the Hungarian government and its coterie of oligarchs. Can you imagine the plight of those who are the beneficiaries of the money pouring in from the European Union? And what will happen to the new landed gentry who purchased agricultural property for the express purpose of getting free money for every hectare from Brussels? Indeed, that would be a calamity.

And then there was the reaction of László Csizmadia, president of Civil Összefogás Fórum (CÖF), a phony NGO most likely financed by the government. In his scenario Hillary Clinton sent her number one scout to the European Union to test her future policies and their reception. Behind global capitalism there is “the financial hidden power,” without which no one can overthrow a political system. Soros has been banned in many countries, and Csizmadia knows that “some kind of Hungarian measure is under consideration that would be similar to a ban.” I do hope that Csizmadia’s information is only a figment of his imagination.

July 5, 2016