Tag Archives: Frans Timmermans

Is Orbán an anti-Semite? Is Putin blackmailing him? A day of charges and countercharges

The Hungarian political arena was hyperactive today, so this post will be somewhat scattershot.

Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó gave a press conference, followed by his ministry’s issuance of a statement demanding the resignation of Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans for “having accused Hungary’s Prime Minister and the country’s government of anti-Semitism.” Szijjártó insisted that the present government is in fact a benefactor of Hungary’s Jewish community, which “can always count on the respect, friendship and protection of the Hungarian government.” Yet Timmermans in an interview given to Die Zeit described Viktor Orbán as “clearly anti-Semitic” for “calling George Soros a financial speculator” in the European Parliament a week ago. Szijjártó retorted that the vice president was a coward for making the “strong and furthermore unfounded accusation” in an interview instead of face-to-face with Viktor Orbán.

The fact is that the government-induced Soros-bashing that has been going on for some time uses a vocabulary that is usually reserved in Hungary for anti-Semitic discourse: speculator, financial circles, globalization, multi-national business circles, and other similar epithets. Timmermans is not the first person to suspect that the government’s constant references to professions or occupations often associated with Jews are meant to awaken anti-Semitic feelings in Hungarians.

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a journalist from a German radio station who asked me whether all these attacks against Soros have something to do with his Jewish background. That was her first thought.

György Konrád, the internationally recognized Hungarian author, wrote an open letter to Viktor Orbán, whom he knew personally from the days when Orbán was a liberal, accusing him of anti-Semitism. The letter was translated into English and published in The Tablet. Bálint Magyar, the author of many books on the “mafia state,” wrote a brief note on his Facebook page a few days ago in which he reported on the results of his Google search for the following word combinations: “spekuláns-tőzsde” (stock market) (27,400), “spekuláns-zsidó” (28,700), and “spekuláns-zsidó-Soros” (18,500). Clearly, the vocabulary of the government in connection with George Soros does resonate. I did my own search on “Jewish speculators” in  Google Images. And what did I find? The portrait of George Soros accompanying an article in The Greanville Post titled “Judeo-Centrism: Myths and Mania.” According to Fakenewschecker.com, “this publication is among the most untrustworthy sources in the media.” The article is pure anti-Semitic drivel. The portrait of Soros was put up to adorn this dreadful article only three days ago. So, it’s no wonder that people are suspicious of the language used by Viktor Orbán and the Hungarian government.

The search for “Jewish speculator” produced this portrait of George Soros

Once the foreign ministry finished with Timmermans, it was time to summon Canada’s ambassador, Isabelle Poupart, for a dressing down after she expressed concern over the fate of Central European University and academic freedom in general. She added that Canada “encourages a constructive dialogue” to resolve the matter. Nowadays even such a mild statement is cause enough for an ambassador to be dragged into the foreign ministry.

And that takes me to an article written by László Palkovics and published by the conservative Canadian National Post. The original title of the piece was “Calling out Michael Ignatieff,” a phrase that appeared in Palkovics’s piece, which was subsequently changed to “Michael Ignatieff is waging a media war against my government to suit his own ambitions.” In it, Palkovics accuses Ignatieff of “hijacking academic freedom in Hungary,” a curious interpretation in view of what has been happening in Hungary in the last four or five weeks. Although his alleged aim was “to dispel Ignatieff’s myths and set the record straight once and for all,” he simply repeated the lies that we have heard from government sources all along. Ignatieff responded to Palkovics’s accusations. He began by saying that “a battle to defend academic freedom is underway in Budapest and Canadians need to know what is at stake,” and he went on to point out all the factual errors in Palkovics’s article. I wonder what the reaction of the National Post editors was when they got the news today about the Hungarian government’s treatment of the Canadian ambassador. Perhaps Palkovics’s claims were not quite true after all.

Now let’s move to a topic that has been the talk of the town for at least two weeks: Ferenc Gyurcsány’s repeated statements that he was approached by unnamed men who claim to have hard evidence of Viktor Orbán’s unlawful or perhaps criminal financial activities, which would make the prime minister the subject of blackmail. The blackmailer, according to the story, is none other than Vladimir Putin. This would explain the sudden and otherwise inexplicable change in Viktor Orbán’s foreign policy orientation. Prior to 2010, he was a fierce opponent of anything to do with Russia and Putin, but after that date he became Putin’s Trojan horse inside the European Union.

Gyurcsány gave tantalizing interviews. Every time he appeared he offered up a few more details. He indicated that although he saw the documents, they were not in his possession. But he claimed that if Orbán sued him, then those people holding the documents would be compelled to release them and testify. At one point he gave Orbán 72 hours to make a move, which of course came and went without Orbán doing anything. Many people were skeptical of Gyurcsány’s revelations in the first place, but after the Gyurcsány “ultimatum” had no results, more and more people became convinced that the story was just the figment of Gyurcsány’s imagination. After all, they said, Gyurcsány uses these kinds of tricks to call attention to himself and his party.

Since the appearance of László Botka as MSZP’s candidate to be Hungary’s next prime minister, the left-of-center parties have been fighting each other instead of Viktor Orbán and Fidesz. Botka’s bête-noire is Ferenc Gyurcsány. He declared on many occasions that Gyurcsány cannot have a political role. In brief, he would like to have the votes of Gyurcsány’s followers without Gyurcsány. Two days ago Botka in an interview decided to join forces with those who consider Gyurcsány’s revelations bogus. “Gyurcsány must leave politics if he has no proof of the Russians’ having information about financial transactions that can be connected to Fidesz and personally to Viktor Orbán.”

MSZP’s position was that the allegation was simply not credible enough to hold hearings on it in the parliamentary committee on national security. Chairman Zsolt Molnár (MSZP) decided not to call a session to discuss the matter. Bernadett Szél (LMP), also a fierce opponent of Gyurcsány, agreed. As they put it, they’re not getting involved in a political soap opera.

That was the situation until today, when Bertalan Tóth, leader of the MSZP parliamentary delegation, announced that his party will after all demand hearings on the issue. Both Viktor Orbán and Ferenc Gyurcsány, he said, will be invited to testify. Molnár added that he wants information from the civilian and military secret services as well. Gyurcsány responded promptly, saying that he would attend as long as Viktor Orbán also makes an appearance, which, let’s face it, is unlikely. However, he is willing to personally and officially hand over all information in his possession to the chairman of the committee.

Depending on the nature of the information, this development might have very serious consequences. The only thing that is not at all clear to me is why the MSZP leadership suddenly changed its mind and now supports a further probe into the issue. One possibility is that they came to the conclusion that since Orbán will not attend, Gyurcsány would also refuse to testify. In that case, it would be patently obvious that his stories were inventions. Perhaps that would ruin his political career, which would make their job of getting rid of him simple. I’m sure they were not expecting Gyurcsány to offer to share all the information he has about Orbán’s possible criminal activities. What will happen if the accusations are credible? That may improve his standing, which would not be in the interest of MSZP, whose popularity, despite Botka’s month-long campaigning, is stagnating. MSZP has embarked on a dangerous journey, and no one knows at the moment where it will end.

May 5, 2017

What really happened at the EPP meeting this morning?

Two diametrically opposed views are circulating about Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s appearance before the top leadership of the EPP. The cynical view is that once again Viktor Orbán succeeded in fooling the naïve EU politicians. The more optimistic view is that this time the EPP read him the riot act and he no longer has any maneuvering room. He will either comply with the demands of the European Commission and the leadership of the European People’s Party or else. HVG and 24.hu stand pretty well alone in concluding that today’s EPP meeting was a serious blow to Viktor Orbán. I’m inclined to side with them.

I have collected from independent sources all the information I could find about the meeting itself and comments made either before or after the meeting by responsible EPP politicians. What do I mean by independent sources? Non-Hungarian sources that gleaned their information on the spot.

First of all, I think it is important to stress that the gathering included the highest dignitaries of the EPP group, headed by Joseph Daul, its president, as well as Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, and Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament. EPP’s press release, which included Daul’s statement, began with these words: “Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán was summoned to the Presidency of the European People’s Party (EPP) this morning to explain the latest developments related to the Hungarian Higher Education Act and the national consultation ‘Let’s stop Brussels.’” Thus Orbán was not invited to discuss matters but was summoned to explain his government’s treatment of a university, its propaganda against the European Union, and its planned attacks on NGOs.

After this beginning it is not at all surprising that the presidency of the EPP thought that “dialogue alone is not enough.” Daul said that there was “an open and frank conversation,” which in diplomatic language means a tough and not exactly friendly exchange. Orbán was asked “to take all necessary steps to comply with the Commission’s request.” In turn, “Prime Minister Orbán has reassured the EPP that Hungary will act accordingly.” The statement warned that academic freedom and the autonomy of the universities must be respected. Moreover, the EPP considers NGOs an integral part of any healthy democracy. “The EPP has also made it clear to our Hungarian partners that the blatant anti-EU rhetoric of the ‘Let’s stop Brussels’ consultation is unacceptable.”

This is the EPP gathering Viktor Orbán had to face this morning

Now let’s see what other evidence we have for what transpired at this meeting between Orbán and the bigwigs of the EPP. The spokesman for President Daul, Siegfried Mureşan, said after the meeting that “Prime Minister Viktor Orbán pledged in the EPP council to follow and carry out all the demands of the European Commission within the time frame set by the commission.” That time frame is 30 days. Today Frans Timmermans reiterated that Orbán must meet the European Commission’s demands. “We’re very firm on this. I will not drop this ball.” Joseph Daul also said today that “the constant attacks on Europe, which Fidesz has launched for years, have reached a level we cannot tolerate.” Manfred Weber added that “after this discussion the ball is in [Orbán’s] court. If he reacts properly, then he is a team player. If not, there will be consequences.” According to euobserver.com, Viktor Orbán himself admitted that “they told me to behave.”

Although many of the reports on the meeting note that the question of Fidesz’s expulsion from the EPP group didn’t come up, in light of the reports and leaks I suspect that some sort of ultimatum or warning must have been issued. Given Weber’s reference to “consequences,” I assume the EPP leaders told Orbán what those consequences would be if he refuses to comply.

In light of the above, the Hungarian pessimists’ verdict that Orbán again managed to fool the naïve EU politicians is, in my opinion, without any foundation. It really doesn’t matter what Orbán said to Hungarian reporters in Brussels. As Hungarian Free Press translated the appropriate passage, “the university of George Soros, which is called Central European University, is proceeding at its own legal pace. On this, no agreement has been reached. At this moment, there is a legal discussion. We always believed that if someone does not like something, then one must choose legal means to resolve the dispute. This is a legal issue. Hungary and the Commission will discuss this in the coming months. The legal dispute will have an end result, and this end result will be implemented.”

Let me start by stating that Orbán didn’t outright lie. Indeed, “no agreement has been reached” thus far. He didn’t say at the EPP meeting that he will withdraw the law. He simply promised to fulfill the demands. He is correct in saying that it is a legal issue. However, his claim that he can discuss the matter for months on end is untrue. He received a 30-day deadline, after which an infringement procedure might be launched. By itself, this infringement procedure might not be a big deal, but we don’t know what additional threats the EPP leaders, Juncker, and Tajani made. Orbán’s claim that “at the EPP meeting we managed to defend Hungary’s point of view” is a brazen lie.

So far we have no idea what the final Hungarian position will be on the issue of Central European University. At the moment there seems to be total chaos in the communication department. For example, the official government statement, signed by Bertalan Havasi, the director of the press department of the prime minister’s office, only a couple of hours after the meeting ended is a nonstarter in my opinion. It still includes the core attack on CEU–that is, that CEU, in order to continue as an institution of higher learning in Hungary, must establish a functioning campus in the United States. Surely, no sane person can imagine that this position can be the starting point for negotiations with either CEU or the European Commission.

I suspect that we are going to read conflicting statements from government spokesmen and, in turn, innumerable guesses about the government’s true intentions. This is a crucial junction in the tug-of-war between Orbán and the European Union. Orbán’s defeat is likely, and therefore the government’s communication experts will need all the tools they can muster to sell this particular debacle as a victory.

April 29, 2017

Viktor Orbán before the European Parliament

I watched the full debate on Hungary in the European Parliament and took copious notes throughout, but here I will offer only some overall impressions. I found Frans Timmermans, first vice president of the European Commission, most impressive, especially since he kept his message to Viktor Orbán brief but to the point. He emphasized the difference between “opinions” and “facts,” intimating that while the Commission’s objections to the Hungarian government’s actions and policies are based on facts, Hungarian answers to their objections are not.

I can’t stress enough the duplicity of members of the Orbán government and its servile media. Every sentence they utter must be scrutinized because it usually turns out that the claims they make to bolster their arguments are unfounded. The EU commissioners have been lied to for at least seven years, if not longer. But it seems that not until this latest “national consultation” did they realize the extent of the lies. Six statements, six falsehoods. Although Frans Timmermans talked about several problems, he spent most of his time on those six statements, refuting them one by one. The false claims, along with the refutations, can be read on the European Commission’s website as well as in the Budapest Business Journal.

The European Commission naturally had several other major objections to the Orbán government’s policies–among them, discrimination against women, treatment of the Roma, the criminal code, the attack on NGOs, and of course the crude attempt at shuttering Central European University.

The answer Timmermans received from Orbán was, as usual, full of inaccurate statements. Orbán proudly pointed out how unsuccessful the European Commission and Parliament have been in enforcing their will on Hungary, starting with the Tavares Report, which he described as “an embarrassing failure.” (For those of you who no longer remember what the Tavares Report was all about, I recommend reading my post on the acceptance of the report by the European Parliament and Professor Kim Scheppele’s “In praise of the Tavares Report,” which also appeared in Hungarian Spectrum.) And if that weren’t enough, Orbán decided to make clear what he thinks of those who “warmly receive a ruthless speculator who ruined many lives and who is an open enemy of the European Union.” Otherwise, he didn’t accept any of the objections to the “Stop Brussels!” campaign or to his country’s treatment of the NGOs. He accused the EU leaders of anti-Hungarian prejudice. In brief, since he couldn’t really counter the objections, he had to rely on ad hominem attacks.

Orbán’s so-called rebuttal was followed by short speeches from the leaders of the EP parties, all of whom, with the exception of the far-right groups, were critical of Viktor Orbán and the Hungarian government. If you visit the website of Hungarian Free Press, you will find a good summary of some of these speeches. HFP’s review of the events spends some time on the comments of Esther de Lange, a Dutch Christian Democratic politician and member of the European People’s Party, who said: “I feel pain in my heart because I recall the other Fidesz, which wanted to be part of a united Europe. It is not the first time that it appears that developments in Hungary are going against European values…. Are you really the type of man who must paint an inaccurate and exaggerated picture of ‘Brussels’ as an enemy, in order to appear stronger at home?” To this I would add a comment made in a similar vein by the Austrian Ulrike Lunacek (Green Party) who recalled that this is the third time that Orbán appears before the European Parliament. Unlike before, he no longer wants any dialogue. “You must be weak because you want to scrap CEU. You must be scared of freedom and criticism. You are scared of democracy.” Finally, she noted that not even EPP members encouraged him with their applause. Only far-right groups are behind him.

Source: Politico / Photo: Emmanuel Dunnand / AFP

Orbán’s final speech was a great deal less bellicose then his introductory remarks. In fact, I would describe it as subdued. He assured his audience that his government is ready to engage with the EU on all the issues, some of which will be settled easily. It looked as if he was truly worried about Fidesz’s possible expulsion from EPP which, given the present mood of the majority, is unlikely. He was also upset by references to his opposition to Brussels , all the while eagerly accepting EU funds. “What we receive is not a gift,” he said. Statements about his lack of democratic convictions also bothered him. Judging from his facial expression, the accusation that he is “a copy of Putin and Erdoğan” especially pained him. But it wasn’t enough to prevent him from uttering yet another lie. He tried to explain away the “illiberal” label he himself attached to his political system. His new take is that Hungary’s “illiberal democracy” is simply “a democracy led by non-liberals.” I can’t imagine anyone in the European Parliament believing that linguistic invention.

Finally, here is a tidbit that no one has yet called attention to. Zoltán Balczó of Jobbik also delivered a short speech. Although he declared his party’s opposition to Soros’s Open Society, he added that “Jobbik doesn’t accept the government’s attack on Central European University. We are waiting for the final word from the Constitutional Court.” What surprised me most was the way he closed his speech: “We are against this corrupt regime.” I never thought I would hear a Jobbik MEP utter those words.

I’m sure that in the next days and weeks the Hungarian media will be full of predictions about the outcome of this latest “war” between Orbán and the European Commission. In fact, the debate has already begun. But I would counsel against hasty calls. Orbán may not be as sure of himself and his success against Brussels as his public posturing would indicate. According to Magyar Nemzet, several Fidesz heavyweights have been cautioning him against using inflammatory rhetoric and assuming a combative attitude. Meanwhile, Népszava got hold of an e-mail sent to all the other members of the European People’s Party by the 12 Fidesz members. Their tone is in stark contrast to Orbán’s bellicosity. “We are not perfect, not all of our experiments are successful, but we are flexible and we are ready for serious discussions about the future of our country and of Europe.” They said they stand “very far from those who work for the destruction of Europe.” Finally, they wrote that they “are members of the club and accept both the benefits and the burdens” that go with membership. Their final words were: “We do make mistakes; we are not perfect; and we are ready to correct them.”

And, of course, as I said the other day, the Hungarian constitutional court may step in to lift the uncomfortable burden of the CEU law from the shoulders of the Orbán government.

April 26, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s latest war is turning out to be a big mistake

Yesterday I ended my post by saying that, according to the latest public opinion poll conducted by the Publicus Intézet, within a few months the number of Hungarians who think the Orbán government’s foreign policy serves Russia’s interests tripled from 9% to 26%. That is a dramatic change. Given the mood in Budapest, I assume that this trend will continue. B. György Nagy, who reported on Publicus’s findings in Vasárnapi Hírek, titled his article “They made a big mistake with the Russians.” That is, Orbán’s decision, for whatever reason, to court the Russians has backfired badly. The government media’s overtly pro-Russian and anti-Western propaganda, the government’s undisguised admiration for Vladimir Putin, the population’s ambivalent feelings concerning Paks–all these have shaken public confidence in the Orbán government itself. The war on Brussels, on George Soros, on Central European University, and on civic organizations has only compounded these problems.

The events of the last two days have increased pressure on the government. We just learned that a Russian diplomat knew ahead of time about Magomed Dasaev’s planned vigilante act. Former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány announced on Friday that there are credible grounds for Vladimir Putin’s alleged blackmail of Viktor Orbán, and today he held a press conference where he further elaborated on some of the details of the evidence he claims to have. Another demonstration against Russian interference in Hungarian affairs is going on this moment near the Russian Embassy. (The police cordoned off a large area next to the building.) The Party of the Two-tailed Dog staged a hilarious anti-government demonstration, reported on by major media outlets all over the world. On top of it all, the massive propaganda campaign against CEU and the NGOs has not shifted Hungarian public opinion. Where is the political wizardry of Viktor Orbán?

The “Stop Moscow” demonstration / Photo: Népszava / Gergő Tóth

Hungarians are not following the lead of the government when it calls them to wage war against Central European University. Although we often hear commentators claim that most people have no idea what CEU is all about, that’s not the case. According to Publicus Intézet, only 22% of Hungarians sampled hadn’t heard of the university and only 14% support the government’s plan to close it down. A sizable majority (63%) are against the government’s anti-CEU campaign.

Moreover, the overwhelming majority of Hungarians think that in a well-functioning democracy civic groups, representing the interests of the people, must exist. In fact, in the last three months the percentage of people who believe NGOs are important government watchdogs has grown from 68% to 74%. When it comes to foreign-supported NGOs engaged in political activities, the majority (57%) still support the government’s position on the issue, but three months ago their number was higher (60%). In general, 66% of Hungarians disapprove of the government’s shuttering of civic organizations.

The government is not much more successful when it comes to the campaign against George Soros. When in June 2016 people were asked whether Soros wants to topple the government, only 27% of the respondents agreed while 44% disagreed. Despite all the propaganda, Hungarians’ perception of Soros hasn’t changed much. Today 47% percent of the respondents don’t believe that Soros wants to overthrow the Orbán government and 32% thinks otherwise. The same Hungarians believe that Russia poses a greater threat to the country than the American-Hungarian financier. In November only 32% of the voters considered Russia a threat; by now it is 42%. On the other hand, the vast majority (close to 70%) have trust in the United States and the European Union. Somewhere along the way Viktor Orbán has lost his bearings.

Moving on to Brussels, today Michael Ignatieff, president of CEU, had conversations with Frans Timmermans, first deputy president of the European Commission, and Commissioner Carlos Moedas, who is responsible for research, science, and innovation. Tomorrow he will take part in an event organized by the four largest delegations in the European Parliament. On Thursday George Soros will meet with Jean-Claude Juncker and Commissioner Vĕra Jourová, who is in charge of justice, consumers, and gender equality. On Friday Soros will talk with Frans Timmermans and Jyrki Katainen, vice president and commissioner in charge of jobs, growth, investment, and competitiveness.

On Saturday the European People’s Party will hold a meeting to discuss the Hungarian situation. Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP group, warned Viktor Orbán a few days ago that Fidesz’s membership in the EPP caucus shouldn’t be taken for granted. He emphasized that core principles such as freedom of research and teaching are not negotiable.

In addition, there will be a plenary session of the European Parliament devoted to the “CEU” law. Apparently, Orbán is planning to attend. Finally, we mustn’t forget about the serious investigation underway by the European Commission “on the state of democracy” in Hungary, where further sanctions against the Orbán-led country are expected.

I can’t help thinking that this cheap, domestically ineffectual propaganda stunt against Soros, CEU, and the NGOs was one of Viktor Orbán’s greatest mistakes, one that may eventually unravel the whole fabric of his carefully crafted political system. Whether it was inspired by Vladimir Putin, as many people suspect, or it was designed to boost the resolve of Fidesz’s core supporters ahead the election next year doesn’t really matter. It can only be described as a colossal blunder. I suspect that Orbán didn’t expect such a vehement reaction both at home and abroad.

I have no idea what Orbán’s next step will be, but for now the Soros bashing continues unabated in the government media. In fact, if anything, it has intensified. Last week the latest spokesman for Fidesz, Balázs Hidvéghi, claimed that within one year “George Soros pumped 1.2 billion forints [$4,187,172] into his agent organizations in order to build up a new oppositional body to make persistent attacks against the legitimate Hungarian government.” This is more, he added, than the amount of money parties receive from the government annually.

Perhaps there is some inner logic to Orbán’s recent wars, but from the outside they don’t make much sense.

April 24, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s regime under fire at home and abroad

It is difficult nowadays to write a post about the Hungarian political scene since it is almost impossible to predict what may happen in the next few minutes on the streets of Budapest, which are again filled with demonstrators.

One thing I have been pondering today in view of the latest U.S.-Hungarian clash over the Central European University (CEU) is the Orbán regime’s total ignorance of the workings of the U.S. government. Throughout the presidential campaign, interest in the Clinton/Trump duel was just as intense in Hungary as anywhere else in Europe. Yet day after day it was apparent that a great many journalists as well as politically engaged citizens were unfamiliar with even the most basic principles of the U.S. electoral law. I found this depressing. But when politicians who are supposed to make decisions affecting U.S.-Hungarian relations are ignorant of how U.S. diplomacy functions, we are in real trouble. And unfortunately, this is increasingly the case.

In the last three years the whole Hungarian diplomatic corps was decimated, and their places were filled with party loyalists who had no diplomatic experience. But even those who in the past 20 years were in important diplomatic positions and who are considered to be Atlantists, i.e. working for better U.S.-Hungarian relations, can come up with mind-boggling idiocies. The latest example comes from Zsolt Németh, undersecretary of the foreign ministry between 1998 and 2002 and again between 2010 and 2014. Commenting on Hoyt Brian Yee’s message to the Hungarian government, he said that Yee’s report on the U.S. government’s support for CEU is “only an opinion and in any case we are talking only about a deputy assistant secretary. Moreover, as far as I know, he has held this position for the last few years, so we ought to wait for the answer of the present American administration as to whether we can sign an agreement that would make CEU’s continued work possible.” What dilettantism and what arrogance, said Zsolt Kerner of 24.hu. The Orbán government assumed (and of course hoped) that the American response still reflected the thinking of the Obama administration. But a few hours after Németh’s comment Mark C. Toner, spokesperson of the State Department, confirmed Yee’s message. The most important sentence of Toner’s lengthy answer to a journalistic question was: “We’re urging the Government of Hungary to suspend implementation of the law.” The message cannot be clearer. The simplistic view of the Orbán government that, for Hungary, “Democratic rule is bad, Republican rule is good” was once again proved wrong. How could Viktor Orbán have forgotten his bad luck with George W. Bush after 9/11 when his insensitivity or perhaps planned insult got him into deep trouble with the Republican administration for the rest of his term?

Viktor Orbán has been a great deal more successful in his dealings with the European Union. For years he has been hoodwinking the hapless “bureaucrats.” But the “Stop Brussels” campaign and the farcical questionnaire of the so-called National Consultation helped them see the light. At last the College under the chairmanship of First Vice-President Frans Timmermans decided “to take stock of the issues at hand, in an objective, facts-based and law-based manner” concerning “the compatibility of certain actions of the Hungarian authorities with EU law and with our shared values.” Timmermans outlined the issues the European Commission and Parliament considered troubling. Heading the list was the fate of Central European University, but right after that came the announcement that “the Commission … decided that it will prepare and make public its own response to the Hungarian Government’s ‘Stop Brussels’ consultation.”

The current European Commission

Moreover, Timmermans accused Hungary of not abiding by Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty, which reads: “The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.” The sins of the Orbán government are numerous: its attack on CEU and the NGOs, lack of transparency of funding, asylum questions, disregard of human dignity and freedom, and a lack of respect for human rights, tolerance, and solidarity. Of course, we have heard all this before, but what’s different this time is that Timmermans announced that they will complete the legal assessment of the Hungarian situation as soon as possible and “the College will consider next steps on any legal concerns by the end of the month.” In the European Union, where everything takes months if not years, the Hungarian issue seems to have priority. The EU’s criticisms didn’t go unnoticed in Poland. Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski, in an interview with MTI, the Hungarian news agency, labeled Timmermans’ announcement “blackmail.” Péter Szijjártó called it a “pathetic accusation.”

I left to the end a development that I find extremely important. Viktor Orbán’s whole political system relies on a three-pronged parliamentary structure. Fidesz is the “center power” with two opposition groups on its flanks: Jobbik on the right and assorted smaller parties on the left, where the right and left have diametrically opposed ideologies. This was the situation in Hungary between the two world wars, which ensured the government party’s supremacy from 1920 to 1944. The genius of this arrangement is that these two poles, due to their ideological incompatibility, are unlikely to unite against the middle.

But in the CEU case Jobbik opted to join ranks with the left. In Hungary 25% of parliamentary members can demand a review of a law by the Constitutional Court, even if it has already been signed by the president. LMP decided to invoke this procedure to trigger a Court review of the new anti-CEU law. To reach the 25% threshold LMP needed to muster 50 votes. If only LMP (5), MSZP (28), and all the independents (11) were to vote for the initiative, they would come up short. But Jobbik decided to add its 24 votes. Demokratikus Koalíció (4), whose members sit with the independents, opted not to join the others because DK doesn’t consider the Fidesz-majority Constitutional Court a legitimate body. Thus, 64 members of parliament joined together in an action against Fidesz. Of course, the Jobbik spokesman emphasized that the decision was made only to save the rule of law in Hungary, and he kept repeating that this doesn’t mean an endorsement of George Soros or his university. But the fact remains that Jobbik decided to join the rest of the opposition. (At the time of the vote on the law on higher education they simply didn’t vote.) This Jobbik decision may have significant consequences.

As I write this, tens of thousands are demonstrating in Budapest, all over the city. The cause is no longer just CEU and the NGOs but democracy and a free Hungary.

April 12, 2017

What changed Orbán’s mind on the Dublin III Regulation?

It says a lot about the state of affairs in Hungary that the Hungarian media and hence the Hungarian public had to learn from an Austrian newspaper that the Hungarian government had repealed the Dublin III Regulation governing refugee policy within the European Union for an unspecified length of time because of “technical difficulties.”

In an “exclusive” article the Austrian Die Presse revealed late yesterday evening that “the Hungarian Ministry of Interior has informed the authorities in Vienna of its refusal to accept any refugees who have crossed through Hungary and moved on the other member states.” The same message was sent to Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Finland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Great Britain, Norway, Sweden, Slovakia, and Germany. Government spokesman  Zoltán Kovács, who was interviewed by Die Presse, explained that Hungary is looking after 3,000 refugees already, and “the boat is full.” The country cannot take any more refugees. The Austrian Foreign Ministry called in the Hungarian ambassador for consultation.

Brussels’s reaction to Hungary’s unilateral suspension of the Dublin agreement was immediate and surprisingly sharp. The European Commission asked for “an immediate clarification” of the nature and extent of the “technical difficulties” and expressed its dismay at Hungary’s unilateral decision on the matter. Die Presse‘s take on Viktor Orbán’s latest assault on the legal structure of the European Union was that he wanted to put pressure on the European Union before the Brussels summit scheduled for Thursday.

Hungarian journalists, who tried to find out more about the EU reaction in Brussels, learned that a unilateral move in contravention of a hard-and-fast rule such as Dublin III is unheard of. What Hungary could do if it is unable to fulfill its obligations is to ask for additional financial assistance. Mind you, it will be difficult to argue that Hungary is overburdened by refugees returned from western countries when their number over the last year was 827. One possible outcome of Viktor Orbán’s “naughtiness” will be another useless infringement procedure, although the Demokratikus Koalíció also suggested that Hungary’s refusal to cooperate might mean a loss of EU subsidies that are earmarked for the upkeep of refugees while their cases are being investigated.

That was the situation last night. This morning the ministry of interior, which is responsible for handling the refugee issue and was the one that informed a score of countries of Hungary’s decision, changed its story. What the ministry said last night was “misunderstood.” Hungary is not planning to abrogate the Dublin agreement. The government is simply asking for “a little patience.” According to EU standards, Hungary has accommodations for only 1,500 people, but 3,500-4,000 refugees are currently in the country. According to the ministry of interior, the western countries would like to send 600-700 people back to Hungary, and the government is asking for “technical patience,” whatever that means, only in their case.

In addition, this morning the cabinet held a meeting after which Péter Szijjártó, the foreign minister, gave a brief press conference during which they reiterated this latest version of Hungary’s policy on the refugee issue. Any suspension of the EU rule is out of the question. The Hungarian government will “begin consultations with the first deputy president of the EU,” Frans Timmermans.

Whatever happened between yesterday afternoon and this morning, it had to be something that made a strong impression on Viktor Orbán and his crew. Moreover, it is doubtful that the idea of “consultations” was initiated by the Hungarian government. More likely than not, Timmermans strongly urged Szijjártó & Co. to report to him on Hungary’s policy. I wish Szijjártó the best of luck in trying to explain the exact position of the government on the matter. At the moment the messages coming from various ministries are so confusing that I doubt that even top government officials know what the real situation is.

In Brussels the Hungarian government most likely will try to argue that those refugees who come to Hungary through Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia are coming from “safe”countries and therefore are not eligible for protection on the territory of Hungary. I doubt that this argument will float. Admittedly, the Dublin III agreement is unfair in the sense that certain countries, like Hungary and very soon Slovenia and Croatia, have to carry most of the burden of the overland refugee explosion. But, under the present circumstances, the best Hungary can hope for is financial and personnel assistance in dealing with the refugees.

Otherwise, the government is proceeding with its plans to build a fence along the Serbian border, which many western politicians condemn as an act that might create a chain reaction. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, speaking in the Italian senate, said that “those of us who saw the destruction of walls will have to be the ones who prevent the raising of such walls again in Europe.” Szijjártó announced that, if necessary, they will erect fences not only between Hungary and Serbia but between Hungary and other countries as well. I wonder which countries he has in mind. I wouldn’t be surprised if the government extended the fence toward the west, along certain parts of the Croatian-Hungarian border.

Great efforts are also being made to catch refugees. Thousands of policemen are already patrolling the Serbian-Hungarian border. Today a huge police raid was conducted in Szeged, apparently prompted by the complaints of some residents about refugees hiding in the city. One such helpful citizen was interviewed this morning on TV2. She is an older woman who spends her entire day along the border, searching for refugees and handing them over to the police. Today’s police raid was successful. By 4 p.m. 728 refugees had been rounded up just in the city of Szeged.

MTI / Zoltán Gergely Kelemen

MTI / Zoltán Gergely Kelemen

László Toroczkai, the infamous neo-Nazi who has been banned from Slovakia, Romania, and Serbia because of his openly irredentist views and illegal activities and who became mayor of Ásotthalom in 2013, created a “civil guard” of about 15 volunteers who patrol and alert the local police. A reporter for the Irish Times encountered Toroczkai, who said that sometimes the refugees “break into an empty farmhouse to sleep or change clothes. But occasionally the owner comes back when they’re inside–and who would be pleased to find an Afghan or African family in their home like that?” A reporter from Al Jazeera experienced first hand the prejudice of Hungarians. He described a young woman reporter, most likely from the state television station, who “speaks of [the refugees] to us as though they are vermin.”

Viktor Orbán’s policy, which was sold as defending Hungarians from dangerous strangers, resonates with about 75% of the population. And so it is not surprising that, according to the latest opinion poll, Fidesz has rebounded, turning around the downward trend in its support over the past few months. The refugee issue was a godsend to Viktor Orbán.

The Christian, national government’s heart is merciful: Orbán in Strasbourg

I just finished listening to the hearing on “The Future of U.S-Hungary Relations” organized by the Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats. I’m not yet ready to comment on it, except to say that it was an excellent forum for the Republicans to criticize the Obama administration’s foreign policy and to applaud Viktor Orbán.

Hungary was also the topic of another debate today, this time in Strasbourg in the plenary session of the European Parliament. It was only yesterday that Viktor Orbán announced his intention to attend in order to defend Hungary.

Before his appearance in the chamber, he gave a press conference in which he marshaled his usual arguments for a discussion on capital punishment, which may last a whole decade. I guess he is ready to fight at least ten years to convince the members of the European Union to reinstate the death penalty. As for immigration, Orbán explained the reasons for Hungary’s refusal even to entertain the idea of allowing immigrants inside the country. Some countries, he said (presumably Great Britain, France, and perhaps the Netherlands), had been colonial powers and as such are accustomed to multiculturalism. Hungary, on the other hand, was never a colonial power, and therefore for Hungarians multiculturalism is a foreign idea. When I heard this, I broke out in laughter. Hungary for centuries and centuries was a multinational state in which half of the population was non-Hungarian. The country’s population was made up of Romanians, Slovaks, Serbs, Ruthenians, Germans, Slovenes, Yiddish-speaking Jews, Croats, shall I continue? Didn’t each of these groups have its own culture? Weren’t the people of Austria-Hungary accustomed to living side by side with people of different cultures? In fact, as far as its mixture of nationalities was concerned, Austria-Hungary was something of a mini-European Union. I assume, however, that for Orbán these cultural differences were minor. After all, most of the country’s citizens were steeped in the Judaeo-Christian tradition and virtually all of them were white. Not like the “barbarians at the gate” of Hungary now.

The debate started with a short speech by Frans Timmermans, who was very critical of Orbán’s use of scare tactics as far as immigrants and refugees are concerned. If Hungary does not abide by the constitution of the European Union, the European Commission will not hesitate to use sanctions that are at its disposal as spelled out in Article II of the EU Constitution. Fidesz MEP Mrs. Pelcz, née Ildikó Gáll, interpreted Timmermans’s words as a threat and bitterly complained about restrictions placed on the right to open discussion about certain subjects. Most of the representatives who spoke during the debate preceding Orbán’s speech argued against the idea of bringing up the subject, which they consider to be one of the fundamental values of the Union. As Sophia in ‘t Veld, a liberal MEP, said, such a debate would be a short one: “we condemn it, the European Union condemns it. That’s it.” Throwing the issue of capital punishment into the debate was intended to divert attention away from the main issue, the “national consultation” on immigration, which might be at odds with the fundamental values of the European Union. During the debate, the “national consultation” was described as a kind of “poisoning of the minds,” which some considered outright shocking. There was only one man who tried to defend Viktor Orbán–Manfred Weber of the European People’s Party, although his defense was feeble. After praising the great economic achievements of the Hungarian government, the only thing he could muster in Orbán’s defense was that talking about immigration is appropriate because two-thirds of the immigrants are turned away.

Photo by Vincent Kessler / Reuters

Photo by Vincent Kessler / Reuters

Then came Orbán, who as usual started on an ironic note. He found it flattering that the members of the European Parliament were devoting a lengthy discussion to the Hungarian situation. There could be reasons for such a discussion in the European Parliament–for example, the great Hungarian successes of late, but alas, he said, this is not the reason he has to be in Strasbourg. He was pleased to hear that the European Union is interested in order, public safety, and immigration, but these problems are not Hungarian problems. They are European problems. The only reason that Hungary is the target is because “Hungarians like straight talk, [they] don’t like babble and equivocation,” said the man who is the master of double talk. Hungarians will openly say what they want: “Europe should remain European, and we want to keep Magyarország magyar.” For those readers who don’t know Hungarian, “Magyarország” means “Hungary.” So, Hungary should remain ethnically pure. If we take Viktor Orbán at his word, no foreigner, regardless of where he comes from, is welcome in Hungary. Otherwise, he called the European Union’s proposal on a quota system to deal with those who receive political asylum “absurd, close to madness.” Hungarians themselves will decide what to do with their illegal immigrants.

Finally, he closed his five-minute speech by arguing for a discussion about the death penalty, the prohibition of which is “after all not carved in stone by the gods.” After Orbán finished his speech, Martin Schulz, the president of the parliament, replied with a single sentence: “but there is such a divine commandment as ‘You shall not murder.'” Although the debate continued, this was best possible answer to this great Christian who only a few minutes earlier explained that his “government is Christian and national, [in whose] heart there is mercy.”