Tag Archives: European Council summit

Orbán: “one of the greatest virtues is to know where one’s place is”

Anyone who has the patience to sit through 40 minutes of a bad English translation of the joint press conference given by Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán can’t help noticing that the two politicians were not in the best of moods. Two years ago, during Putin’s last visit, Orbán was glowing. This time he was somber and so was Putin. Commentators who claim that the whole trip was nothing more than an opportunity for Putin to show that he is welcome in a country belonging to the European Union and for Orbán to demonstrate that he has an important ally were most likely wrong. Something happened during the negotiations between the two leaders that was disturbing, especially for Viktor Orbán.

But first, let’s see what issues the Russian partner wanted to discuss during Putin’s visit to Budapest. According to a summary issued by the Russian foreign ministry, from the Russian point of view the financing and construction of the Paks II Nuclear Power Plant extension had absolute priority. Rebuilding the old Soviet-made metro trains on the M3 line came next in importance, a project that is already underway. In addition, it looks as if Russia is eyeing the project of reconstructing the M3 line in lieu of the €120 million Hungary owes Russia as a result of the bankruptcy of the jointly owned MALÉV. Moscow also wants Hungary to show more interest in cultural matters pertaining to Russia. The ministry’s communiqué noted with satisfaction that there is a revival of interest in the Russian language. As for bilateral economic cooperation between the two countries, the document was vague.

Péter Szijjártó while in Moscow assured Sergey Lavrov of Hungary’s plans to promote Russian culture in Hungary. He announced that Leo Tolstoy will soon have a statue and a street named after him in Budapest. He revealed that the Hungarian government will spend a considerable amount of money on the restoration of three Orthodox churches in the country. As for Hungarian investments, Szijjártó specifically mentioned Hungarian technological investments in the field of agriculture and construction. In addition, he brought up a few projects allegedly under construction and financed by the Hungarian Eximbank.

Not mentioned among the items Hungary is offering to Russia was a memorial that was just unveiled in Esztergom. Even though if Orbán had a free hand he would gladly remove the Soviet memorial on Szabadság tér (Freedom Square), his government accepted a statue, “The Angel of Peace,” done by a Russia sculptor, Vladimir Surovtsev. The statue was erected in Esztergom because it was in the outskirts of that city that, during World War I, a huge camp for prisoners of war was set up. More than 60,000 soldiers–Russians, Serbs, and Italians–spent years there, at first in miserable conditions. Cholera took many lives. To erect a memorial to commemorate the dead and the sufferers is certainly appropriate. What is less logical is that the Russian NGO responsible for the project insisted on including a reference to the soldiers of the Red Army who died in and around Esztergom during 1944-1945. In any event, Vladimir N. Sergeev, Russia’s ambassador in Budapest, said at the ceremony: “It is symbolic that the unveiling of the statue takes place at the time of the Russian president’s visit to Hungary. This shows how important and how strong our cooperation is.”

Perhaps, but it may not have been on display during the meeting between Putin and Orbán, especially when they were discussing Paks II. That the financing of the nuclear power plant was on the agenda was most likely a fact that Viktor Orbán was not eager to share with the public. But his Russian friend practically forced him to reveal it. It was not a friendly gesture.

Let me describe the circumstances in which the incident took place. A journalist from the by-now completely servile Origo asked Viktor Orbán whether the question of financing Paks II was discussed during the conversation. The reason for his question was the Hungarian government’s repeated assertion that by now Hungary could, unlike back in 2014, finance the project on the open market at a lower interest rate than Hungary is currently paying on the Russian loan. János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office, in fact indicated that the government was ready to renegotiate the deal. As it stands now, in the first seven years the interest rate on the loan is 4.50%, for the second seven years it is 4.80%, and in the last seven years it is 4.95%. According to Népszava’s calculation, the interest on the loan is approximately 300 billion forints a year, or one percent of Hungary’s GDP.

Orbán flatly denied that the question of financing (or refinancing) had come up. However, about one minute later when Putin took over from Orbán, he announced that he had “informed the prime minister that Russia is ready to finance not only 80% but even 100% of the project.” So, he contradicted Orbán, practically calling his host a liar. It seems that the Hungarian request or demand to renegotiate the loan was discussed and rejected. Instead, Putin offered him an even larger loan by way of compensation.

Perhaps here I should bring up a baffling statement that Orbán made. When he was asked by the reporter from MTV’s M1 about the two countries’ cooperation in the international arena, Orbán’s answer was: “Russia and Hungary move in different dimensions when it comes to geopolitical, military, and diplomatic questions. To my mind, one of the greatest virtues is to know where one’s place is.” Is it possible that this rather bitter observation had something to do with Orbán’s less than pleasant conversation with Putin? Did he realize that there is no way out of Putin’s deadly embrace? Perhaps.

Of course, it is possible that Orbán, who is not the kind of man who readily admits that he made a mistake, will just go on merrily forging even closer relations with Russia. On the other hand, he may realize that he is not in a position to be a successful mediator between Russia and the rest of the western world.

As usual, it is hard to tell where Orbán stands only a day or two after his meeting with Putin. He was one of those EU leaders who “pledged the need for unity and for Europe to stand on its own two feet” at the European Council summit in Valletta, Malta yesterday even though before his arrival he announced that the U.S. has the right to decide its own border control policy and that “he is puzzled at the ‘neurotic European reactions’ over the travel ban.” Nonetheless, behind closed doors he joined the others who were united in their condemnation of Donald Trumps’ comments and attitudes toward the European Union. François Hollande was one of the most vocal critics of Trump at the meeting and, when asked what he thought of EU leaders who are leaning toward Trump, he said that “those who want to forge bilateral ties with the U.S. … must understand that there is no future with Trump if it is not a common position.” Orbán should understand that, having lost his battle with Putin over the financing of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant. We will see how he decides.

February 4, 2017

Viktor Orbán and freedom of the press

I wasn’t very much off the mark in my predictions yesterday. Viktor Orbán didn’t have the opportunity to veto the European Commission’s plans for “compulsory quotas” or, as the failed amendments to the Constitution called them, “compulsory settlements of alien populaces.” For the time being, there is no word about EU-controlled camps in North African countries, Viktor Orbán’s pet project. And, contrary to his repeated protestations against Russian sanctions, he voted to extend them. Nonetheless, he was something of an alien presence himself. As several newspapers noted, the specters of Putin, Trump, and Erdoğan loomed over the summit, all of whom Orbán admires and supports.

Orbán’s press conference for the reporters who showed up was held at the Permanent Representation of Hungary to the European Union instead of the Justus Lipsius Building, where the Council of Ministers is housed. At the press conference hardly anyone asked questions. By and large Viktor Orbán delivered a monologue in which he tried to inflate his role. He stressed that his best ideas haven’t been accepted yet but they are getting ever more popular among the leaders of the member states. He admitted that he failed to convince the others to lift visa requirements for Ukrainian citizens.

He talked at length about the common understanding among the Visegrád 4 countries. As Lili Bayer pointed out in the Budapest Beacon the other day, however, “in Slovakia and the Czech Republic there are growing concerns about both the nature of the alliance and the Hungarian leader’s portrayal of the bloc.” At the end of his press conference, he smuggled in a few words about the European Commission’s evil plans that would prevent his government from lowering utility prices.

The press conference would have been uneventful, even dull, save for an ugly incident. Bertalan Havasi, as assistant undersecretary, is head of the prime minister’s press office. He is thoroughly despised by his former colleagues for at least two reasons: (1) he allows practically no reporter to ever get close to Orbán and (2) he is an arrogant fellow who likes to speak in the name of the prime minister. At one point he used physical force against a Dutch cameraman who in his opinion was too pushy. The poor fellow ended up with a bloodied head. I tried to learn more about Havasi’s background from the government website but got the error message “file not found.”

In any case, among the small number of reporters at the press conference Havasi noticed Katalin Halmai, who used to be the Brussels correspondent for Népszabadság. She is  now an accredited freelancer who writes the blog “Európában.” She informed the authorities about her intention to attend, and she received an invitation to attend. But before the press conference began, the spokesman for the Permanent Representation went up to her and asked her to leave on the order of Havasi. The pro-government and/or fearful journalists said nothing until Gábor Nemes, the correspondent for Klubrádió, rose and objected to Halmai’s treatment. In his opinion, these press conferences should be held in the Justus Lipsius Building, where “one cannot send reporters out of the room.” He reminded Havasi that Halmai is still an accredited reporter who works as a freelancer. Good for Nemes, who I suspect thinks that after what Klubrádió had to suffer as a result of Orbán’s desire to shut it down, not much more can happen to that harassed station.

Viktor Orbán and Bertalan Havasi / MTI, Photo:  Balázs Szecsődi

Havasi’s answer was typical of this impertinent, arrogant, vicious crew. “Thank you, we will make note of your objection for the records. I didn’t know that there is still a newspaper Népszabadság published in Brussels. Do you? This room would be far too small if we invited and allowed in all blog writers.” Apparently, eight or nine reporters were present and there were at least 40 empty chairs. Nemes wasn’t intimidated and asked: “Do you see any problems with space here?” Which Havasi left unanswered. Instead, Orbán said that “we will consider this a suggestion and will take it under advisement.” I assume he meant the venue of future press conferences.

After a couple of more questions, the decision was reached that Viktor Orbán should talk to Halmai, “not in her capacity as a journalist but as a Hungarian citizen.” She returned, and a private conversation lasting about 15 minutes took place between the two of them in the presence of staff of the prime minister and the ambassador of the Permanent Representation. Apparently, Orbán’s greatest concern was that this happened to “a lady reporter.” This is so typical of Orbán. The autocrat had just trampled on the freedom of the press, but he was worried about “a lady reporter,” as if that was the real shame instead of his total disregard of the fundamental democratic right of the free flow of information.

Today Havasi released a statement announcing that his office will allow only reporters of actually existing newspapers (sajtóorganumok) to attend the press conferences under his jurisdiction. He doesn’t consider blog writers legitimate reporters, so they have no place at press conferences. And what is Halmai complaining about? Viktor Orbán personally received Katalin Halmai, who is a Hungarian citizen, and had a conversation with her during which “the lady told him that at the present time she is not a reporter and doesn’t write for any specific newspaper.” Of course, the Orbán government destroyed the largest and most influential newspaper, and now that its sixty-odd reporters are left jobless, the petty prime minister bars the former paper’s Brussels correspondent from his press conference because “she is not a reporter.”

As if banning a reporter from a paper his regime shuttered weren’t enough, he doubled down in answering a question about George Soros, the personification of everything Viktor Orbán hates about liberal democracy and western capitalism. He said: “A man of tight upbrining doesn’t like talking about people who are not present. Especially not if the journalist who represents them is also absent,” referring, of course, to Katalin Halmai.

Apparently, Halmai was specifically targeted because after Népszabadság closed she was quite active on behalf of the paper in Brussels. At the end of November she was one of the speakers at a conference on the freedom of the press, where she explained the circumstances of the demise of Népszabadság. Frans Timmermans, first deputy president of the European Commission, and Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberals in the European Parliament, also participated in the conference.

This is not the first time that a reporter is barred from Viktor Orbán’s press conferences in Brussels. MTI’s reporter, János Kárpáti, just once asked a question from the prime minister that he was not supposed to ask. It was in April 2015, when Orbán’s then hobbyhorse was the reintroduction of the death penalty. Kárpáti asked a question that he apparently hadn’t cleared with his superiors. The question, which he addressed to him in English, went something like this: “You have gotten a great deal of criticism over your point of view on this subject even from your colleagues in the European People’s Party. How do you see Fidesz’s position within the EPP?” That was pretty much the end of Kárpáti’s career. From that time on his superior organized his schedules in such a way that he was unable to attend the next three of four press conferences given by Orbán. After a few months he lost his job altogether. The lives of Hungarian journalists are not enviable, and I’m afraid the situation will only get worse as more and more publications are acquired by Fidesz oligarchs and strómans.

December 16, 2016

Another summit, another battle: Viktor Orbán forges on

In this post I’m covering an unfinished story: the Brussels summit of the European Council that is taking place today and tomorrow. I believe, however, that I have enough Hungarian material to make some tentative predictions about the outcome as far as the Hungarian prime minister is concerned.

First, I want to emphasize that today’s summit looks very different from Budapest than it does from Germany, France, Great Britain, and the United States. The western media considers this particular meeting to be “a minefield” of “sensitive, explosive” stuff, but the topics so identified bear no resemblance to the ones described in the Hungarian press. The top challenges, seen from the West, are sanctions against Russia, the situations in Ukraine and Syria, and Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Naturally, the migrant crisis will also be on the agenda, with the discussion centering on how to stop further migration from the Libyan coast to Italy.

Someone who relies exclusively on Hungarian sources would be surprised to hear this because Viktor Orbán’s clever propaganda machine has shifted the emphasis to topics that best serve his political interests at home. He is moving onto a battlefield populated with his self-created phantoms.

What do I mean by this? Orbán has been making sure that everybody in Hungary understands that he will wage a life and death struggle against compulsory quotas. Every important government official in the last few days has stressed that the “pressure” on Hungary is tremendous. The prime minister left Hungary this morning with the firm resolve to veto such a resolution. He will fight to the bitter end. Since the question of compulsory quotas will most likely not be on the agenda, it is an empty resolve. He can come out of the meeting and announce to the few Hungarian journalists waiting for him that he successfully defended the country from the Muslim peril, at least for the time being.

Orbán obviously thinks that the idea of Hungary, a small country but one that can threaten the mighty European Union with a veto, resonates at home. He made sure that everybody understands the significance of such a move. The Fidesz and KDNP parliamentary delegations specifically asked the prime minister to veto such a resolution if necessary, reinforcing the gravity of the situation. Of course, it was the prime minister’s office that gave the orders to the delegations and not the other way around.

For good measure, Orbán also threw in another issue he was going to fight for in Brussels: the European Union’s alleged decision to abolish government-set prices for electricity retailers. Initially, the plan was to lift price controls over a five-year period, but lately the word is that, once the proposal is accepted, it will be introduced immediately. Such a move would tie the hands of the Orbán government, which in the last three years has been using price controls as an effective way to lower prices and thus gain popularity. But as far as I know, the issue will not be discussed at the meeting. And for the time being, it is just a proposal. To become law the support of both the European Parliament and the qualified majority of the European Council is necessary.

Once Orbán arrived in Brussels he immediately began to trumpet his own importance to the Hungarian journalists waiting for him. Back in October in Vienna he proposed the establishment of guarded refugee camps under EU military control, an idea that was flatly rejected by the countries present at the meeting. Since then he has somewhat modified his original idea and is now just talking about refugee camps financed by the European Union situated in Libya and Egypt. He admitted during this short press conference that his proposal hasn’t been accepted yet by the majority, but he indicated that he is optimistic that his suggestion will soon be supported by most of the member states. He is equally optimistic about another suggestion of his: “the return of migrants rescued from the sea to wherever they came from.” The defense of borders he demanded was once a “forbidden point of view,” but by today attitudes have changed and “it has become a recognized common task.”

Viktor Orbán enjoying the limelight / Source: MTI/EPA

Orbán’s Hungarian critics believe that the prime minister has arrived in Brussels significantly weakened after his recent domestic setbacks. Despite the incredible amount of money spent to achieve a valid referendum on the compulsory quota question, Orbán ended up with a large majority but, because of lackluster voter turnout, an invalid referendum. Nonetheless, he went ahead with his plan to amend the constitution, allegedly to prevent the settlement of large numbers of unwanted foreigners in the country. But he was thwarted in this effort by Gábor Vona, chairman of Jobbik, an extremist party that has been trying with varying degrees of success to become a respectable right-of-center party.

Orbán therefore can’t portray himself as the voice of a groundswell of anti-migrant sentiment. The Hungarian voters didn’t give him a mandate, nor did the Hungarian parliament. And the Visegrád countries are no longer solidly behind him.

Instead, Orbán seems to be grasping at straws. For example, he urged Hungary’s mayors to sign a letter addressed to Jean-Claude Juncker, which the mayor of Kaposvár, Károly Szita, a devout Fidesz loyalist, would like to hand to the president of the European Commission in person.

Perhaps tomorrow we will learn how much of Orbán’s agenda was approved by the European Council. Personally, I don’t think it’s a cliffhanger.

December 15, 2016

Orbán came home from the summit empty-handed

Viktor Orbán has had a very busy schedule in the last few days. He paid a visit to Munich, where the socialist members of the Bavarian parliament (Landtag) were less than thrilled with the Hungarian prime minister’s appearance among them as he talked about his country as “a land of liberty which has never tolerated and never will tolerate occupation, repression, and dictatorship.” In perhaps the most outrageous remark of the speech, he compared closing the country’s borders to the refugees to opening its borders for the East Germans in 1989. Both were for the defense of European freedom, he claimed.

A day later Orbán gave a long interview to the Passauer Neue Presse. What first caught my eye was his attempt to prove that the enormous amount of EU subsidies Hungary receives is but a fraction of what Hungary lost by opening its markets to western companies. In the past only the far right espoused this economic fiction, but now it has been adopted by the prime minister of the country himself. As he put it, “Hungary is being overrun” by the economically strong nations of the European Union which “make a lot of money in Hungary at the expense of Hungarians.” The cohesion funds do not fully counterbalance these losses. Of course, this is absolute rubbish. We can only imagine what would have happened to Hungary if its government had closed the country’s borders to foreign capital and know-how in 1989. I also wonder what the managements of Mercedes-Benz and Audi think when they hear this complaint. After all, a good chunk of Hungary’s GDP comes from the Hungarian plants of these two car manufacturers.

It always amuses me when Viktor Orbán decides to show off his knowledge of history. Let’s savor this sentence: “Hungary has a healthy attitude toward Muslims and respects Islam because it civilized a very difficult part of the world.” Perhaps Orbán was playing hooky when his history teachers talked about the great civilizations of Mesopotamia and Persia.

In Orbán’s static worldview countries that accept Muslim immigrants “will face an entirely different world in 15 to 20 years” because “Muslims have more children than we Europeans.” No one disputes that Middle Eastern families are on average larger than European families, but it is also true that over time immigrants become increasingly acculturated to the majority population in thinking and behavior.

To Orbán’s mind, countries like Germany that accept immigrants entertain a notion he calls “social romanticism,” which I find difficult to interpret. In his opinion, German politicians today “artificially want to change the composition of the population.” He, on the other hand, is dead against any kind of immigration because Hungary is not a country with a history of immigration. Really? I often think of the enormous number of Hungarian surnames that reek of Magyarization of fairly recent vintage, names that were, in many cases, originally either German or Slovak.

Viktor Orbán's press conference after the summit MTI / Photo bey Gergely Botár

Viktor Orbán’s press conference after the summit
MTI / Photo bey Gergely Botár

Viktor Orbán also went to the summit in Brussels, his mind firmly made up. Currently, his top concern is the migrants and his fight not only against compulsory quotas but against all refugees. They would, he contends, introduce an alien culture and a dilution of what he considers to be a uniform ethnicity. He has a couple of other goals in addition to the migrant issue, but he hasn’t been at all successful in the last two and a half years in convincing the European Council of the efficacy of his suggestions. One is lifting sanctions against Russia; the other, lifting visa requirements for Ukrainian citizens. Sanctions remained, as Orbán had to admit after the summit, because of Russia’s interference in the Syrian civil war. The Ukrainian visa issue just gets postponed from meeting to meeting.

His most important demand was the withdrawal of the earlier decision on compulsory quotas, but Jean-Claude Juncker refused to abrogate the earlier decision. For the time being Orbán escaped the onerous task of signing something he swore he would never sign. What he really hoped for was the complete erasure of the former decision, which he considers illegal. But he failed.

There was another development that may not have been noticed by the casual observer. The document that the prime ministers signed contained a paragraph about the speedier dispersion of asylum seekers among the member states. Hungary and Slovakia attached minority opinions to this particular point. Only Hungary and Slovakia? What happened to Poland and the Czech Republic? I consider the Visegrád 4’s lack of solidarity on this issue a definite setback for Orbán.

Finally, Orbán apparently suggested the removal of refugees and so-called economic migrants to refugee centers outside the European Union. This suggestion seems to me a variation of the plan he tried to sell at the mini-summit in Vienna on October 3–for the EU to set up a giant refugee camp in Libya under EU jurisdiction. This plan was vetoed. Moreover, a few days after the meeting one of the European Commission spokespersons explained that the registration of asylum seekers can take place only within the borders of the European Union. It seems that Orbán doesn’t hear what he doesn’t want to hear and repeats the same thing at every EU gathering.

Finally, a few choice nuggets from Orbán’s press conference after the summit. In connection with his suggestion of setting up refugee camps outside the European Union, he added that “it is much more humane not to allow them into the territory of the EU in the first place.” And, defending his anti-immigrant stance, he said: “There are immigrant friendly and immigrant unfriendly countries. Is it necessary for everybody to be friendly or do countries have the right not to be such?” As for the criticism of Hungary’s lack of solidarity, he “can declare that Hungarian solidarity manifests itself by protecting not only ourselves but the whole European Union.” He also promised to fight even harder in the future.

Another summit is over and Viktor Orbán’s only “accomplishment” was that the decision on compulsory quotas was postponed. All of his other ideas were rejected. Not exactly a reason for him to rejoice.

October 21, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viktor Orbán at his press conference / AP Photo

Viktor Orbán at his press conference / AP Photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 29, 2016

Viktor Orbán in full armor: a knight or a liar?

Before I begin this post on the Brussels summit and Viktor Orbán’s role in the proceedings, I would like to call attention to a story I read in HVG about a little girl and her ethics teacher. It encapsulates what’s wrong with the present system of education in Hungary.

Beginning in September 2013 every child was required to take either a religion or an ethics class one hour a week. Originally about half of the parents opted for religion, although only about 12% of Hungarians consider themselves religious or attend church. The original enthusiasm for religious education undoubtedly stemmed from parents’ belief that taking religion instead of ethics would be a plus in the eyes of the Fidesz loyalist school officials. I understand that since then religion classes have become less popular. Mind you, as you will see from this story, ethics classes have their own problems.

The girl, along with her classmates, had to write a short essay on her attitude toward March 15th, Hungary’s national holiday. She was honest and wrote: “For me it is a day like any other; it doesn’t really touch me.” The teacher gave her an F.

If that had happened in history class, I would understand the failing grade because presumably the class had already covered the 1848 revolution and its significance in Hungarian history. But in ethics class? What was expected of the pupil? Surely, wild patriotic enthusiasm. Since this particular child didn’t deliver the expected answer, she got punished.

This story illustrates what’s wrong not only with the Hungarian education system but with the whole Orbán regime. First of all, what does this question have to do with ethics, which is “the study of the general nature of morals and of the specific moral choices to be made by a person”? One commonly recognized moral principle is truthfulness, which in this case wasn’t appreciated by the “ethics teacher.” In fact, by giving her class an assignment about their personal feelings toward a state holiday she was practically inviting them to lie. The students knew full well what was expected of them. The teacher in this case was encouraging conformity and punishing those whose opinions differed from the expected values of the state.

This story reminded me a personal experience at a Catholic parochial school in grade five. Christmas was approaching and our homeroom teacher, a nun, made us cut out from a folded piece of paper “little Jesus’s shirt.” Every time we did a good deed we were supposed to draw a little cross in red. If we were bad the cross was drawn in black. For emphasis, we were told that every time there is a black cross on that shirt, little Jesus cries. At the beginning we all tried to be honest, but when the black crosses started to far outnumber the red ones, each of us cheated madly. The only thing these pious creatures managed to achieve was to make liars out of us.

And let’s move on to other kinds of lies, the ones Viktor Orbán concocts before and after every European Council summit. This time was no different. I already touched on Orbán’s attempts before his departure to give the impression that at the summit he will have to fight against the compulsory quotas like St. George against the dragon. In fact, János Lázár’s regular press conference was largely spent on this topic, so the official government site appropriately gave the title to the announcement of the press conference: “Viktor Orbán enters the battle against compulsory quotas in Brussels.” As I pointed out, compulsory quotas weren’t even on the agenda.

St. George on Horseback. Meister des Döbelner Hochaltars 1511-1513

St. George on Horseback. Meister des Döbelner Hochaltars 1511-1513  / Hamburger Kunsthalle

Upon their arrival each prime minister said a few words to reporters in English. Orbán, however, decided to speak in Hungarian This was in sharp contrast to the press conference he gave a few weeks ago when he was the toast of the town, surrounded by a large crowd of reporters from all over the world. The Hungarian reporter on the spot noted that Orbán’s choice of Hungarian disappointed the foreign reporters. Here Orbán repeated that for days he has been working hard to safeguard Hungarian interests, and perhaps today he will be able to convince the European Commission to discard this proposal for mandatory quotas. No wonder that he didn’t want to say that in a language that non-Hungarians could understand. Otherwise, only the state television station was allowed to ask Orbán a question.

On March 18 the head of the press department of the prime minister’s office told MTI that the prime minister and the members of the Hungarian delegation had assessed the results of the summit and admitted that “the European Commission for the time being hasn’t put forth its proposal for the compulsory settlement quotas. That plan will be discussed later, in April or May.” Whether this statement is true or not is hard to say. In general, Orbán expressed his satisfaction with the results of the summit, which he first described as “a success from the Hungarian point of view” but later corrected to “promising.” “The decisive battle” must still be fought in May, he added.

Orbán’s own story became more and more elaborate. In a Hungarian-language press conference in Brussels at the end of the summit he told the reporters that the Hungarian delegation went to the summit “to make sure that a modern-day mass migration doesn’t break the course of Hungary’s development.” He elaborated on another goal he wanted to achieve in Brussels: Hungary’s financial obligations in connection with the crisis mustn’t be “unbearably high.” He was happy to report that Hungary’s share of the six billion euros going to Turkey is manageable, especially since it serves the security of the Hungarian people. He also indicated that Hungary is not ready to take any refugees, even on a voluntary basis. In brief, Hungary is off the hook. Finally, he repeated that “as of Monday we must already prepare for another battle in full armament.”

The problem with liars that, time and again, they misspeak. After all the talk about battles that brought great success to him and, through him, to Hungary, he also uttered a sentence that contradicted the official story. He admitted that “we were lucky to be able to avoid (kibekkeltük) the compulsory quotas for the time being.” Well, one either fights or avoids the fight and hopes for the best.

And finally one more slip of the tongue. According to people who live nearby the Budapest home of the Orbán family, members of TEK (Terrorelhárítási Központ), often described as Orbán’s Praetorian guard, have not been seen lately. No one is guarding the house, and Anikó Lévai, wife of the prime minister, using a small white car, goes in and out with the smaller children without any protection. These neighbors are convinced that Orbán himself no longer lives there.

And that brings us to the Habsburg estate in Alcsút where the by now internationally famous kuvasz Nárcisz (Daffodil) guards the property. Not surprisingly, Orbán tried to make sure that no one knew anything about his newly acquired spacious manor house in the middle of a 13 hectare park that once belonged to the Hungarian branch of the Habsburg family. Officially, we still don’t know that this is the case. Recently, however, he indicated while in Fejér County that he lives “only 12 km from here,” which from the location could only be Alcsút. So, we can be pretty sure that Viktor Orbán, most likely without wife and the smaller children, actually lives on the old Habsburg estate.

Meanwhile Lőrinc Mészáros continues to acquire land around the estate, undoubtedly acting as a front man for Orbán. Orbán’s son-in-law also managed to get hundreds of hectares of land in the last few days, all nearby. Orbán’s political opponents are convinced that he is enormously wealthy. They swear that one day he will stand trial on corruption charges. I fear that will not be an easy job. He is an exceedingly cunning man who has most likely taken care of even the most minute detail. It will be difficult to catch him.

March 19, 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