Tag Archives: Great Britain

Viktor Orbán’s interpretation of the Brexit referendum

In the wake of the stunning Brexit referendum outcome, pro-government papers wisely waited for word from the boss before they dared express any opinion on the subject. They didn’t have to wait long. At 8:00 a.m. Viktor Orbán began his regular fortnightly Friday morning interview on the state radio station.

The first topic was of course the British referendum, something the Hungarian prime minister was not at all eager to talk about. The little he said had more to do with his own referendum, to be held sometime in the fall, on the European Union’s right to set “compulsory quotas” of asylum seekers in Hungary. One could ask what these two referendums have to do with one other.  Of course, nothing. What is important for him is his own referendum, and he exploits the opportunity presented by the Brexit referendum.

Brexit1

Source: spectator.co.uk

According to his own version of the story, the whole unfortunate referendum on Brexit was largely the result of the refugee crisis that hit Europe in the last year and a half. He claims that the British people revolted against Brussels because the European Union couldn’t handle the migration crisis. They punished Brussels for its incompetence. Orbán as usual is twisting the truth to fit his own agenda. What the majority of British voters were worried about, in addition to being subordinated to an outside power, was not so much the refugees and migrants who have reached the Continent but those “economic migrants” from East Central Europe who have settled in the British Isles in the last few years.  The 350,000 Poles and the 150,000 Hungarians, for example. At least these are the official figures, though most likely the real numbers are higher.

He was particularly unwilling to talk about the future except to state that “Hungary is in the European Union because we believe in a strong Europe,” a totally meaningless statement, only to return to his main message –the immigration issue. “But Europe can be strong only if it finds answers to such important questions as immigration. Many people, in the case of Great Britain the majority, consider the decisions [on the refugee issue] to be creating not a stronger but a weaker Europe.” So this, in his opinion, is what led to the “leave” vote.

Orbán indicated that he had been in touch with the prime ministers of the Visegrád countries. Robert Fico’s interpretation of the referendum result is almost identical to that of Orbán: “Great numbers of EU citizens reject the migrant policy,” which should obviously be changed. Jarosław Kaczyński went further. He would like to see an entirely new EU constitution which would include “reforms,” after which the EU “could make an offer” to Great Britain. What would these “reforms” include? Among other things, a new definition of the relationship between the EU and the member states, naturally in favor of the nation states. I’m certain that for the Euroskeptic Visegrád countries Kaczyński’s scheme would be a bonanza. Loosen European integration and keep a strong ally, the also Euroskeptic Great Britain, in the fold. This is a totally unacceptable response to the Brexit vote.

Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó regurgitated Viktor Orbán’s wise words about a strong Europe, adding that “the time of honest politics has arrived in Europe” because the EU has for some time been following hypocritical and politically correct policies that have led to wrong answers to the migrant crisis. Lajos Kósa, representing Fidesz as a party, claimed that the majority of the Brits voted to exit from the Union because Brussels couldn’t defend them from the migrants. “It is an impossible situation that the socialist-liberal elite is pro-immigration while the decisive majority of European citizens is not.” Kósa added that “we can agree with the man who came up with the bon mot that Europe for the sake of a few million migrants lost 64 million citizens and the second strongest economy.”

Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság usually uses her contacts with Fidesz politicians to get a sense of their attitudes on particular issues. According to her, the consensus in the party is that with Brexit Orbán lost an important ally. But in the future Orbán’s voice will become more audible in the EU. Her informants also believe that with the departure of anti-Russian Great Britain Orbán will have an easier time convincing the EU to put an end to the anti-Russian sanctions. The couple of Fidesz EP representatives she interviewed emphasized the importance of the unity of the Visegrád 4 countries, which should be used as a counterweight to French-German dominance. One of the EP representatives, György Schöpflin, is convinced that the European left wants to punish the exiting Brits. He had to admit, however, that it is not only the left that wants immediate negotiations but also the Christian-conservative parties in the European People’s Party (EPP). If that is the case, the Fidesz members of EPP have little choice but to go with the flow.

The leaders of the opposition parties naturally see the situation differently. Csaba Molnár, DK EP member, accused the British conservatives of a 20-year-long anti-EU campaign, which resulted in the disastrous outcome of the referendum. Viktor Orbán has been doing the same thing for years, and if he doesn’t stop eventually Hungary too will leave the EU. He therefore implored Orbán to call off the referendum.  Viktor Szigetvári of Együtt also asked Orbán “to stop his mendacious anti-EU campaign and his anti-European provocations.”

István Szent-Iványi, the foreign policy expert of the Magyar Liberális Párt, looks upon the outcome of the referendum as the result of “the British government party’s two-faced, ambiguous policies regarding the European Union.” The same attitude is present in Hungary and, given the lesson of the British decision, he called on the Hungarian government to make its relationship to Europe unambiguous, to stop its campaign against Brussels, and to cancel the referendum on compulsory quotas. At present, neither Hungary nor Europe needs this referendum, which is no longer about refugees but about Hungary’s relations with Europe.

Tibor Szanyi, an MSZP EP member, called David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum irresponsible and selfish since he placed his own political survival ahead of the future of his country. But perhaps Cameron’s political sins will have a beneficial effect on Orbán. One possible outcome of the British decision might be that European politicians will have had enough of the selfish, nationalist members’ behavior and  will continue European integration without them. At the moment, Hungary still has a chance to be part of this work, but only if Orbán drastically changes course. He added that Brexit will have the most negative effect on the Central and East European countries because the leading demand of those who campaigned for Great Britain’s exit was that citizens of the European Union should not take work away from British citizens.

Given the official Fidesz interpretation of the British referendum, the great majority of the Hungarian people, as is often the case, will be misinformed and misled. I suspect that Orbán will go on campaigning against the EU and will hold the referendum. Otherwise, it is hard to predict how serious a handicap the absence of British support for the Visegrád 4 will be in the coming months. I suspect that from here on Orbán will have a more difficult time in Brussels.

June 24, 2016

Hungarian politicians support their friends abroad

It seems that members of the Hungarian government don’t have enough to do at home. They feel compelled to get involved in controversies outside of the country. Today I’ll look at two such controversies, one involving a Spanish archbishop, the other the all-important British referendum on EU membership.

Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera, the archbishop of Valencia, is not exactly a household name, but in Catholic circles he is well known as an arch-conservative who is described by Spain’s leading newspaper, El Pais, asa guardian of orthodoxy with an incendiary personality.” Earlier Cañizares was a typical Vatican bureaucrat and a favorite of Benedict XVI, who in 2008 named him head of the Congregation for Divine Worship. But with the pope’s resignation in 2013 his service in the Vatican came to an end. Pope Francis most likely found Cañizares far too conservative. After retiring from his Vatican job, he had to be satisfied with the archbishopric of Valencia, which is considered to be one of the lesser sees in Spain.

Cañizares often gets into trouble. For instance, in October 2015 he talked about the “invasion of immigrants” and wondered what immigration will do to Spain “in a few years.” Like so many other conspiracy theorists, he wanted to know “who is behind all this.” Earlier, in 2009, he claimed that abortion was worse than child abuse. Most recently, the archbishop lashed out at the LGBT community, feminism and gender ideology. In early June, in a homily titled “In defense and support of the family,” Cañizares said that the family, which is the most valued social institution, “is shaken to its foundations by serious, clear or subtle, threats.” In his opinion, Spanish legislation only aids attacks on the family, which is being threatened by “movements and actions of the gay empire, of ideas such as radical feminism, or the most insidious of all, gender theory.” Soon enough, pro-LGBT and feminist organizations in Spain announced that they intended to charge Cañizares with apologia, a term in Spanish law that means encouraging or defending a criminal act. On June 19 The Catholic Herald reported that Spanish feminist groups had called for the government to prosecute Cardinal Cañizares “for inciting discrimination and hatred.”

Cañizares’s remarks and what followed were reported outside of Spain mostly in Catholic publications, but the eagle-eyed Hungarian Christian Democratic youth organization (Ifjú Kereszténydemokraták or IKSZ) found the story. The president of the organization, who looks close to forty years old, issued an official public statement condemning all those “radical liberals” who objected to Cañizares’s description of the LGBT community as a “gay empire.” Young Hungarian Christian Democrats share the opinion of the cardinal and find it outrageous that “even the justice system assists ‘opinion terror’ of members of a tiny minority that call themselves human rights activists.”

In the opinion of KDNP, “the activities of the radical gay and feminist groups are harmful because they want to limit the freedom of expression and incite hatred.” Zsolt Semjén, chairman, and Miklós Soltész, vice chairman of the party, will extend an invitation to Cardinal Cañizares to visit Hungary sometime in the fall.

As usual, the Christian Democrats overreached. They have an urge to openly support the most orthodox ideas expressed within the Catholic Church. Commentators endorsing Cañizares’s position view this case as “an important, perhaps conclusive, litmus test. Will Pope Francis stand with Cardinal Cañizares?” No word has come so far from the Vatican, as the author sadly announced a couple of days ago. On the other hand, a Hungarian group that calls itself the CitizenGO team is collecting signatures online in defense of the beleaguered cardinal.

While the Christian Democrats are supporting the Spanish cardinal, Viktor Orbán is supporting his friend David Cameron. That “one of Europe’s most Eurosceptic leaders” urged Britons to vote to remain in the European Union was startling enough to warrant coverage by Reuters. The move is especially surprising since it was only a few days ago that János Lázár categorically stated that the Hungarian government will in no way commit itself one way or the other. Whatever the decision is, the Hungarian government will respect it. He added that any negative effect of a Brexit on the Hungarian economy and currency would not require the introduction of any short-term measures. At this point Zoltán Kovács, the government spokesman, interjected, assuring the audience that the country’s budgetary reserves can take care of all possible contingencies.

Brexit ad

So, great was the surprise when two and a half days later Kovács himself confirmed the news that the Hungarian government would place a full-page ad in the conservative Daily Mail today. In fact, the ad was originally supposed to appear in the Saturday edition, but because of Jo Cox’s murder it was postponed. Kovács’s explanation for the unusual campaign tactic was that a strong Europe can be built only with the cooperation of larger states. He recalled that Hungary was often accused of anti-European sentiment, but “its current pan-European attitude aptly demonstrates how resolutely and firmly [the Hungarian government] believes in the importance of the European Union’s achievements.”

The Hungarian media’s reaction to the contradictory messages was one of puzzlement. As one headline said: “It can only happen here that we don’t know whether we support England’s exit from the European Union or not.” Journalists approached the office of the prime minister for an explanation of the contradiction between Lázár’s announcement of neutrality and Orbán’s ad with his signature attached. The answer was that Orbán, by publishing the ad, is not trying to influence British public opinion. He only expresses “his point of view that we Hungarians are glad we are in an alliance of which the Brits are members. On the one hand, this is an honor because we are talking about a great nation, and on the other, we are also stronger if the Brits stay in the European Union. This is exactly what the ad emphasizes. The decision belongs to the Brits, but we let them know that Hungary is proud to be a member of the European Union alongside of them.”

Meanwhile it is quite clear that the right-wing of Fidesz and Jobbik are keeping fingers crossed for Great Britain to leave the Union. Pesti Srácok with ill-concealed glee announced today that those in favor of Brexit now have a slight lead. The article tries to calm Hungarian nerves by emphasizing that Great Britain’s exit wouldn’t have any serious consequences for Hungary and that those approximately 200,000 Hungarians living in Great Britain have nothing to fear because “those already living there arrived in the country legally.” The question is whether they would want to remain in the United Kingdom, because after Brexit “Great Britain would no longer be the same country they chose at the time of their arrival.” Alfahír, Jobbik’s official internet paper, sympathized with Nigel Farage, who “doesn’t back down.” The article published long quotations from Farage and some of those around him. It pointed to the “almost hysterical atmosphere created by the British media and the pro-EU political elite after Jo Cox’s death.” It doesn’t matter what Gábor Vona says about the party’s changed attitude toward the European Union, Jobbik would still gladly leave the Union and is therefore keeping fingers crossed for the pro-Brexit forces to win the referendum.

So, here we have two cases in which Hungarian reactions are questionable. Hungarian bishops often and in even more forceful terms than Cardinal Cañizares have gone against the wishes of Pope Francis on the refugee issue. Now the Christian Democratic Party, which considers itself the political arm of the Hungarian Catholic Church, has so much affinity with the arch-conservative Spanish archbishop that it feels compelled to extend an invitation to him to visit Hungary. At the same time Viktor Orbán has the temerity to get involved in a dispute that concerns only the citizens of Great Britain. I wonder what he would say if the European Union placed a full-page ad in a Hungarian newspaper urging people to vote against the anti-immigrant referendum he insists on holding. Perhaps one of the European prime ministers should try it. It would be fun.

June 20, 2016

Viktor Orbán at the EU summit

Anyone who listened only to the Hungarian state television and radio—and unfortunately a lot of people do—would think that Viktor Orbán is the center of attention at all the negotiations that take place in Brussels. He tries to give the impression that he arrives at these meetings with a definite agenda that is radically different from all others. And by the end, as a result of hard bargaining, he conquers all. The Hungarian point of view is accepted by everyone due to the diplomatic skills and the eminently sensible suggestions and demands of Hungary’s prime minister. When one looks at the reports on these meetings by leading western papers, however, it turns out time and again that Orbán’s name doesn’t appear anywhere. Nor is the Hungarian position, which he claimed was embraced by the other EU leaders, mentioned.

Once again, with the summit on Thursday and Friday, neither Orbán nor Hungary’s position got any coverage. Although before the summit many articles appeared about Orbán as the most adamant opponent of Angela Merkel’s immigration policies and the man who was behind the more or less common policy of the Visegrád 4 countries, his absence from the pages of western papers reporting on the summit itself is glaring. Another Visegrád 4 prime minister who went unnoticed was Robert Fico of Slovakia. Beata Szydło’s discussion with David Cameron was noted by several papers. It turned out that it was not Viktor Orbán, the architect of the Visegrád 4 policy on immigration, who represented the group. Rather, Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka negotiated on behalf of the Visegrád bloc with David Cameron.

What we normally hear from the Hungarian prime minister about these summits is a tall tale à la János Háry. Only the giant sneeze is missing. Orbán usually prepares the ground by stating some alleged demands of the European Union that Hungary will resist at all cost. David Cameron, for example, never tried to put an end to the free movement of  tourists, visits to family members, or working in another member country, as Orbán claimed before the summit. Refusing to accept nonexistent demands ensures easy victory.

When it comes to Hungarians working in Great Britain, I suspect that Orbán purposefully muddied the water because it is hard to reconcile two of his statements on the subject. He said first that Hungary’s goals “include ensuring that Hungarians working in the United Kingdom are not discriminated against” and, a few minutes later, “it seems possible to realize demands that no new regulations will be introduced retroactively.” So, there will be discriminatory legislative action but it will not be applied retroactively. Considering that the U.K. is not Hungary where retroactive legislation has become commonplace of late, this last demand was empty. Another easy victory.

Orbán’s explanation of his participation in the summit again got rather confused when he tried to reconcile his position (“we have defended the most important European principle that no citizen of the Union can be discriminated against”) with the outcome that Great Britain can limit social benefits to citizens of other countries for four or seven years if necessity arises.

Another Hungarian success, according to Orbán, was that the prime ministers of the member countries clearly stated that “the masses of migrants must be stopped and that the Schengen rules must be obeyed by everyone. This is the first time that the European Union accepted the Hungarian solution.” Another blustering statement about the alleged importance of the Hungarian position.

Despite this boastful self-aggrandizement one has the distinct feeling that Orbán knows that hard times lie ahead for him. For example, he cleverly prepared the ground for a possible retreat on the topic of quotas. He announced that “the situation is getting worse in the West. Still, many countries insist that the migrants must be allowed to settle on the territory of the Union and they must be divided de jure among the member states. The voice of these representatives was very strong at the summit.” This explains to the faithful that despite all the Hungarian propaganda the western countries have not followed the Hungarian Plan B to build fences along national borders. There is still pressure on the Visegrád 4 to cooperate in trying to find a common solution.

In addition to that defeat for Orbán’s vision, French president François Hollande, in connection with the Polish and Hungarian governments, reminded his listeners in a radio interview that the European Union “has legal tools, through articles in treaties, to prevent a country from violating democratic principles. … When the freedom of the media is in danger, when constitutions and human rights are under attack, Europe must not just be a safety net. It must put in place procedures to suspend [countries]–it can go that far.”

The first report from Brussels to reach Budapest was that of Népszabadság, which called the results of the summit “a total failure from Orbán’s point of view.” Especially since Orbán and his Visegrád friends hoped that the discriminatory pieces of legislation against foreign workers would be limited to the United Kingdom, but now it looks as if the Germans, the Austrians, and the Danes would also like to introduce the same system in their countries.

The opposition parties naturally shared Népszabadság’s assessment of the results. First, István Ujhelyi, MSZP MEP, released a statement, according to which Orbán “has clearly lost this battle.” He suspects that “the European community with these humiliating decisions wants to punish the illiberal policies of Orbán and his followers.” He also reported that Orbán in his press conference claimed that there are only 200-300 Hungarian families who live in Great Britain and therefore the decisions don’t impact Hungarians very much. Of course, this is a lie. According to official statistics, in 2011 1,225 Hungarian children were born just in England and Wales.

Viktor Orbán leaving the summit. He doesn't look very happy. Photo: Eric Vidal / Reuters

Viktor Orbán leaving the summit. He doesn’t look very happy.
Photo: Eric Vidal / Reuters

Csaba Molnár, DK MEP, attacked Orbán for his signature on the final document, which included the provision to divide the immigrants among the member states, while Fidesz is currently collecting signatures to support the party and the government in its effort to keep all migrants out of the country. The slogan is: “Not one migrant in this country.” Orbán became “a political celeb who is successful only on posters but is unable to defend his own point of view in Brussels and thus cannot defend the country.” Jobbik’s spokesman, Dániel Z. Kárpát, accused Orbán of double talk when it comes to the quotas. While at home he uses combative rhetoric and collects signatures, abroad he doesn’t stand by his convictions. Orbán’s signing the final document is “an act of astonishing treason” which will allow 1,300 refugees to settle in Hungary.

Fidesz didn’t wait long with its answer: it is “the party of Gyurcsány and Jobbik who have betrayed the interests of the Hungarian people. They are the ones who serve foreign interests; they are the ones who didn’t support the erection of the fence, the tightening of the rules of immigration law.” Of course, as usual this quick Fidesz response is no answer to the problem at hand.

That Viktor Orbán signed the final document, which says that all member states must take their share of the burden caused by the influx of refugees, was difficult for the Hungarian government to explain, given the incredible government propaganda against the settlement of any refugees in Hungary. Zoltán Kovács, the spokesman for the prime minister’s office, was immediately dispatched to explain the situation. According to him, those who criticize Viktor Orbán for signing the document don’t understand how the European Union works. It is true that Orbán signed the document which includes the provision to disperse 40,000 Middle Eastern and North African refugees who are currently in Greece and Italy. But countries at that point were merely asked to voluntarily offer quotas. Neither Slovakia nor Hungary ever agreed to allow any migrants to settle in their countries. Hungary’s position today is the same as it was last summer. Nothing has changed as a result of Orbán’s signing the final document. I guess we will hear more about what his signature on the document actually means, what kinds of obligations, if any, Hungary will incur as a result of this act.

February 20, 2016

Viktor Orbán, the politician of European stature, fails as a negotiator

After mulling over the available reports on David Cameron’s short stopover in Budapest, I have come to the conclusion that Viktor Orbán, who is believed to be a maverick politician of mythical powers, failed miserably in his negotiations with the British prime minister. He promised to support three of the four demands Cameron formulated back in November 2015 vis-à-vis the European Union. And Cameron moved not an inch on the most difficult issue of restricting access to welfare payments for migrant workers, mostly from Eastern Europe. If Jarosław Kaczyński hoped to find a good spokesman for the cause of the Visegrád4, he was sadly mistaken. While both men emphasized the need for a strong European Union, in fact both of them have been doing their best to weaken it.

Here are the demands of the British government.

The first demand seeks a special status for Great Britain and others to be free of any obligation to accept the euro as a common currency. In addition, Britain demands that countries outside of the Eurozone should have veto power in the affairs of the Eurozone countries.

The second demand is more reasonable: less bureaucracy and fewer rules and regulations.

The third demand, in my opinion, would be the death knell of the European Union if accepted. It is bad enough that Great Britain doesn’t want to be tied by the EU constitution, which calls on member states to support an ever-closer integration of the Union. It also wants a new provision to be inserted that would allow parliaments of the member states to invalidate any EU law that doesn’t meet the approval of a certain percentage of MPs. For the time being, the details of this demand are not known. The guiding principle would be “a national solution if possible” and a European solution only when necessary.

The fourth demand is the only one that Viktor Orbán found objectionable. Cameron wants to restrict access to benefits for EU migrants both in and out of work. The British government wants to stop those who go to Great Britain from claiming certain benefits until they have been a resident for four years. Moreover, it seems that until now a migrant father or mother could get child support even if the children remained behind. That no longer would be possible. In addition, spouses who are not EU citizens couldn’t enter the country. Despite all the smiles at the press conference, it looks as if Orbán didn’t manage to convince Cameron that the hard-working Hungarians are not economic migrants in Britain.

At a time when united action should be the primary concern of the European Union, attacks on it are coming from three directions. The first is not the doing of the member states: the largely unexpected influx of refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, some by way of camps in Turkey. But the other two attacks come from the inside–from Great Britain and the Orbán-led Visegrád countries. While Viktor Orbán criticizes the European Union for its inability to show a common resolve, he has been doing nothing else for the last year but weakening the little central authority the EU has. At the same time both he and Cameron claim that they want a strong Europe.

The official government communiqué stressed Hungary’s willingness “to fully support” Cameron’s first three demands. The two men have “complete intellectual and strategic agreement” on these points. Orbán greeted “the rethinking of the role of the national parliaments” and welcomed the idea of “equality with the members of the Eurozone.”

David Cameron and Viktor Orbán at the press conference in Budapest

David Cameron and Viktor Orbán at the press conference in Budapest

When it came to the fourth demand he protested meekly. He mostly objected to the word “migrant,” emphasizing the importance of choosing our words. Indeed, he is the one who is a master of linguistic manipulation. His political advisers came up with the word “migráns,” a foreign word not normally used in Hungarian and now applied exclusively to the Middle Eastern refugees. The word by now has acquired a negative connotation in Hungary due to the hard-hitting government propaganda against the migrants. And here is the British prime minister who talks about Hungarians as migrants. Naturally, as far as Orbán is concerned, they are not migrants because they are EU citizens who have the right to settle and work in another member state. But the word “migrant” in English normally means a person who leaves one country to settle either permanently or temporarily in another.

Orbán didn’t really criticize the British plan to restrict benefits for EU migrants. Rather, he appealed to Cameron by emphasizing the hard-working Hungarians who greatly contribute to the British economy and who take very little in social services. He talked about 50,000 Hungarian citizens in Britain, although that sounds like a very low number to me. At the same time he indicated that the real victims of such a move would be the Poles since about 800,000 of them live and work in Great Britain at the moment. I wonder whether this means that Orbán will leave the hard work of fighting the British plan to the Szydło government. In any case, he indicated that negotiations will continue between Great Britain and the Visegrád4 countries.

The parties of the democratic opposition all criticized Orbán for not defending the interests of Hungarians living in Great Britain. Gábor Fodor’s Magyar Liberális Párt accused Orbán of having a double standard when he portrays the migrants from the Middle East as criminals while he demands special treatment for Hungarian migrants living in Great Britain. According to Együtt (Together), Orbán abandoned his own voters. Attila Mesterházy, who spoke for MSZP, accused Orbán of assisting the British prime minister, who is trying to solve his own domestic problems. In his opinion, Cameron makes no distinction between EU citizens, immigrants, and refugees, and therefore all attempts to force him to think otherwise are useless. MSZP expected a stronger stand in defense of Hungarians in the United Kingdom. LMP demanded policies from the government that would bring those Hungarians who live abroad back home. Of course, DK followed suit, but Péter Niedermüller went even further. He accused Orbán of supporting Cameron’s demands although they may lead to the weakening of Hungary’s position within the European Union. Another DK politician, Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy, even made an appeal to David Cameron on Facebook:

David Cameron is a true democrat and a wise politician. He believes in liberal democracy and free market economy and refuses an ever more integrated EU. Mr. Cameron looks for allies on these grounds. And his greatest challenge is that most of his anti-EU allies are xenophobes and extreme populists. Will statesman Cameron be ready to tame or handle the Orbáns and Kaczyńskis of our continent? These are politicians who believe in a state-controlled economy, anti-capitalism and who keep making gestures to right-wing extremists in order to build up their exclusive power. Can a British conservative agenda be legitimate, credible and efficient if it seeks support from representatives of obsolete, pre-WWII ideologies? Can a distinguished leader of one of the oldest democracies in the world afford to embrace politicians and parties that aim at destroying Churchill’s dreams?

Kaczyński, Orbán and the likes have millions of supporters as this type of politics always have and will. But, fortunately, friends of a transparent and liberal democracy are still in the majority in Europe. The notions of human dignity, civil liberties and non-corrupt state of affairs are the real grounds for cooperation; considerations of the future of the European Union only come second. I believe we can work out our differences on the EU because democrats are always ready and able to find compromises even after heated discussions. But compromise can and must not be made with those, e.g. Messrs. Orbán and Kaczyński, whose entire goal is to undermine our basic Western values. That is a warning Mr. Cameron may want to keep in mind when talking to Viktor Orbán today.

I fear David Cameron has no intention of heeding Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy’s advice.

Viktor Orbán’s meeting with Jarosław Kaczyński

Yesterday afternoon vs.hu learned from several sources that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán will travel to Poland at the invitation of PiS, the country’s governing party. In terms of protocol it will be a private visit. At this point the word was that he will meet several “very important politicians.” From the scant information that has reached us since, however, it looks as if Orbán met only Jarosław Kaczyński, the party chairman. The meeting took place in Niedzica at the Polish-Slovak border, a town that belonged to Hungary prior to 1918. The meeting was long–six hours, including a lunch of the famous Polish delicacy zurek soup and trout.

Unfortunately, we know practically nothing about what transpired between the two men. The Polish opposition media’s guess is that Orbán was giving Kaczyński tips on how to make the constitutional court and the media serve the government’s interest. I, however, doubt that much time was spent on Polish domestic affairs since there are far too many international issues that demand the attention of the Polish and the Hungarian leadership.

Jarosław Kaczynski and Viktor Orbán in 2010

Jarosław Kaczyski and Viktor Orbán in 201

First and foremost, the two probably formulated a common policy response to David Cameron’s “new curbs on welfare payments for migrant workers.” Cameron is currently on the campaign trail to win support for his plan to limit in-work benefits for migrants. In his quest he seems to have the support of Germany, whose interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, thinks that Cameron’s “suggestions are not a matter of regulating migration but a matter of regulating welfare legislation.” Poland and Hungary, however, have an entirely different view of the matter. First of all, Hungarian officials greatly object to the word “migrant” in connection with their own nationals, who should be called either EU citizens or guest workers. “To consider Hungarians in Britain as migrants is painful to our ears,” Orbán complained in Brussels on December 18, 2015. I suspect that these two East European countries will eventually have to swallow Cameron’s bitter pill.

In addition to hammering out a common policy regarding Polish and Hungarian immigrants in Great Britain, which Viktor Orbán can relate to David Cameron, who will arrive in Budapest for a short visit tomorrow, there might have been a second item: Hungary’s relations with Putin’s Russia. You may recall my post of February 19, 2015 titled “Polak, węgier—dwa bratanki / lengyel, magyar–két jó barát—not at the moment” in which I described how Hungarian diplomats tried to convince Kaczyński to meet Orbán, who visited Poland shortly after Putin’s visit to Budapest, but the chairman of PiS refused. The answer was that such a meeting was out of the question after Hungary’s flirtation with Russia, Poland’s archenemy. Kaczyński, who hasn’t met Orbán since, most likely wanted to clear the air and to hear directly from Orbán himself about his relationship with Putin.

The third topic may well have been Poland’s unexpected decision to honor the promise of the former government and take 4,500 refugees as part of the quota system. That decision seriously weakens the position of the other three Visegrád4 countries. Viktor Orbán looks upon the joint action of these four countries, standing together against Brussels, as one of his major achievements of late. Surely, he was counting on the new PiS government to abrogate the former government’s offer, especially since in November Beata Szydło, Poland’s new prime minister, made it clear that her government was not prepared to accept the quota system because of the changed circumstances that followed the Paris terrorist attacks. Well, it seems that the situation changed again. Yesterday it was announced that, after all, Poland will take the promised number of refugees. Mind you, only during the next two years and allowing only 150 of them at a time at certain intervals. However cautiously, Poland abandoned Viktor Orbán’s rigid stance on the issue of quotas. The change of heart most likely follows the harsh criticism coming from Brussels on the arch-conservative PiS government’s moves concerning the Constitutional Court and the media.

What moves of the Polish government do EU politicians find unacceptable? I’m relying here on the assessment of Dalibor Rohac of the American Enterprise Institute, not exactly a liberal stronghold in the United States. According to Rohac, “the law changes the status of Poland’s public broadcasters to ‘national cultural institutions’—like the National  Museum or the National Ballet—placing them under direct control of the government.” As for the Constitutional Court, shortly before the October election the Sejm elected five new constitutional court judges, but after the election PiS and President Andrzej Duda sought to reverse these appointments, notwithstanding a ruling by the Constitutional Court that confirmed that the election of the new judges was valid. Both the European Commission and the European Parliament reacted, calling these moves a clear violation of the EU constitution.

Vice-President Frans Timmermans sent two letters to the Polish government asking for clarification of the bill. At the same time Günther Oettinger, EU commissioner for digital economy, told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung that “many reasons exist for us to activate the ‘Rule of Law mechanism’ and to place Warsaw under monitoring.” Although Witold Waszczykowski, the new foreign minister, immediately summoned EU ambassadors to demand an explanation, perhaps cooler heads prevailed and the decision was made to retreat, at least partially.

Waszczykowsk’s introduction to the German media hasn’t been exactly a success. In an interview with Bild he accused the former right-of-center Polish government of following a Marxist model, which is “a new mix of cultures and races, introducing a world of cyclists and vegetarians who focus only on renewable energies and fight against any form of religion. This has nothing to do with traditional Polish values, which are awareness of history, patriotism, faith in God, and a normal family life between husband and wife.”

I should add that only yesterday Waszczykowski announced an entirely new Polish foreign policy, which sounds as if it will be built on confrontation with Brussels. “Our foreign policy cannot be part of the mainstream, we cannot simply abide by Brussels’ decisions,” he announced on Polish public radio. Polish foreign policy seems to be in flux. As long as Waszczykowski’s ideas prevail, one cannot be sure that Poland will be a cooperating member state of the European Union.

Commentators are trying to find an explanation for the drastically different reaction of the European Commission and Parliament to the Polish government’s attempts to imitate Orbán’s illiberal state. How fast the EU reacted in the Polish case and how sluggish it was when Orbán was dismantling Hungarian democracy bit by bit. Professor Kim Scheppele pointed out a fundamental difference between the two cases just yesterday. The two-thirds parliamentary majority enabled Fidesz to change the constitution, so it never violated its own fundamental law. Therefore “the EU was totally at a loss in figuring out how to handle a perfectly legal coup,” she told The Financial Times. The Polish case is different. The PiS government, not having a two-thirds majority, cannot attain the kind of absolute power Orbán managed to acquire. The combination of constitutional limitations as well as internal and external pressures will most likely have a restraining effect on the Szydło-Kaczyński government.

Orbán in Great Britain: Spreading the gospel

By now, I’m sure, you are fully aware of my disdain for politicians whose speeches display a woeful lack of knowledge. Viktor Orbán certainly had ample opportunity to be properly educated, but he was more interested in football than in learning. He himself admitted that in high school he wasn’t good enough in either the arts or the sciences to get admitted to university. So he decided to go to law school. In law school, according to his college friend Gábor Fodor, Orbán’s passions were football and politics.

Unfortunately, his lack of a broad liberal education is painfully obvious. He picks up bits and pieces of information from assorted sources but doesn’t know how to integrate them into a coherent whole. Moreover, he uncritically accepts questionable theories and spurious facts that support his views on, say, religion, economics, or history.

One could go and on about the embarrassing mistakes he made in the past, but here I would like to concentrate on his latest speech at Chatham House in London. The speech itself was surprisingly brief because he wanted to have time for a debate of his ideas afterward. But even this short speech was crawling with factual errors and conceptual confusion.

A day before the trip Adam LeBor, a British journalist living in Budapest, wrote an amusing piece in The Economist. It was “a confidential briefing note from Mr Cameron’s staff to prepare him for Mr Orbán’s visit … as imagined by our correspondent.”

Orbán offered up his own briefing note as he tried to describe his worldview to the audience at Chatham House, also known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs. I can only imagine what the learned foreign policy experts thought of Viktor Orbán’s “theses.”

Orbán likes to call Hungarian a “unique language,” even though this is essentially a meaningless expression; every language is unique in its own way. Orbán, however, in this speech glided easily from linguistic uniqueness to Hungarian “exceptionalism” (in all fairness, a word that he did not use). He illustrated his point by claiming that Hungarians are great inventors. Hungarians invented the espresso machine, the ball point pen, and the computer. I suspect that there were not too many people in his audience who rushed home to check on the accuracy of these claims. Or at least I hope not too many did because in no time they would have discovered that neither the espresso machine nor the computer are Hungarian inventions. The modern espresso machine is the result of more than 100 years of improvements of the original 1888 patent by Angelo Morondo. It is true that among the many who improved it there was a certain Francesco Illy who was originally from Temesvár but who left Hungary after World War I and settled in Trieste.

As for the computer, once again many inventors contributed to its development. János von Neumann and others wrote (and he edited) the First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC in 1945; the IAS machine later built at Princeton was based on the computer architecture described in this report. But it’s a major stretch to say that von Neumann invented the computer. Orbán was right about the ballpoint pen. It was the invention of László Biró who with his brother escaped from Hungary in 1943 and settled in Argentina.

Orbán’s view of the world, which he outlined to his audience, is not worth repeating. We know it only too well. Europe is in decline, the Europeans are lost and have no answers to their economic ills, close integration in Europe is inadvisable, nations are important, the death of the welfare state is near, and European leaders lack leadership and vision.

He did, however, elaborate on what he called the “red and green attack against traditional values: against the church, against family, against the nation. ” Moreover, he wanted his audience to believe that “democracy in Europe is democracy based on Christianity. The anthropological root of our political institutions is imago Dei, which requires an absolute respect of the human being.”

Democracy Index 2013. Hungary is labelled as flawed democracy

Democracy Index 2013. Hungary is labelled as a flawed democracy

Naturally, Orbán never learned any Latin, but lately he has been dropping Latin expressions right and left. Especially when it comes to church affairs. Just the other day he portrayed Hungary as a “church-building country” and dropped a few Latin words, Soli Deo gloria, for good measure. Perhaps he wants to sound learned, perhaps he wants to identify with Catholicism. In any event, in English we talk about “the image of God” and not “imago Dei.” Wrong words in the wrong country with the wrong church. Moreover, just as Endre Aczél rightly pointed out, Orbán delivered this message in a country which is perhaps the least concerned in Europe with religious matters and where only 4.4% of the population attend church at all.

As for democracy in Europe being based on Christianity, that’s total nonsense. We all know about the ancient Athenian roots of democracy when it was led by Cleisthenes in the fifth century BCE. The earliest Christians, Greek educated, knew about Athenian democracy, but early Christian teaching was not influenced by these ideas. The origins of modern democracy go back to Great Britain’s parliamentary system; from there it spread to the North American continent where a strict division between church and state was introduced. Perhaps (if I were to be charitable) Orbán was thinking of the Christian socialist movement sometimes called Christian democracy, but I doubt it. I think he’s simply hung up on this “church, family, nation” idea and tries to construct a history to support his image of a nonexistent world.