Tag Archives: Donald Tusk

Was Orbán’s bout with the EU a “points victory”? We will see tomorrow

Viktor Orbán, along with the other prime ministers of the European Union’s member states, is in Brussels at the moment, where among other things they are supposed to come to an understanding on the thorny issue of migration. The goal is naturally unity, a common understanding, a situation in which all member states share in the solution to the problems currently facing the European Union.

The greatest obstacle to reaching this goal is the refusal of three of the four Visegrád countries to accept one single refugee in case the need arises. These countries are the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. The fourth country, Slovakia, would take a very limited number of asylum seekers.

The Visegrád Four countries have jointly come up with a plan of their own. Those countries that already have a number of immigrants from countries outside of the Union should accept most of the refugees while the Central Europeans would redeem their non-compliance with cash contributions. They came out with a figure today. They would pay 35 million euros in assistance to Italy. Hungary’s contribution would be nine million euros. This offer has not found too many enthusiastic supporters. In fact, most of the influential political leaders of the larger states deemed the Visegrád Four’s solution to be unacceptable.

The deep division within the EU became all too visible even before the opening of the summit. In October Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, introduced the idea of sending around a so-called Leaders’ Agenda prior to the summits. Its alleged purpose was to set out topics to be informally discussed. This time the topic was “Migration: way forward on the external and the internal dimension.” It is hard to tell what Tusk meant by this mysterious title, and I’m not surprised that some of Tusk’s critics considered the document badly written. The short letter was full of commonplace notions, like “secure external borders.” But what was strange and new in the document was that Tusk decided that “only Member States are able to tackle the migration crisis effectively” and that the European Commission’s approach to the migration crisis “has turned out to be ineffective.”

Eszter Zalan of Euobserver wrote that Tusk’s note on migration prompted “institutional hysteria” in Brussels. Eventually, the text had to be changed after serious concerns were raised at the meeting of EU foreign ministers on December 11. This was considered by some to be a “humiliating climb-down.” The revised note called for the EU institutions to work together. EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos called Tusk’s note “anti-European,” which might have been an overstatement, but even the official comments coming from the European Commission took umbrage at Tusk’s singular action. Its spokesman conveyed the Commission’s disagreement with Tusk’s criticism of its work.

It was not just the members of the European Council who were critical of Tusk’s move but also the political leaders of Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and even Greece, which has had to manage large numbers of refugees and migrants. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, for example, called Tusk’s comments “aimless, ill-timed, and pointless.” Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose reproofs are usually quite subdued, was openly critical, insisting that “solidarity for the management of borders” is not enough; responsibilities must be shared within the Union as well. Italy might have been pleased with the financial offer but nonetheless reiterated that “we will continue to insist that a commitment on the relocation of refugees is needed.”

The leaders of the Visegrád Four must have been elated when they received Tusk’s note, but the changes that had to be made should have signaled to them that they couldn’t expect an imminent victory for their position. Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó declared that Tusk had “spoken the truth” on mandatory quotas. He went even further in his criticism of the European Commission. “Some Brussels bureaucrats continue to organize and promote illegal migration, and Donald Tusk is now being attacked in a vile and sanctimonious manner by those who have been representing for years now the obviously misguided migration policy of the European Commission.”

The other side considered Tusk’s initiative to be an encroachment on the prerogatives of the European Council. As one unnamed EU diplomat said, “The European Council is not a legislative body.” In his opinion, Tusk couldn’t possibly mean to bypass the normal procedures of the European Union. Moreover, Tusk’s opinions bore a suspicious resemblance to the general argument put forth by the Visegrád Four, which could be a result of his national attachments.

Photo: Stephanie LeCocq / MTI-EPA

Viktor Orbán left Budapest in a combative mood with a backpack on his shoulder which, according to him, contained 2.3 million Hungarians’ rejection of the Soros Plan, which in Orbán’s domestic parlance means the plan of the European Commission. (I should add that no official results of the national consultation have yet been disclosed.) Today he seems to be flying high because his Facebook page is full of videos with English subtitles from Brussels, announcing all of the things he has been accomplishing.

Before the summit the Visegrád Four prime ministers, whose ranks included two new members, Andrej Babiš of the Czech Republic and Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland, met Jean-Claude Juncker of the European Commission and Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni of Italy. Juncker was especially open to the gesture of the four prime ministers and called the offer a sign of solidarity. Orbán was elated and declared that he was “deeply thankful to [Juncker], who was a good partner.” According to Andrew Byrne, Financial Times correspondent for Hungary, Romania, and the West Balkans, Orbán was overtaken by Juncker’s kindness. It’s no wonder that Orbán on one of his videos announced that “after the first bout we are doing well. It looks like a points victory today.”

We will see how the rest of the summit shapes up. After all, Tusk had to retreat, and there is a crucial dinner meeting tonight and another day of negotiations tomorrow.

December 14, 2017

Viktor Orbán stood alone at the EPP congress

Viktor Orbán has been headline news in the last few days. One reason for this sudden interest in the pocket dictator of Hungary is his determination to close Hungary’s best institution of higher learning, the Central European University. The other was his performance at the annual congress of the European People’s Party (EPP) in Malta, where he delivered a speech that went against everything the other EPP politicians stand for.

The new government mouthpiece Origo described the Hungarian leader’s fantastic energy, which allowed him to have so many negotiations in one day in Malta. “Even foreign journalists commented on the Hungarian prime minister’s stamina.” On March 29 he had talks with an Albanian party chairman, a former Macedonia prime minister, the Bulgarian prime minister, the Croatian prime minister, an opposition politician from Malta, and the Austrian deputy chancellor. As for politicians from the European Union, he met with Jyirki Katainen, vice president of the European Union, and an official of the European Council.

Then came the second day of the congress and speeches by European politicians, who all spoke about unity and solidarity. Donald Tusk, who has been highly praised in the international media of late, talked at length about the necessity of a united Europe as the only guarantee of its sovereignty. “For a responsible patriot there is no better alternative than a united and sovereign Europe.” Romanian President Klaus Iohannis showed himself to be a strong supporter of a unified Europe bound together by the basic values of the European Union. Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister who is one of those few European politicians striving for a United States of Europe, talked about the advantages of integration. Manfred Weber, head of the EPP’s parliamentary delegation, announced that “anyone who loves his birthplace must say yes to a strong Europe.”

Then it was Viktor Orbán’s turn. His speech was described by Bloomberg as a “litany of charges” against migration into the EU, warning of “a dominant Muslim presence” in western Europe in the coming years, and condemning a “leftist ideology” that imposed guilt “for the crusades and colonialism.” Alluding to the Syrian conflict, he said that “if you kick an anthill, we should not be surprised if the ants overwhelm us.” I don’t know how other people feel about this metaphor, but it struck me as crude and demeaning. Perhaps unfairly, it reminded me of Albert Wass’s story of the rats that the farmer allowed to take over his house. Of course, Wass was writing not about the Syrians but about the Jews.

Angela Merkel, who spoke after Orbán, didn’t directly address the Hungarian prime minister but clearly was referring to Orbán’s hard-nosed inhumanity. “Do we just want to say that we don’t have any humanitarian responsibilities here?” she asked. According to Bloomberg, this clash between Merkel and Orbán laid “bare European disunity.” What they should have added was that, of all the speeches delivered, it was only Viktor Orbán’s that went against the consensus.

We are trying to be charming / Photo: MTI

Bloomberg didn’t elaborate on the part of Orbán’s speech that dealt with human rights. Orbán is mighty upset over the European Court of Human Rights/ECHR’s verdict that fined the Hungarian government for the ill treatment of two refugees from Bangladesh. In fact, Fidesz politicians were so upset that they were quite seriously talking about withdrawing Hungary from adherence to the European Convention of Human Rights. Of course, cooler heads prevailed. The hotheads calmed down once the minister of justice said that the government, although it will appeal the verdict, has no intention of taking such a foolish step. But it seems that the Hungarian government is not satisfied with a simple appeal. Viktor Orbán wants “urgent reforms” of the ECHR because “its judgments were a threat to the security of EU people and an invitation for migrants.” It is a mystery why Orbán thought that the EPP’s annual congress was the best place to suggest reform of the court when it functions under the aegis of the Council of Europe, which is a different entity from the European Union.

Orbán also decided to bring his ideological fight to the fore when he called the European Left “fatal for Europe.” Leftist politicians “want to force bureaucratic rules in our labor market, raise taxes, and … build socialism in Europe.” He called on his fellow Christian Democrats to fight these forces. “We are the EPP. We should not be afraid of leftist criticism calling us populist.” According to Euractiv, these words were received enthusiastically, which I find strange because practically no one considers the Christian Democrats populists. We normally talk about them as politicians of the right of center. The label “populism” is reserved for politicians of the far right, for example, Viktor Orbán and leaders of populist parties all over Europe. In this regard, it should be noted, Fidesz’s presence in the EPP delegation is something of an anomaly.

My sense is that because of Viktor Orbán’s behavior in the past few years, Hungary is isolated even within the EPP. For instance, at the congress there were several panels on a range of topics where experts and politicians gave speeches or led discussion groups. There was not one Hungarian leading such a group. Hungary was represented only once, on a panel discussion organized by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in which János Martonyi, the former Hungarian foreign minister, was one of the participants. Martonyi has the reputation of being a respectable diplomat, and Viktor Orbán usually trots him out when he wants to show the better side of his government and Fidesz.

There was one piece of news from the congress about which the Hungarian government media was silent. The EPP adopted a resolution on “Russian disinformation undermining Western democracy.” We learned about the existence of this resolution from István Ujhelyi, an MSZP member of the European Parliament, who wrote about it on his Facebook page. He pointed out that Viktor Orbán signed the document, but obviously the party and the government were not too eager to advertise this fact.

The path to this resolution started with an open letter by members of the EPP to Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The letter asked her to “Please start taking the Russian disinformation threat seriously!” Apparently, she didn’t answer “nor did she acknowledge what the letter’s signatories seemed to want her to say: that Russian disinformation, as well as the separate but related issues of illiberalism and political extremism, is increasingly becoming a big problem in Europe, and specifically in the ‘Visegrad Four’ countries in Central and Eastern Europe, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia.”

Unfortunately, I very much doubt that Viktor Orbán’s signature on this declaration will make any difference in the government media’s pro-Russian orientation.

March 31, 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

The Hungarian government’s shameful treatment of asylum seekers

On Sunday, March 5, 2017, a report from Belgrade was published in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. It claimed that refugees “with visible traces of Hungary’s brutal policies” had told the Swedish journalist about severe beatings with batons by Hungarian policeman. The officers also used attack dogs. Their stories were confirmed by Andrea Contenta of Doctors Without Borders. According to him, the number of incidents has multiplied of late. There was at least one day when 20 people needed medical attention. One of the asylum seekers ended up into the emergency room of the nearby hospital. Accompanying the story were photos of the men with visible wounds and bruises.

In no time all the major newspapers of Europe and the United States picked up Aftonbladet’s story, which was followed by a worldwide condemnation of the Hungarian government’s treatment of asylum seekers. A day later the Hungarian ministry of interior released a statement that Magyar Nemzet described as an “ill-tempered personal attack.” In it, the ministry “categorically repudiated the unproven accusations that appeared in the international and domestic media” leveled against the Hungarian government. The ministry called attention to the fact that such accusations usually occur when “Hungary is forced, in the defense of the European Union and its own citizens, to strengthen its borders.” The press release also noted that Doctors Without Borders is supported by George Soros. As for the few possible incidents, Hungarian prosecutors have already investigated eight cases, six of which turned out to be bogus. The denial of these reports continued today when Zoltán Kovács, a government spokesman, declared that the report of Doctors Without Borders is nothing more than a pack of lies.

But that was not all. On March 7, two days after the Swedish newspaper story, the Hungarian parliament passed a new piece of legislation that will force all asylum seekers into detention camps. UPI’s report specifically recounted that “although [the law] was fiercely criticized after its submission last month, the legislation won near-unanimous approval … by a vote of 138-6.” This lopsided vote was the result of the abstention of MSZP members of parliament, a sign of their usual ambivalence when it comes to the migrant issue. While their cases are being decided, asylum seekers, including women and children over the age of 14, will be herded into shipping containers surrounded by a high razor-fence on the Hungarian side. These camps will be wide open on the Serbian side. Therefore, Hungarian government officials can declare with some justification that the people inside these camps are not incarcerated; they just can’t step onto Hungarian soil.

On the very same day that Fidesz-KDNP and Jobbik members of parliament voted for the bill that was to receive worldwide opprobrium, Viktor Orbán delivered a short speech at the swearing-in ceremony of 462 new “border hunters.” In the speech he called the new recruits’ job a “calling” in “the service of the country and the defense of the Hungarian people.” He pointed out that even if there is at the moment no migrant pressure at the borders of Europe, Hungary must be prepared for repeated onslaughts of migrants. It is for that reason that the Hungarian government will build a new fence which, according to some reports, might be attached to a source of low-voltage electricity. He described “migration as a Trojan horse of terrorism,” which assumes that all migrants are potential terrorists. Or perhaps one could go even further and interpret this sentence as akin to the contention of those American Islamophobes who say that Islam is not really a religion but rather an ideology of terrorism.

Another memorable Orbán line from this speech addressed the dichotomy between human rights and the law. Those migrants who cross Hungary’s border break the law. “This is reality which cannot be overwritten by all that rarified claptrap about human rights.” Orbán certainly doesn’t beat around the bush. Human rights are not something he worries or cares about. In fact, he is ready to transgress them in the name of “reality.”

A day later Magyar Nemzet reported that Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, expressed his “deep concern” over the detention of asylum seekers in guarded camps which, in his opinion, violates the obligations spelled out in the European Convention of Human Rights. And he is not alone. Two rapporteurs of the Council, Tineke Strik and Doris Fiala, asked János Áder to refuse to countersign this new law that most likely is in violation of international agreements. Zeid bin Ra’ad al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, considers it “a far cry from international norms” and recommends its withdrawal.

As far as the European Commission is concerned, there seems to be a shift in its position toward this latest outrage. At first Margaritis Schinas, the chief spokesperson of the Commission, informed inquiring journalists that the Commission would not make a statement now but would wait until the law comes into effect. A day later, however, another spokesperson, Natasha Bertaud, told Népszava’s correspondent in Brussels that Dimitris Avramopoulos, EU commissioner for migration, will be dispatched to Budapest “to conduct serious negotiations with the Hungarian authorities about the amendments to the Asylum Act.”

By now I don’t have much hope that any international organization, be it the United Nations, the Council of Europe, or the European Commission, will be able to influence Hungarian policies either on the migrant question or on the transgression of democratic norms. Here and there one can hear from European politicians that the Hungarian government’s behavior should at least have financial consequences, but so far Brussels has been unwilling to punish Hungary for the actions of its government.

There are times when Viktor Orbán, despite all his bluster, quietly falls into line. Like today, when he cast his vote for the reelection of Donald Tusk as president of the European Council. Orbán abandoned his best friend and comrade Jarosław Kaczyński and voted for “the icon of immorality and stupidity,” as the Polish foreign minister called Donald Tusk. There are steps which even Orbán is reluctant to take.

March 9, 2017

After the US election: Europe is anxiously waiting

Mother Jones published a funny article back in September about Trump’s hectic first day in office. On the basis of his election promises, the author compiled a to-do list of 21 items. Here are a few that would, directly or indirectly, have an impact on the European Union. He would call the heads of major companies who are moving operations overseas to inform them that they’ll face 35% tariffs. He would “contact countries and say … ‘Folks, we love protecting you, we want to continue to protect you but you’re not living up to the bargain’… They’re not paying what they’re supposed to be paying—which is very little, by the way.” He would immediately “withdraw from TPP.” He would also suspend the Syrian refugee resettlement program.

And this is just the first day. To come are many, even more important items, like his promised suspension of all ongoing free trade negotiations, including the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which is described on the website of the European Commission as an “ambitious and balanced” agreement that would “boost Europe’s influence in the world.”

Then there’s Trump’s unbounded admiration of President Putin, the strong leader whom he compared favorably to our own weak President Obama. And there’s the matter of Russian involvement in the presidential race. Just today Russia’s deputy foreign minister said that during the campaign the Russian government had been in touch with members of Trump’s campaign staff. There is panic in Ukraine, with people writing tweets like “tell me I’m sleeping and this is a terrible nightmare!” Poland’s president already fired off a letter to Trump, urging him to keep Washington’s promise to deploy troops on NATO’s eastern flank.

Photo: Mark Murrmann, Richard Dew/AP, Ti Kirkpatrick/CNP/ZUMA

Photo: Mark Murrmann, Richard Dew/AP, Ti Kirkpatrick/CNP/ZUMA

There is apprehension across Europe, even as the customary congratulations are being sent to the American president-elect. I especially loved the message coming from Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Prolin. In addition to “wishing the new president well,” he “pledge[d] to pray that God enlightens him and supports him in the service of his country … in the service of well-being and peace in the world.” It seems that the European Union’s leading politicians share Cardinal Prolin’s hope for Trump’s enlightenment.

The president of the European Union, Martin Schulz, was not optimistic. He said that he “must respect the future president of the United States [and] hopes that we will find a slot to cooperate.” He added that “it will be hard, harder than with previous administrations but he is the freely elected president.” Just a slot?

Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, doesn’t want to engage in a guessing game about Trump’s future policies. “We would like to know how things will proceed with global trade policy. We would like to know what intentions [Trump] has regarding the [NATO] alliance. We must know what climate policies he intends to pursue. This must be cleared up in the next few months.”

Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, and Jean-Claude Juncker wrote a joint congratulatory letter to Trump yesterday in which they felt it necessary to stress the strategic partnership between the European Union and the United States, which is “rooted in our shared values of freedom, human rights, democracy and a belief in the market economy.” The letter went on: “only by cooperating closely can the EU and the US continue to make a difference when dealing with unprecedented challenges such as Da’esh, the threats to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, climate change and migration.” At the end of the letter they extended an invitation for Trump “to visit Europe for an EU-US Summit at your earliest convenience.” This meeting would allow them “to chart the course of our relations for the next four years.”

There is widespread fear that under Trump’s guidance the United States will retreat to a modern version of “splendid isolation.” Even though with globalization this is well-nigh impossible, many of Trump’s promises to Americans have touched on this theme. Trump said that his “foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people, and American security, above all else. That will be the foundation of every decision that I will make. America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.” Susan Dunn, a political commentator, noted that it was most unfortunate that Trump chose to use “the noxious slogan, ‘America First,’ the name of the isolationist, defeatist, anti-Semitic national organization that urged the United States to appease Adolf Hitler.” Trump’s reference to “America First” was not wasted on European leaders. Tusk immediately fired back: “I do not believe that any country today can be great in isolation. But I do believe that America and Europe can, should and will work together. It is in our common interest. We have to recognize that this will take major efforts from both sides.”

The fact is that we have no idea what the foreign policy of a Trump presidency will be. I doubt that he himself has a clue. On that funny to-do list published by Mother Jones the last item was “learn the difference between Hezbollah and Hamas.” In his victory speech Trumped vowed to “get along with all other nations willing to get along with us.” But, as Dalibor Rohac, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said, “getting along” is not a foreign policy. Moreover, such careless phrasing opens the possibility of getting along with powers like Russia and China, two countries that have in the last year struck a threatening pose against their neighbors.

Because of Trump’s far too friendly comments on Vladimir Putin and Russia many commentators believe that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe are the most vulnerable to Russian influence and expansion if the United States does indeed retreat from its political, economic, and military participation in Europe. Trump’s national security adviser was once asked rhetorically, “Do we want NATO to go on for another half-century?” His answer was “I don’t know.” Given such careless and irresponsible utterances coming from Trump’s closest associates, it’s no wonder that there is such nervousness in Europe, whose security depends largely on the military power of the United States.

Viktor Orbán welcomes a more isolationist American foreign policy. And he continues waging his own version of an isolationist war against Brussels, arguing for country over Union. János Lázár only today announced that the Hungarian government will continue its battle with Brussels over the compulsory quotas even though the opposition refused to support its proposed amendments to the constitution. One is inclined to agree with Tamás Bauer, a keen observer of politics, that “Orbán wants more than Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. He doesn’t want to take his country out of the Union but he wants to destroy it.”

November 10, 2016

The collapse of the united front of the Visegrád 4 in Bratislava

The Hungarian media hasn’t paid much attention to Viktor Orbán’s Friday morning interview on Magyar Rádió, which was aired on September 16 around 8:00 a.m. but was recorded the evening before. In it, the prime minster talked a great deal about the common agenda of the Visegrád 4 countries, on which their representatives were working furiously, even overnight. He proudly announced that while “the bureaucrats in Brussels” will most likely not be able to produce a document at the end of their negotiations in Bratislava, the Visegrád 4 will present a common set of proposals. As he said, “this is an important moment in the history of the Visegrád 4.” He added that “the Visegrád 4 are in perfect agreement on these questions.”

So, let’s see the demands of this joint statement, which Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło presented to the leaders of EU27. Its most important “ultimatum,” as some journalists called it, was “the strengthening of the role of national parliaments underlining respect for the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality.” The Visegrád 4 accused Germany and France of making key decisions alone and disregarding the opinions of the eastern European states. “European integration is a common project and all negotiations should therefore be inclusive and open to all member states.” They demanded that “efforts should be channeled to fully implement the already undertaken commitments aiming at strengthening security in the Schengen area as well as the protection of EU’s external borders.” Linked to the security issue was the question of migration, which is considered to be the key issue for the group. The solution of the Visegrád 4 to the problem of the millions of migrants is what they call “flexible solidarity,” “a concept [which would] enable Member States to decide on specific forms of contribution taking into account their experience and potential. Furthermore any distribution mechanism should be voluntary.”

If we take a look at “The Bratislava Declaration,” we can safely assume that very few of these demands were discussed or even considered. The only exception is that the Bratislava road map includes “full control of our external borders…. Before the end of the year, full capacity for rapid reaction of the European Border and Coast Guard.” The goal of the Bratislava summit was to demonstrate unity, not to argue endlessly about the Visegrád 4’s grievances. The European Union is facing difficult challenges for which the member states must find common solutions. Donald Tusk made it crystal clear to Beata Szydło that this is not the time for a public debate of these issues. He even visited Budapest ahead of the summit to try to convince Viktor Orbán to let sleeping dogs lie. It seems that Tusk failed to restrain Orbán from open criticism, although in his interview on Magyar Rádió the prime minister did say that “in the name of fairness there is improvement on this issue,” adding that Tusk is one of the people in Brussels who places “defense” as the top priority. Of course, he credited himself for the evolving change in thinking on the issue.

If Orbán found the joint document of the Visegrád 4 so significant, why didn’t he complain that the summit passed over most of the demands outlined in it? Why did he object instead merely to the European Union’s immigration policies? On this issue “The Bratislava Declaration” said only that “work to be continued to broaden EU consensus in terms of long term migration policy, including on how to apply the principles of responsibility and solidarity in the future.”

First of all, knowing Viktor Orbán, who cannot imagine life without dissent, discord, and constant battling about one thing or the other, we could expect that he, unlike his comrades in arms in the Visegrád 4, would not come out of the meeting smiling and telling the world how happy he is with the outcome. He would have to complain about something. The most obvious target was immigration, or rather sharing the burden of the newly arrived asylum seekers. He could not return home and tell the Hungarian people that all’s well with the European Union and that from here on the remaining 27 member states will try to solve their problems together. After all, the Hungarian referendum on the refugees will be held on October 2, a referendum that he deems of vital importance to his political career. So, the choice of his complaint was a given.

But, in addition to immigration policy, he could have complained that the summit ignored one of his demands: strengthening the nation states at the expense of the center. Why didn’t he? Because, as far as I can see, he lost the support of his allies: Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. They joined the rest and declared the Bratislava summit a success. Even Beata Szydło realized that in the package presented to the members there were substantial incentives to stand by the others.

The roses were not enough

The roses were not enough

From the very beginning dissension was noticeable among the four countries. Poland and Hungary were the most vocal critics of Brussels. Slovakia and the Czech Republic wanted closer relations with Germany. Of course, it is not at all to Hungary’s advantage to have a pro-government media empire that revels in anti-Merkel rhetoric, but Orbán’s political moves are not always rational. While Orbán was advocating a counter-revolution against the existing order in Europe, Ivan Korčok, the Slovak undersecretary for European Affairs, talked to Politico about “a deeper reflection process, [fearing] trenches between West and East.” Moreover, he said that “migration is a phenomenon we have to see with a long term view,” which to my mind means a realization that migration will be part of the lives of the people of the EU, from which there is no escape for individual states.

Even between Poland and Hungary, despite their close ideological ties, there is the troubling issue of Russia. Poland, fearing Russia, supports a permanent NATO force in the region while Orbán would like to see the end of EU sanctions against Russia. The Poles also don’t approve of his cozy relations with Vladimir Putin.

These four countries, in spite of their geographical proximity, are different in many ways and have different national interests. As Korčok said of the upcoming summit, “I don’t think we can surge forward together.” Well, they didn’t.

It seems that Orbán’s revitalization of the Visegrád 4 pretty well collapsed in Bratislava. This diplomatic defeat should trouble him a lot more than the European Union’s immigration policy, over which he has no control. For the sake of winning a useless referendum for domestic political purposes he might have to give up his dream of being the leader of the East European countries and ultimately a major player on the European stage.

September 17, 2016

The Bratislava Summit: No “victory lap” for Viktor Orbán

I often stress that Hungarian Spectrum is a cooperative enterprise because we have readers who, in the comment section, carry on an active exchange of ideas. That in turn enriches my own contributions. Here I would like to have a discussion with “István” on Orbán’s chances of success in Bratislava. I, of course, have the massive advantage of hindsight.

Today István, on the basis of preliminary statements ahead of the Bratislava summit, predicted that the meeting in the Slovak capital could be “Orbán’s victory lap.” He cited a report by Népszabadság about the meeting that Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, had had with Viktor Orbán ahead of the summit. According to the article, Orbán in no uncertain terms told Schulz what he thinks of the treatment Hungary receives from the European Union. He demanded greater respect for Hungary. He also accused the European Parliament and the European Commission of “dirty tricks” because they had changed the resolution of the European Council concerning voluntary quotas behind the prime ministers’ backs to compulsory ones. “I asked them not to do that ever again because the nation states cannot accept this.”

István, on the basis of this article, believes that “Orbán effectively, gently lectured the EU” and therefore came out a winner. The trouble with this interpretation is that we don’t know what Orbán said or didn’t say. But I very much doubt that he dared to lie straight to Schulz’s face about the alleged legislative trick of the EP and EC, changing voluntary quotas to compulsory ones. There may have been no “effective and gentle lecture” at all. On the other hand, we know from Schulz himself the deep division between them still exist and he wasn’t impressed by Orbán’s arguments.

István further writes that “Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister, has withdrawn his statement on the expulsion of Hungary from the EU.” But this is not quite the case. The foreign minister of Luxembourg didn’t take his words back. After all the criticism he received, he merely told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that his statement “was a wake-up call ahead of the Friday Bratislava summit.” So, if I understand this sentence correctly, it was meant, in fact, as a warning to Viktor Orbán to behave.

I also have a different reading of Donald Tusk’s letter. The sentence about the European Union as “a single state” is utterly meaningless because no such a goal has ever been stipulated in any of the EU treaties. What the member states accepted was “the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as openly as possible and as closely as possible to the citizen.” Tusk, as president, is fully aware of the true meaning of the concept of “an ever closer union.”

So, why then did he give an utterly false interpretation of the concept of the United States of Europe? I guess because he wanted to calm the nerves of the prime ministers of the East-Central European countries on the future of Europe. It will never be one state, he assured them. Right now the Visegrád 4 prime ministers are demanding a structural change of the EU in favor of the nation states, but any such modification, according to Tusk, “requires a change of attitude of the national governments towards the European Union as such.” To me this is a message to the Visegrád 4 that they are the ones who have to change their attitudes because the current problems have been aggravated by the attitude of people like Orbán, Szydło, and Fico. If you want change, you have to change.

If I understand István correctly, he believes that Orbán and Fidesz have already won their game against the European Union and doesn’t understand why they are so “greatly restrained in proclaiming victory.” He believes that Tusk and Merkel are willing to concede to the demand of Orbán and Co. that decisions should be made only by the European Council. They claim that the European Commission is pursuing an independent policy to which it is not entitled. The trouble with this argument is that it has no basis in fact. Every decision made in the EU must be and is sanctioned by the prime ministers or chancellors of the member states, including Viktor Orbán. He will not be able to go to Bratislava with this accusation because his colleagues would think he has lost his mind. Orbán, Lázár and the rest can tell this fairy tale to the Hungarian people, but they cannot carry this message to an EU summit. The reason for the restraint of Orbán and Fidesz is their knowledge that their chances of winning the game by accusing the Commission of overstepping its prerogatives or ex post facto nullifying decisions voted on by the European Council are nil.

bratislava-castle

So, let’s see what we know so far about what transpired in Bratislava. Beata Szydło was leading the charge of the Visegrád 4 because Poland is currently acting as president of the group. Yesterday she was still rather sure of herself and her cause and even named the culprits of the refugee crisis: Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker, and Martin Schulz. The incompetent politicians who reacted too late to the crisis. Visegrád 4 has the solution: a total change in the very structure of the European Union in favor of the nation states. However, the Poles, as well as the Hungarians, most likely know that they will not succeed against the majority of the member states. In fact, Szydło’s foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, was already talking about “a flexible solidarity,” by which he meant a dispersion of refugees according to the countries’ economic capabilities. He also came up with the idea that those countries that have labor shortage problems should take the bulk of the refugees. Most likely he didn’t realize that in the last few months Hungary, which refuses to take one single person, is suffering from a severe labor shortage and that Mihály Varga, minister of economics, is desperately trying to find guest workers who, of course, are “culturally close to the majority population.” The countries of the Visegrád 4 know that in the end they will have to share the burden of the refugee crisis.

On the basis of Viktor Orbán’s press conference held after the meeting, most commentators decided that Orbán “had lost that game.” He admitted that the participants had made some progress. No one wants to follow the United Kingdom and leave the Union; Bulgaria will get assistance to relieve the immigration pressure from Greece, just as Juncker had promised in his State of the Union speech; the EU will set up refugee hot spots outside the Union that will be defended militarily; and agreement was reached on a timetable: the next meeting will be in Vienna on September 24. Two demands of the Visegrád Group were not met: the promise of a change in the very structure of the European Union was postponed and no drastic change in its immigration policy was adopted. Therefore, Orbán considers the meeting a failure. As he put it: “they still talk more about speeding up the distribution of migrants than stopping them at the borders of Schengen.”

Naturally, Polish Prime Minister Szydło was equally unhappy with the outcome of the meeting on the immigration issue. But she expressed her satisfaction that there was agreement that some changes will have to be made to the structure of the European Union. Although Tusk might have expressed his belief that “giving new powers to European institutions is not the desired recipe,” it doesn’t mean that they will loosen the ties as much as she and Orbán would like. That would be the death knell of a united Europe.

All in all, in my opinion the Bratislava summit was anything but “a victory lap” for Viktor Orbán.

September 16, 2016