Tag Archives: European Council

Viktor Orbán: “The French president is a new boy” who should learn a thing or two

It is no secret that Emmanuel Macron, France’s newly elected president, is no friend of “illiberal democracies.” In an interview at the beginning of May he was pretty blunt when he said: “You know the friends and allies of Mrs. Le Pen. These are the regimes of Orbán, Kaczynski, and Putin. They are not open and free democracies. Every day, freedoms and rules are violated there along with our principles.” Poland’s Foreign Ministry didn’t wait long to react. The Poles were especially outraged at the suggestion that the current Polish regime shows any similarity to Putin’s Russia. The Hungarian government didn’t officially respond to Macron’s charge at that time, although a week earlier Macron had said that if he becomes president he will press the European Union to impose sanctions on those Central European nations that disregard fundamental European values.

As Macron’s chance of electoral victory solidified, the Hungarian government media took an increasingly antagonistic attitude toward him. Now that Macron is installed as president of France and is ready to promote his “European project,” his views on the “rogue states” of the EU have gained in significance to the countries involved, especially Poland and Hungary. Yesterday Macron gave an exclusive interview to eight European papers: The Guardian, Le Figaro, El País, Gazeta Wyborcza, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Le Temps, Le Soir, and Corriere della Serra. In this interview he repeated, even elaborated on, the theme he had talked about earlier. In his opinion “national egotisms are slow poisons that bring about the weakening of democracies and a collective inability to rise up to our historic challenge.” Although he stressed that he didn’t believe in “a conflict between east and west in Europe,” he nevertheless warned against certain European leaders “abandoning principles, turning their backs on Europe, having a cynical approach to the European Union that only serves as dispensing credit without respecting its values.” He stated that “Europe isn’t a supermarket. Europe is a common destiny. It is weakened when it accepts its principles being rejected. The countries in Europe that don’t respect the rules should have to face the political consequences. And that’s not just an east-west debate.” Finally, he added,“I will speak to everyone with respect but I won’t compromise on European principles—on solidarity or democratic values. If Europe were to accept that, it would mean it’s weak and had already ceased to exist.” These are strong words.

By now the heads of governments of the European Union have gathered in Brussels. The two-day summit, as far as I can see, may be more important than some earlier summits because such issues as a common defense, foreign policy toward Turkey and the United States, the Russian sanctions, and Brexit and its consequences will be on the table. As for a common defense, there is a strong likelihood that there will be unanimity on that issue. Discussion of the divisive compulsory migrant quotas has been postponed for the time being, and therefore Viktor Orbán’s referendum with its “record number of signatures” cannot be submitted this time as a prop for Hungary’s position on the issue. The prime minister must wait for the next opportunity to launch his “biggest fight” with Brussels. Independent Hungarian sources think that, with the election of Macron, Orbán will face his greatest challenge, especially if strong French-German cooperation achieves a deeper integration of Europe. Perhaps it is just wishful thinking, but some Hungarian observers think that Orbán is in a tight spot and that his peacock dance will encounter more difficulties from here on.

Upon his arrival in Brussels, Viktor Orbán gave an impromptu press conference to a small group of Hungarian journalists. On the photo one can see the microphones of M1, ATV, and RTL Klub. Naturally, the non-state television networks wanted to cover Orbán’s reaction to Macron’s interview the day before, in which he made no secret of his opinion of the leaders of those illiberal states that violate the common fundamental values of the European Union and that don’t share the common responsibility while they benefit from the largess of fellow member states. Orbán’s answer was typical of the man’s rough edges, which make some Hungarians uneasy and embarrassed. “The French president is a new boy (új fiú) who comes to the summit for the first time. We will take a look at him; we will come to know him. He surely must have some ideas,” Orbán began. And then he continued: “His entrance is not too promising because yesterday he thought that the best form of friendship is a kick into the Central-European nations. This is not customary around here, but I believe he will find his way around.” Orbán is getting too big for his britches. After all, this “new boy” is the president of France, a  country with a population of more than 65 million.

At the same time, in Warsaw, Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski also had a few words to say on the subject but he, unlike the Hungarian prime minister, remained within the realm of diplomatic decorum. According to Polska Agencja Prasowa, the Polish news agency, he expressed his hope that Macron, who will meet Prime Minister Beatą Szydło at the summit, will explain the meaning of his words about the Poles, Hungarians, and other people of Central Europe. Yes, Macron will have an opportunity to meet Szydło because, as a result of a Polish initiative, Macron will have a separate meeting with the heads of the Visegrád 4 tomorrow morning. I would love to be a fly on the wall at that meeting. I’m certain that Macron will bring up his very serious reservations about the state of democracy, at least in Poland and in Hungary. He has been talking about the very serious problems in these two countries for a long time and has repeated time and again that these illiberal, increasingly autocratic states are a cancer on the body of the European Union which, in his opinion, is just now embarking on a new course that will open the door to a more socially sensitive and economically thriving Europe.

The contrast between Macron’s and Orbán’s world views and ideas on the future of Europe can’t be greater. I am, of course, keeping fingers crossed for Macron and for a thriving, more closely integrated European Union because I agree with him that “national egotisms are slow poisons” that can bring only disaster to the continent.

June 22, 2017

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

A new crusade in Brussels over the price of electricity

It was evident already in 2010 that the Orbán government considers the nationalization of utility companies one of its priorities. Indeed, by now almost all such companies, including, believe it or not, those of chimney sweeps, have been nationalized.

In 2013 the government, in an effort to bolster its sagging popularity, slashed retail utility rates. With this move the government killed two birds with one stone. The much-advertised cut in utility prices made the government very popular practically overnight. It also resulted in serious losses for E.ON, a German-owned gas and electricity company, and practically forced the German owners of E.ON to bail and sell the company to the Hungarian state. As it turned out, the Hungarian government paid far too much, 260 billion forints, when the assessors claimed that E.ON was actually 600 billion forints in the hole. Obviously, price was no object. Orbán wanted utility companies to be in state hands.

Once this was done, the government set about to lower prices in three stages. Critics warned that producing gas and electricity at a loss would mean that these utilities would not be able to undertake the technical innovations necessary for improved service. Once again, however, Viktor Orbán was lucky, at least in the case of natural gas. In the last couple of years the price of gas on the free market has fallen around 40%, yet the state did not lower the price it charged consumers anywhere close to that amount. Given the state’s monopoly in the energy sector and the government-regulated price structure, the profit margin of the state utility companies must be considerable. According to some estimates, Hungarian families pay about 25% more for gas today than they would if there were no fixed prices and if true market conditions existed.

Independently from all this, the European Commission is working on a so-called “winter energy package,” which is a comprehensive plan for the creation of an “energy union.” One particular provision of this proposal caught the eye of the Hungarian government: the abolition of government-set prices for electricity retailers over a five-year period. If adopted by the European Council, the body consisting of the prime ministers of the member states, Hungary will no longer be able to keep electricity prices artificially low. Hungary has among the lowest electricity rates in the EU. In Denmark consumers pay 0.309 euros per kWh, in Germany 0.297. In Hungary the price is 0.111 euros per kWh. Only in Bulgaria is electricity less expensive than it is in Hungary. The European Council is convinced that artificially low prices discourage the conservation of energy and deter investors.

electricity

So, the Orbán government decided to launch a new “war against Brussels.” Viktor Orbán announced in his Friday morning radio interview that “the government will not allow Brussels to eliminate the government’s power to set prices.” Such a move, he emphasized, would put an end to the government’s ambitious plan to lower utility prices even further in the future. He promised to defend “utility decreases,” adding that “it will be a difficult struggle but we have a chance of success” because Hungary’s position in Brussels has been greatly strengthened. Naturally, due to his outstanding political success on the world stage.

Szilárd Németh, who was chosen to be the “utility tsar” back in 2013, was given a new mission. The result? He announced that the government had found the remedy. The government will endow the Hungarian Energy and Public Utility Regulatory Authority (MEKH) with legislative powers which, in his opinion, could derail Brussels’ intentions of abolishing fixed electricity prices.

Németh outlined the terrible state of affairs during the socialist-liberal governments (2002-2010) when electricity prices went up by 97% and the price of gas tripled while inflation was only 58%. The evil foreign owners “lugged out 1,200 billion forints of profits.” But then came the Fidesz government which froze prices in 2010, and in the next two years prices rose only very little.

This is not what the author of a very thorough article remembers about the course of natural gas pricing. According to her, in 2012 one MJ of natural gas up to 1,200 m³ use was 15% more expensive than before the Orbán government came into power. Her final estimate is that if the Orbán government hadn’t touched gas prices at all, the average consumer would pay significantly less than he does today.

In discussing the evil deeds of Brussels, Németh stressed that the European Union cannot constantly ignore Hungarian sovereignty. “Hungary didn’t join the European Union to give up everything it possesses.” The decrease in utility prices is a question of sovereignty and national security. It is up to the Hungarian government to decide how it wants to help Hungarian families. Obviously, the government doesn’t want to help only those families who need assistance. Otherwise, it could offer subsidies to people whose income is insufficient to pay the full price for utilities. No, the government wants all Hungarians to be grateful that they are getting a break on their utility bills thanks to Fidesz.

The most interesting twist in Németh’s story came at the end of his press conference. He admitted that in 2013 the Hungarian parliament had extended the right of legislative powers to MEKH but that the European Union considered the decision illegal and subsequently the Hungarian government had to annul the law. So, I don’t know why the Orbán government thinks that this time around they will be more successful than they were three years ago.

All the talk about fighting Brussels on electricity prices is most likely just a political ploy. The Commission’s recommendations are just that, recommendations. The final nod comes from the European Council where Hungary is represented by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. He can vote against the proposal.

My guess is that now that the migrant issue has lost its appeal, the government has decided to turn its attention to utility decreases which were so successful in gaining voter support before the last election. Fighting Brussels over a pocketbook issue can most likely be dragged out until 2018.

December 3, 2016

The constitutional amendments failed: Another blow to Orbán

As soon as I turned my computer on this morning, a desk-top notification from a Hungarian internet news site informed me that the vote on Viktor Orbán’s amendments to the constitution had failed. He needed 133 votes and came up two short. Those opposition parties that have recognized delegations abstained, and three of the ten independent members voted “no.” I must admit I was surprised because, in the last few days when I repeatedly heard from Fidesz politicians that they would go ahead with the vote on November 8 as planned, I was certain that Viktor Orbán had already secured the two extra votes necessary for another Fidesz parliamentary success.

I was even more surprised when I read the article, which claimed that this defeat was actually a great victory for Viktor Orbán in the long run. And it wasn’t only this media outlet that seemed to be convinced that no matter what happens, Fidesz always wins. But that’s just not the case. It’s high time to abandon this increasingly unfounded assumption. Over the last few months Viktor Orbán’s strategy has suffered several serious setbacks. This last one is perhaps the worst.

All along Orbán had argued that his government needs a valid referendum, which would strengthen his position in his negotiations with Brussels. If the European Union is confronted with the fact that more than 50% of the Hungarian electorate stands fast behind him, he will have a much easier time defending Hungary’s strongly anti-migrant position in the European Council. But the referendum was not valid. Far from it. The opposition parties’ call for a boycott was effective. Only 39% of the electorate showed up. Admittedly, 98% of those who went to the polls supported Orbán’s purposely misleading and meaningless question. No, they didn’t want to have compulsory quotas unless parliament approves them. Who could say “yes” to that? Not too many people.

Orbán and his closest associates who gathered after the result became known looked as if they were attending a funeral. But by the next day Orbán was ready to give a positive spin to the outcome. The overwhelming number of “no” votes proves that his support is larger than ever before. In 2014, 2.2 million people voted for Fidesz, but 3.3 million people supported Fidesz’s referendum. A new unity, he said, has emerged behind his party. This large mandate means that the government party can amend the constitution regardless of its failure to secure a valid referendum.

But the failure of the referendum undercut Viktor Orbán’s clout in the European Union’s community. Many EU officials and members of the European Parliament expressed their relief that the referendum was not valid. The Hungarian people are wiser than their government, Martin Schulz said.

Then came the proposed amendments. Some people judged them to be totally unnecessary and meaningless. Others believed that certain sections of the amendments might be useful in attacking the very constitution of the European Union.

Initially, passing the proposed amendments seemed foolproof. The government assumed it would have the support of Jobbik, the party that used to be a radical right party but by now is practically indistinguishable from Fidesz. Jobbik supported the referendum because its followers are against immigration at least as much as, if not more than, Fidesz voters. But the Jobbik leadership saw an opportunity. Since Fidesz needed the Jobbik votes in parliament, the party decided to demand a price for its support: the immediate cessation of the sale of so-called residency bonds. The program is a fantastic deal for those who have 300 million euros to purchase a five-year bond in exchange for a residency permit and free movement within the European Union. And a good deal as well for those who benefit from the corruption that permeates the program.

Some politicians on the left were convinced that Gábor Vona either didn’t issue an ultimatum or that, if he did, he wouldn’t follow through on it. Well, they were wrong on both counts. Vona did deliver an ultimatum, and he meant every word of it.

Initially Orbán opted to oblige. It seemed that these amendments were so important to him that he would swallow a huge one and stop selling residency bonds to mostly Chinese and Russian businessmen. But then he changed his mind.

Fidesz announced that it would go ahead as scheduled, putting the amendments to a vote on November 8. Jobbik politicians swore that their 24-member delegation would not vote for the amendments. And so, if the opposition members on the left remained steadfast, the package of amendments was doomed. They did, and it was.

With this defeat Orbán can no longer go to Brussels and say that his hands are tied not only by 3.3 million Hungarian patriots but also by a two-thirds majority of the parliament. And that even if he wanted to, he couldn’t agree to accept any quotas. Today’s vote is a huge failure. Months of political maneuvering by Orbán have led nowhere.

A couple of foreign commentators concur. They note that this defeat will most likely weaken him “in his long-running fight with Brussels.” It is a personal blow to the prime minister. BBC’s Nick Thorpe described it as the second blow in a month, the first, of course, being the referendum itself. No constitutional amendment has ever been defeated since 1990, the beginning of the Third Republic. Since 2011 Fidesz easily pushed through six amendments. Well, things have changed.

Although, as I noted earlier, a few newspapers looked at the parliamentary vote as a success for a politician who is unbeatable, several others saw it quite differently, as a defeat that will hurt Fidesz both in the short and the long run. Jobbik’s strategy was praised by such until recently pro-Fidesz media as Válasz. Jobbik’s position is very simple: “neither poor nor rich migrants” should come to Hungary. Gábor Török, the well-known political commentator, called Jobbik the clear winner of this game. Until recently, Jobbik wasn’t a distinct political actor because the parties on the left conflated it with Fidesz. But in the last two weeks Jobbik was the leading force in the opposition’s attack on Fidesz. The left was nowhere.

Bálint Molnár, one of the editors of Kolozsvári Szalonna (Bacon à la Kolozsvár), and I seem to agree on the significance of what happened this morning in parliament. Let me quote: “I don’t agree with those who claim that Fidesz-KDNP, headed by someone named Orbán, won the match even if he was worsted. In my opinion, no one won here. On his own playing field, according to his own rules, he has burned an incredible amount of money and yet the seventh amendment of the Orbán all-mighty basic botchery has failed badly. The Young Democrats managed to bungle the all-time most expensive public opinion poll. That’s the essence of it. That is the situation. The hero, the martyr, the knight of a border fortress [végvári vitéz], the general of all Hungarians fell on his face…. For the first time since 2010 Orbán has tumbled and sunk to his knees.”

amendment-vote

Photo: Attila Kisbenedek / AFP

That pretty well sums it up. After this it will be difficult for Orbán to play the strong man who flexes his muscles.

I would like to call special attention to the photo Kolozsvári Szalonna attached to their piece on today’s vote in parliament. As soon as it became known that the government proposal had failed, Orbán got up and darted toward the exit. Gergely Gulyás, his eyes cast downward, may well be afraid of what’s waiting for him as the man responsible for legislative acts. He was full of self-confidence about easy sailing for this piece of legislation. Péter Harrach is scratching his head as if doesn’t know what to make of the situation.

Orbán is no longer accustomed to defeat. I’m sure he will take it very hard. And lash out.

November 8, 2016

The leaders of Visegrád 4 meet with Angela Merkel

The European Union has gone through some rough times in the last year and a half. The Brexit decision certainly shook an EU already battered by the influx of almost two million refugees and immigrants. But at least the British departure, whenever it actually happens, will not undermine the foundations of the European Union. Some commentators, in fact, think that further integration, which they consider a necessity for the long-term survival of the EU, can be more easily achieved in the absence of a reluctant United Kingdom, which in the past consistently opposed any changes to the already very loose structure of the Union.

Closer cooperation would have been necessary even without the refugee crisis, but the presence of so many asylum seekers–mostly in Greece, Italy, and Germany–makes a common policy and joint effort by the member states a must. Thus, Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to launch a series of consultations with European leaders. To date she has talked with 17 prime ministers.

Her first trip was to Italy where she, Matteo Renzi, and François Hollande met first on the Italian Aircraft Carrier Giuseppe Garibaldi and later visited the grave of Altiero Spinelli on the Island of Ventotene. There, while a prisoner of Benito Mussolini’s regime, he composed the Ventotene Manifesto “For a Free and United Europe,” which envisaged a European federation of states. After this trip Merkel continued to meet with leading politicians. From newspaper reports it looks as if they more or less agreed that greater cooperation and a common security apparatus are necessary to handle the refugee crisis. Just this past weekend she met with the prime ministers of Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, and Bulgaria. According to Miro Cerar, the Slovenian prime minister, “there was no great difference of opinion between the German chancellor and her visitors.”

Only the so-called Visegrád 4 countries are unmovable in their opposition to common action and sharing the refugee burden. Merkel traveled to Warsaw to meet the four recalcitrant prime ministers. Although Hungarians are apt to think that it is their prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who creates the most trouble within the European Union, this might not be the case. Orbán is belligerent mostly at home. Once he gets to Brussels or, in this case, to Warsaw, he remains rather subdued. His Slovak and Czech colleagues, on the other hand, were widely quoted in the western media, not in the best light. Fico, for example, said that he would “never bring even a single Muslim into his country.” Bohuslav Sobotka of the Czech Republic, although more tempered, announced that he doesn’t want a “large Muslim community—given the problems we are seeing.” Fico, just before his meeting with Merkel, had paid a visit to Moscow, after which he renewed his call for the European Union to end sanctions against Russia. The Polish foreign minister accused Germany of selfishness and an unwillingness to compromise. Poland’s deputy foreign minister, Konrad Szymański, after the meeting hit back at Angela Merkel for criticizing those member states that are refusing to give refugee protection to Muslims.

Photo by Rafal Gruz MTI/PAP

Photo by Rafal Gruz MTI/PAP

Viktor Orbán’s views didn’t receive much coverage, but at least one of the four propositions he arrived with in Warsaw–the creation of a common European army–has enjoyed some limited support. Whether the creation of a European army is his idea or not is debatable. Orbán did talk about such an army in July in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad, but apparently already in May The Financial Times reported a German plan to set up such an army. And Zsolt Gréczy of Demokratikus Koalíció claims that the idea was actually stolen from Ferenc Gyurcsány, who suggested the creation of such an army a year ago.

The reception of the other three suggestions remains unknown. Let’s start with the most weighty one which would, if accepted, reinvent the European Union by practically annulling the European Commission. To quote it verbatim, first in the original Hungarian: “az Európai Tanács vezesse és csak ő vezesse az Európai Uniót. Az Európai Bizottság a politikai szerepjátszást fejezze be.” (The European Council should lead, and it should be the only one that leads the European Union. The European Commission should end its political pretensions.) I suspect that Viktor Orbán never presented this idea in such stark terms to Angela Merkel during their talks because, as an eagle-eyed friend of mine discovered, the English translation of the above passage on the official government website reads as follows: Viktor Orbán “went on to say that institutions such as the European Council and the European Commission should go back to fulfilling their ‘original roles’.” The first one for Hungarian consumption, the second for foreigners.

His next suggestion was economic in nature. Orbán suddenly discovered the benefits of austerity. This is quite a switch from his position six years ago, when as the new prime minister he visited Brussels in the hope of getting permission to continue running a 7% deficit instead of having to bring the deficit down below 3%. Now he is a firm believer in a tight budget, which made Hungary, in his opinion, an economic success. I’m not quite sure why Orbán felt the need to lobby for the continuation of this economic policy which, according to many economists, is responsible for Europe’s sluggish economic growth. I suspect that he might be responding to a perceived movement toward an economic policy that would loosen the current restrictions for the sake of more robust economic growth. Merkel has been talking a lot lately about higher living standards that would make the European Union more attractive to Europeans.

Finally, Orbán insists that the European Union should keep pouring money into the East European countries as part of the cohesion program, which in his estimation “has been a well-proven policy.” Sure thing. Hungary’s questionable economic success is due largely to the billions of euros Budapest receives from Brussels. Naturally, he wants to keep the present agrarian subsidies as well, a program severely criticized by many experts.

Whatever the prime ministers of the Visegrád 4 countries told Angela Merkel, it didn’t sway her from her original plans for solving the crisis. It doesn’t matter what Fico said, Merkel thinks “it is wrong that some say we generally don’t want Muslims in our country, regardless of whether there’s a humanitarian need or not.” She keeps insisting that “everyone must do their part” and that “a common solution must be found.”

Meanwhile Russian propaganda against Merkel is growing. Just today sputniknews.com portrayed her as the chief obstacle to an understanding between Moscow and the European Union. According to Russian political analysts, “Merkel is a supporter of the idea that it is Germany’s natural role to become the leader of Eastern Europe … and to drive the economic development of these countries,” naturally in line with German interests. According to these political scientists, Washington is actively working to turn Germany into a stronghold of anti-Russian influence, which “means that we will have to encounter a Germany that is strengthened not only in economic and political terms but perhaps militarily as well.”

In adopting an anti-German policy, the Visegrád 4 countries are implicitly allying themselves with Russia. I think they are playing with fire.

August 29, 2016

Viktor Orbán and the European Union: A forced change of strategy?

I sense a change in the Orbán government’s strategy as far as its attitude toward cooperation with the European Union is concerned. Although Orbán still talks about sticking to his government’s total rejection of a common EU policy, the ground is being prepared for a strategy shift. I suspect Viktor Orbán got the distinct impression in Brussels or perhaps even earlier that the strategy he had worked out hand in hand with his colleagues in Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic has either already been rejected or will be repudiated by a large majority of the member states. Therefore, they sent István Mikola, nowadays undersecretary in the ministry of foreign affairs and earlier Fidesz deputy-prime minister candidate, to give a long interview to Népszava, of all places. What Mikola had to say to Marianna Biró almost blew the reporter’s mind.

A telling picture of Orbán's mood at the closing ceremony of the summit

A telling picture of Orbán’s mood at the closing ceremony of the summit

What did we learn from this interview? Exactly the opposite of what we have heard until now about Hungary’s attitude toward a common EU policy concerning the refugee crisis. But let’s go step by step because there is a lot here to discuss.

First of all, Mikola made a liar out of Viktor Orbán when he said that “there was no secret pact” between Germany and Turkey. Not only was it not secret, but “the accord was between the European Union and Turkey,” not between Germany and Turkey.

Second, as far as the introduction of the quota system is concerned, the Hungarian attitude is no longer as belligerent as it was even a few weeks ago. Hungary now has only “misgivings” about it. It seems that if the European Court of Justice finds it legal, Hungary will oblige. Mind you, a verdict on the issue cannot be expected before the end of the year, and I doubt that the European Commission will let the policy remain in limbo for that long.

Third, we have heard over and over from Orbán and members of his government that the European Union is on its last legs. It will collapse under the weight of the refugee crisis. In this connection the reporter called Mikola’s attention to János Lázár’s assertion that the Hungarian government doesn’t want to have closer European integration. In response to this Mikola said:

Membership in the European Union is of great importance for us. The Hungarian people live in a diaspora and it is through the existence of the European Union that the borders have become virtual and permeable…. Because of our membership in the European Union the world has opened for us. We could break out from our isolation. Not only have Hungarians gotten closer to each other, but now everybody can learn foreign languages and can take jobs abroad…. For Hungarians being part of Europe is of inestimable value…. From the mixing of different people a variegated, vibrant Europe will emerge.  This is something unique that must be preserved. It is our task to make sure that it will be protected. That’s why I’m not pessimistic. I believe that we will suffer for a while with the migrant crisis but at the end Europe will survive.

As I said, I don’t know what happened in the last few days or so, but Mikola’s message indicates to me a staggering about-face. I wonder whether this is in any way linked to the findings of the Bertelsmann Stiftung, the largest German non-profit foundation, which indicate that the overwhelming majority of people in the European Union want more integration and consider the quota system equitable and fair. Moreover, they want to punish those countries that refuse to abide by the common will. Until now we had no reliable data on public opinion across the continent concerning the refugees. On the right newspapers gleefully reported atrocities and anti-refugee demonstrations while the left sang the praises of the integration efforts of Germans, Swedes, and others.

I suspect that the findings of the Bertelsmann study have been known for some time by the EU decision makers, which must have given a boost to those politicians who share Angela Merkel’s vision for solving the crisis. The title of the 20-page study is “Border Protection and Freedom of Movement: What People Expect of European Asylum and Migration Policies.” I’m sure that you’ll be surprised, as I was, to read that

  • 79 percent of European citizens believe that the European Union should have a common European policy on migration. 52 percent believe that the EU should be primarily responsible for this issue. 27 percent say that the responsibility should be shared by the EU and the member states. 79 percent of Europeans also consider the freedom of movement to be of great importance, and believe that it should be defended at all costs.
  • 87 percent believe that the EU has a common duty to protect its external borders.
  • 79 percent of European interviewees believe that asylum-seekers should be distributed fairly among the member states of the European Union.
  • 69 percent of the interviewees believe that EU financial support should be reduced if member states refuse to accept their fair share of refugees.

A closer look at the data reveals a divide between public opinion in the old and the new member states (2004 Eastern Enlargement of the EU).

  • Only 54 percent of the citizens in the new member states think that asylum-seekers should be fairly distributed (versus 85 percent in the old member states).
  • And only 41 percent of the interviewees in the new member states think that countries which do not want to take in their fair share of asylum-seekers should have to pay a financial penalty (versus 77 percent in the old member states).

The study’s summary points out that “Europe’s politicians are once again confronted with political realities which they can no longer ignore…. Data shows that the electorate is a long way ahead of the politicians.”

Armed with that information, the European Union will feel free to take a more aggressive stance against the ideas of the eastern states that joined the Union twelve years ago. And this is not good news for Viktor Orbán and people like Fico.

Speaking of Fico. His popularity, just like Orbán’s, swelled as a result of his anti-refugee policies. A few months ago his party’s popularity reached 40%, and thus it could easily win the forthcoming elections with an absolute majority. However, since then fewer and fewer people have been concerned about the migrants. Instead, they are preoccupied with problems of education and healthcare at home. Does it sound familiar? Elections will be held on March 5 and Smer, Fico’s party, is losing voters. Fico is trying to keep the migrant issue in the forefront and now threatens to build a fence along the Slovak-Austrian-Hungarian border. Similarly, of course, Orbán is attempting to keep his people focused on the refugee issue instead of the troublesome topics of education and healthcare. I don’t know how often I read or heard that the Hungarian government is ready to build the fence at any time along the Romanian-Hungarian border. Yet no fence has emerged so far. A couple of days ago Sándor Pintér, minister of interior, announced an extension of the closed border between Croatia and Hungary. Surely, to emphasize the fear of migrants overrunning the country. Or, there is the heavy arming of the Hungarian National Bank, allegedly because of the threat of terrorism, which even Reuters called a paranoid measure. At the same time, Fidesz is collecting signatures protesting Hungary’s participation in a common solution to the fate of those refugees who either are already in western countries or are waiting in Greece to move on.

And while these measures are being undertaken domestically, Orbán is making preparations for an about-face. This will not be an easy sell, especially after the teachers’ revolt, which has already made the government retreat somewhat. However, the leaders of the movement are determined to dismantle the whole system and to restore their autonomy. Fidesz’s popularity, which stagnated between November and December, has now dropped a bit, and I suspect that polls taken after the teachers’ demonstration will show a further erosion of Fidesz’s popularity. And the realization that the “migrants” are coming will be a terrible blow to the party faithful.

February 21, 2016

Closing the Croatian-Hungarian border will not solve anything

It was telegraphed way before yesterday’s summit of the European Council that the key question would be how the European Union could entice Turkey not to allow the unlimited exodus of Pakistani, Afghan, Iraqi, and Syrian refugees from its territory. It is only Turkey that can play a meaningful role in stemming the refugee tide because defending the borders of Greece would be a hopeless undertaking given its 6,000 km shoreline. Yet, hopeless or not, this was one of the demands of Viktor Orbán already at the last Brussels summit.

Naturally, under these circumstances Turkey is in an ideal position to push for its long-standing political demands vis-à-vis the European Union, such as renewing negotiations for Turkey’s EU membership. Of course, Turkey will need other enticements to take care of ever larger numbers of refugees. The Hungarian government as a friend of the present Turkish regime is supportive of Turkey’s aspirations and is ready to follow whatever common policy the EU comes up with.

The summit, however, didn’t support Orbán’s suggestion for the common defense of Greece’s borders. Instead they opted to strengthen Frontex, an agency whose mission “promotes, coordinates and develops European border management in line with the EU fundamental rights charter applying the concept of integrated border management.” After the meeting Donald Tusk explained that the decision was made to endow Frontex with greater powers than what it now possesses to ensure “the defense of the European community.” But, he added, a humane and effective solution must be found because otherwise “others” will find inhumane, nationalistic, un-European solutions. I wonder whom Tusk had in mind.

By last night we knew that although Viktor Orbán had voted for the proposals that included the strengthening of Frontex, he would act unilaterally. The fence between Croatia and Hungary was complete, the troops were ready to move. He said that his decision on whether to close the border between the two countries would depend on the agreements the European Council reached at the summit that ended late last night. Right after the meeting the Hungarian prime minister was accosted by a few reporters, and he indicated that he was very unhappy about the summit’s failure to adopt his suggestion for the defense of Greece’s borders. Therefore there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that by this afternoon, shortly after his arrival in Budapest, the border with Croatia would be sealed.

We know two persons whom Viktor Orbán met while in Brussels because we have photos of the meetings. One was with Angela Merkel at a gathering of EPP leaders before the summit began. We don’t know whether he warned the German chancellor about his impending plans, but if he did, I’m sure the announcement was not met with her approval.

The other meeting was with Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanović, who is just as forceful a man as Orbán is. It was not a formal encounter, but whatever transpired couldn’t have been the friendliest. I gather that this time Orbán did tell Milanović about his plans because after the summit the Croatian prime minister announced that he doesn’t care what Hungary does. He said that “Hungary’s solutions didn’t find supporters in the European Union.” It seems, however, that the two men agreed that “Hungary will not send soldiers to the Croatian-Hungarian border.” Well, that agreement was short-lived: thousands of Hungarian soldiers, policemen, and TEK forces are now stationed along the border.

Zoran Milanović and Viktor Orbán in Brussels, October 15, 2015 MTI / Európai Tanács / Enzo Zucchi

Zoran Milanović and Viktor Orbán in Brussels, October 15, 2015
MTI / Európai Tanács / Enzo Zucchi

As of midnight refugees can enter Hungary from Croatia only through two official gates, one at Beremend and the other at Letenye. Readers of Index and Magyar Idők spotted TEK convoys moving toward these two border crossings, one in the southern and the other in the western section of the Croat-Hungarian border. We can only hope that this time members of TEK will be less brutal than they were a month ago in Röszke on the Serb-Hungarian border.

The opposition parties condemned the decision to seal yet another border, and Együtt and DK accused the Hungarian government of meddling in Croatian domestic affairs. On November 8 there will be national elections in Croatia where the fate of the ruling Kukuriku coalition of four center-left and centrist parties hangs in the balance.  (Yes, “kukuriku” in Croatian means exactly the same thing as in Hungarian [kukurikú] “cock-a-doodle-doo.” The coalition was named after the restaurant where they first met.) The right-of-center Patriotic Coalition, headed by Tomislav Karamarko, is challenging the socialist Zoran Milanović. Polls show that the election will be close.

Fidesz’s sympathies lie with HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union), the largest party in the Patriotic Coalition. In the last few days the Hungarian government has lavishly courted the conservative Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, who spent three days in the Hungarian capital and held long, friendly conversations with President János Áder. Her win in January was a great surprise to everyone, but from the little I know about Croatian politics her win didn’t signal a serious turn to the right in Croatia. Moreover, according to the latest polls, since Zoran Milanović decided to pick a fight with the Hungarian prime minister the Kukuriku Coalition’s popularity has only grown. Although the Orbán government is hoping to strengthen HDZ with its policies, its anti-Croatian rhetoric may backfire. Of course, a win for the conservatives in Croatia would be considered a triumph for Viktor Orbán and would mean a new ally in the region.

As far as we know, preparations are in place to move the refugees from Croatia to Slovenia. For the time being most people consider building a fence between Slovenia and Hungary, two Schengen countries, outside the realm of possibilities. I don’t want to give any tips to the Orbán government, but I heard a Hungarian international lawyer who is convinced that it could be done legally. Let’s hope he is wrong because otherwise there will be no end to Orbán’s fence building, which has so far cost Hungarian taxpayers 100 million dollars.