Tag Archives: European People’s Party

Situation report on the fight for Central European University

Yesterday Diana Ürge-Vorsatz, director of the Center for Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Policy at Central European University who as a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, wrote a bitter letter on her Facebook page. She said that she and her husband left the United States in 2001 at considerable financial sacrifice in order for her to return to Hungary and join the faculty of CEU as an associate professor. It was a dream come true until April 4, 2017. As of that date, she finds herself part of an institution that “meddles in the internal affairs of Hungary and represents foreign interests.” What she finds most disappointing is that “colleagues, friends, and family don’t stand by her wholeheartedly.” They keep saying “the laws must be observed, and their glances indicate disapproval. Or, ‘I’m sorry; I don’t dare because I may be blacklisted.’”

Honest words, an honest description of what’s going on in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, but one must ask: Dear Diana, how is it possible that you haven’t noticed that something is very wrong with the party you dutifully voted for every four years? How is it that you as a proud Christian who gave birth to seven children and who, as you feel necessary to mention, “all attend parochial schools,” haven’t realized that this government’s alleged Christianity is hollow? Is it only now, when your own job is at stake, that you discover that something is wrong with the government you helped keep in power? Her statement ends with a whimper: “I am grateful for the support of those who dared to speak, dared to demonstrate, dared to share. Many of them are government-honoring [kormánytisztelő] Christian citizens, who for the first time said that this shouldn’t have been done.”

Fortunately most members of CEU’s administration, beginning with its president, Michael Ignatieff, are determined to fight and win. The contrast between the timid Hungarian academics and the international administration and faculty of CEU couldn’t be greater. Although President Ignatieff and Provost Liviu Matei have emphasized the support they have received from Hungarian colleagues and other Hungarian institutions of higher learning, the truth is that few have stood by CEU. Most of them have been quiet, but there was one “chancellor”—a newly appointed government watchdog over and above the university president and the senate—who outright welcomed the move of the government against CEU. The chancellor of the University of Debrecen pointed out that other Hungarian universities are at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting foreign students because of CEU’s ability to grant American degrees. The administration of Corvinus University was not exactly supportive either. President András Lánczi, the man who got the job as president of the university at the express wish of Viktor Orbán, also stressed the need for “a level legal playing field” for all Hungarian universities. It is true that 250 students and members of Corvinus University’s faculty published a supporting statement, but András Lánczi immediately fired off an e-mail reminding them of the university’s “ethical code,” which obliges members of the university community to maintain the good name of the university in their communications with the world.

Meanwhile the government is doing its best to mislead and intimidate. Two days ago an incredible number of policemen surrounded the parliament building on the occasion of the second demonstration in support of CEU. What was most disturbing was that in front of the row of policemen were apparent civilian strongmen who, as a video shows, provoked some members of the crowd. As it turned out, they were plainclothes policemen. While the uniformed police stood by motionless, these characters were belligerent. Almost as if they wanted to create a reason to arrest a few of the demonstrators. After a while they were recalled by a man in civilian clothes standing behind the police lines.

Last night two organizers of the demonstrations, a Hungarian and a foreigner, received unexpected visits from the police. Government papers want the public to believe that the demonstrators were almost exclusively foreigners. Magyar Hírlap­ reported that the government, as a result of the protest against the treatment of CEU, will be able to uncover the whole Soros network, which engages in such activities as “destabilization efforts by CEU graduates in states along the migration route, for example in Macedonia and Albania.”

The “parrot commando” keeps repeating the same false accusations against CEU, which they persist in calling Soros University. Until recently, László Palkovics, who is in charge of higher education, was given the task of explaining how eminently rational the Hungarian government’s position on CEU is. He steadfastly refused to admit that the amendments’ real purpose was to drive CEU out of the country. On the other hand, his boss, Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, at last told the truth in a radio interview. “There is no need to beat around the bush. There is no need to hide. We ought to say straight out that we don’t want Central European University to function in its present form.” He added that if the United States and CEU want to continue in the present legal framework, “they have to invest.” That is, build a brand new campus in the United States.

The outcome envisaged by Balog is unlikely to materialize. President Michael Ignatieff is in the United States at present and, according to the latest news, has already conferred with Thomas A. Shannon, undersecretary of state for political affairs in the State Department, and Hoyt Brian Yee, deputy assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. (Ignatieff was certainly more successful at the State Department than Hungary’s foreign minister, who visited Washington about two weeks ago and couldn’t meet with anyone at the Foggy Bottom.) He also talked with Fiona Hill, a member of the White House’s National Security Council who advises the president on European and Russian affairs. Next, Ignatieff is off to Berlin and, I trust, to Brussels as well. Angela Merkel’s spokesman already articulated the German government’s position on the matter.

Meeting with Thomas A. Shannon, undersecretary for political affairs

The European Parliament is also responding. Five of the eight political formations have condemned the Hungarian government’s attack on CEU. Even within the caucus of the European People’s Party (EPP), to which the 12-member Fidesz delegation belongs, a storm is brewing. It was the leader of the Fidesz group, József Szájer, who provoked the storm by writing an e-mail to the other members of the EPP caucus in which the Fidesz members contended that critics of the law have been “gravely mislead (sic) by the propaganda and private agenda of the American billionaire Soros” and are fighting with a “virtual reality.” They added that “as in the world of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, there are the equals and there are some more equals (sic) than others.” This e-mail apparently prompted an angry reaction. EPP’s leader, Manfred Weber, tweeted that “Freedom of thinking, research and speech are essential for our European identity. EPP group will defend this at any cost.” Frank Engel, a member of the EPP from Luxembourg, was less polite. He replied in an e-mail: “Forget the crap. We know what is happening, and why. Why don’t you leave both the EPP and the EU on your own terms? … You’re practically and factually out anyway. So go. Please go.”

Time and again the European People’s Party caucus has saved Viktor Orbán’s skin in Brussels. It has been reluctant to expel its Fidesz members, who really don’t belong in this group. The Fidesz delegation would feel much more at home in the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists of Europe, joining their Polish and euroskeptic British friends. But the EPP doesn’t want to lose 12 members from its caucus. Although it is the largest in the European Parliament, its lead is not overwhelming. Still, even without Fidesz it would remain the largest caucus, with 205 members. The Socialists and Democrats have 189 members. To shield a dictatorial regime for the sake of a few votes is too high a price to pay.

April 6, 2017

Viktor Orbán stood alone at the EPP congress

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

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

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

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

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

We are trying to be charming / Photo: MTI

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 31, 2017

Viktor Orbán turns his back on the Polish government

Although Viktor Orbán’s press conference this morning was anything but upbeat, a few hours later both the Polish left and right in addition to the Hungarian government media were full of praise for the prime minister’s superb diplomatic talents. In a Polish conservative opinion piece he was called the Talleyrand of our times who has been winning every major battle with “raging liberals and the Left in Europe.” He is a man who knows what Realpolitik is all about. Why this praise? Orbán had the good sense not to support the Szydło government in its hopeless fight against the reelection of Donald Tusk as president of the European Council.

Donald Tusk, who served as prime minister of Poland between 2007 and 2014, is the bête-noire of Jarosław Kaczyński, chairman of the Law and Justice party. Kaczyński’s enmity toward Tusk has a long history. First of all, at one point the two men were political rivals. Second, Kaczyński, who is convinced that the Russians were responsible for the death of his twin brother, President Lech Kaczyński, in 2010 when his plane went down in Russia, considers Tusk “politically responsible” for his brother’s death by allowing the Russians to investigate the case ahead of the Poles. But perhaps what is even more important, the far-right Polish government accuses Tusk, as president of the European Council, of wanting to bring down the right-wing Szydło government. The current Polish leadership decided to resist the reelection of the man who dared to criticize the present government in defense of democracy. Mind you, Tusk is not a “flaming liberal.” His party, the Civic Platform, is right of center.

Warsaw put up a counter-candidate–Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, like Tusk a Civic Platform member of the European People’s Party. To understand the dynamics of the situation we must keep in mind that the EP members of Kaczyński’s Law and Justice party belong to the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), basically a Euroskeptic lot. ECR doesn’t have the gravitas of EPP, to which Fidesz EP representatives also belong.

The Polish plan to block Tusk’s reelection didn’t go as planned. As soon as Saryusz-Wolski’s nomination was announced, he was removed from Civic Platform. And EPP removed him from all responsibilities within the party.

After this somewhat lengthy introduction let me turn to Viktor Orbán’s role in this ill-fated Polish political maneuver. Apparently, Warsaw was counting on Great Britain and the Visegrád Four for support. But it became apparent soon enough that neither Slovakia nor the Czech Republic would support Saryusz-Wolski’s nomination. The Polish government still hoped that Viktor Orbán would stand by their side, especially since, as we learned this morning from Viktor Orbán himself, at one point he promised that he would vote against Tusk. Orbán didn’t keep that promise.

As Orbán explained at his press conference in Brussels, since EPP’s only candidate was Tusk and since Fidesz is a constituent part of EPP, he had no choice. This is how the European Parliament functions, he explained. Otherwise, he claimed that he had tried his best to broker a deal but, unfortunately, he failed. He added that a couple of days ago he had informed the Polish government of his decision to vote for Tusk because circumstances didn’t allow him to do anything else.

Well, as usual, Viktor Orbán didn’t tell the whole truth. It wasn’t party protocol that forced him to vote as he did since there was another important European Council vote where he did not support the EPP candidate. I’m talking about the election of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission in June 2014. Juncker was EPP’s candidate for the post. At that time David Cameron and Viktor Orbán voted against Juncker, which didn’t prevent him from getting the job. Then, perhaps feeling safe under the protective wing of Cameron, Orbán had no trouble voting against the favored candidate. So his decision had nothing to do with party obligations. Moreover, he could have voted against Tusk as a gesture to his Polish friends because his “no” vote wouldn’t have made any difference: Tusk would have been elected anyway. But, for reasons known only to him, he decided to go with the flow. He even went so far in his press conference as to laud the European Union as the best place to live in the whole wide world. It is a place where people can be truly happy and satisfied with life. A rather amusing comment considering all his earlier talk about the EU being in decline with the attendant miseries for the people.

I don’t want to dwell on the foolish behavior of the Polish government, but I’m afraid the Polish media’s unanimous condemnation of their government’s incompetence is well deserved. The Polish government should be only too well aware of the misfortunes that have befallen the country as a result of the territorial ambitions of its neighbors. Poland is rightfully worried about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But then common sense would dictate good relations with the countries of Western Europe, especially with Germany. Yet the current Polish government treats Germany like its enemy. Perhaps this disastrous defeat will be a wake-up call, but the mindset of the present Polish political leadership doesn’t inspire confidence that it will happen any time soon.

In addition to the Polish fiasco, Orbán covered two other topics at some length in his press conference. One was the “migrant issue,” which had elicited widespread condemnation in the media and in international organizations involved with the refugee crisis and human rights. It turned out that the matter of the amendment to the Asylum Law came up during the summit. As Orbán described it, he “informed the prime ministers about the new [asylum] law, who didn’t raise any objections and did not protest.” He took this as a good sign, adding that the real fight will be with the bureaucrats of the European Union. Whether this silence was a sign of approval or an indication of a reluctance to get into a discussion of the issue we don’t know.

Orbán then explained the real meaning of the detention centers, which he compared to airports as transit zones. He was again quite explicit about the differences between the attitudes of the Hungarian government and the European Union when it comes to the refugee crisis. Hungary’s goal is not to handle the issue “humanely,” which the EU insists on, but to make sure that the refugees are stopped.

The other topic was the most recent conflict between Austria and Hungary. As is well known, an incredible number of Hungarians work in Austria. In 2016 more than 63,500 Hungarians lived in Austria, in addition to those who live in Hungary but cross the border daily to work on the other side. The Austrians recently floated the idea that Romanian, Hungarian and Czech employees would not receive extra family benefits. The Hungarians claim that as a result of such a new law Hungarian workers would receive 50% less than native Austrians for the same work. This is unacceptable for Hungary. Sophie Karmasin, the Austrian minister responsible for family affairs, visited Hungary only yesterday, and Viktor Orbán set up a meeting with Chancellor Christian Kern while in Brussels. On this topic, Orbán was forceful. He called the issue “a serious conflict” which he will take all the way to the top, meaning the European Commission and even the European Court of Justice. Hungarians cannot be discriminated against. If the Austrians discriminate against Hungarians, “we will respond in kind.” That is, if the Austrians proceed with this cut in family benefits, the Hungarian government will make certain that opportunities for Austrian businesses in Hungary will be curtailed. So, if I understand it correctly, Orbán fights against the European Commission at every turn, but once he feels that Hungarian citizens are being slighted he is ready to appeal for protection from the European Union.

March 10, 2017

Jean Asselborn calls for the expulsion of Orbán’s Hungary from the EU

Only a few hours have gone by since Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn gave an interview to Die Welt in which he called for the temporary or permanent expulsion of Hungary from the European Union. But the number of articles on the story is already in the hundreds, in the Hungarian as well as the international media. Asselborn argued that Hungary’s leaving was “the only way to preserve the cohesion and values of the European Union.” The EU shouldn’t tolerate such misconduct as “the treatment of the refugees, the massive violation of the freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary.” Asselborn would like to see a change of EU rules that would allow “the suspension of membership of an EU country without unanimity.”

Asselborn is especially appalled by the treatment of those fleeing war, who “are being treated almost worse than wild animals.” In his opinion, “Hungary is not far away from introducing a firing order against the refugees.” Once he finished with the sins of the Hungarian government, he turned to the person of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whom he made responsible for the perception that, although in words the EU is supposed to be the defender of basic human values, it tolerates the existence of a regime represented by Orbán.

The letter Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó sent from Moldavia was, as Index pointed out, anything but politically correct. “We already knew that Jean Asselborn is not someone who should be taken seriously. He lives only a few kilometers from Brussels and it shows. He is patronizing, arrogant, and frustrated…. As a run-of-the-mill nihilist he tirelessly works on the ruination of European security and culture.” The description of EU politicians as the “nihilists of Brussels” is of very recent coinage. Viktor Orbán used it yesterday in his speech at the opening of the new session of the parliament. The image apparently comes from Aleksandr Dugin, the Russian political scientist whose views have been described as fascist.

Jean Asselborn and Péter Szijjártó, September 21, 2015 / MTI Photo Márton Kovács

Jean Asselborn and Péter Szijjártó, September 21, 2015 / MTI / Photo Márton Kovács

The very first person who came to the defense of Orbán was Jiří Ovčáček, the spokesman of Miloš Zeman, the notoriously anti-EU and pro-Russian president of the Czech Republic. Zeman’s support only further emphasizes how far out of the European mainstream Viktor Orbán is with his views.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steimeier tried to calm the situation. He pointed out that “there is no agreed position” within the Union on the treatment of Hungary, but he added that he “can understand, looking at Hungary, that some people in Europe are getting impatient.” Steimeier is a social democrat who most likely shares Asselborn’s feelings toward Viktor Orbán and his regime but is far more diplomatic.

Soon enough, however, German politicians on the right began to line up behind Orbán. The first of these was Manfred Weber, head of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament. Although occasionally Weber has been mildly critical of the Hungarian prime minister, this time he defended him quite vigorously, pointing out that “Hungary has always carried out all the decisions” of the European Union. On the other hand, he severely criticized the Polish government for its attempt to undermine the rule of law in Poland. An indefensible position, I must say, considering that in the last six and a half years Viktor Orbán has completely destroyed Hungarian democracy and has introduced an autocratic system without any semblance of the rule of law. Weber’s lopsided view is undoubtedly due to the fact that the Polish PiS members don’t sit in his EPP caucus.

The German Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) naturally supports Orbán’s Hungary. The party’s deputy chairman called Asselborn’s demand “grotesque” and added that Orbán should be awarded the Charlemagne Prize. This suggestion is especially amusing in light of the fact that the last two recipients of the prize were Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, and Pope Francis. Orbán at the moment is accusing Schulz of conspiring with socialist Hungarian mayors to smuggle migrants into the country, and we know what the general opinion is in Fidesz circles of the pope who doesn’t understand Europe and is a naïve socialist.

Soon enough Austrian politicians also spoke up in defense of Orbán. Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz considered Asselborn’s statement “unacceptable,” but as I read MTI’s summary of his statement he mostly objected to the fact that Asselborn criticized Orbán and his policies in public and expressed his belief that the topic may come up in Bratislava at the end of this week at the meeting of the European Council. The other Austrian who spoke on the issue in favor of Orbán was Hans-Christian Strache, the chairman of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party.

Too little time has gone by since the appearance of the Asselborn interview for foreign policy analysts to assess the significance of Asselborn’s harsh criticism of Orbán, with the exception of a partisan pro-Orbán piece written by Bálint Ablonczy of Válasz.

Asselborn’s dislike of Orbán is legendary, and this is not the first time that he has openly and harshly criticized the Hungarian prime minister. In 2010 he was one of the first critics of the media law, which he claimed “directly threatens democracy.” In 2012 he raised his voice against the introduction of a new constitution and called Hungary “a blot on the European Union.” In 2015 he suggested placing Orbán in diplomatic quarantine.

Asselborn, who has been in politics ever since the age of eighteen, has been foreign minister since 2004. He is also a close friend Jean-Claude Juncker. Of course, the question is how many people share his view of Orbán in Brussels and elsewhere. According to Hungarian opposition EP members, the anti-Orbán voices are growing, but this might just be wishful thinking.

Although no serious commentary on the Asselborn interview has yet been published, an “open letter from a potential refugee” appeared in Kolozsvári Szalonna, which is as intriguing a site as its name, which means Kolozsvár (Cluj) bacon. It was published both in Hungarian and in English. In it, the author, who calls himself István Kósi, explains to Asselborn how the Hungarian public is misled and how it has become “radicalized, fanaticized,” which can be compared only to the 1940s. The far-right shift then “led to gruesome consequences, so you probably understand why many of us are so worried this time.” He concludes the letter with these words: “Let’s throw them out of the EU, out of Europe in general, and out of the planet.” The author describes himself “as a citizen of the European Union and Hungary, potential refugee in the near future—unless something is being done by those capable of effectively doing anything at all.”

I believe that a lot of people share this sentiment, but only an iconoclastic site like Kolozsvári Szalonna will actually publish something that openly supports Asselborn’s suggestion. I’m curiously waiting to see how the opposition party leaders react and how they indicate that they are in favor of some kind of censure without going as far as Asselborn.

September 13, 2016

Polish-Hungarian friendship in action

The situation in Poland has become a serious concern not only for the politicians of the European Union but for the whole western world. The largest East European country among those that joined the European Union in 2004 is rapidly following Hungary on the road to becoming an “illiberal democracy” while the European Commission is trying to find proper answers to the emasculation of Poland’s Constitutional Court and the government’s attack on the freedom of the media.

Two important articles about the situation in Poland appeared yesterday, one by R. Daniel Kelemen and Mitchell A. Orenstein in Foreign Affairs and another by Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian. The Foreign Affairs article draws attention to the parallels between Kaczyński’s Poland and Orbán’s Hungary, with emphasis on the inaction of the European Union in the early years of the second Orbán government. Brussels did very little to make clear to Viktor Orbán that his destruction of Hungarian democracy cannot be tolerated by the member states of the EU. To a large extent the European People’s Party (EPP) was responsible for this shameful behavior. Fidesz’s delegation in the European Parliament is large, and its votes were deemed more important to the European Christian Democrats than was democracy in Hungary.

Meanwhile, in the last almost six years, Jarosław Kaczyński carefully watched the Hungarian prime minister’s masterful parrying with the western politicians who didn’t know how to deal with him. But although Kaczyński may have wanted to follow in Orbán’s footsteps, he doesn’t have the same political allies in the European Parliament. The Christian Democrats of EPP are a great deal more enthusiastic about “disciplining” Poland for the simple reason that Kaczyński’s party, Law and Justice / Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS), decided to join the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR) instead of EPP. I’m certain that if PiS’s 19 members sat with EPP, the Christian Democrats would be more understanding and forgiving of Polish events of late. But luckily for Polish democracy the large Polish delegation of the Civic Platform / Platforma Obywatelska (OB), now in opposition, sits with EPP.

This time there is a better chance for more forceful action against Poland than was the case with Hungary. As Kelemen and Orenstein warn, “if the European Union allows a second, much larger state to turn away from pluralist democracy and the rule of law, then the EU’s standing as a union of democracies and a beacon for liberty in the region will be damaged irreparably.” They urge the leaders of the European Union to act quickly and forcefully.

Polish demonstration, December 2015 / news.yahoo.com

Demonstration in Warsaw, December 2015 / news.yahoo.com

The message of Timothy Garton Ash in his article “The pillars of Poland’s democracy are being destroyed” is similar. “The voices of all allied democracies, in Europe and across the Atlantic, must be raised to express their concern about a turn with grave implications for the whole democratic west.” Ash wants the traditional friends of Poland to speak up: France, Spain, Italy, Canada, and naturally the United States, “especially as Poland prepares to host an important NATO summit this summer and wants NATO forces permanently based in the country.” Ash also talks about Cameron’s role in this affair. “And what about Britain? Realistically, Cameron is the politician least likely to criticize Kaczyński at the moment, because he desperately needs a deal over in-work benefits for (mainly Polish) migrants in the UK, so as to win his referendum on Britain’s EU membership. But it’s worth putting Cameron on the post, if only to hear his weasel words in reply. So will a British MP please challenge him about Poland in parliament at the next prime minister’s questions?”

How effective can outside pressure be, even if the EPP joins the others in censuring Kaczyński’s illiberal Poland? Especially after this morning, when Viktor Orbán announced in his regular radio interview that “it is not worth it for the European Union to rack its brains over any sanction against Poland because that would require full agreement. Hungary will never support any sanction against Poland.”

Viktor Orbán’s reaction is perfectly understandable. There is a strong ideological bond between him and Kaczyński. They see the world very similarly, and Kaczyński is now implementing most of those constitutional and administrative changes that Orbán introduced in Hungary, but at a much greater speed. He obviously admires Orbán’s political skills, and Orbán is most likely flattered to no end. This ideological bond itself would be enough for Orbán to stand by Kaczyński, but what reinforces these ties is the traditional Polish-Hungarian friendship. The importance of such historical traditions might be overstated, but Polish-Hungarian friendship over time has become part of the national ideologies of the two countries. A given. It is a romantic notion of long standing which, true or not, still makes an impact.

I  found a quotation from StanisƗaw Gabriel Worcell, a Polish revolutionary, written in 1849 which should make clear the depth of that feeling. “Hungary and Poland are eternal oak trees which have grown two separate branches, but their roots underground have been linked and invisibly intertwined over the years. Therefore, the existence and strength of one is the precondition of the life and health of the other.” Surely, an exaggeration but even recent history demonstrates that the two countries usually come to one another’s assistance in case of trouble. For example, Donald Tusk, who is certainly no Kaczyński, usually refrained from criticizing Viktor Orbán. As for Orbán, already in 2010 he was dreaming of an East European alliance system forming a corridor between the Baltic and the Adriatic. In order to demonstrate the seriousness of this vision, instead of going to Brussels after winning the election in 2010, Orbán’s first trip was to Warsaw. Donald Tusk, the prime minister at that time, didn’t show much inclination to make regional deals of this sort. As opposed to Orbán, he was developing good relations with Brussels.

If Hungary has the ability to veto any sanctions against Poland, then Brussels cannot rely on those countries Timothy Garton Ash suggested as possible pressure points. It is probably just as well, since we know from Hungary’s experience that a government that is bent on building an illiberal state can always outfox its critics. Orbán in the past proudly announced that, while they changed some of the wording in a piece of legislation to which EU officials objected, they managed to smuggle in something else that from Brussels’ point of view was even more objectionable. With governments like those in Poland and Hungary, only domestic forces can achieve results.

It looks as if the Poles aren’t taking Kaczyński’s autocratic rule lying down. While Hungarians passively watched the dismantling of the country’s democratic institutions, in Poland judges of the constitutional court and heads of the public media outlets resisted. If Kaczyński is not careful, he might find his hand-picked prime minister, Beata Szydło, out of office soon enough.

Will the European People’s Party abandon Viktor Orbán? Unlikely

Time and again the Hungarian media gets hold of news, which in the end turns out to be unfounded, that Fidesz will be expelled from the European People’s Party. The first article in my data base is from October 2012 when Népszabadság reported that Viktor Orbán, who had been one of the deputy chairmen of the European People’s Party, decided not to be renominated for the post. At that time analysts came to the conclusion that if Orbán decided to run for the post he most likely would still win but that there was a growing number of people who thought that Orbán was too confrontational, someone who didn’t quite fit in. It was possible that leading members of the EPP delegation actually informed Orbán of these reservations. A few months later, in May 2013, the Frankfurter Rundschau reported that the expulsion of Fidesz from EPP was seriously being contemplated because of Viktor Orbán’s “trampling on European values.”

If there were such voices in what Jan-Werner Müller called a “deeply dysfunctional” party, they remained in the minority. Today EPP is the largest delegation in the 751-member European Parliament with 274 members, 14 of whom come from Fidesz. If these 14 were forced or decided to leave on their own, EPP would still remain the biggest caucus. Yet it looks as if most of the Christian Democrats are unwilling to part ways with their Hungarian colleagues.

A few days ago rumors of the possible departure of Fidesz members from EPP began to circulate again. The Europe Society of Hungary held a conference in Brussels about “illiberal democracies” under the sponsorship of the Open Society Foundation and the German liberal Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit. During the conference an unnamed but “first-hand” source claimed that “the place of Fidesz in the EPP delegation might be in danger” unless Viktor Orbán unambiguously declares his commitment to European values. The EPP delegation, he said, expects Orbán to give a clear answer at the forthcoming meeting of the governing body of EPP in Budapest.

The day arrived. Yesterday Orbán gave a long interview to Napi Gazdaság, the new government daily, in which he mostly talked about domestic policy. He promised to steer a calmer course than the one his government followed in the past five years. The little he said about Hungary’s relations with Brussels, however, didn’t sound very promising. Regardless of what he told the EPP leadership today, he said he is planning to continue his fight for Hungary’s sovereignty because “the Hungarian people are in a constant state of endangerment.” As long as the financial, energy, media, and food sectors are in foreign hands, Hungarian sovereignty is just a fiction. This statement belies the domestic calm Orbán now promises. As far as the European Union is concerned, those people who believe Viktor Orbán’s promises will again be disappointed. European values will continue to be trampled on.

Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP caucus, and Viktor Orbán had a long talk over breakfast where Orbán, as was expected, promised everything Weber wanted to hear and perhaps even more. In no time Weber was convinced that Orbán never really meant to introduce capital punishment, which is probably true because Orbán is a master of double talk. One of his really bad blunders was his reference to “illiberal democracy,” which couldn’t be remedied by claiming later that the word “illiberal” in English doesn’t really mean “illiberal.” After he cleared the capital punishment hurdle, he laid it on thick: “The best possible cooperation with the strongest party of Europe, the European People’s Party and its parliamentary delegation, is in the strongest national interest of Hungary.” As he put it, “There is no Europe, there is no European politics, there is no European Union without the European People’s Party.”

Photo Simon Móricz-Sabján / Népszabadság

Photo Simon Móricz-Sabján / Népszabadság

All this praise was necessary to calm the waters in Brussels, where apparently Orbán had a very hard time at a meeting with the EPP MEPs after his appearance in the European Parliament a couple of weeks ago. But in Budapest the leading members of EPP were unwilling to say anything about Fidesz-EPP relations. As Népszabadság put it, “they remained awkwardly silent about Orbán.”

This is not the end of the story, however. Next week the European Parliament will vote on the Hungarian situation, and the European People’s Party will put forth a resolution reflecting their own attitude toward the question. This resolution is much more sharply worded than any previous ones coming from the party. I will quote here only some of the more important sections. The EPP caucus

4. Affirms Members States’ sovereign right to launch national consultations and engage their citizens in a dialogue on issues which are of great importance and have a direct impact on them; recalls that consultations should reflect the readiness of governments to exercise responsible governance aimed at securing democratic political solutions and respect for fundamental European values;

5. Believes, however, that the content and language of the particular consultation launched in Hungary, on immigration and terrorism, are highly misleading, biased and unbalanced; regrets the fact that it casts blame on the EU institutions and their policies, whereas the responsibility lies with the Member States, and recalls that the Member States are fully involved in the EU legislative process;

8. Recalls that the EU is faced with complex international challenges that require strong cooperation across borders, a willingness to exercise realistic solidarity, and a readiness to take responsible action; believes that the EU can only influence strong actors in other parts of the world, with their different values and political systems, when it shows unity in the most important fields;

9. Invites all Member States to participate in a constructive manner in the current discussion on the European Agenda on Migration, which affects equally internal, external and development policies that have to be implemented in the EU and consequently impact on the African continent and the Middle East;

For some time now there has been talk about Orbán moving the entire 14-member Fidesz caucus over to the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR), where the bulk of the delegation of 70 comes from the United Kingdom and Poland, if the EPP caucus is too hard on him and his policies or if the decision is reached to expel Fidesz MEPs from the caucus. People seem to know that Orbán has made some overtures to ECR and that ECR was also interested in gaining 14 new bodies for its parliamentary delegation. If one takes a look at the resolution for next week’s parliamentary discussion on Hungary which ECR submitted, one can see that, although ECR earlier was very hard on Orbán because of his pro-Russian policy, this time it decided not to take a strong position against the Hungarian government. I will quote here only the passages that relate to the national consultation on immigration and terrorism:

2. Affirms that the Member States also have a sovereign competence to establish their own laws and to hold their own democratic debates and consultations with the electorate at a national level; stresses that this principle is consistent with the sovereignty of a democratically elected government;

3. Supports the Commission’s role, as the guardian of the Treaties, in ensuring that national legislation, including that of Hungary, is in conformity with both the EU Treaties and basic European democratic values and human rights;

4. Stresses the importance of any evaluation and analysis carried out by the Commission and Parliament as to the situation in individual Member States being fact-based and balanced;

More than five years have gone by since Viktor Orbán began his crusade against the European Union and against Hungarian democracy. He encountered no serious opposition despite the fact that everybody must know by now that Hungarian democracy is in tatters. As long as the European People’s Party stands by him, Orbán will continue to flout the European Union, which doles out the money that keeps a mini-dictator in power.

Fidesz insiders think Orbán’s days are numbered

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day usually offers little sustenance for news junkies. But today I discovered a front-page article in Népszava with the titillating title “Does Orbán have only months left?” The paper’s “sources close to Fidesz” claimed that “Orbán is already finished” and the only “question is who will take his place.”

The article was met with skepticism, especially in pro-government circles. Válasz described the article as sci-fi and “entertaining.” Gábor Török, the popular political scientist, wanted to know what his Facebook “friends” thought about the appearance of such items in the media. Do government politicians actually say such things to reporters of an opposition paper or are the reporters only giving voice to their wishes? The comments that followed were a mixed bag but a reporter, András Kósa, who also receives information from dissatisfied Fidesz politicians, didn’t think that the article was fantasy, although it might be exaggerated. Here and there commenters thought that Fidesz will collapse as soon as Viktor Orbán is gone, but most “friends” of Török considered the article humbug. I’m less skeptical than most of Török’s friends because I’ve usually found Népszava to be reliable when it reports on information coming from unnamed sources.

So, let’s see what Népszava heard from “sources close to Fidesz.” They claim that Orbán’s “system” has no more than a few months before it collapses. Apparently Fidesz politicians are increasingly avoiding the limelight because “the fall is inevitable. In their opinion Orbán started down a road from which there is no return. Not only will he himself be the victim of his own mistakes but also his party and the country itself.”

The problems that beset the work of the government emanate from the character flaws of the prime minister: inconsistency, impenetrability, and unpredictability. Most government and Fidesz officials have no idea what course they are supposed to pursue. Orbán trusts fewer and fewer people, and the ones he still does give him wrong advice. He apparently is looking for enemies everywhere, and this is one of the reasons that government decisions are not preceded by any discussion. It often happens that Orbán himself changes his mind in the last minute, which makes consistent communication nearly impossible. Underlings parrot a line that has been superseded by a new brainstorm of the prime minister. More and more people would like to save themselves from such embarrassments.

According to these informants, serious problems within Fidesz are not new although they are only now becoming visible. Signs of trouble began to surface when Orbán decided, sometime before the April elections, to change the “structure” under which Fidesz had been functioning very well for over twenty years. Until then, Lajos Simicska was in charge of the party’s finances, but “from the moment that Orbán decided to take over economic decisions” the old dual structure collapsed and with it the well-functioning system. When Orbán again managed to receive a two-thirds majority, he completely lost his sense of judgment. As months went by, anti-Orbán murmurs in the party began to proliferate, and the Christian Democrats, realizing that Orbán was losing his grip on the party, decided to put pressure on the beleaguered prime minister. That’s why Orbán had to give in on the unpopular law that forces stores to be closed on Sundays.

What observers see is no longer a “system” but a political process based on day-by-day ad hoc decisions which, according to the saner Fidesz leaders, cannot be maintained because “it is incapable of self-correction.”

The informers seem to have less information about actual attempts to topple Viktor Orbán. Names were not mentioned, but they indicated that the people they had in mind “would be quite capable of taking over the reins of government without changing political direction.” Népszava‘s sources consider Angela Merkel’s planned visit to Budapest in February a date of great importance. I guess they think that Merkel will tell Orbán that he is persona non grata as far as the European People’s Party and the European Commission are concerned.

CalendarNépszava‘s description of the strife and chaos within Fidesz is most likely accurate. The question is what Orbán is planning to do to forestall the outcome described by Népszava‘s sources. For the time being, as we learned from the interviews of János Lázár, Viktor Orbán, and László Kövér, he will fight to hold onto power by convincing his Peace March troops that the “fatherland is in danger.” I’m almost certain that internal polls are being taken to gauge support. Would it be possible to turn out 100,000 people to defend the prime minister against foreign and domestic intrigues? I assume that the size of the planned anti-government demonstrations on January 2 will also influence Orbán’s decision about the next step to take to combat his opponents inside and outside the party.

In any case, for the time being it was Antal Rogán who was called upon to announce a countermeasure that might take the wind out of anti-government sails.  It is called the “National Defense Action Plan.” The details are secret for the time being, but it most likely includes some kind of answer to the United States’ decision to bar six Hungarian citizens from the United States due to corruption. It is also likely that a huge propaganda effort will be launched to discredit the U.S.-EU free trade agreement that until now the Hungarian government has welcomed. According to government and Fidesz sources, the “National Defense Action Plan” was put together in the prime minister’s office by Viktor Orbán, János Lázár, Antal Rogán, Péter Szijjártó, and Árpád Habony (who neither holds an official government position nor has national security clearance). These are the people who make most of the decisions in the Orbán government.

Meanwhile what are the anti-Orbán political forces doing in this fluid situation? Ferenc Gyurcsány decided to ask those followers who have been at the anti-government demonstrations all along to bring party posters and flags to the January 2 demonstration. József Tóbiás, leader of MSZP, did not respond to Gyurcsány’s request to follow DK’s lead. But István Újhelyi, an MSZP MEP, announced today a socialist “diplomatic offensive” against the Orbán government. Orbán must be stopped because his “Russian roulette” will have tragic consequences.

At the beginning of the new year there will be at least two important events. First, the mass demonstration planned for January 2 in front of the Opera House. Three years ago a gigantic anti-government demonstration also took place there, and for a whole month newspapers kept asking how long Orbán could last. We are again asking the same question. Since Orbán not only survived but thrived in the last three years, some people might come to the conclusion that the Hungarian prime minister will always triumph, even in the most perilous circumstances. But I would caution the pessimists. Three years ago the pressure came only from the inside. This time Orbán has embroiled himself and the country in a high stakes international power play in addition to alienating about 900,000 of his former supporters.

The second event will be Orbán’s new “remedy,” the “National Defense Action Plan.” Will it work? Is Orbán strong enough to rally his troops for another supportive Peace March as he did in 2012? And even if he manages, will anybody care?