Tag Archives: European Union

The “Let’s stop Brussels” questionnaire: Orbán’s silver bullet?

I haven’t analyzed Viktor Orbán’s speeches for some time, but yesterday he delivered a fairly important speech to parliament. So I think it’s time to take a closer look at the Hungarian prime minister’s state of mind.

As usual, he is on a war footing with Brussels. But if I’m correct, his posture, despite his belligerent tone, is more defensive. His position within the European Union has weakened considerably since the Brexit referendum and the French election. More and more voices can be heard within the European Union calling for financial retribution as a form of punishment for countries that refuse to cooperate when it comes to the refugee crisis. For the time being Jean-Claude Juncker would like to avoid such a drastic step, but the announcement of a looming infringement procedure can be expected any day.

Obviously, Orbán has been expecting such a move on the part of the European Commission. Right now the only bullet in his defensive arsenal is “the national consultation,” with which he wants to “stop Brussels.” But not all bullets are equally effective. The “Let’s stop Brussels” campaign and its imbecilic, deceptive questions have annoyed the Commission from the beginning. I very much doubt that the Commission will be impressed by the responses the Hungarian government received arguing against any interference by the European Union in what Viktor Orbán considers purely national affairs.

Before I turn to the actual speech, I would like to say something about the “success” of this particular consultation. The claim is that the “Let’s stop Brussels” questionnaire was returned by a record number of citizens. Indeed, if we take a look at the Wikipedia entry on “Nemzeti konzultáció,” we can see that this year’s questionnaire was returned by a greater number of people than any of the other five campaigns previously staged. However, we must keep in mind that no independent body counts the returned forms. We have only the number the Orbán government provides.

Given the lack of accountability of the government, I have long had my doubts about the government’s figures in connection with these consultations. This time I’m even more suspicious than before. The consultation drive began on April 1, and on April 19 Antal Rogán’s propaganda ministry reported that 140,000 questionnaires had been returned. But then, on April 25, six days later, Csaba Dömötör, undersecretary in the prime minister’s office, announced that 380,000 questionnaires had been received. Quite a jump, I would say. Two weeks after that, the same Dömötör triumphantly announced that “more than 1,130,000” citizens had already returned their questionnaires. In two weeks the numbers had almost tripled. But if the drive was such a success, why was it necessary for Lajos Kósa, as leader of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, to ask for an extension of the deadline from May 20 to May 31? In any case, Viktor Orbán at the beginning of his speech in parliament yesterday claimed that 1.4 million people are practically unanimously standing behind the government in its fight against Brussels. This number, by the way, by the end of speech became 1.7 million. So, who knows?

Altogether 8.1 million questionnaires were sent out to all citizens over the age of 18, and therefore it doesn’t matter how you slice it: 1.4 or 1.7 million returned questionnaires, take your pick, shouldn’t be hailed as a great victory. But what is really annoying is that Viktor Orbán blithely turned the official government figure(s) of a 17%-21% return rate into a pro-government response rate of greater than 50% when he said that “the majority of Hungarians think that Brussels is going in the wrong direction.”

What do the government and the “majority of Hungarians” want, according to Orbán? They want “a Hungarian Hungary and a European Europe.” A couple of years ago Jobbik’s Gábor Vona announced with great fanfare that “Hungary belongs to the Hungarians,” and it seems that Viktor Orbán now agrees with him. I wonder what he would say if the prime minister of Slovakia or Romania announced that he wants to have an ethnically pure Slovakia or Romania and the Hungarian minority has only two choices: emigrate or assimilate. I assume there would be an incredible outcry, and with good reason. As for the “European Europe,” we all know what Orbán has in mind. A white Europe.

In connection with the ten-year jail sentence for “terrorism” meted out to Ahmed H. for using a megaphone to call for calm during clashes at the Serbian-Hungarian borders, Orbán accused “Brussels” of supporting terrorists at the expense of the security of the Hungarian people. Bernadett Szél (LMP) said in response that Orbán had “misplaced his medication.” George Soros couldn’t be left out of Orbán’s speech to parliament, and indeed the “American speculator” was pictured as someone who is directing the fate of Europe. The European Commission is under his influence. He asked the members of parliament “not to stand by Brussels in Hungary’s disputes with the European Union.” In addition, the parliamentarians “should stand by the Hungarian people in the battle between the Soros mafia and Hungary.”

Orbán announced that Hungary “can’t accept that [its] future is decided in Moscow, Brussels, and Washington.” As for the future, Orbán made some strange comments. Let me quote one of them. “The French election during the past weekend shows that the revolt of the European people has also reached France.” We know that when Orbán in the last couple of years was talking about “the revolt of Europeans” he was not thinking of Macron’s centrist movement. Macron’s victory is not a welcome piece of news for Orbán, which he tries to hide here. He also seems worried about a possible French-German “experiment to transform Europe,” which may take place after the German election. At the moment, “it is not clear whether these developments will help or hinder the realization of Hungary’s national interests.” Odds are, however, that hard times are coming, and therefore the national consultation took place at the best possible moment.

Let me express my very serious doubts that Orbán’s national consultation is the kind of silver bullet that will save the Hungarian government from the consequences of Viktor Orbán’s antagonistic, confrontational behavior and his flaunting of the core values of the European Union. Surely, in his sane moments he must know that those stacks of returned questionnaires are not worth a plug nickel when it comes to negotiations with the important political players of the European Union.

June 13, 2017

MSZP’s László Botka in Brussels

László Botka has become a superbly self-confident man since he received overwhelming support from MSZP’s delegates to the party congress less than a week ago. At the press conference he gave in Brussels, he identified himself as “Hungary’s candidate for the premiership.” To clarify his status, at the moment at least five politicians are vying to replace Orbán: Gergely Karácsony (Párbeszéd), Lajos Bokros (MoMa), Tamás Lattmann (representative of civic society), Gábor Vona (Jobbik), and László Botka. These are just the declared candidates, but if at the end each opposition party has a separate party list, even Ferenc Gyurcsány, as leader of DK, might be one of the challengers. This, of course, is just an aside to show that MSZP isn’t paying much attention to reality. They are in a state of euphoria, which might not be warranted. In fact, several opinion pieces appeared lately describing Botka as the man who will oversee the total disintegration of the party. Or, a more charitable opinion, in a couple of years no one will remember who László Botka was.

I’m not so pessimistic, but I’m watching with growing concern the MSZP candidate’s moves. For example, I find it an annoying socialist habit to fight Fidesz by trying to appease its voters with the slogans of Fidesz itself. Socialist politicians should have learned by now that this kind of strategy leads nowhere.

Here is one example. The Hungarian public has heard nothing else in the last seven years but that the European Union is on its last legs. And yet we have ample evidence that the great majority of the Hungarian public is still pro-EU, despite the massive anti-EU propaganda. So, it would be logical to have an election campaign resting on the slogan: “Either Europe or Orbán.” To launch such a campaign, however, would require a full embrace of the Union. One shouldn’t be uncritical, of course, but for Botka to say, after arriving in Brussels, that he is “watching the performance of the European Union with apprehensive criticism” is not exactly a good beginning. What followed was no better. Botka announced that a significant number of citizens had lost their trust in the democratic institutions of the EU, which in turn is responsible for the upsurge of populism. I wish politicians would consider the truth of their political rhetoric before they open their mouths. Does Botka really think that a lack of trust in democratic institutions led to the rise of populism? It is enough to look around the world, from Russia to the United States, to know that this assertion simply cannot be true. After that introduction, to say that he is “deeply committed to the European Union” sounds hollow. Moreover, some of his suggestions to “solve” the crisis could have been uttered by Viktor Orbán himself. This is not the way to distinguish yourself from your political opponent.

Prime Minister Candidate of Hungary

Let’s take another example. The government media discovered that not only would László Botka be in Brussels. George Soros also stopped by for a short visit before flying on to Budapest. What a great opportunity for the kind of journalism practiced in Orbán’s Hungary. The M1 TV station announced that “László Botka and George Soros will negotiate on Wednesday.” Magyar Hírlap published as front-page news that “At last Soros and Botka will find each other in Brussels.” Practically all government papers carried the same news, insinuating some secret cooperation between MSZP and George Soros. What does a good politician do in a case like that? Does he keep insisting that he has never in his life met George Soros? Does he excuse himself by emphasizing that he has never been a beneficiary of Soros’s largesse and that MSZP has never received any money from “the financial investor or his circles”? Surely not. In fact, if he were a brave opponent of Viktor Orbán, who has been demonizing George Soros, he would simply brush aside the whole issue as a typical example of primitive Fidesz propaganda and say that whatever dirt they have been throwing at Soros is undeserved and disgusting. But, no, the brave socialist candidate is afraid that perhaps Fidesz-infected citizens who really think that Soros is the devil incarnate will not like him if he defends the founder of Central European University.

The most important meeting that István Ujhelyi, a MSZP member of the European Parliament, secured for Botka was with Frans Timmermans, who is well versed in Hungarian affairs. Timmermans is one of the most resolute critics of the Orbán regime, and therefore I’m sure it was unnecessary to convince him that “the socialist party and the democratic opposition are interested in the restoration of the rule of law.” What is more difficult to decide is what Botka meant by his request that “the Orbán government should be punished and not Hungary.” How can that be achieved? Viktor Orbán and his government represent the country, so whatever “punishment” is meted out to that government for any infraction will unfortunately affect the whole country and its population. Botka’s request was a timid response to the accusation that the opposition is lobbying in Brussels against its own country. Such pious pronouncements will not change the opinion of Fidesz supporters about the opposition’s alleged unpatriotic actions.

In addition to Timmermans, Botka also met with Marita Ulvskog, vice president of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament. She is also the vice-chair of the EP Committee on Employment and Social Affairs. This meeting was logical given Botka’s emphasis on a truly socialist agenda for MSZP, as opposed to the more centrist or even Third Road approach of the party under Ferenc Gyurcsány. The very low wages in Hungary and the lack of employee protection is truly appalling, and since 2010 the situation has only deteriorated. For example, the total destruction of the power of unions is a relatively new development. What I don’t understand, however, is what Botka was driving at by pointing out “the incredible inequality that exists between member states” as far as the level of wages is concerned. Currently, it is Jobbik that is in the midst of a campaign for equal wages for equal work in all member states of the European Union. Anyone with a modicum of knowledge of economics knows that this is utter nonsense. It is one thing to support the creation of a union-wide social network, but complaining about small or medium-size member states “being powerless to defend the interests and wages of employees of multinational companies” is simply unfair, at least as far as Hungary is concerned, where employees working for multinational companies are better off than those who work for the “patriotic” Hungarian oligarchs.

At home Botka stepped on quite a few toes in the last couple of days. I have no idea what he had in mind when he answered the question of whether he would consider placing Gordon Bajnai, an economist and businessman who proved to be a popular and very effective prime minister in 2009 and 2010, on a common list of politicians of the opposition parties. He said: “Under no circumstances would I place Gordon Bajnai, János Kádár, Mátyás Rákosi, or Miklós Horthy on the list.” What on earth prompted Botka to utter this nonsense? Soon enough Bajnai placed this witty retort on his Facebook page: “I would ‘like to reassure the worried public that I have no desire to be placed either on the list of MSZP or on those of MSZMP, MDP, or even the Peyer Pact.” For those unfamiliar with these acronyms, MSZMP was the communist party under János Kádár between 1956 and 1989; MDP was the party of Mátyás Rákosi between 1948 and 1956; the Peyer Pact was a political arrangement between the Bethlen government and the Hungarian Social Democratic Party in 1921.

I don’t know, but Botka’s first few days are not promising. Popular reactions on Klub Rádió, ATV, and Hír TV are mixed, but there are many who don’t like Botka’s attitude. Let’s hope he and his party realize, and quickly, that this is not the best way to win the hearts of voters.

June 1, 2017

The real story of the ELI Laser Center in Szeged

Talking about Viktor Orbán’s stamina. After the grueling five-day trip to Beijing and a busy last week and weekend, today Orbán went to the city of Szeged to open the ELI Laser Center.

What is ELI? It stands for Extreme Light Infrastructure, which is a new research infrastructure of pan-European interest. It is a laser project that aims to host the most intense beamline system in the world. The ELI project will be located in four sites. One will be in Dolní Břežany, near Prague. It will focus on the development of short-pulse secondary sources of radiation and particles. ELI-ALPS (Attosecond Light Pulse Source) will be in Szeged, which will be “a unique facility which provides light sources within an extremely broad frequency range in the form of ultrashort pulses with high repetition rate.” In Măgurele, Romania, the ELI-NP (Nuclear Physics) facility will focus on laser-based nuclear physics. The fourth facility’s location is still undecided.

It was on October 1, 2009 that the EU decided to give these three former communist countries a mandate to proceed with the construction of ELI facilities. Being a pan-European project, 85% of all costs would be covered from the European Regional Development Fund. There was only one caveat: these governments didn’t receive extra resources from the European Union for these facilities. They had to use a small portion of their seven-year budget that came from the European Union. It was Gordon Bajnai’s government that signed the agreement, but the whole project, including the decision to construct the center in Szeged, began in 2006 during the second Gyurcsány government.

With this timetable in mind, let’s turn to Viktor Orbán’s speech at the ribbon cutting. First, he made sure that his audience understands that “this facility is not a gift” from the European Union. It was paid partly from the country’s own resources and partly from monies Hungary received from the European Union. And since, in his opinion, Hungary is entitled to the money it receives from the European Union, Orbán considers the money coming from Brussels to be part of the country’s own resources, which could be used in any way he wants. It was a hard decision, he said, because 70-80 billion forints for a single project is a lot. Yet “in 2011 we decided, I believe correctly, to build the largest scientific institution in Hungary’s modern history.” (The Ferenc Puskás Stadium will cost Hungarian taxpayers 200 billion forints, and the cost of the World Aquatic Games has reached 100 billion and counting.)

What happened between October 1, 2009, when the Bajnai government gave its blessing to the project, and 2012, when the Orbán government decided to build the facility? Well, one obvious event was the May 2010 national election when Viktor Orbán again became prime minister of Hungary. Without dwelling on this three-year gap, Orbán said that “today at the time of success, it is unnecessary to recall disputes at the time, but it was seriously debated whether to concentrate on one large investment or not.” The truth is that the Orbán government refused to honor the Bajnai government’s offer of 200 million euros for its construction. Shortly after the election, it withheld one billion forints promised earlier for the planning stage of the project.

Before the municipal elections in October 2010, Lajos Kósa, vice chairman of Fidesz, and the Fidesz candidate for the mayoralty in Szeged held a joint press conference during which they accused the socialist mayor, László Botka, of misleading the people of Szeged. They claimed that no money whatsoever will be coming from the European Union. But, they added, the Orbán government is all in favor of the project and is trying to find the necessary funds, which is not easy under the present financial circumstances.

Of course, all this was just a charade to mislead the people of Szeged, who were naturally keen to have this prestigious project built in their city. The government wanted to use the EU monies for something else, and behind the scenes they were trying to convince the European Union to allow them to abandon the project. As late as August 2012 there was still no decision. László Botka, in an interview at the time, expressed his fear that the project would be cancelled. “Some people are convinced that Orbán is reluctant to spend 10 billion forints on Szeged. Apparently he is thinking of spending this amount of money on Fidesz-led cities. For example, he could divide the amount among 3,000 bakers,” he said sarcastically, since apparently the government was thinking of subsidizing small- and medium-size businesses from the money.

But canceling the undertaking in Szeged would have endangered the ELI enterprise in the Czech Republic and in Romania as well. The decision in 2006 to place the ELI facilities in former Soviet-bloc countries which had joined the Union only two years earlier was a sign of trust in these countries’ ability to create and run first-rate research facilities that were important for the European Union as a whole. So, finally in December 2012—not in 2011 as Orbán claims—the government came to the conclusion that forcing through their original plan and abandoning the project would cast Hungary in a very bad light. It would prove that the former communist countries cannot, after all, be trusted with an important pan-European project of extreme scientific importance. So, they reluctantly gave their blessing.

Orbán now talks about the Laser Center as being of “tremendous value” and proudly claimed in his speech that the very existence of the ELI center is proof of Fidesz’s even-handedness. Too bad that some people have a good memory.

May 23, 2017

Mária Schmidt and Zsolt Bayer on the fate of Europe

Viktor Orbán’s court historian, Mária Schmidt, has written an article that can perhaps be described as something between a book review and an attack on Germans and Germany. The occasion for her piece was the appearance of a new book by Hans-Peter Schwarz, a conservative political scientist and historian, titled Die neue Völkerwanderung nach Europa: Über den Verlust politischer Kontrolle und moralischer Gewissheiten. Due to Schmidt’s cavalier handling of borrowed text, it is hard to tell how much of the article actually reflects the ideas of Schwarz and how much comes from Schmidt’s own view the world. My sense is that Schwarz’s book is only an excuse for Schmidt to espouse her peculiar views on the state of Europe.

In the article, which bears the title “Egg without its shell, country without borders,” Schmidt vents her anger over the elimination of borders within the European Union. For Schmidt, the removal of borders meant “the abandonment of [the countries’] defense capabilities and thus their national security which are indispensable instruments of national sovereignty.” So, she continues, “Schengen soon became popular among tourists and businessmen, and naturally among drug dealers, human traffickers, prostitutes, pimps, and, naturally, international terrorists.” In brief, it was a dangerous experiment which by now cannot be undone and which leads ever more closely toward federalism. So, if I understand her correctly, if it depended on Mária Schmidt, she would dismantle the single market that seeks to guarantee the free movement of goods, capital, services, and people throughout the European Union. Some people in Hungary claim that this is the path Viktor Orbán will argue for in the future.

Schmidt’s venom is also directed against the European Court of Human Rights, which is “the favorite organization of federalists.” In Schmidt’s opinion the ECHR is largely responsible for the European Union’s crisis, mostly because, according to the court, human rights have priority over the defense of the borders, which means that the European Union became defenseless against the invasion of outsiders. In her tirade against the court, she recounts all the decisions that went against Hungary. The court, with the effective assistance of Soros-financed NGOs, will bankrupt Hungary, which is trying its best to save Europe from the migrants.

Schmidt’s hatred of Germans and Germany has no bounds. Germany was responsible for a borderless Europe which, as we already learned, is the source of all the evil that has befallen the European Union. The Germans are unable to get rid of their feelings of guilt associated with the Third Reich and what it entailed, and therefore they “dream of a federal Europe hoping to leave Hitler behind.” But in their eagerness to build a real union “they forget that a new German-led, unified Europe was in fact Hitler’s cherished dream.” Thus, Schmidt accuses today’s German politicians of continuing Hitler’s conquest of Europe by other means. And, she adds, “as we know, the ideology of socialism began its conquest of the world in Germany and socialism both in its national and international version is deeply rooted in German thinking.”

Mária Schmidt, very deep down, must know that the Hungarian government’s treatment of the refugees is unacceptable by any moral standard. She naturally knows what world opinion is of the Orbán government’s treatment of the refugees and its anti-refugee propaganda that poisoned the souls of Hungarians. One way of minimizing this anti-social behavior is to belittle the magnanimity and compassion of others. This is exactly what Schmidt does when she writes that “in 2015 the entire German elite and public fell in love with their own goodness and generosity, with their chancellor in the lead. They enjoyed the perception that they are now on the right side of history and that they are good-hearted, generous people, helping people in need.” Of course, the German people were told that it was time to be generous, and “once the Germans are told what to do, they don’t stop until they reach the bunker.” Once they receive the so-called order “wir schaffen das,” the consequences don’t matter. “A command is a command.”

It seems that it is not only the Germans who mask their “sentimental and romantic” nature with “arrogance and cynicism,” but the Council of Europe also believes that “the most important task is to prevent humans from drowning in the sea! Thus, the priority is not to halt the surging crowds but to save humans.” Can you imagine?

Schmidt spends considerable time on misinformation being spread in the West about Hungary in general and about the Orbán government’s treatment of the refugees in particular. There is nothing new in her arguments about the manipulated media of the West except for one amusing item. Schmidt uses President Trump’s “memorable” sentence–“The fake news media is not my enemy; it is the enemy of the American people”–as an epigraph for her section on “Fake news media.” Quite a literary coup for a man who, according to Philip Roth, is “incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.” Decrying all the fake news about Hungary and bolstering her defense with Donald Trump’s attack on the media is pretty low. According to the latest Fact Checker’s ongoing database, Trump in 119 days made 586 false and misleading claims. Moreover, as Ruth Marcus says in today’s Washington Post, Schmidt’s idol “is impervious to embarrassment, no matter how blatant his falsehood.” To use the words of a liar to pass judgment on others is a peculiar way of defending one’s alleged truth.

Of course, the hero of Europe is Viktor Orbán, who stopped the flow of migrants who otherwise would have run down Europe. He saved Europe with his brave move of stopping the invaders at the Serbian-Hungarian border. The following picture appeared with the article.

This depiction of the alleged result of migration is the death of Europe as we know it. That brown foot tells it all. Schmidt is very careful, the word “white” nowhere appears in her essay, but Zsolt Bayer, another favorite of Fidesz and Viktor Orbán, is much more outspoken in his essay that appeared in Magyar Idők today. As far as he is concerned, the Europe Hungarians so fervently wanted to belong to during the Kádár regime in fact no longer exists. That Europe was the world of “white people,” but now the Western Europe of old is gone. He recalls the popular German television series Die Schwarzwaldklinik, which depicted life in the Black Forest where one could see beautifully kept lawns, clean streets, elegant cars, villas, and “white people taking care of their problems who were Europeans like us, only much richer, luckier, happier and freer but still familiar.” Hungary will not accept the demands of the European Union in the name of solidarity. The real solidarity means that “when the European white Christian people lose the battle in the defense of their own past, then we–the humiliated, the betrayed and the despised—will welcome them. However, in the meantime, we will not tolerate lecturing and empty threats. Is that clear?” I guess it is.

May 20, 2017

The European Union and Chinese plans for the reorganization of the global economy

Over the years I have somewhat neglected Chinese-Hungarian relations, although Viktor Orbán made clear his intense interest in China very early in his tenure. In the fall of 2010 he sent his then minister of national development Tamás Fellegi to China. After five days of negotiations Fellegi returned with little to show for his efforts to expand trade relations between the two countries. On the diplomatic front the situation hasn’t been much better. Although Xi Jinping visited Poland, the Czech Republic, and Serbia last year, he hasn’t yet paid a visit to Hungary.

Finally, after years of lobbying, the Orbán government signed a comprehensive strategic partnership with China two days ago. As Magyar Nemzet discovered, however, the agreement includes the following important sentence: “The two countries jointly promote the construction of the Hungarian-Serbian railroad in Hungary.” According to diplomats consulted by Magyar Nemzet, this means that China expects the Budapest-Belgrade railroad line to be built in exchange for a strategic partnership, something that at this point cannot be taken for granted.

In order to understand what this insertion means, we have to go back to December 2014 when Hungary, Serbia, Macedonia, and China signed an agreement on the modernization of the Budapest-Belgrade-Skopje-Athens railroad, “which will allow the fastest transportation of Chinese goods from Greek harbors to Europe.” Under the agreement, a Chinese consortium, led by the China Railway Group, was awarded a $1.57 billion contract to build the 160 km Hungarian section. The European Union has many concerns about the project. Once again, the project’s profitability is in question. The cost to Hungary would be 550 billion forints, but currently only 4,000 people travel on that line daily. If China uses the tracks to transport its goods, I assume it would compensate Hungary. Whether the compensation would be sufficient to make the line profitable I have no idea. Negotiations with the European Union about the fate of the railroad are still underway. A year ago the whole project was put on hold when infringement procedures were launched against Hungary. It is hard to predict what the EU’s final decision will be. The Chinese government has shown signs of impatience with the difficulties the Hungarian government is encountering with the European Union.

The Orbán government’s enthusiasm for this project is baffling. As far as I can see, the deal is good only for China. According to the agreement, Hungary must take out a large Chinese loan at an interest rate of 2.5% for 20 years, bringing the interest charges alone to close to 100 billion forints on the 550 billion forint cost of building a railroad line Hungary doesn’t need. Most of the work would be done by Chinese firms for a project that serves only Chinese economic interests.

Viktor Orbán among friends

Whether Hungary will again manage to convince the commissioners of the College, as it did in the case of the Paks nuclear power plant, is hard to tell. Over the last few months contradictory bits of information have reached the Hungarian media regarding the possible outcome of the case. In September Magyar Nemzet claimed that the European Commission, thanks to the good offices of Berlin, would give a green light to the project if Orbán toned down his anti-refugee rhetoric. As we know, nothing of the sort happened. In fact, the anti-Brussels, anti-migrant rant has intensified since, and Orbán’s support in the European People’s Party has been dwindling. Yet Magyar Nemzet announced just today that it got hold of a report on the communication between the European Commission and the Hungarian government, which claims that the dialogue between them is coming to a favorable end. The report also states that by the end of January the Commission was no longer having serious reservations about the project. Of course, anything is possible when it comes to the “bureaucrats in Brussels,” but I’m a bit dubious on this score given the latest developments at the Beijing Summit on China’s ambitious “Belt and Road,” a gigantic infrastructure project that would connect Asia, Europe, and Africa. There are potential roadblocks to this project. India didn’t even attend the summit, and “the EU dealt a blow to Chinese president Xi Jinping’s bid to lead a global infrastructure revolution after its members refused to endorse part of the multibillion-dollar plan because it did not include commitments to social and environmental sustainability and transparency.”

I’m sure that European leaders are serious about both the environment and transparency, but I suspect that these were not the only reasons for their refusal to partner with the Chinese leaders. Economic considerations most likely weigh heavily against the project. As The Guardian put it, “some sceptics see the plan as largely a ruse to boost China’s own economy by shifting excess industrial capacity to less developed nations and draw poorer countries tighter into Beijing’s economic grip.” Or, to quote an Indian newspaper, there is a fear that the project is no more than “a colonial enterprise.”

So, let’s return to Hungary’s attitude to the “Belt and Road” project. We know that Viktor Orbán has courted China for years to achieve a strategic agreement with China. Therefore, I was surprised to read in The Guardian’s report that “the EU’s 28 member states decided not to support a statement about trade prepared by Beijing to mark the end of the summit.” According to a high-level EU diplomat, “apparently to Chinese surprise, the EU was united on this.” AFP’s account, however, tells a different story. It reports that “several European countries—France, Germany, Estonia, Greece, Portugal, and Britain—indicated they would not sign one of the summit documents on trade.” If AFP is correct, the EU countries were not united in their opposition to Chinese plans as they were formulated in the closing document. Because of the discrepancies between the two sources, I’m unable to determine which countries, in addition to Hungary, signed the document.

The Carnegie Europe Research Center published a study titled “China’s Belt and Road: Destination Europe.” It is a sophisticated assessment of the economic and political impact of the Belt and Road project which is not easy to summarize in a couple of sentences, but I’ll try anyway. If the initiative were seen by Europeans “through the misguided lens of pure transportation and communications infrastructure, it would be appropriate for the EU to embrace it with few or no reservations.” But, the study continues, “the initiative attempts to change the rules organizing the global economy, primarily by granting China a set of tools with which it can reorder global value chains.” Such an outcome might have an adverse effect on the whole western economy. Belt and Road is often called the New Silk Road, “a name which in many respects is misleading, but it does have the advantage of reminding China watchers that the Belt and Road is above all a challenge to Europe—a challenge to which Europeans have yet to respond.”

The European Union, it seems, hadn’t given much thought until now to this particular Chinese attempt to reorganize the world economy. Viktor Orbán in this respect is ahead of his colleagues. The only trouble is that he is most likely again on the wrong side of the issue.

May 15, 2017

The Hungarian government media’s portraits of Macron

Two days ago, when I wrote a post about Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the French presidential election and its reception by the Hungarian government, I had rely on the relatively few analyses that appeared in the government media. They didn’t address most of the reforms Macron proposes but were preoccupied with his ire against the Polish and Hungarian governments and his support for a two-speed Europe, both of which concern Hungary directly. Still, the basic message was (and still is) that with Macron’s victory, everything will remain the same. The decline of Europe will continue. The French voted for the wrong person.

Macron has ambitious plans for revitalizing France, especially in economic terms, and even more ambitious ideas for restructuring the European Union. We don’t know whether any of Macron’s ideas will materialize, but nothing is further from the truth than that Macron is a man who is stuck in the present. Here are a few of Macron’s ideas for the Eurozone, premised on a two-speed Europe, as outlined in the Eurobserver. He would like to see a Eurozone parliament, finance minister, and budget, which we already know Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, opposes. Jean-Claude Juncker doesn’t seem supportive of Macron’s plans either. He warned that “not all euro member states agree that someone based in Brussels or somewhere else should call the shots on budgets instead of national parliaments.” Macron also wants to have a set of social rights introduced at the European level, setting up standards for job training, health insurance, unemployment benefits, and the minimum wage. At the same time he would like to see closer cooperation on defense, security, and intelligence. In brief, he wants “more Europe” than perhaps even Orbán’s “bureaucrats in Brussels.”

So, when Tamás Ulicza in Magyar Hírlap claims that “Macron’s answers are the same as all the earlier unsuccessful attempts to date except only to a higher degree,” he is misrepresenting Macron’s position. In Ulicza’s view, the European Union is still heading toward the abyss. Macron’s election is only giving the leaders of the EU a false sense of security. Le Pen, Ulicza writes, almost certainly wouldn’t have led France out of the European Union, but “she wouldn’t have swept the existing problems under the carpet.” Macron lacks a political vision for his own country; “he can think only in terms of Europe,” he insists, although even Híradó, the official news that is distributed to all media outlets, fairly accurately reported on his plans for revitalizing the French economy. Macron proposes cuts to state spending, wants to ease the existing labor laws, and wants to introduce social protection for the self-employed.

Magyar Idők offered no substantive analysis of Macron’s economic or political ideas. The editors were satisfied with a partial reprinting of a conversation with György Nógrádi, the “national security expert,” a former informer during the Kádár period about whose outrageous claims I wrote several times. I especially recommend the post titled “The truth caught up with the ‘national security expert,’ György Nógrádi.” But at least Nógrádi did tell the television audience, accurately in this case, that Macron wants to reduce the size of the French government by letting 120,000 civil servants go.

Perhaps the most intriguing article appeared in the solidly pro-government Origo with the title “We are introducing the French Gyurcsány.” According to the unnamed journalist, “the career of the former banker and minister of economy eerily resembles the life and ideology of Ferenc Gyurcsány.” As we know, there is no greater condemnation in Orbán’s Hungary than comparing anyone to the former prime minister. What follows is a description of the two politicians’ careers, starting with both entering the political arena only after successful careers in business in the case of Gyurcsány and banking in the case of Macron. Both, the article continues, are followers of third-road socialism, following in the footsteps of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Gerhard Schröder.

One thing is certain: both believe in an eventual United States of Europe. They believe there should be a European government with a prime minister and a strong parliament and a second chamber made up of the heads of the member states. “Neither of them stands by the idea of strong nation states.” The article claims that both men belittle the culture, history, and heritage of their own countries. Macron, for example, stands against the view that French culture is superior to all others. Mon dieu! And what did Gyurcsány say? In 2007, when Merkel visited Hungary, he told her that the Holy Crown’s place in not in the parliament. Macron has a disparaging opinion of boeuf bourguignon, a favorite of the French. Gyurcsány is guilty because “to this day he would take away the voting rights of Hungarians living in the neighboring countries.” And what was obviously his greatest sin: in a speech delivered in 2013 he said that “we [the democratic opposition] are the real patriotic heirs of St. Stephen.”

It is true that Ferenc Gyurcsány and his party, the Demokratikus Koalíció, are totally committed to the European Union. Only a few days ago DK organized a conference in which Frank Engel (EPP), Ulrike Lunacek (Greens), and Josef Weidenholzer (Socialists and Democrats) participated. DK’s slogan as a counterpoint to the “Stop Brussels!” campaign is “Let’s catch up with Brussels!” Gyurcsány would like to see a new European constitution, dual citizenship, joint border defense, and common social security. The final goal is a United States of Europe.

As far as Macron’s ideas on the economy are concerned, he seems to me a combination of Ferenc Gyurcsány and Lajos Bokros.

Of course, Viktor Orbán also wants to reform the European Union, but what he would like to achieve cannot be called “reform.” He would like to go backwards, taking away the present prerogatives of the European Commission and Parliament and giving more power to the 27 member states. The EU does need reform, but not the kind that Poland and Hungary are proposing. Macron might not succeed in everything he hopes to do, but he is correct in his belief that the solution lies in more, not less integration.

May 10, 2017

Michael Ignatieff in Brussels ahead of Viktor Orbán

Tomorrow Viktor Orbán will have to make an appearance in the European Parliament in, as 888.hu put it, “the defense of our homeland.” In his long article Gábor Nagy recounts the indignities Orbán has suffered over the years at the hands of the European Commission. He lists all the “unfair” sanctions and infringement procedures, which, I can assure you, are numerous. Dozens of penalties have been levied against Hungary every year. And now, once again, the author continues, the homeland is under unjust fire. The Hungarian people should rest assured, however, that “Orbán is still fighting Brussels,” with the prospect of victory. Or at least that is what the grammatical construction of the sentence implies.

Even though the author envisages victory, a couple of sentences at the end of the article indicate that there is plenty of worry in Hungary over the outcome of this latest bout between Orbán and the European Commission and Parliament. The author calls attention to the fact that “right after the Wednesday EP meeting, Juncker & Co. will decide on new infringement procedures as a result of closing the Serbian-Hungarian border and the Central European University law.” Worry is also evident in a Magyar Hírlap editorial about the possible expulsion of Fidesz from the European People’s Party. It quotes all possible statements by Christian Democratic politicians in defense of Viktor Orbán and tries to calm nerves by quoting a Hungarian proverb about the porridge which is not as hot when eaten as it was while being cooked.

So far the Hungarian government is not backing down. Viktor Orbán declared that “if it’s war, let it be war,” meaning he is ready for a fight. The Orbán government found a new “star” among the Christian Democrats, István Hollik, a relatively young man who has become a forceful and extremely loyal spokesman in defense of the Fidesz-KDNP position. Practically all of his assertions are false, but he utters them with a conviction and force worthy of Szilárd Németh, except that Hollik’s demeanor and delivery are more civilized. Today in a press conference he delivered an indictment of both George Soros and the European Union. Soros, we were told, has been banned from “many countries–from the United Kingdom to Israel,” and “more than a dozen politicians in Brussels are in Soros’s pocket.” It is “an open secret, according to him” that his men are in the European Council and the European Parliament. As far as Hungary’s membership in and support from the EPP are concerned, Hollik claims to know that “the members of the European People’s Party are certain that EPP’s leaders, just as in earlier times, will not believe the mendacious allegations against Hungary and will give the country an opportunity to explain the facts and to clarify the misunderstandings.” My feeling is that this optimistic bit of news comes from the Fidesz contingent within EPP.

Well, if it depends on Michael Ignatieff, I don’t think there will be any misunderstanding in the EU about what the Hungarian government is doing as far as Central European University is concerned. Here are a couple of sentences from Ignatieff’s talk at an event organized on the issue of CEU in the European parliament, as related by The Guardian. His verdict on what the Orbán government is doing to his university is crystal clear. “It is just outrageous and these people around here need to understand how outrageous it is. This will be the first time since 1945 that a European state had actually tried to shut down a free institution that conforms to the law, that has good academic standards, operates legally…. My job is not to tell Europe what to do about it but to say: here are the stakes, this is why it matters.” Unusually frank words in the political world of the European Union. When Ignatieff was asked what Orbán hoped to achieve in persecuting CEU, he said: “You have really got to ask him. I can’t characterize what the agenda is with confidence and for me that is not the issue. I don’t care what the agenda of Mr. Orbán is, actually. My point is you don’t take an institution hostage to serve your political agenda, I don’t care what it is.” Ignatieff is, by the way, “cautiously optimistic” that the European Union will launch infringement proceedings against the Hungarian government.

Ignatieff also participated in a discussion organized by the Free University of Brussels (ULB/VUB), where the Hungarian ambassador to Brussels was present. The ambassador admitted that the European Commission might initiate an infringement procedure against Hungary on account of the CEU scandal, but “we are ready to face them and settle the disputes together.” There might, however, be a faster and more effective way to punish the Orbán government. You may recall that Ignatieff talked not only to Frans Timmermans but also to Carlos Moedas, who is in charge of research, science, and innovation. It is possible that the new law can be seen as interfering with the free flow of scientific inquiry, and therefore it might run counter to EU laws. In fact, that possibility was brought up in Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. If this is the case, the EU could withdraw support for scientific research in Hungary.

Earlier, I thought there would be an easy way for the Orbán government to get out of this sticky situation. With the help of Jobbik, 64 members of parliament signed a request to the Constitutional Court to take up the case and decide on the constitutionality of the new law on higher education. The Hungarian legal community is practically unanimous in its conviction that the law is unconstitutional. Such a ruling by the court would provide cover for the government. It could drop the whole idea and thus save face and, at the same time, demonstrate to the world that, after all, Hungary is still a democratic state. Unfortunately, there is a problem of time. If President Áder had sent the amendments to the court for review, the Constitutional Court would have had to rule within 30 days. But in the case of a parliamentary petition, it might be several months before a verdict could be expected. So, in the short run this is not a workable solution.

For now, everything depends on what happens by the end of the week in Brussels.

April 25, 2017