Tag Archives: Brexit

Viktor Orbán in the wake of Brexit

As I’m following commentaries on “life after Brexit,” I’m struck by the huge divergence of opinions. There are those who are certain that one Euroskeptic country after the other will hold a referendum on membership and that the entire European edifice that has been built slowly and methodically since the 1950s will simply collapse. One Hungarian commentator, former SZDSZ chairman Mátyás Eörsi, thinks a European war is almost inevitable. At the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that the British exit is actually a blessing in disguise. At last the countries of the Continent will be free to deepen integration which, in their opinion, will strengthen the European Union and ensure its political and economic importance in world affairs.

Opinions on the effect of Brexit on the political fortunes of Viktor Orbán also differ widely. A few think the event will be a useful tool in the Hungarian prime minister’s hand, which he can use to force the powerful core states to make concessions to the Visegrád 4 countries and a couple of other Euroskeptic nations in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. The reasoning is that without concessions, the contagion may spread through other member states at a time of right radical ascendancy. After all, these commentators point out, several right-wing groups have already announced plans to force through similar referendums.

I don’t believe in this scenario. The result of the British referendum is having such devastating consequences in both political and economic terms that I doubt too many countries would willingly sign up for such a suicidal undertaking. After all, it seems that the pro-exit Conservatives themselves were not quite prepared for a pro-leave majority and have no idea of what to do next. There are signs that they wouldn’t mind undoing the awful mess they created. Moreover, the first attempt at holding a similar referendum, the Dutch Geert Wilders’ Nexit initiative, has already failed. Yesterday, out of the 75 MPs present Nexit received only 14 votes.

Since the spread of anti-EU referendums is unlikely, Brexit didn’t strengthen Orbán’s position in Brussels. On the contrary. He lost a powerful ally in David Cameron, on whom he relied time and again in resisting every move that, as he saw it, trampled on the sovereignty of the nation states. Now he can only hope that the Visegrád 4 countries, if they remain united, will be strong enough to stand up against likely pressure in the direction of integration. There is a good possibility that Orbán and his fellow prime ministers of the former Soviet bloc countries will have to choose between cooperation and some kind of inferior status that would place them outside “an ever closer union.” That second-tier status would mean turning off the spigot from which billions of euros have flowed to these countries.

Until now one had the impression that Orbán was the leader of the Visegrád 4 group, but this impression might be misleading because news about V4 meetings arrives through the filter of Hungarian government propaganda. A couple of days ago the Polish government announced that it wants to hold “an alternative meeting of EU foreign ministers,” those who weren’t invited to the meeting of the six founding members of the European Union on Saturday. Yesterday, according to the Polish public television, eight foreign ministers–from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Greece, Spain, Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovenia–had accepted the invitation. The United Kingdom will be represented by an undersecretary.

Poland is taking the lead among countries that have issues with the European Union. The Polish initiative is perfectly understandable. Poland is a large country with almost 40 million inhabitants, and therefore its government feels that it should spearhead the movement of those who resist EU “encroachment.” How Orbán feels about this Polish initiative one can only guess. In any case, if this Polish invitation to 22 countries yielded such a small gathering, the prospect of the Poles forging a strong counterweight to the pro-integration forces looks slim to me.

Nonetheless, in Budapest there is hope that with the departure of the United Kingdom the Visegrád countries “will gain much more influence within the European Union.” At least this is what Gergely Prőhle, former Hungarian ambassador to Berlin, believes. He expressed his hope to Boris Kálnoky, Budapest correspondent of Die Welt, that Austria and the Netherlands may also support the program of a Visegrád 4 coalition. But Prőhle is far too optimistic and, as Kálnoky points out, the Hungarian government is nervous about the prospect of a more integrated Europe and “a sharper attack on the Euroskeptic and nationalist governments.”

David Cameron arrives today in Brussels / Reuters / Photo: Francois Lenoir

David Cameron arrives in Brussels / Reuters / Photo: Francois Lenoir

Of course, Viktor Orbán would never acknowledge that Great Britain’s likely exit from the European Union may decrease his effectiveness in Brussels. But László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament, freely admitted that with Great Britain inside the European Union Hungary would have had an easier time of it in Brussels. Moreover, he acknowledged that “the political strength of those who oppose the formation of some kind of united states of Europe has diminished.”

Many Hungarian commentators actually rejoice over Brexit for the very reason Kálnoky and others point out. The absence of Great Britain from the negotiating table will weaken Viktor Orbán. Moreover, these people are strong believers in a federated Europe and look upon Great Britain as an impediment to that ideal. These commentators argue that the United Kingdom from the very beginning was a reluctant member and that, being an island nation, it is a very different place from the countries of the Continent. The strongest Hungarian criticism I read appeared in Index. Its author, M.T., accused Britain of blackmailing the European Union for years.

Viktor Orbán, who is by now in Brussels, has been talking about “the lessons” to be learned from Brexit. Of course, for him the lessons are that the politicians of the EU must listen to the “voice of the people” who are fed up with Brussels’ handling of the “migrant crisis.” From the moment the results of the British referendum became known, Orbán has been trying to convince his voters that the reason for Brexit was the 1.5 million migrants who have arrived in Europe in the last year and a half. But I wonder how long this myth can be maintained once Hungarians learn that, since last Thursday, more than 100 incidents have taken place in the United Kingdom, mostly against Poles.

The defense of “the rights of Hungarians working and studying in the United Kingdom” is Orbán’s self-stated top priority during the negotiations over Brexit. Of course, these negotiations are still far away, but Orbán can show that he is concerned about the fate of his people. It’s too bad that when it came to allowing Hungarian citizens living in Western European countries to have the same voting rights as Hungarians living in the neighboring countries he was not such a staunch supporter of them.

In Brussels this afternoon Orbán gave a press conference in which he placed the “migrant crisis” at the epicenter of all the current ills of the European Union. If it isn’t solved along the lines he suggested, the crisis the EU is experiencing now will only deepen. He emphasized the necessity of holding a Hungarian referendum on the “compulsory quotas,” which we know don’t even exist. This referendum “is necessary in order to represent the Hungarian position clearly and forcefully.” Of course, the Hungarian referendum is totally off topic. The negotiations in Brussels are not about the refugees, but about Great Britain’s likely exit and the future of the European Union.

June 28, 2016

ONE OF THE FIRST STEPS AFTER BREXIT MUST BE THE REFORM OF THE EU BUDGET

As always, Hungarian Spectrum welcomes democratic voices from and about Hungary. Today András Lukács, President of the Hungarian NGO Clean Air Action Group (Levegő Munkacsoport) and Board Member of Green Budget Europe, presents his opinion, in the wake of the Brexit referendum, of the role of EU funds in the rise of Eurosceptism. He also offers some possible solutions.

♦ ♦ ♦

 The results of the Brexit referendum strengthened the conviction of all those who think that profound changes in the European Union are necessary to stop and reverse the rise of populist parties with Eurosceptic and, in some cases, even Europhobic agendas. It is hardly an unfounded opinion that if the governance of the EU is not changed radically, then even the mere existence of the EU is put at risk.

One of the main drivers of Eurosceptism is the way EU money has been used. It is telling that, according to a recent representative opinion poll, 61 percent of those surveyed in the Czech Republic, a net recipient of European funds, believe that the EU member countries should get along financially by their own means, i.e. wealthy member countries should not support poorer ones. I know of no similar survey in Hungary, but I do know that there is a widespread opinion here that EU money has led to serious problems. Many are even convinced that EU funds cause more harm to the country than good. For example, speaking at a conference in May this year, Zsombor Essősy, CEO of MAPI Hungarian Development Agency Corp., “The Expert of EU and Domestic Funds” (as it is described on MAPI’s website), stated the following: “If our country spends EU money following the present trends and framework, this might cause the biggest tragedy of Hungary.”

According to a detailed study on the topic by Hétfa Alapítvány, the use of EU money in other countries does not seem to be more efficient than in Hungary. Having spoken to quite a few people dealing with the issue in other net recepient countries, I am not surprised by this conclusion.

Along with others, our organization, the Clean Air Action Group (Levegő Munkacsoport), analyzed the reasons for such a perverse use of EU money. Here I will summarize just a few of these reasons, described in detail in our report.

EU funds are distributed to companies in a way that seriously distorts the market. Many companies make an enormous effort to receive as much EU money as possible in order to gain a competitive advantage, instead of improving their products or services. This situation is also a serious threat to democracy because practically no business group would be willing to criticize the government for fear of not receiving public money.

A substantial amount of EU money has been spent to support the construction of new hotels. Even the Hungarian Hotel Association expressed strong criticism of state subsidies for hotel construction, emphasizing that existing hotels often struggle for survival. Such results of EU funding are characteristic not only of the hotel industry but practically all sectors of the Hungarian economy. Photo by András Lukács

A substantial amount of EU money has been spent to support the construction of new hotels. Even the Hungarian Hotel Association expressed strong criticism of state subsidies for hotel construction, emphasizing that existing hotels often struggle for survival. Such results of EU funding are characteristic not only of the hotel industry but practically all sectors of the Hungarian economy. Photo by András Lukács

The present system of distributing EU funds is also a hotbed of corruption. Free money irresistibly attracts all those looking to get rich (or much richer) within a short time by illegal or semi-legal means. These circles do everything they can to capture the national and local governments, and, as practice proves, they often succeed. (This has been described in detail, for example, in studies by Transparency International Hungary.)

Another driving force behind the ill use of EU money is the endeavor of the government to spend every last cent, rendering the efficiency of spending much less important. Coupled with corruption and other factors, this leads—among others—to investments that are not really necessary, or do not represent the most efficient way to spend public money in a given period of time. Furthermore, even if the investment can be justified and even if there is no corruption behind it, it is often implemented in a very wasteful manner because it is financed with “free money.”

A new brandy distillery built with EU money. A World Health Organisation report (as summarized by 247wallst.com) states: “No country had a higher rate of alcohol use disorders than Hungary, where 19.3% of the population abused alcohol in some form. As many as 32.2% of Hungarian men and 6.8% of women suffered from alcohol use disorders, the highest among countries reviewed.” Photo by András Lukács

A new brandy distillery built with EU money. A World Health Organisation report (as summarized by 247wallst.com) states: “No country had a higher rate of alcohol use disorders than Hungary, where 19.3% of the population abused alcohol in some form. As many as 32.2% of Hungarian men and 6.8% of women suffered from alcohol use disorders, the highest among countries reviewed.” Photo by András Lukács

In our report, besides describing the situation, we also made concrete proposals to the European Commission and governments of EU member states to remedy the situation. The main points are the following.

In the Treaty of Accession, all EU member states declared: “Our common wish is to make Europe a continent of democracy, freedom, peace and progress. The Union will remain determined to avoid new dividing lines in Europe and to promote stability and prosperity within and beyond the new borders of the Union. We are looking forward to working together in our joint endeavor to accomplish these goals.” In our understanding, this means that all member states will improve their legislative and institutional systems as much as possible in order to achieve these goals, but at least they will refrain from any backward measures. Therefore, it must be stipulated that member states repeal all legislative and institutional measures that have been adopted by the given member state since its accession to the EU that contradict the principle of non-retrogression as far as “working together in our joint endeavor to accomplish these goals” is concerned.

The European Commission must demand that the Hungarian government implement all possible best practice measures within a reasonable time to reduce corruption and other malfeasances. In our opinion, this is a measure that would fully comply with EU legislation. The European Parliament also called for measures “to be implemented right across the spectrum of EU policies, and for action not just in response to cases of fraud but also to prevent them.”

The Commission should require strict implementation of the European code of conduct on partnership in the framework of the European Structural and Investment Fund. According to the code, the governments of the member states must closely cooperate with “bodies representing civil society at national, regional and local levels throughout the whole program cycle consisting of preparation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.” However, the Hungarian government has been doing just the opposite.

The fulfilment of the National Reform Program (NRP) and of the Country-Specific Recommendations (CSRs) should be the main criteria for the assessment of the efficiency of the use of EU funds, and not the success or failure of individual projects or groups of projects. The European Commission should strictly control the former, and not the latter. (The NRP is a document that presents the policies of the member country, which aim to achive the targets set forth in the EU’s Europe 2020 Strategy. The CSRs are the yearly assessments by the Commission on the progress of each member state towards achieving these targets, and they include recommendations for improving the country’s performance.) The NRPs and CSRs are approved by the governments of the member countries as well, thus they are binding commitments for these governments. In spite of this, the Hungarian government is generally doing just the opposite of what it committed itself to in these documents. This is well known to the European institutions concerned; for example, an assessment by the Economic Governance Support Unit of the European Parliament came to the conclusion that in 2014 only Bulgaria and Hungary made no meaningful progress in implementing any of the recommendations.

The EU should give all EU funds, destined for national purposes, directly to the national governments, without any requirements for the precise use of these funds, i.e. each national government should decide that for itself. On the other hand, in the event that a country does not comply with the above requirements, EU funding must be partly or completely suspended until it comes into full compliance. We believe that this is not only legally possible even today, but it is an explicit duty of the European Commission: according to EU legislation it is the Commission’s task to protect the EU’s financial interests.

I strongly believe that it is absolutely necessary to provide EU funds to the less developed member states with the goal of improving their economic well-being as well as their political stability in order to strengthen the EU as a whole and to make it more competitive globally. But EU taxpayers’ money must be used for this purpose, not against it.

June 27, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s interpretation of the Brexit referendum

In the wake of the stunning Brexit referendum outcome, pro-government papers wisely waited for word from the boss before they dared express any opinion on the subject. They didn’t have to wait long. At 8:00 a.m. Viktor Orbán began his regular fortnightly Friday morning interview on the state radio station.

The first topic was of course the British referendum, something the Hungarian prime minister was not at all eager to talk about. The little he said had more to do with his own referendum, to be held sometime in the fall, on the European Union’s right to set “compulsory quotas” of asylum seekers in Hungary. One could ask what these two referendums have to do with one other.  Of course, nothing. What is important for him is his own referendum, and he exploits the opportunity presented by the Brexit referendum.

Brexit1

Source: spectator.co.uk

According to his own version of the story, the whole unfortunate referendum on Brexit was largely the result of the refugee crisis that hit Europe in the last year and a half. He claims that the British people revolted against Brussels because the European Union couldn’t handle the migration crisis. They punished Brussels for its incompetence. Orbán as usual is twisting the truth to fit his own agenda. What the majority of British voters were worried about, in addition to being subordinated to an outside power, was not so much the refugees and migrants who have reached the Continent but those “economic migrants” from East Central Europe who have settled in the British Isles in the last few years.  The 350,000 Poles and the 150,000 Hungarians, for example. At least these are the official figures, though most likely the real numbers are higher.

He was particularly unwilling to talk about the future except to state that “Hungary is in the European Union because we believe in a strong Europe,” a totally meaningless statement, only to return to his main message –the immigration issue. “But Europe can be strong only if it finds answers to such important questions as immigration. Many people, in the case of Great Britain the majority, consider the decisions [on the refugee issue] to be creating not a stronger but a weaker Europe.” So this, in his opinion, is what led to the “leave” vote.

Orbán indicated that he had been in touch with the prime ministers of the Visegrád countries. Robert Fico’s interpretation of the referendum result is almost identical to that of Orbán: “Great numbers of EU citizens reject the migrant policy,” which should obviously be changed. Jarosław Kaczyński went further. He would like to see an entirely new EU constitution which would include “reforms,” after which the EU “could make an offer” to Great Britain. What would these “reforms” include? Among other things, a new definition of the relationship between the EU and the member states, naturally in favor of the nation states. I’m certain that for the Euroskeptic Visegrád countries Kaczyński’s scheme would be a bonanza. Loosen European integration and keep a strong ally, the also Euroskeptic Great Britain, in the fold. This is a totally unacceptable response to the Brexit vote.

Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó regurgitated Viktor Orbán’s wise words about a strong Europe, adding that “the time of honest politics has arrived in Europe” because the EU has for some time been following hypocritical and politically correct policies that have led to wrong answers to the migrant crisis. Lajos Kósa, representing Fidesz as a party, claimed that the majority of the Brits voted to exit from the Union because Brussels couldn’t defend them from the migrants. “It is an impossible situation that the socialist-liberal elite is pro-immigration while the decisive majority of European citizens is not.” Kósa added that “we can agree with the man who came up with the bon mot that Europe for the sake of a few million migrants lost 64 million citizens and the second strongest economy.”

Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság usually uses her contacts with Fidesz politicians to get a sense of their attitudes on particular issues. According to her, the consensus in the party is that with Brexit Orbán lost an important ally. But in the future Orbán’s voice will become more audible in the EU. Her informants also believe that with the departure of anti-Russian Great Britain Orbán will have an easier time convincing the EU to put an end to the anti-Russian sanctions. The couple of Fidesz EP representatives she interviewed emphasized the importance of the unity of the Visegrád 4 countries, which should be used as a counterweight to French-German dominance. One of the EP representatives, György Schöpflin, is convinced that the European left wants to punish the exiting Brits. He had to admit, however, that it is not only the left that wants immediate negotiations but also the Christian-conservative parties in the European People’s Party (EPP). If that is the case, the Fidesz members of EPP have little choice but to go with the flow.

The leaders of the opposition parties naturally see the situation differently. Csaba Molnár, DK EP member, accused the British conservatives of a 20-year-long anti-EU campaign, which resulted in the disastrous outcome of the referendum. Viktor Orbán has been doing the same thing for years, and if he doesn’t stop eventually Hungary too will leave the EU. He therefore implored Orbán to call off the referendum.  Viktor Szigetvári of Együtt also asked Orbán “to stop his mendacious anti-EU campaign and his anti-European provocations.”

István Szent-Iványi, the foreign policy expert of the Magyar Liberális Párt, looks upon the outcome of the referendum as the result of “the British government party’s two-faced, ambiguous policies regarding the European Union.” The same attitude is present in Hungary and, given the lesson of the British decision, he called on the Hungarian government to make its relationship to Europe unambiguous, to stop its campaign against Brussels, and to cancel the referendum on compulsory quotas. At present, neither Hungary nor Europe needs this referendum, which is no longer about refugees but about Hungary’s relations with Europe.

Tibor Szanyi, an MSZP EP member, called David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum irresponsible and selfish since he placed his own political survival ahead of the future of his country. But perhaps Cameron’s political sins will have a beneficial effect on Orbán. One possible outcome of the British decision might be that European politicians will have had enough of the selfish, nationalist members’ behavior and  will continue European integration without them. At the moment, Hungary still has a chance to be part of this work, but only if Orbán drastically changes course. He added that Brexit will have the most negative effect on the Central and East European countries because the leading demand of those who campaigned for Great Britain’s exit was that citizens of the European Union should not take work away from British citizens.

Given the official Fidesz interpretation of the British referendum, the great majority of the Hungarian people, as is often the case, will be misinformed and misled. I suspect that Orbán will go on campaigning against the EU and will hold the referendum. Otherwise, it is hard to predict how serious a handicap the absence of British support for the Visegrád 4 will be in the coming months. I suspect that from here on Orbán will have a more difficult time in Brussels.

June 24, 2016

Hungarian politicians support their friends abroad

It seems that members of the Hungarian government don’t have enough to do at home. They feel compelled to get involved in controversies outside of the country. Today I’ll look at two such controversies, one involving a Spanish archbishop, the other the all-important British referendum on EU membership.

Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera, the archbishop of Valencia, is not exactly a household name, but in Catholic circles he is well known as an arch-conservative who is described by Spain’s leading newspaper, El Pais, asa guardian of orthodoxy with an incendiary personality.” Earlier Cañizares was a typical Vatican bureaucrat and a favorite of Benedict XVI, who in 2008 named him head of the Congregation for Divine Worship. But with the pope’s resignation in 2013 his service in the Vatican came to an end. Pope Francis most likely found Cañizares far too conservative. After retiring from his Vatican job, he had to be satisfied with the archbishopric of Valencia, which is considered to be one of the lesser sees in Spain.

Cañizares often gets into trouble. For instance, in October 2015 he talked about the “invasion of immigrants” and wondered what immigration will do to Spain “in a few years.” Like so many other conspiracy theorists, he wanted to know “who is behind all this.” Earlier, in 2009, he claimed that abortion was worse than child abuse. Most recently, the archbishop lashed out at the LGBT community, feminism and gender ideology. In early June, in a homily titled “In defense and support of the family,” Cañizares said that the family, which is the most valued social institution, “is shaken to its foundations by serious, clear or subtle, threats.” In his opinion, Spanish legislation only aids attacks on the family, which is being threatened by “movements and actions of the gay empire, of ideas such as radical feminism, or the most insidious of all, gender theory.” Soon enough, pro-LGBT and feminist organizations in Spain announced that they intended to charge Cañizares with apologia, a term in Spanish law that means encouraging or defending a criminal act. On June 19 The Catholic Herald reported that Spanish feminist groups had called for the government to prosecute Cardinal Cañizares “for inciting discrimination and hatred.”

Cañizares’s remarks and what followed were reported outside of Spain mostly in Catholic publications, but the eagle-eyed Hungarian Christian Democratic youth organization (Ifjú Kereszténydemokraták or IKSZ) found the story. The president of the organization, who looks close to forty years old, issued an official public statement condemning all those “radical liberals” who objected to Cañizares’s description of the LGBT community as a “gay empire.” Young Hungarian Christian Democrats share the opinion of the cardinal and find it outrageous that “even the justice system assists ‘opinion terror’ of members of a tiny minority that call themselves human rights activists.”

In the opinion of KDNP, “the activities of the radical gay and feminist groups are harmful because they want to limit the freedom of expression and incite hatred.” Zsolt Semjén, chairman, and Miklós Soltész, vice chairman of the party, will extend an invitation to Cardinal Cañizares to visit Hungary sometime in the fall.

As usual, the Christian Democrats overreached. They have an urge to openly support the most orthodox ideas expressed within the Catholic Church. Commentators endorsing Cañizares’s position view this case as “an important, perhaps conclusive, litmus test. Will Pope Francis stand with Cardinal Cañizares?” No word has come so far from the Vatican, as the author sadly announced a couple of days ago. On the other hand, a Hungarian group that calls itself the CitizenGO team is collecting signatures online in defense of the beleaguered cardinal.

While the Christian Democrats are supporting the Spanish cardinal, Viktor Orbán is supporting his friend David Cameron. That “one of Europe’s most Eurosceptic leaders” urged Britons to vote to remain in the European Union was startling enough to warrant coverage by Reuters. The move is especially surprising since it was only a few days ago that János Lázár categorically stated that the Hungarian government will in no way commit itself one way or the other. Whatever the decision is, the Hungarian government will respect it. He added that any negative effect of a Brexit on the Hungarian economy and currency would not require the introduction of any short-term measures. At this point Zoltán Kovács, the government spokesman, interjected, assuring the audience that the country’s budgetary reserves can take care of all possible contingencies.

Brexit ad

So, great was the surprise when two and a half days later Kovács himself confirmed the news that the Hungarian government would place a full-page ad in the conservative Daily Mail today. In fact, the ad was originally supposed to appear in the Saturday edition, but because of Jo Cox’s murder it was postponed. Kovács’s explanation for the unusual campaign tactic was that a strong Europe can be built only with the cooperation of larger states. He recalled that Hungary was often accused of anti-European sentiment, but “its current pan-European attitude aptly demonstrates how resolutely and firmly [the Hungarian government] believes in the importance of the European Union’s achievements.”

The Hungarian media’s reaction to the contradictory messages was one of puzzlement. As one headline said: “It can only happen here that we don’t know whether we support England’s exit from the European Union or not.” Journalists approached the office of the prime minister for an explanation of the contradiction between Lázár’s announcement of neutrality and Orbán’s ad with his signature attached. The answer was that Orbán, by publishing the ad, is not trying to influence British public opinion. He only expresses “his point of view that we Hungarians are glad we are in an alliance of which the Brits are members. On the one hand, this is an honor because we are talking about a great nation, and on the other, we are also stronger if the Brits stay in the European Union. This is exactly what the ad emphasizes. The decision belongs to the Brits, but we let them know that Hungary is proud to be a member of the European Union alongside of them.”

Meanwhile it is quite clear that the right-wing of Fidesz and Jobbik are keeping fingers crossed for Great Britain to leave the Union. Pesti Srácok with ill-concealed glee announced today that those in favor of Brexit now have a slight lead. The article tries to calm Hungarian nerves by emphasizing that Great Britain’s exit wouldn’t have any serious consequences for Hungary and that those approximately 200,000 Hungarians living in Great Britain have nothing to fear because “those already living there arrived in the country legally.” The question is whether they would want to remain in the United Kingdom, because after Brexit “Great Britain would no longer be the same country they chose at the time of their arrival.” Alfahír, Jobbik’s official internet paper, sympathized with Nigel Farage, who “doesn’t back down.” The article published long quotations from Farage and some of those around him. It pointed to the “almost hysterical atmosphere created by the British media and the pro-EU political elite after Jo Cox’s death.” It doesn’t matter what Gábor Vona says about the party’s changed attitude toward the European Union, Jobbik would still gladly leave the Union and is therefore keeping fingers crossed for the pro-Brexit forces to win the referendum.

So, here we have two cases in which Hungarian reactions are questionable. Hungarian bishops often and in even more forceful terms than Cardinal Cañizares have gone against the wishes of Pope Francis on the refugee issue. Now the Christian Democratic Party, which considers itself the political arm of the Hungarian Catholic Church, has so much affinity with the arch-conservative Spanish archbishop that it feels compelled to extend an invitation to him to visit Hungary. At the same time Viktor Orbán has the temerity to get involved in a dispute that concerns only the citizens of Great Britain. I wonder what he would say if the European Union placed a full-page ad in a Hungarian newspaper urging people to vote against the anti-immigrant referendum he insists on holding. Perhaps one of the European prime ministers should try it. It would be fun.

June 20, 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