Tag Archives: Donald Tusk

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

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’s “veto” turned out to be a hoax

The Hungarian media was abuzz for a few hours late last night with Viktor Orbán’s “veto” of the agreement between Turkey and the European Union at the March 7 summit in Brussels. If you visit the official site of the Hungarian telegraphic agency, MTI, you will find that its reporter learned from “sources in Brussels” that the summit was abruptly cancelled as a result of Viktor Orbán’s veto of the direct transfer of refugees from Turkey to the European Union. The report was filed at 20:06.

If MTI’s inaccurate reporting had remained the only source of the news, it wouldn’t have spread so fast as it did, all over the world. But Zoltán Kovács, government spokesman, decided to write on Twitter at 20:44: “Orban has vetoed EU-Turkey plan to relocate asylum seekers directly from Turkey.”

Less than an hour later, at 21:18, MTI returned to the subject of the veto. This second MTI report, written in Budapest, followed an interview with Zoltán Kovács on Channel M1 of the Hungarian state television. Here, the abrupt cancellation of the summit was changed to “cessation of the negotiations on the direct transfer of refugees from the Turkish refugee camps.”

Right-wing papers were singing the praises of Hungary’s great diplomat and statesman who had the courage to say no to the powerful heads of state of the European Union. But it didn’t take long before Hungarian reporters found out that there was in fact no decision that Orbán had the opportunity to veto. What happened was that during the discussion of the Turkish suggestion to transfer Syrian refugees directly to the European Union several member states objected to the details of the plan: Greece, Italy, Cyprus, France, and Hungary. Most likely, as Kovács indicated, the Turkish suggestion will have to be reworked to be acceptable to these countries. And indeed, discussions will take place in the next week or so between Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, and Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Turkish prime minister, to modify and fine tune the proposal.

European leaders hailed the summit as a breakthrough because Turkey offered to take back all migrants who cross into Greece in the future. Of course, the deal comes at a price: doubling EU subsidies to care for the refugees from 3 to 6 billion euros and “a commitment to take one Syrian refugee directly from Turkey for each one returned from Greece’s Aegean islands.” In addition, Turkey asked the EU to speed up visa free travel for Turkish citizens and to open negotiations about EU accession for Turkey.

Aat today's press conference Angela Merkel looks very satisfied with herself

At today’s press conference Angela Merkel seemed happy with the results

So, let’s return briefly to the issue of the direct transfer of Syrians from Turkey to the European Union, which Orbán didn’t veto but only objected to along with several other member states. What is it all about? Is it really bad for the European Union countries?

First of all, let’s see what the plan would actually entail. Let’s say that in the future, after the agreement takes effect, a boat arrives in Greece from Turkey with twenty illegal immigrants, ten of whom are Syrians, five are Afghans, and five are Iranians. All twenty will be sent back to Turkey, according to the plan, but for the ten illegal Syrians, one of the European countries could choose ten Syrians currently in Turkish refugee camps. They would already have been vetted. Moreover, the host countries could make their choices based on the professional background of the asylum seekers or on any other criteria, like educational attainment, marital status, or age. Amnesty International considers this selection process immoral, inhuman, and shortsighted.

As far as Viktor Orbán is concerned, he repeatedly stated that Hungary will never accept quotas, compulsory or otherwise. In fact, in the most recent Friday morning interview he said that in Hungary “there will be no breaking through the fence, no revolts in refugee camps, no bandits hunting for Hungarian women…. We will not create a Europe out of Hungary, which will remain a safe place.”

The impression in Turkey is that Orbán doesn’t want any Muslims in his country, period. The Turkish Gazette Vatan quoted an Orbán statement at length, where he exhibited his anti-Muslim prejudices. According to the paper, Orbán at the summit said: “In our view, countries can accept a large number of Muslim immigrants. It’s their choice, but we do not want to…. [The direct transfer plan] doesn’t apply to all EU countries. If I gave approval to this plan, people would hang me from a lamp post in Budapest.” If it is indeed the case that not all EU countries will be required to take Syrians straight from Turkey, Orbán’s “veto” becomes especially ridiculous.

Fidesz’s official assessment came this afternoon. The spokesman for the party was Deputy Chairman Gergely Gulyás, who stressed that “at last the leaders of the European Union accepted the same position that Hungary has always represented, meaning that the borders of the European Union must be defended.” This is an incredible statement because we remember only too well that Orbán first demanded that Greece defend its 10,000 km. of coastline by force and later suggested amassing an international contingent to intercept boats carrying refugees. This deal with Turkey bears no resemblance to Orbán’s plans. But such discrepancies have never bothered any of the high-level Fidesz politicians.

Gulyás stressed, however, that the Hungarian government considers the agreement as it now stands “not in Hungary’s interest,” and therefore “in its present form it cannot be signed.” The government mouthpiece, Magyar Idők, followed suit and collected a host of negative opinions about the results of the summit, mostly from French papers. Magyar Nemzet, on the other hand, criticized MTI, Zoltán Kovács, and the state television for misinforming the public.

At the end, Angela Merkel herself set things straight when this morning she gave a press conference, during which a reporter asked her about Viktor Orbán’s “veto.” “There was no talk about a veto but about some disputed questions. You are familiar with the Hungarian point of view concerning quotas. They even went to court on this issue. This standpoint hasn’t changed. We still have to find answers for a score of questions or have to discuss them in the different parliaments. That’s why we said that we welcome the Turkish proposal but we haven’t given the nod yet.”

Orbán may have strenuously objected, but he still approved the final statement, which contained the provision for compulsory quotas. That’s why Zsolt Gréczy, spokesman of the Democratic Coalition (DK), said that the only thing Orbán is doing at the moment is trying to divert attention from the fact that within two weeks he twice voted for the compulsory quotas. Gréczy pointed out that the final document specifically mentions the necessity of speeding up the dispersion of refugees in order to lighten Greece’s burden. I am really looking forward to that final nod, to which Merkel referred. I’m sure that, despite all the theatrics, Viktor Orbán will be one of the signatories.

March 8, 2016