Tag Archives: David Cameron

Is Viktor Orbán’s next project to undo the Treaty of Lisbon?

Today’s big news in Hungary is that Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság learned “from a source close to the government” that, after a valid and successful referendum, Viktor Orbán is planning to move onto the larger stage of the European Union. There he is planning to lead the fight for a modification of the Treaty of Lisbon, the fundamental law of the European Union, also known as the Treaty on European Union (TEU).

For weeks now a guessing game has been going in the media and among opposition politicians about the real purpose of the referendum, which by itself doesn’t seem to serve any purpose. What kind of legislative act will follow a valid and successful referendum? After all, the people are ostensibly empowering the government to do something with the mandate. Will parliament be asked to vote on new amendments to the constitution or will it simply issue “a declaration of independence” of sorts as it did after the Tavares Report in 2013? The government, so the argument goes, will have to do something because otherwise it will become far too obvious that the referendum was not about the compulsory quotas and the Hungarian parliament’s sanctioning them but about something else.

If you ask the politicians of the Demokratikus Koalíció what purpose this referendum serves, they will tell you that it is about the eventual Hungarian exit from the European Union. As soon as no more money is coming from Brussels, Orbán will be only too happy to rid himself of the restraints imposed on him. Although I don’t doubt that there might come a time when Orbán would be inclined to say goodbye to Brussels, for such an eventuality he doesn’t need the results of a referendum today.

Many opposition politicians are inclined to think that the referendum is a kind of “trial election.” If more than half of the eligible voters go to the polls, it will be safe for Fidesz to consider holding elections sometime in early 2017. An added benefit would be that the opposition in 2017 would be even more divided and scattered than it presumably would be in 2018. Talk about Fidesz contemplating an early election is nothing new, though these predictions all turned out to be baseless. But now, people argue, this might become a reality. Jobbik politicians are already busy devising plans for such a possibility. Again, I don’t think that Fidesz needs a referendum to learn about its electoral support. Moreover, the party is politically savvy enough to know that the result of a referendum on the “migrants” cannot be translated into votes at a national election.

Viktor Orbán himself was rather secretive about his post-referendum plans in his September 18 radio interview when the reporter specifically asked him about “the legal [közjogi] consequences of a valid and successful referendum.” He indicated that he knows what the next step will be, but he doesn’t want to divert attention from the task at hand, the campaign for the referendum.

Csuhaj’s source claims that these “legal consequences” are not domestic in nature: “Orbán wants to enter the larger stage of Union politics for good” or, in the original, “Orbán végleg ki akar lépni az uniós politika nagyszínpadjára.” Such a decision, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with “legal consequences” in the accepted meaning of the term. I also don’t know what to do with the word “for good” (végleg). It might simply be an ill-constructed sentence. Perhaps what she actually wanted to say was that “Orbán finally decided to enter the stage of European politics.”

In my reading, the information Csuhaj received about Orbán’s plans to change the fundamental law of the European Union might have been correct a few weeks ago, but I don’t believe that this is what he referred to in his interview when asked about the “legal consequences” of the referendum.

Csuhaj herself admits that there is nothing new about Orbán’s desire to change the TEU to give less weight to the European Parliament and the European Council and to strengthen the European Council of heads of member states. The first time he talked about it was very early in his second term as prime minister. After a summit in Brussels in October 2010 Orbán said at a press conference that with the present constitution post-2008 Europe cannot be governed. For years, however, he made no effort to promote the idea. He only talked about it at home.

The first time it looked as if he was seriously thinking about such a move and that he may even have had preliminary talks about it with David Cameron was in January 2016, at the time of the British prime minister’s visit in Budapest. Bence Tuzson, the government spokesman, gave a long interview to pestisracok.hu in which the reporter said: “If I understand it correctly, Hungary will initiate the modification of the fundamental law of the European Union.” To which Tuzson answered in the affirmative. “Yes, because Hungary has an interest in making sure that these documents and values should be in their proper places.” A couple of days later pestisracok.hu seemed to know that the modification of the TEU might be one of the topics discussed during the Orbán-Cameron exchange.

The official picture after the signing of the Treaty of Lisbon, 2007

The official picture after the signing of the Treaty of Lisbon, 2007

From the interview with Tuzson it is clear that at that point Orbán didn’t feel strong enough to propose such a modification without David Cameron. He emphasized that “we are no lone wolves,” but with the help of Great Britain Hungary was ready to face criticism or even scorn as a result of their upcoming fight. Well, it didn’t work out that way. Came Brexit and the departure of David Cameron, and Orbán had to set aside the project. A few months ago Népszabadság was told by a member of the government that Orbán has no intention of trying to force the issue of treaty modifications because “he so far hasn’t gotten involved in hopeless tasks.”

If Csuhaj’s source is correct, after a valid and successful referendum he would feel empowered to lead the battle for treaty modifications. At least this is what Fidesz stalwarts seem to think. But it is highly unlikely that this meaningless referendum would make such an impression on either Brussels or the other member states that they would be ready to sit down and negotiate with Viktor Orbán.

Csuhaj’s informer heard Orbán talk about this plan “in the past few weeks,” which I assume means before the Bratislava summit. Since for such an ambitious undertaking Orbán would need the solid backing of the Visegrád 4 countries, I wonder whether Orbán is still so sanguine about taking on Brussels anytime soon. The other three Visegrád 4 countries were less than thrilled with Orbán’s disapproving remarks about the Bratislava summit, and by now it seems pretty clear that Orbán doesn’t have the strong support of the group he pinned his hopes on. What he might be looking for is a sharp shift to the far-right in those countries where national elections will be held soon. But that’s a long shot.

In the meantime, we still don’t know what the possible legal consequences will be of a government victory in the referendum.

September 21, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s first day in Brussels without his British prop

Today, after a meeting of the European Council sans David Cameron, several European leaders gave press conferences, starting with President Jean-Claude Juncker. From his brief summary of the meeting, we learned that there had been unanimity on two important issues.

First, there will be no internal à la carte market. “Those who have access have to implement all four freedoms without exceptions and nuances”: the free movement of goods, the free movement of services and freedom of establishment, the free movement of persons (and citizenship), including free movement of workers, and the free movement of capital.

The second point was that while the European Union does need reforms, they can be neither additional nor contrary to what has already been decided. What he has in mind is the strategic agenda of the European Council and the ten priorities the European Commission declared earlier. Here I will mention only four of these priorities that are not at all to the liking of the Visegrád 4 or countries that sympathize with the group: (1) a deeper and fairer internal market, (2) a deeper and fairer economic and monetary union, (3) an energy union, and (4) a common European agenda on migration. From the Hungarian point of view, perhaps the most significant announcement by Juncker was that “it is about speeding up reforms, not about adding reforms to already existing reforms.”

Viktor Orbán also gave an “international press conference,” as the Hungarian media reported the event. Normally, after an ordinary summit, there are only a couple of Hungarian media outlets that are interested in Orbán’s reactions, but this time the prime minister’s press conference was conducted in English and with a larger group of journalists.

The Associated Press’s short summary concentrated on “personnel changes,” which without additional background information didn’t make much sense. In order to have a better understanding of what Orbán was talking about, we must interpret his words in light of Jarosław Kaczyński’s demand for the resignation of Jean-Claude Juncker and other EU officials a few days ago. Orbán, who talks so much about the unity of the Visegrád 4 countries, doesn’t seem to be ready to support the Polish leader’s attack on Juncker and the Commission, at least at this time. The Hungarian prime minister thinks that “time, analysis, thought and proposals are needed” before such changes are discussed. In his opinion, “it would be cheap and not at all gallant in these circumstances to suddenly attack any leader of the Commission or any EU institution.” In addition, Orbán doesn’t stand by Kaczyński on at least two other issues. Kaczyński severely criticized Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, while Orbán praised him. Orbán also rejected, for the time being, the Polish politician’s call for a rewriting of the EU constitution.

Viktor Orbán at his press conference / AP Photo

Viktor Orbán at his press conference / AP Photo

Hungarian summaries of the same press conference are naturally a great deal more detailed and therefore more enlightening when it comes to an analysis of Viktor Orbán’s current thinking on the situation in which he finds himself. Here I will concentrate on two of Orbán’s priorities.

The first is his hope that future negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom will be conducted not by the European Commission but by the European Council. Even if the European Parliament and the Commission were willing to agree to such an arrangement, which I very much doubt, the complexity of these negotiations precludes such an arrangement.

Orbán’s second priority is the introduction of an entirely new set of what he calls “reforms.” He, as opposed to most European politicians, has a different notion of what constitutes “reform.” Instead of the European agenda that aims at deepening integration, he would like to see a loosening of ties among member states. During the press conference, Orbán repeated several times a Hungarian saying, allegedly first uttered by Ferenc Deák, the architect of the 1867 Compromise with the Crown who was famous for his figures of speech. Deák, after the 1848-1849 revolution, likened the absolutist administration to a hussar’s dolman which was buttoned incorrectly and which could be fixed only if the hussar unbuttoned all the buttons and started anew. In plain language, the whole structure of the European Union is wrong and it is time to undo everything and begin again from scratch. But, as we learned from Juncker, this is not what the majority of the European Council has in mind. In sum, I don’t believe that either of Orbán’s two important goals has the slightest chance of being accepted.

There is one issue, however, on which he fully supports Juncker’s position. As far as he is concerned, there can be no question of Great Britain limiting the immigration of citizens of the European Union. In his opinion, the East European countries went beyond what would have been a reasonable compromise when in February they accepted Cameron’s very tough demands on European citizens working in the United Kingdom. But now there can be no concession on this issue. If Great Britain wants to enjoy certain trading privileges with the European Union, its government must allow EU citizens to live and work there.

Restricting immigration from Europe, especially from its eastern part, has been a topic of long-standing political debate in the United Kingdom. Theresa May, the home secretary who has a chance of becoming David Cameron’s successor, has been talking about limitations for a number of years. Both Boris Johnson and Theresa May want to close the door on unskilled labor from Europe without Britain’s losing access to the single market. They interpret the EU’s free-movement principle as the freedom to move to a specific job rather than to cross borders to look for work. And there is no question, the pro-exit Conservatives are not talking about Middle Eastern refugees here. They decry the fact that “a third of Portugal’s qualified nurses had migrated, 20% of Czech medical graduates were leaving once qualified, and nearly 500 doctors were leaving Bulgaria every year.” The Brexit leaders could talk about Hungary as well, which saw about 500,000 people leave for Great Britain, Germany, Sweden, and other countries in the West.

Viktor Orbán did touch on immigration to the British Isles as one of the causes of the anti-European sentiment that has spread across England and Wales, but he maintained that “in British thinking migrants coming from outside of Europe and the employees arriving from the European Union are conflated, the result of which the voters felt that they didn’t get satisfactory answers from the European Union for their questions.” British Conservative politicians’ opinions on the subject, going back at least a year if not longer, leave no doubt that they were not been concerned with the refugees but with those EU citizens already in the country. The person who does conflate the two is Viktor Orbán. Last Friday he, who only a few days earlier had campaigned for David Cameron, manifested a certain glee in blaming EU’s refugee crisis for Brexit. I wonder how he will feel when one of the key sticking points in the U.K.-EU negotiations turns out to be East European immigration to Great Britain.

Meanwhile, I understand that the number of Hungarians planning to make the journey to the United Kingdom has grown enormously since the British exit vote. The hope is that anybody who arrives in Great Britain while the country is still part of the EU will be safe, but who knows what will happen later.

June 29, 2016

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

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

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

Viktor Orbán, the politician of European stature, fails as a negotiator

After mulling over the available reports on David Cameron’s short stopover in Budapest, I have come to the conclusion that Viktor Orbán, who is believed to be a maverick politician of mythical powers, failed miserably in his negotiations with the British prime minister. He promised to support three of the four demands Cameron formulated back in November 2015 vis-à-vis the European Union. And Cameron moved not an inch on the most difficult issue of restricting access to welfare payments for migrant workers, mostly from Eastern Europe. If Jarosław Kaczyński hoped to find a good spokesman for the cause of the Visegrád4, he was sadly mistaken. While both men emphasized the need for a strong European Union, in fact both of them have been doing their best to weaken it.

Here are the demands of the British government.

The first demand seeks a special status for Great Britain and others to be free of any obligation to accept the euro as a common currency. In addition, Britain demands that countries outside of the Eurozone should have veto power in the affairs of the Eurozone countries.

The second demand is more reasonable: less bureaucracy and fewer rules and regulations.

The third demand, in my opinion, would be the death knell of the European Union if accepted. It is bad enough that Great Britain doesn’t want to be tied by the EU constitution, which calls on member states to support an ever-closer integration of the Union. It also wants a new provision to be inserted that would allow parliaments of the member states to invalidate any EU law that doesn’t meet the approval of a certain percentage of MPs. For the time being, the details of this demand are not known. The guiding principle would be “a national solution if possible” and a European solution only when necessary.

The fourth demand is the only one that Viktor Orbán found objectionable. Cameron wants to restrict access to benefits for EU migrants both in and out of work. The British government wants to stop those who go to Great Britain from claiming certain benefits until they have been a resident for four years. Moreover, it seems that until now a migrant father or mother could get child support even if the children remained behind. That no longer would be possible. In addition, spouses who are not EU citizens couldn’t enter the country. Despite all the smiles at the press conference, it looks as if Orbán didn’t manage to convince Cameron that the hard-working Hungarians are not economic migrants in Britain.

At a time when united action should be the primary concern of the European Union, attacks on it are coming from three directions. The first is not the doing of the member states: the largely unexpected influx of refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, some by way of camps in Turkey. But the other two attacks come from the inside–from Great Britain and the Orbán-led Visegrád countries. While Viktor Orbán criticizes the European Union for its inability to show a common resolve, he has been doing nothing else for the last year but weakening the little central authority the EU has. At the same time both he and Cameron claim that they want a strong Europe.

The official government communiqué stressed Hungary’s willingness “to fully support” Cameron’s first three demands. The two men have “complete intellectual and strategic agreement” on these points. Orbán greeted “the rethinking of the role of the national parliaments” and welcomed the idea of “equality with the members of the Eurozone.”

David Cameron and Viktor Orbán at the press conference in Budapest

David Cameron and Viktor Orbán at the press conference in Budapest

When it came to the fourth demand he protested meekly. He mostly objected to the word “migrant,” emphasizing the importance of choosing our words. Indeed, he is the one who is a master of linguistic manipulation. His political advisers came up with the word “migráns,” a foreign word not normally used in Hungarian and now applied exclusively to the Middle Eastern refugees. The word by now has acquired a negative connotation in Hungary due to the hard-hitting government propaganda against the migrants. And here is the British prime minister who talks about Hungarians as migrants. Naturally, as far as Orbán is concerned, they are not migrants because they are EU citizens who have the right to settle and work in another member state. But the word “migrant” in English normally means a person who leaves one country to settle either permanently or temporarily in another.

Orbán didn’t really criticize the British plan to restrict benefits for EU migrants. Rather, he appealed to Cameron by emphasizing the hard-working Hungarians who greatly contribute to the British economy and who take very little in social services. He talked about 50,000 Hungarian citizens in Britain, although that sounds like a very low number to me. At the same time he indicated that the real victims of such a move would be the Poles since about 800,000 of them live and work in Great Britain at the moment. I wonder whether this means that Orbán will leave the hard work of fighting the British plan to the Szydło government. In any case, he indicated that negotiations will continue between Great Britain and the Visegrád4 countries.

The parties of the democratic opposition all criticized Orbán for not defending the interests of Hungarians living in Great Britain. Gábor Fodor’s Magyar Liberális Párt accused Orbán of having a double standard when he portrays the migrants from the Middle East as criminals while he demands special treatment for Hungarian migrants living in Great Britain. According to Együtt (Together), Orbán abandoned his own voters. Attila Mesterházy, who spoke for MSZP, accused Orbán of assisting the British prime minister, who is trying to solve his own domestic problems. In his opinion, Cameron makes no distinction between EU citizens, immigrants, and refugees, and therefore all attempts to force him to think otherwise are useless. MSZP expected a stronger stand in defense of Hungarians in the United Kingdom. LMP demanded policies from the government that would bring those Hungarians who live abroad back home. Of course, DK followed suit, but Péter Niedermüller went even further. He accused Orbán of supporting Cameron’s demands although they may lead to the weakening of Hungary’s position within the European Union. Another DK politician, Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy, even made an appeal to David Cameron on Facebook:

David Cameron is a true democrat and a wise politician. He believes in liberal democracy and free market economy and refuses an ever more integrated EU. Mr. Cameron looks for allies on these grounds. And his greatest challenge is that most of his anti-EU allies are xenophobes and extreme populists. Will statesman Cameron be ready to tame or handle the Orbáns and Kaczyńskis of our continent? These are politicians who believe in a state-controlled economy, anti-capitalism and who keep making gestures to right-wing extremists in order to build up their exclusive power. Can a British conservative agenda be legitimate, credible and efficient if it seeks support from representatives of obsolete, pre-WWII ideologies? Can a distinguished leader of one of the oldest democracies in the world afford to embrace politicians and parties that aim at destroying Churchill’s dreams?

Kaczyński, Orbán and the likes have millions of supporters as this type of politics always have and will. But, fortunately, friends of a transparent and liberal democracy are still in the majority in Europe. The notions of human dignity, civil liberties and non-corrupt state of affairs are the real grounds for cooperation; considerations of the future of the European Union only come second. I believe we can work out our differences on the EU because democrats are always ready and able to find compromises even after heated discussions. But compromise can and must not be made with those, e.g. Messrs. Orbán and Kaczyński, whose entire goal is to undermine our basic Western values. That is a warning Mr. Cameron may want to keep in mind when talking to Viktor Orbán today.

I fear David Cameron has no intention of heeding Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy’s advice.

Viktor Orbán’s meeting with Jarosław Kaczyński

Yesterday afternoon vs.hu learned from several sources that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán will travel to Poland at the invitation of PiS, the country’s governing party. In terms of protocol it will be a private visit. At this point the word was that he will meet several “very important politicians.” From the scant information that has reached us since, however, it looks as if Orbán met only Jarosław Kaczyński, the party chairman. The meeting took place in Niedzica at the Polish-Slovak border, a town that belonged to Hungary prior to 1918. The meeting was long–six hours, including a lunch of the famous Polish delicacy zurek soup and trout.

Unfortunately, we know practically nothing about what transpired between the two men. The Polish opposition media’s guess is that Orbán was giving Kaczyński tips on how to make the constitutional court and the media serve the government’s interest. I, however, doubt that much time was spent on Polish domestic affairs since there are far too many international issues that demand the attention of the Polish and the Hungarian leadership.

Jarosław Kaczynski and Viktor Orbán in 2010

Jarosław Kaczyski and Viktor Orbán in 201

First and foremost, the two probably formulated a common policy response to David Cameron’s “new curbs on welfare payments for migrant workers.” Cameron is currently on the campaign trail to win support for his plan to limit in-work benefits for migrants. In his quest he seems to have the support of Germany, whose interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, thinks that Cameron’s “suggestions are not a matter of regulating migration but a matter of regulating welfare legislation.” Poland and Hungary, however, have an entirely different view of the matter. First of all, Hungarian officials greatly object to the word “migrant” in connection with their own nationals, who should be called either EU citizens or guest workers. “To consider Hungarians in Britain as migrants is painful to our ears,” Orbán complained in Brussels on December 18, 2015. I suspect that these two East European countries will eventually have to swallow Cameron’s bitter pill.

In addition to hammering out a common policy regarding Polish and Hungarian immigrants in Great Britain, which Viktor Orbán can relate to David Cameron, who will arrive in Budapest for a short visit tomorrow, there might have been a second item: Hungary’s relations with Putin’s Russia. You may recall my post of February 19, 2015 titled “Polak, węgier—dwa bratanki / lengyel, magyar–két jó barát—not at the moment” in which I described how Hungarian diplomats tried to convince Kaczyński to meet Orbán, who visited Poland shortly after Putin’s visit to Budapest, but the chairman of PiS refused. The answer was that such a meeting was out of the question after Hungary’s flirtation with Russia, Poland’s archenemy. Kaczyński, who hasn’t met Orbán since, most likely wanted to clear the air and to hear directly from Orbán himself about his relationship with Putin.

The third topic may well have been Poland’s unexpected decision to honor the promise of the former government and take 4,500 refugees as part of the quota system. That decision seriously weakens the position of the other three Visegrád4 countries. Viktor Orbán looks upon the joint action of these four countries, standing together against Brussels, as one of his major achievements of late. Surely, he was counting on the new PiS government to abrogate the former government’s offer, especially since in November Beata Szydło, Poland’s new prime minister, made it clear that her government was not prepared to accept the quota system because of the changed circumstances that followed the Paris terrorist attacks. Well, it seems that the situation changed again. Yesterday it was announced that, after all, Poland will take the promised number of refugees. Mind you, only during the next two years and allowing only 150 of them at a time at certain intervals. However cautiously, Poland abandoned Viktor Orbán’s rigid stance on the issue of quotas. The change of heart most likely follows the harsh criticism coming from Brussels on the arch-conservative PiS government’s moves concerning the Constitutional Court and the media.

What moves of the Polish government do EU politicians find unacceptable? I’m relying here on the assessment of Dalibor Rohac of the American Enterprise Institute, not exactly a liberal stronghold in the United States. According to Rohac, “the law changes the status of Poland’s public broadcasters to ‘national cultural institutions’—like the National  Museum or the National Ballet—placing them under direct control of the government.” As for the Constitutional Court, shortly before the October election the Sejm elected five new constitutional court judges, but after the election PiS and President Andrzej Duda sought to reverse these appointments, notwithstanding a ruling by the Constitutional Court that confirmed that the election of the new judges was valid. Both the European Commission and the European Parliament reacted, calling these moves a clear violation of the EU constitution.

Vice-President Frans Timmermans sent two letters to the Polish government asking for clarification of the bill. At the same time Günther Oettinger, EU commissioner for digital economy, told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung that “many reasons exist for us to activate the ‘Rule of Law mechanism’ and to place Warsaw under monitoring.” Although Witold Waszczykowski, the new foreign minister, immediately summoned EU ambassadors to demand an explanation, perhaps cooler heads prevailed and the decision was made to retreat, at least partially.

Waszczykowsk’s introduction to the German media hasn’t been exactly a success. In an interview with Bild he accused the former right-of-center Polish government of following a Marxist model, which is “a new mix of cultures and races, introducing a world of cyclists and vegetarians who focus only on renewable energies and fight against any form of religion. This has nothing to do with traditional Polish values, which are awareness of history, patriotism, faith in God, and a normal family life between husband and wife.”

I should add that only yesterday Waszczykowski announced an entirely new Polish foreign policy, which sounds as if it will be built on confrontation with Brussels. “Our foreign policy cannot be part of the mainstream, we cannot simply abide by Brussels’ decisions,” he announced on Polish public radio. Polish foreign policy seems to be in flux. As long as Waszczykowski’s ideas prevail, one cannot be sure that Poland will be a cooperating member state of the European Union.

Commentators are trying to find an explanation for the drastically different reaction of the European Commission and Parliament to the Polish government’s attempts to imitate Orbán’s illiberal state. How fast the EU reacted in the Polish case and how sluggish it was when Orbán was dismantling Hungarian democracy bit by bit. Professor Kim Scheppele pointed out a fundamental difference between the two cases just yesterday. The two-thirds parliamentary majority enabled Fidesz to change the constitution, so it never violated its own fundamental law. Therefore “the EU was totally at a loss in figuring out how to handle a perfectly legal coup,” she told The Financial Times. The Polish case is different. The PiS government, not having a two-thirds majority, cannot attain the kind of absolute power Orbán managed to acquire. The combination of constitutional limitations as well as internal and external pressures will most likely have a restraining effect on the Szydło-Kaczyński government.