Tag Archives: European Union

Another summit, another battle: Viktor Orbán forges on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viktor Orbán enjoying the limelight / Source: MTI/EPA

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

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

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

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

December 15, 2016

Wakeup call: The PISA results reveal deep problems

The outcry over the PISA results is not subsiding. On the contrary. As more details surface, the magnitude of the problem is dawning on commentators. If almost 30% of Hungarian students at the age of 15 are functionally illiterate, it is difficult to imagine how the rosy future of the Orbán propaganda can ever be achieved.

The chief villain, of course, is silent. HVG asked the prime minister’s office for a response but was told to get in touch with Zoltán Balog’s ministry of human resources. Balog seemed to be in hiding. His undersecretary, László Palkovics, complained that this heartless OECD measures the performance of countries without taking into consideration local conditions, like his great efforts at a second wave of “reforms.” As Árpád W. Tóta, the witty political commentator, said, this problem can easily be remedied. Hungary should turn its back on the OECD just as it did today on the Open Government Partnership because it didn’t like the organization’s report on systemic corruption in Hungary over the last six years. Officials try to say as little as possible, but it seems that the party line is to whitewash the system they introduced and to blame the one-size-fits-all approach of PISA. Hungarian students have to take the same test as Japanese and German students, without any regard for the “Hungarian soul” and idiosyncratic “Hungarian thinking.” At least Viktor Orbán believes that Hungarian thinking is unique.

The consensus that has emerged in the last two days is that the cause of this drastic drop in performance is the reorganization of the educational system. The government set out to introduce a uniform system where all teachers teach the same material and thus all children end up with the same body of knowledge. Prior to the reform teachers could choose from a long list of textbooks. After the reform the choice was restricted to only two textbooks for each subject. If there had not been widespread protests, the government would have opted for only one. The old, favored textbooks were withdrawn and in record speed new texts appeared. In addition, the government decided that children need to work more and to acquire more factual knowledge. Even first-graders are required to stay in school until 4:00 p.m. Teachers, although they received raises, have to teach more classes and are forbidden to leave the building before 4:00 p.m. whether they have teaching duties or not. The result: overworked teachers, overworked students, and underperformance.

Some commentators are certain that the poor results are the consequence of too much teaching. A fair number of the many hours spent in school are frittered away on non-essentials. To appease the churches the government introduced religious instruction (or, alternatively, ethics classes). At least one hour a day is spent in physical education, which because of a lack of facilities often takes place in the corridors or consists of running up and down staircases. Since one of the undersecretaries in Balog’s ministry is a conductor and an expert on sacred music, even the crazy idea of daily singing came up at one point. Zoltán Balog was most enthusiastic. Wouldn’t it be splendid if these good Hungarian children would learn as many folk songs as possible? I don’t know what happened to this brilliant idea, but I hope it was dropped. Meanwhile, schools either don’t have any computers or, if they do, they are ancient and pretty useless. So it’s no wonder that students had difficulty answering the PISA test questions digitally.

Now let’s take a look at some of the details, which give us a fuller picture of the dreadful state of Hungarian education. In three years the number of students who haven’t reached even minimal reading competence has grown dramatically. These are the people whom we call functional illiterates. It is hard to believe, but 27.5% of 15-year-olds can’t figure out the meaning of quite simple texts. Six years ago only 17% of Hungarian students fell into this category. Hungary’s functional illiteracy rate is double that of Poland’s. That makes Hungary one of the poorest performers in the OECD countries, along with Mexico, Turkey, Greece, and Chile. Unfortunately, the situation is no better in the sciences, where 26% of the students performed under the minimum standards. Three years ago this was 18%. The situation is about the same in math as well. In brief, 18% of all Hungarian fifteen-year-olds underperformed not just in one subject but in all three.

You will write one hundred times: “Next time I will cram better for the PISA test” / Népszava , Gábor Pápai

According to Péter Radó, the foremost authority on education in Hungary today, if everything remains the same “Hungarian public education will produce 25,000 new functional illiterates yearly, in addition to about the same number who are deficient in math and science skills.” If one concentrates only on males, every third 15-year-old boy is functionally illiterate (31.9%).

Compare the 18% of Hungarian underperformers in all three areas with the Polish results, where only 8.3% fall into this category. Poland’s well thought-out educational reform has produced spectacular results. Long discussions among teachers, educational experts, students, and parents preceded the introduction of the Polish reform plan. In Hungary government officials talked to no one who would object to their retrograde plan and discussed it with only a small group of people with no expertise in education.

Let me add that the European Union as a whole is not doing as well as one would expect in the field of education, especially since it has a plan according to which by 2020 the proportion of students who perform under the minimum requirements must be reduced to 15%. As you can see on the following graph, the European Union’s results leave a great deal to be desired. It is unlikely that by 2020 it will achieve the desired result, especially if Hungary keeps adding to the already dismal figures.

Proportion of underachievers in Europe and Hungary in all three subjects

Among his many sins in the field of education Viktor Orbán set out to reduce the number of university graduates in Hungary. During the Kádár period only about 10% of the population had a higher degree. After 1990 successive Hungarian governments opened the doors of universities just like in other developed countries. As a result, enrollment soared, at least until Viktor Orbán decided that Hungary didn’t need so many university graduates. By exacting high tuition fees and decreasing the number of free places he managed to substantially reduce the number of students enrolled in Hungary’s colleges and universities.

Moreover, Orbán decided that among the high school population were some whose presence until the age of 18 was undesirable. The government therefore decreed that education was compulsory only to the age of 16. As a result, children of very poor families drop out of school as soon as possible in order to join the public workforce and help the family economically.  In the last couple of years Orbán also set out to decrease the number of academic high schools (gymnasiums) and to favor trade schools.

These moves, not without reason, raise the suspicion that Viktor Orbán wants to lower the educational attainment of Hungarians. The less educated can be more easily influenced and led. As Tóta said in his opinion piece today, Orbán managed to create a school system for sheep.

And he will undoubtedly continue along the same path unless someone stops him. For example, if the results of these tests rekindle teacher dissatisfaction. Lately, there have been signs that high school students, being perhaps foolishly brave, are standing up and even arguing with Zoltán Balog on matters of education. After all, their futures–and the future of the country–are at stake.

December 7, 2016

The Orbán regime and the Austrian presidential election

A few hours ago newspapers all over the world announced that Norbert Hofer, the far-right candidate for the Austrian presidency, had lost the election. Pre-election polls indicated that the election was too close to call, but the final result gave a healthy majority to Alexander Van der Bellen, a professor of economics and former head of the Greens. Hofer readily conceded, while Van der Bellen called the result a vote for a “pro-European Austria based on freedom, equality, and solidarity.”

Although the post of the president in Austria is mostly ceremonial, the Austrian election had acquired special significance in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory. Democrats all over Europe fear the spread of populism and looked upon a Hofer win as an event that might have a domino effect, first in France and later in other European countries where elections will be held in the near future. Now these people are relieved.

Just as a reminder, this is the second time that Van der Bellen and Hofer faced each other in this presidential contest. In May Van der Bellen won the election with a margin of about 30,000 votes, but because of some technical irregularities Austria’s Constitutional Court annulled the result and ordered a new round of voting.

The Hungarian right followed the race between the two men closely because it finds in the politicians of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) kindred spirits. Viktor Orbán certainly didn’t hide his preference for Norbert Hofer and the party’s chairman Heinz-Christian Strache, whom he considers “a man of the future.”

The Hungarian right-wing, pro-government press was already full of praise of Hofer in May before and during the election. Two days before the election Magyar Idők published a glowing editorial claiming that while the left symbolizes failure, the Freedom party is “the depository of success.” The same pro-government newspaper was looking forward to “a political earthquake,” which was likely since polls indicated that Hofer would get at least 52-53% of the votes. When this didn’t materialize, they cried foul. They questioned the results and talked about electoral fraud. Zsolt Bayer in his usual style enthused over all those votes cast for Hofer: the peasants of Burgenland, the people of Carinthia, the Alpine graziers, the yodelers of Tyrol. With the exception of Vienna and Vorarlberg, everyone voted for Hofer. Red Vienna, what can one expect? And Vorarlberg, it is “not really Austria.”

The decision of the Austrian Constitutional Court was warmly received in Hungary. The pro-government papers were again hopeful, reflecting the Hungarian government’s wishes and expectations. Hofer was critical of the European Union, which he wanted to reform alongside Viktor Orbán and his allies. He talked about his desire for Austria to join the Visegrád 4 Group. A step toward the far right in Austria nicely fit into Viktor Orbán’s plans. Therefore, a new round of optimistic and encouraging articles appeared in the Hungarian right-wing press.

At the beginning of the second campaign, the pro-government media again talked about the “historic vote” and predicted Hofer’s victory. As Magyar Idők pointed out, “FPÖ may draw strength from the victory of Trump.” Hungarian right-wing commentators were convinced that somebody who doesn’t espouse an anti-migrant stance can’t possible win, and Van der Bellen had supported Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policies during the refugee crisis and after. Mariann Őry, one of Magyar Hírlap’s interpreters of foreign news, elaborated on this theme, practically calling Van der Bellen stupid for telling the Austrians to support Angela Merkel’s policies. He is no better than the Hungarian liberals who are patronizing at home and opportunistic bootlickers abroad.

The Hungarian right's clear choice was Norbert Hofer on the right

The Hungarian right’s clear choice was Norbert Hofer, on the right

Closer to the actual election Magyar Idők reported a story from Kronen Zeitung: that a conspiracy is underway on the part of the European Parliament and Germany to influence the Austrian presidential election. The story was based on a conversation in a restaurant among Martin Schulz, the social democratic president of the European Parliament, Sigmar Gabriel, deputy chancellor of Germany who is also a social democrat, and Werner Faymann, Austria’s rejected (bukott) chancellor. Considering that the three happily consented to a photo of their meeting, claims of a conspiracy were obviously highly exaggerated.

A day before the election Mariann Őry again expressed her disdain of Van der Bellen as an inept candidate who doesn’t know what to say when. Her example is telling. According to Hofer, those Austrians who went to Syria to become terrorists should be stripped of their citizenship. Van der Bellen retorted that no valid citizenship can be revoked in Austria. “Surely, it is hard not to think that the western liberals have completely lost their minds. What kind of an Austrian is Van der Bellen” who considers these terrorists Austrians? “If for no other reason than statements like this, the Austrians should realize what is in their best interest. We will find out Sunday night.” She did. Perhaps Van der Bellen wasn’t that stupid after all.

The most detailed account of the Hungarian right’s thinking on the Austrian election came from a government-employed talking head, Zoltán Kiszelly. He gave a lengthy interview to 888.hu yesterday. I believe that the scenario he outlined here, assuming Norbert Hofer’s victory, accurately reflected the hopes of Viktor Orbán. First of all, the new president will initiate an early national election. In fact, all Austrian parties have been anticipating such an outcome. Today the FPÖ is the strongest party and as such would be the dominant party in a future coalition. The logical coalition partner would be the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), which is part of the present coalition. Sebastian Kurz, foreign minister represent ÖVP and a great pal of Péter Szijjártó, “has already adjusted his program to that of the Freedom Party.” The political changes in Austria would significantly weaken the European Union’s migration policies as represented by Jean-Claude Juncker and Angela Merkel. The Austrian move toward the right would also have an influence on German politics. Another benefit would be that the new government would support the Visegrád 4’s policies, which would force Brussels and Berlin to retreat from their current migration policies.

The journalist of 888.hu at this point reminded Kiszelly of what happened in 1999 when Wolfgang Schüssel, the leader of ÖVP, opted for a coalition with PFÖ, resulting in a long, acrimonious dispute with the European Union. Kiszelly said he was certain that nothing of the sort would happen today because “this time the PFÖ wouldn’t have to cede the chancellorship to the People’s Party just because it is a ‘moderate’ party. There have been significant changes in western politics, like the political climate in the Netherlands and Denmark, Great Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and, for that matter, the election of Donald Trump. After these events, the world that existed sixteen years ago can never return.” Finally, he added that a victory of the far right in Austria would be an event that “certainly could stir up European politics because, following the Austrian example, other countries would also opt for early elections.” So, an avalanche would follow Hofer’s win, which could result in a sharp turn to the right, perhaps sooner than we think.

If I’m correct and Kiszelly was articulating views he shared with Viktor Orbán, the loss today had to be a real blow to the Hungarian prime minister, especially since only three days ago he announced that “it is just a question of time before [real] democracy is restored because in Europe there is no democratic equilibrium now. …We just have to prevail and, in the end, we will predominate.”

Of course, one shouldn’t be unduly optimistic. This is not the end of the spread of populism, but apparently with the victory of François Fillon in the French conservative primaries, Marine Le Pen’s National Front will have a much harder time than she had anticipated. Most commentators are convinced that Fillon will be the next president of France.

December 4, 2016

Hungarians on foreign affairs and the U.S. election

I’m very pleased with Vasárnapi Hírek’s decision to commission Publicus Research Institute to conduct public opinion polls. Its latest, which was published today, deals with Hungarians’ views on foreign policy in general and the European Union, the United States, and Russia in particular. In addition, Publicus asked people their perceptions of specific world leaders. And, since the poll was conducted just after the U.S. presidential election, they were asked about their reactions to the outcome.

I guess I don’t have to dwell on the Orbán government’s systematic hate campaign against the present U.S. administration and Viktor Orbán’s clear preference for Donald Trump as the future president of the United States. Moreover, Orbán’s incessant verbal warfare with the European Union is legendary by now. Yet, as we will see, all this propaganda hasn’t really paid off. By and large, the majority of Hungarians are still western-oriented and consider themselves friends of the United States. It seems that the engaging personality and reassuring presence of Barack Obama touched the Hungarian public. He is now the most popular and most trusted foreign politician in the country. And Orbán’s battles with the European Union haven’t made much of an impact on Hungarian public opinion either. Few people think that Hungary should be on its own, with independent foreign policy objectives.

Let’s look first at how much trust Hungarians have in foreign leaders: Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, Donald Trump, and as the odd “man” out, the European Union. Among foreign leaders, Barack Obama is the clear winner: 55% of adult Hungarians surveyed have trust in him, 24% don’t. Putin runs way behind with 34% fans and 47% skeptics. Angela Merkel is truly unpopular in Hungary (21%), which is undoubtedly due to her policies on migration.

Of course, there is a marked disparity between right-wing and left-wing voters when it comes to their perceptions of foreign leaders. Far more left-wingers place their trust in Obama and Merkel than the average (65% and 47%) while Fidesz-Jobbik voters prefer Putin (50%) over Barack Obama (28%). The same is true when it comes to the assessment of Trump. His overall support is only 21%, but 36% of right-wingers welcomed his election.

Source: NBC news

Source: NBC news

I left the European Union to last. Hungarian public opinion is evenly split (46% for and 44% against) when it comes to passing judgment on its trustworthiness. Yet, when respondents had to pick only one “great power” to which Hungary should adjust its foreign policy, the European Union was the clear winner (53%). There is a small minority that would like to strengthen transatlantic ties and designated the United States as the country with which Hungary should have the closest relations (11%). Russophiles are an equally small minority: 11% would like to have Hungary committed to a pro-Russian foreign policy.

A small minority (14%) still clings to a separate “Hungarian road,” which I interpret as an independent foreign policy, which can be done only if Hungary is ready to abandon the European Union. But if that is the case, I don’t quite know what to make of a graph showing that 54% of the respondents don’t see any danger with a “Hungarian foreign policy (Hungarian road).” Clearly, a “go it alone” policy would be extraordinarily dangerous to the security and independence of Hungary. It is, of course, possible that the respondents misunderstood the question and simply thought that Orbán’s “fighting for national interests in Brussels” is what “Hungarian foreign policy” means.

Otherwise, Hungarians feel extremely secure. They don’t think that the far-away United States has a threatening presence in Hungary (70%), they don’t worry about the European Union’s encroachment (67%), and they don’t think that the Russian expansionist moves and threat to the Baltic states have anything to do with Hungary (58%).

The rest of the poll was devoted to the U.S. presidential election. First of all, almost 30% of the respondents knew so little about American politics that they couldn’t express an opinion on whom they thought would be better for Hungary, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Those who had an opinion were evenly split: about 30% for Clinton, 30% for Trump. Of course, given Viktor Orbán’s clear preference for Trump, the majority of Fidesz voters (53%) considered Trump’s election a bonanza for Hungary and only 18% thought that a Clinton presidency would have been better for the country. Interestingly enough, Jobbik voters’ view of the U.S. election was more “liberal,” if I may use this word. A third of the Jobbik voters sampled, that is about twice the percentage of Fidesz voters, considered Clinton a better choice for Hungary; only 24% thought that Trump would be better. From the point of view of Clinton versus Trump as far as U.S.-Hungarian relations are concerned, left-wingers considered Clinton (68%) a far better choice than Trump (7%).

Finally, Publicus wanted to know the mood of Hungarians after the election. Given Hungarians’ insularity, 23% of the sample was simply “not interested” in the election and 17% had no clue what is going on in the United States. Of the remaining 60%, 24% are “rather happy” over Donald Trump’s victory and 36% are “rather unhappy” with the result. It seems that their reactions didn’t depend solely on whom they thought would be better for Hungary.

Finally, a footnote to Orbán’s high hopes for greatly improved relations between the United States and Hungary. The Hungarian media learned from the Polish press that Polish President Andrzej Duda and Donald Trump had a conversation on Wednesday night and “the presidents also reportedly invited each other to visit their countries.” Trump called Poland “an important ally.” The next day, at János Lázár’s “government info,” a question was addressed to the head of the prime minister’s office as to whether Trump had phoned Orbán. After all, Duda and Trump had already spoken. Apparently, Lázár expressed his bafflement over the very question: what would the significance of such a conversation be, he asked. HVG pointed out that considering that Viktor Orbán was the only European prime minister who had expressed support for Trump at the time when Trump’s candidacy was a long shot, one would have expected Trump to get in touch with his fan in Hungary. The journalist added that Orbán was the first European head of state to congratulate Trump and “since then he has been constantly talking about the arrival of democracy in the United States” with Trump’s victory. “Apparently all that effort was not enough for a telephone call,” the reporter announced with a certain glee.

November 19, 2016

The Orbán government stands fast at home and abroad

At home

Viktor Orbán was expected to have a difficult time in parliament today. It was one of those times that the prime minister has to answer questions. He cannot pass the unpleasant task on to one of his ministers or even to undersecretaries. All three opposition spokesmen wanted the prime minister to say something about Index’s revelations concerning Antal Rogán’s suspicious business activities which, on the surface at least, seem to involve kickbacks and money laundering.

Opportunities to confront the prime minister directly are rare, and therefore each opposition party should designate its best person to pose the question. I’m afraid MSZP’s choice of László Varga wasn’t wise. His “witticism”—if you can call it that—about Antal Rogán’s inability to see reality from his helicopter and the size of his apartment fell flat. For Orbán, who can shine in such a situation, Varga’s poorly formulated question was easy to answer and counter. Orbán never uttered Rogán’s name but instead reminded the socialists of the days when the MSZP-sponsored hunger marches were organized by “an opulent euro millionaire,” a reference to a high-level MSZP politician who was discovered to have 200 million forints worth of euros in an Austrian bank.

Bernadett Szél, co-chair of LMP, was a great deal more specific. First, she recalled all the lies Rogán told about the residency bonds and about his relationship to Balázs Kertész. Szél specifically wanted to know how long Antal Rogán can remain a minister. She reminded Orbán that he as prime minister is responsible for the composition of his government and therefore it is he who must take responsibility for the behavior of his ministers.

This question couldn’t be sidestepped. Orbán had to give a more or less straight answer. His reply: “I don’t have anything to do with political bluster and political tabloid sensations. I am interested only in performance within the government. Whatever has been happening to Antal Rogán so far only strengthens his position. Don’t think that these accusations shatter us or that they force us to think of them at all. I consider the accusations no more than infantile sham which I simply don’t take seriously. If one word of this affair were true you would have filed charges already.”

Viktor Orbán today in the Parliament

Viktor Orbán in parliament today

Finally, György Szilágyi of Jobbik rose and listed all the lies Rogán uttered in the last few days. He inquired why Orbán as prime minister tolerates this. Orbán pretty much repeated what he said to Szél: “These are political sham attacks that I don’t take seriously. Every attack I have heard so far only increases my trust in the minister.” Orbán also cleverly used this opportunity to bolster his defense of Rogán by pointing out that the attacks are no so much against his minister as against himself and his government. His final words to Szilágy were: “a politician calling another politician a liar is not very original.”

So, for the time being Rogán’s position is secure. He has been an indispensable associate who, by the look of things, brought billions of euros into the coffers not only of the country but most likely also of Fidesz, in addition to enriching himself. Orbán at the moment thinks so little of the strength of the opposition that he believes that he can withstand all the charges. Most likely he is right.

Abroad

Hungarian papers barely mentioned an extraordinary dinner meeting of foreign ministers held on Sunday, which was inspired by German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. In light of the unexpected victory of Donald Trump, a man with no background in foreign affairs, Steinmeier thought it was important for the EU foreign ministers have a common policy when dealing with an unpredictable Washington. Federica Mogherini, the quasi foreign minister of the European Union, agreed and the meeting was scheduled.

It was rumored at the time the meeting was announced that Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó would not attend but would instead send one of his undersecretaries. It was an indication that Hungary, unlike most of the EU member countries, didn’t believe the emergency meeting was necessary. Since Viktor Orbán, alone among European politicians, rooted for Trump, he hopes that the new president will look upon his regime favorably. That the foreign minister opted not to attend the emergency meeting should give Hungary another gold star in Trump’s book.

Three foreign ministers did not attend the Sunday meeting. Predictably, the UK’s Boris Johnson was absent. After all, Britain is on its way out of the Union and needs to be on especially good terms with the next president of the United States. France’s Jean-Marc Ayrault sent an envoy due to a scheduling conflict. And, as euobserver.com said, “Hungary’s pro-Trump Prime Minister Viktor Orbán also kept his top foreign envoy at home.”

Assessments of the Sunday dinner meeting vary. According to critics, it was far too early for the foreign ministers to get together since we know practically nothing about Trump’s foreign policy objectives. Mogherini, on the other hand, declared the meeting a success, saying that the foreign ministers agreed “to engage with the incoming administration even from this very first week of transition,” meaning right away.

Meanwhile, Szijjártó decided to speak up and explain Hungary’s position. He found “the hysteria caused by the US presidential elections that swept through the European political elite pathetic and at the same time amusing.” Hungary will not take part in this hysteria because it considers Trump’s election good news. The Hungarian government finds the president-elect’s idea to stop “democracy export” beneficial to the world.

It should be noted that Viktor Orbán’s Visegrád 4 friends decided not to follow in the footsteps of their pugnacious Hungarian friend. I wonder whether there was any consultation among the four countries ahead of the Sunday dinner meeting. I suspect there was, but that Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic don’t want any more open confrontations with the rest of the European countries. They gave the EU a hard enough time on the refugee issue and don’t feel like sticking their necks out for Donald Trump, who may be courting Russia at the expense of Eastern Europe.

November 14, 2016

After the US election: Europe is anxiously waiting

Mother Jones published a funny article back in September about Trump’s hectic first day in office. On the basis of his election promises, the author compiled a to-do list of 21 items. Here are a few that would, directly or indirectly, have an impact on the European Union. He would call the heads of major companies who are moving operations overseas to inform them that they’ll face 35% tariffs. He would “contact countries and say … ‘Folks, we love protecting you, we want to continue to protect you but you’re not living up to the bargain’… They’re not paying what they’re supposed to be paying—which is very little, by the way.” He would immediately “withdraw from TPP.” He would also suspend the Syrian refugee resettlement program.

And this is just the first day. To come are many, even more important items, like his promised suspension of all ongoing free trade negotiations, including the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which is described on the website of the European Commission as an “ambitious and balanced” agreement that would “boost Europe’s influence in the world.”

Then there’s Trump’s unbounded admiration of President Putin, the strong leader whom he compared favorably to our own weak President Obama. And there’s the matter of Russian involvement in the presidential race. Just today Russia’s deputy foreign minister said that during the campaign the Russian government had been in touch with members of Trump’s campaign staff. There is panic in Ukraine, with people writing tweets like “tell me I’m sleeping and this is a terrible nightmare!” Poland’s president already fired off a letter to Trump, urging him to keep Washington’s promise to deploy troops on NATO’s eastern flank.

Photo: Mark Murrmann, Richard Dew/AP, Ti Kirkpatrick/CNP/ZUMA

Photo: Mark Murrmann, Richard Dew/AP, Ti Kirkpatrick/CNP/ZUMA

There is apprehension across Europe, even as the customary congratulations are being sent to the American president-elect. I especially loved the message coming from Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Prolin. In addition to “wishing the new president well,” he “pledge[d] to pray that God enlightens him and supports him in the service of his country … in the service of well-being and peace in the world.” It seems that the European Union’s leading politicians share Cardinal Prolin’s hope for Trump’s enlightenment.

The president of the European Union, Martin Schulz, was not optimistic. He said that he “must respect the future president of the United States [and] hopes that we will find a slot to cooperate.” He added that “it will be hard, harder than with previous administrations but he is the freely elected president.” Just a slot?

Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, doesn’t want to engage in a guessing game about Trump’s future policies. “We would like to know how things will proceed with global trade policy. We would like to know what intentions [Trump] has regarding the [NATO] alliance. We must know what climate policies he intends to pursue. This must be cleared up in the next few months.”

Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, and Jean-Claude Juncker wrote a joint congratulatory letter to Trump yesterday in which they felt it necessary to stress the strategic partnership between the European Union and the United States, which is “rooted in our shared values of freedom, human rights, democracy and a belief in the market economy.” The letter went on: “only by cooperating closely can the EU and the US continue to make a difference when dealing with unprecedented challenges such as Da’esh, the threats to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, climate change and migration.” At the end of the letter they extended an invitation for Trump “to visit Europe for an EU-US Summit at your earliest convenience.” This meeting would allow them “to chart the course of our relations for the next four years.”

There is widespread fear that under Trump’s guidance the United States will retreat to a modern version of “splendid isolation.” Even though with globalization this is well-nigh impossible, many of Trump’s promises to Americans have touched on this theme. Trump said that his “foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people, and American security, above all else. That will be the foundation of every decision that I will make. America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.” Susan Dunn, a political commentator, noted that it was most unfortunate that Trump chose to use “the noxious slogan, ‘America First,’ the name of the isolationist, defeatist, anti-Semitic national organization that urged the United States to appease Adolf Hitler.” Trump’s reference to “America First” was not wasted on European leaders. Tusk immediately fired back: “I do not believe that any country today can be great in isolation. But I do believe that America and Europe can, should and will work together. It is in our common interest. We have to recognize that this will take major efforts from both sides.”

The fact is that we have no idea what the foreign policy of a Trump presidency will be. I doubt that he himself has a clue. On that funny to-do list published by Mother Jones the last item was “learn the difference between Hezbollah and Hamas.” In his victory speech Trumped vowed to “get along with all other nations willing to get along with us.” But, as Dalibor Rohac, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said, “getting along” is not a foreign policy. Moreover, such careless phrasing opens the possibility of getting along with powers like Russia and China, two countries that have in the last year struck a threatening pose against their neighbors.

Because of Trump’s far too friendly comments on Vladimir Putin and Russia many commentators believe that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe are the most vulnerable to Russian influence and expansion if the United States does indeed retreat from its political, economic, and military participation in Europe. Trump’s national security adviser was once asked rhetorically, “Do we want NATO to go on for another half-century?” His answer was “I don’t know.” Given such careless and irresponsible utterances coming from Trump’s closest associates, it’s no wonder that there is such nervousness in Europe, whose security depends largely on the military power of the United States.

Viktor Orbán welcomes a more isolationist American foreign policy. And he continues waging his own version of an isolationist war against Brussels, arguing for country over Union. János Lázár only today announced that the Hungarian government will continue its battle with Brussels over the compulsory quotas even though the opposition refused to support its proposed amendments to the constitution. One is inclined to agree with Tamás Bauer, a keen observer of politics, that “Orbán wants more than Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. He doesn’t want to take his country out of the Union but he wants to destroy it.”

November 10, 2016

The constitutional amendments failed: Another blow to Orbán

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

amendment-vote

Photo: Attila Kisbenedek / AFP

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

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

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

November 8, 2016