Tag Archives: Christian Kern

What awaits the Visegrád Four?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 8, 2017

Viktor Orbán turns his back on the Polish government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 10, 2017

Viktor Orbán will take another stab at solving the refugee crisis

Although not much can be read in the media outside of Hungary about a conference that will take place tomorrow in Vienna, the Orbán government has high hopes for it. Attending the conference will be German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, in addition to the prime ministers of Balkan states along the migrant route. Although in Bratislava Orbán intimated that he had something to do with convening the gathering and accordingly portfolio.hu reported from Bratislava that “Orbán convoked a new summit” at which “he will try to change Brussels’ suicidal and naïve immigration policy,” in fact, as his wont, Orbán took credit for something someone else did. It was actually Chancellor Kern who proposed the extraordinary mini-summit.

He may not have come up with the idea for the conference, but Orbán thinks he can effect its outcome. The Orbán government holds cabinet meetings every Thursday, after which János Lázár, his chief-of-staff, meets the press. Viktor Orbán apparently chairs these meetings very efficiently and it almost never happens that they run overtime. This time it did. Lázár was half an hour late. The topic was tomorrow’s “mini-summit” in Vienna. Orbán is obviously preparing for the occasion with more than usual care.

A day before the cabinet meeting Orbán gave a lengthy interview to Origo, the popular news site that was acquired recently by a loyal oligarch of the Fidesz camp. A large chunk of the interview was devoted to convincing Hungarians that the referendum is a national issue that has nothing to do with party politics. Linked to this question was a general discussion of his ideas on solving the refugee crisis. I think it’s fair to assume that Orbán’s remarks during the interview give us an inkling of the kind of position he will take at the Viennese gathering.

He said that Hungary’s reaction to the arrival of the migrants was correct from the very beginning when the country confined the migrants to refugee camps. But the European Commission and the European Court of Justice made the wrong decision when “they decided that the Hungarian treatment of the refugees was illegal.” This is actually what other countries should have done but didn’t. Now countries like France and Germany have to scatter their migrants all over the countryside instead of locating them in a few large camps under lock and key.

The migrants, Orbán continued, should have been prevented from entering the European Union in the first place. The fault lies with Germany which made the decision to welcome the migrants, and now “German politicians tell us to solve their problems.” Surely, the dispersion of migrants all over the European Union is “an inhumane proposal” because unless “one ties the person to a tree,” he “will return to Germany anyway.”

So, what is the solution? Orbán takes the position that “those who came [to the European Union] illegally must be rounded up and removed. Not to other countries but outside of the European Union. The question is where. Here comes our Schengen 2.0 action plan which stipulates that large refugee camps be built guarded by armed security forces and financed by the European Union. Anyone who came here illegally must be returned to [these camps]. From there they can apply for entry and if there is a country ready to receive them they can come. Until then they have to stay in that big camp outside of the European Union. That can be on an island or perhaps somewhere in North Africa, but the security and accommodations of this camp must be guaranteed by the European Union in its own interest.”

Viktor Orbán's solution

Viktor Orbán’s solution

In the interview Orbán stuck to this simplistic and totally impractical solution even when the rather subservient editor-in-chief of origo.hu brought up the difficulty of moving millions of people already in the Union to what are basically “internment camps” under armed guard. Orbán’s retort was that the only reason countries with large numbers of newly arrived migrants have been unable to deport them is because “there is no unified governmental will.” If there were such will in all countries, “this morally and humanly difficult task could be accomplished. But if we don’t expel them from the Union they will stay. Once they stay the request will come to take over some of the refugees” and “thus the trouble will be shared by all.” In brief, countries with large numbers of refugees–Germany, Sweden, France, and Austria–should expel them. Otherwise the whole continent is doomed.

After the Bratislava summit many people were surprised to hear that Orbán, despite results that met some of his demands, was dissatisfied with the summit’s outcome. Commentators, including me, almost uniformly interpreted Orbán’s harsh words as a message to the Hungarian public poised to vote on a referendum on compulsory quotas. Sure, we all said, he couldn’t go home and tell his loyalists that the Bratislava summit was a great success from his point of view. But looking at what Orbán’s “solution” to the refugee crisis is, I think his disappointment was genuine. Now he hopes that something can be achieved tomorrow in Vienna. After all, Merkel will have to face politicians who more or less share Orbán’s views on the refugee crisis. Perhaps further pressure can modify Merkel’s views, because Germany is the key to solving the crisis to Orbán’s satisfaction.

I’m curious what kind of package Orbán has prepared for this meeting and how far he will be able push Merkel who, in Orbán’s eyes, is responsible for the whole mess. Although the Austrians at the moment take a rather harsh position on the endless flow of refugees and would like to stop them from entering the European Union in the first place, I don’t think they would be ready to expel all the newly arrived refugees and gather them in a camp outside the EU under the watchful eye of armed guards.

September 23, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s favorite party failed to gain the Austrian presidency

On Tuesday Viktor Orbán, who seems to have an iron constitution, took the day off because, as his office announced, he was sick. Yesterday a humorous little piece appeared in Sztarklikk with the title: “That’s why Orbán fell ill.” Surely, the author said, Orbán needed to be revived with smelling salts after learning that Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), had narrowly lost the Austrian presidential election. Well, smelling salts might be a bit of an exaggeration, but Orbán’s disappointment had to be great because it is a well-known fact that Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of FPÖ, and Viktor Orbán greatly admire one another.

At the end of September when Viktor Orbán visited the Austrian chancellor, Werner Faymann (SPÖ), and his deputy, Reinhold Mitterlehner, in order to temper months of quarreling between the two countries, the Hungarian prime minister was also planning to meet Strache. Unfortunately, apparently to the great sorrow of Orbán, the planned meeting had to be cancelled in the last minute. The reason was straightforward enough. Strache is persona non grata in mainstream Austrian political circles, and when the Austrians found out about Orbán’s plans they expressed their strong disapproval. In fact, Deputy Chancellor Mitterlehner, whose party, the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), just like Fidesz, belongs to the EU’s European People’s Party, refused to meet with Orbán if he insisted on going through with his original plan. Reluctantly, Orbán cancelled the meeting.

Apparently Orbán is convinced that Strache is a man of the future. Strache’s threat to build a fence between Austria and Hungary to keep Hungarian workers out of his country didn’t seem to dampen his enthusiasm for the man. Strache might not like Hungarians working in Austria, but several times he expressed his admiration for Orbán, who is “one of the few honest politicians who don’t want to sell out or destroy Europe.” He added that Orbán is the only European politician who has any brains when it comes to the migrant issue.

The Hungarian government has had strained relations with Austrian politicians of the two governing parties, SPÖ and ÖVP. Even a cursory look at the political news of the last few months reveals repeated insults being exchanged between Werner Faymann and Péter Szijjártó. Although Faymann resigned as chancellor on May 9 of this year, most likely to the great relief of Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó, it looks as if his successor, Christian Kern, will be no better from the Hungarian point of view. In fact, I suspect that the new Austrian chancellor will be an even more severe critic of the Hungarian prime minister, whose views are practically identical to those of Heinz-Christian Strache.

A few days ago Kern announced that “it is an illusion to think that the refugee problem can be solved by European countries adopting authoritarian systems as the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has done.” Szijjártó, as is his wont, responded immediately and rashly. According to him, what is an illusion is any hope that with a change in the Austrian chancellorship insults from Austria will cease. Kern’s statement, he said, compared Hungary to Hitler’s Germany. “It is unacceptable for anyone to use expressions in connection with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán that are in any way attached to the most monstrous and darkest dictatorship of the last century.” Not the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Magyar Idők, the government’s fervent supporter and often unofficial spokesman, followed the Austrian presidential race with great interest, keeping fingers crossed for Norbert Hofer. A day before the second round of the presidential election, Magyar Idők was pretty certain that Hofer would win. The paper also noted that The New York Times compared FPÖ to the Hungarian, Polish, and Slovak government parties. (I don’t know whether the author of the article considered this an insult or not.) An opinion piece that appeared on the morning of the presidential election ran under the headline: “The Freedom Party is the symbol of success while the left is that of failure.”

Heinz -Christian Strache and Norbert Hofer before the presidential elections / Photo APA / Hans Klaus

Heinz -Christian Strache and Norbert Hofer before the presidential election / Photo APA / Hans Klaus

After the election Mária Schmidt, a historian who has great influence over Viktor Orbán, bemoaned the fact that public discourse in Austria is now dominated by baby boomer leftist politicians of the pro-German tradition. She recalled that Orbán in his first term was the first foreign leader to receive Chancellor Wolfgang Schlüssel of Austria, who was at that time considered a pariah in the West because he included the Freedom Party of Jörg Haider in his coalition government back in 1999.

Viktor Orbán’s friend Zsolt Bayer is also disappointed, but he is optimistic that “a new healthy young Europe is coming” that will replace the 70-year-old dying Europe that is full of bedsores. This youthful new Europe will come “from the mountains of the Alps, the fields of Burgenland, from Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland.” For Bayer, the Freedom Party of Strache and Hofer is not the depository of far-right views but, on the contrary, the embodiment of “normalcy.” So it’s no wonder that Viktor Orbán and his fellow “normal” far-right friends were disappointed by the election results.

May 26, 2016