Tag Archives: Helmut Kohl

Viktor Orbán, the “great supporter” of European common action

A couple of days ago we pondered the true meaning of the Kohl-Orbán joint communiqué, which emphasized a coordinated European response to the refugee crisis. What could have transpired during the hour Viktor Orbán spent with the ailing Helmut Kohl? What did the former chancellor tell the Hungarian prime minister to entice him to sign a document that emphasizes common action in the face of one of the greatest challenges the European Union has confronted in its existence? We now have the answer.

Today Viktor Orbán gave his customary, carefully choreographed Friday morning interview on Kossuth Rádió. About three-quarters of the conversation was devoted to Orbán’s views on the migration issue. His message was unequivocal. It matters not what he signed after his meeting with Kohl, he hasn’t budged an inch. He totally rejects a common European solution to the refugee problem–unless, of course, the rest of Europe accepts his solution. One could ask why he signed a document that goes against his deeply held beliefs. Because such a gesture at the moment was to his political advantage. For him it was only a scrap of paper without legal consequences.

Today’s interview began with a “little white lie.” Orbán claimed that “every time I visit the southern regions of Germany I visit Chancellor Kohl.” Sure thing, he just calls the Kohl residence announcing that he is somewhere nearby and the next thing we know he is sitting in Kohl’s living room.

He continued the interview by systematically misrepresenting the current German position on the refugee question. He claimed that although it is true that in the past there was “a significant difference between Germany and Hungary on the handling of the migrant crisis,” by now “the Germans have changed their position.” They recognized that Viktor Orbán was right all along, although “Europe doesn’t want to admit that.”

Viktor Orbán in the studio / MTI

Viktor Orbán in the studio / MTI

It was inevitable that the issue of compulsory quotas would surface in this particular Friday session. After all, the Orbán government is already hard at work preparing the ground for a referendum on the question of quotas. The Hungarian people are supposed to refuse, through a democratic process, to allow any refugees to be settled in Hungary. Orbán is adamant on the issue. His view is that if Angela Merkel “made a decision to accept migrants without any control, then she should take full responsibility for that decision.” Since other member countries, including Hungary, were not consulted, they are not obliged to take responsibility for the consequences of this action.

The reporter, who is of course carefully trained and never asks embarrassing questions, did venture to inquire whether Orbán doesn’t see a contradiction between the Kohl-Orbán communiqué’s reference to common action and Orbán’s emphasis on national sovereignty. The answer is worth translating verbatim.

No, because stronger cooperation means Schengen. My suggestion is that if a country is a member of the Schengen system and therefore enjoys its benefits, which means that its citizens can move freely within the borders, it must also accept the concomitant commitments, which include the defense of the Schengen borders. If a country refuses this obligation, the European Union should take away this country’s right to defend the borders. Well, actually, since we are talking about sovereign states, one cannot force them, but the EU should ask them to hand over the right of defense. If that country refuses to oblige, it should be expelled or its membership in the Schengen zone should be suspended.

I find it interesting that Orbán’s first thought was to use force against a truant state and that it was only a second later that he caught himself offering a solution that disregards the sanctity of sovereignty he so fiercely defends.

Relatively little time was spent on his Schengen 2.0 action plan, but the little there was is interesting. He gave the impression of such staunch German support for his plans that the interviewer summarized her understanding, saying that “there is then strong German support for your ten points.” Well, at that point Orbán had correct her and admit that “not quite, because Brussels in the meantime published its own proposals … [which are] absurd.” According to this “ridiculous idea,” Europe’s demographic situation is so grave that only immigration can solve the problem. This is a totally unacceptable idea according to Orbán, who finds it “unchristian and objectionable from the national point of view.”

The government has already prepared the ground for a forceful campaign for the totally superfluous referendum against compulsory refugee quotas. They dug up an old study the Gyurcsány government commissioned back in 2007 on the demographic problems facing Hungary. Magyar Idők, the government paper, dutifully printed a long article about the evil intentions of the socialist-liberal government. Even the headline is telling: “The left has been waiting for the migrants for the last ten years.”

Magyar Idők’s summary of the document shows it to be a well-reasoned analysis. The study maintains that, with globalization, migration is inevitable and Hungarians, especially highly qualified professionals such as doctors, will leave the country to accept better paid positions elsewhere. This exodus might be lessened by certain government policies, but selective immigration will undoubtedly be necessary to maintain the healthy demographic balance essential for a thriving economy. Natural reproduction cannot solve the demographic problems of the country, and therefore a selective immigration policy should be implemented. It is possible that by 2050 10% of the population might be of foreign origin, the study predicted.

Orbán is now using this study commissioned by the socialist-liberal government as a weapon against the opposition. The highly xenophobic population now can blame not only Brussels for its egregious refugee policies but also the Hungarian socialist and liberal politicians who wanted and most likely still want to flood the country with foreigners. “We must prevent this at all costs. We must stop not only Brussels but also the Hungarian allies of Brussels. We must stop the left because by now anybody can read what kinds of plans they were entertaining.”

This from the mouth of Viktor Orbán, who told us only a couple of days ago that he wants to have a common European solution to the refugee question.

April 22, 2016

The Helmut Kohl – Viktor Orbán meeting

I think the best description of the joint statement of Helmut Kohl and Viktor Orbán after their meeting at Kohl’s residence in Ludwigshafen is “baffling.” In Hungary at least, neither the right nor the left can decide what to make of it. The pro-government papers use the very first sentence of the communiqué “Europe cannot be the new home of suffering millions” as their headline while Népszabadság found another sentence from the text more to its liking: Kohl and Orbán “are in complete agreement with Chancellor Angela Merkel as far as her goals are concerned.” On balance, Viktor Orbán signed a document that goes against everything he previously stood for.

Until now, humanitarian considerations did not enter Viktor Orbán’s mind. Currently hundreds if not thousands of refugees camp outside the barbed-wire fence on the Serb-Hungarian border without food or drink for days on end. Last year the government made almost no effort to give food and temporary shelter to the refugees. Now, however, Viktor Orbán signed a document that emphasizes “the humanitarian aspects” of the question. What’s going on is about “the future of Europe and the peace of the world…. Angela Merkel’s efforts are toward these goals.”

The statement also talks at some length about the irresponsibility of politicians who try “to create political conflicts.” These conflicts certainly don’t help the handling of the refugee issue, which after all involves the fate of millions. Let me note in passing that, earlier, Viktor Orbán judiciously avoided describing the new arrivals in Europe as refugees.

There was an interview today on Deutschland Radio with Michael Rutz, a well-known journalist. In his opinion Kohl does not share Orbán’s policies, and therefore Rutz thought that Helmut Kohl would “send a signal of his concern at the meeting with Orbán.” From MTI’s summary of the statement it looks as if he did. My impression is that most of the conversation between the two men was about Europe today and tomorrow. Orbán seemed to agree with Kohl that “the fate of European people depends on the political union of Europe.” Also, Europe must urgently revive the idea of solidarity because the “unification of Europe” can be done together or not at all. The member states must work together. Kohl added that “solidarity is the most important prerequisite for solving the refugee crisis, terrorism, the stability of the euro and the Eurozone.

Kohl and Orban

Orbán’s answer to this lecture by Kohl was, at least in my reading, ambivalent because I don’t know what to make of the following: “Viktor Orbán again assured the former chancellor that Hungary naturally wants to contribute toward solidarity (szolidáris hozzájárulás).” This sounds to me as if the only solidarity Orbán has in mind is the amount of money he has already promised toward the 6 billion euros the EU member states will pay Turkey in exchange for giving shelter to additional refugees. As for his own thoughts, he offered his Schengen 2.0 plan as a constructive first step toward common action.

A few words about Schengen 2.0. First of all, trying to depict his ten-point plan as tangible assistance to a common policy borders on the bizarre. He himself said in Lisbon, where he presented his plan at a meeting of the Centrist Democratic International, that his proposals are necessary because the European Commission’s solutions are “wrong-headed.” The action plan is in no way a departure from Orbán’s earlier position. It is in no way based on common action. “We think that there are countries that want to solve their problems one way and there are others who think in different terms.” No solidarity here. Each nation according to its own selfish interests.

Yet after the meeting Orbán made some gestures, indicating that he might have been urged by Kohl to show a more positive attitude toward Angela Merkel’s efforts at solving the crisis. He gave an interview to Bild after the meeting in which he said, “I would like to wish all the best to Chancellor Angela Merkel. Hungary and I as the country’s prime minister stand by Berlin, and we will support Angela Merkel with further suggestions as our action plan shows.” I’m afraid his action plan is a non-starter, although Merkel graciously called Orbán’s meeting with Kohl “useful and sensible.” She found the topics covered indispensable.

Viktor Orbán has been a constant critic of Angela Merkel for years and rarely spared words when it came to the German chancellor’s refugee policies. The latest attack against Merkel came from Zsolt Bayer of Magyar Hírlap, one of the co-founders of Fidesz and a friend of Orbán. Bayer is well known for his unspeakable verbal attacks on practically anyone whose ideas or actions don’t appeal to him. It was only a few days ago that Bayer wrote a piece in which he called Merkel “a vile, lying, rotten wench … who dared to show her pharisaical mug” in the first row in the demonstration after the Charlie Hebdo attack. If Orbán wanted Bayer to stop his disgusting outbursts it would take only a telephone call. But obviously he thinks that Bayer can say certain things that he himself cannot. His old friend serves a useful political purpose: to keep the far-right of his party in line. But the somewhat more moderate pro-government paper, Magyar Idők, is not much kinder to Merkel. In one of its opinion pieces the author talks about the mediocre politicians who cannot be compared to Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, and others. In this article Angela Merkel is sarcastically called “the chosen representative of the Brussels aristocracy.” The author of another opinion piece in the same newspaper is outraged that Merkel didn’t apologize to Viktor Orbán for all those attacks on Hungary in the German press.

According to a long opinion piece that appeared in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung today titled “The Teacher and His Student,” Thomas Gutschker claims that while in Germany Orbán wanted to have meetings with Winfried Kretschmann (Green), minister president of Baden Württemberg, and Hannelore Kraft (Social Democrat), minister president of North Rhine-Westphalia, but apparently he was rebuffed by both. So, for the time being he will have to be satisfied with a meeting of the prime ministers of the Visegrád 4. Unfortunately, his staunchest ally, Robert Fico, will not be able to attend since he is recuperating in a Bratislava hospital from a heart attack. Next week Orbán is apparently planning a whirlwind trip to several capitals to promote his Schengen 2.0 plan. I’m curious who will be ready to meet him. Maybe his hearty greetings via Bild to Merkel was an opening bid for a talk. We will see whether he succeeded.

April 19, 2016

Helmut Kohl’s letter to Viktor Orbán

Below is a letter from former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl addressed to Viktor Orbán in which the elder statesman profusely praises the Hungarian prime minister. In fact, perhaps a little too profusely. One ought to know that in February 2008 Kohl suffered a stroke in combination with a fall which caused serious head injuries. Since then he has been reported to be wheelchair-bound due to partial paralysis and to have difficulty speaking.

Kohl in the letter assures his “liebe Viktor” of his absolute support and praises him for the joyful news of economic development under his tutelage. ATV turned to the European People’s Party wanting to know about the letter, but the inquiring reporter was told to turn to Kohl’s secretariat for details. According to some German sources, Kohl is no longer capable of writing letters. So who do you think the real author is?

 

 

Kohl letter3Kohl letter3A

 

Gyula Horn and the opening of Austro-Hungarian border, September 10, 1989

When I am either unfamiliar with a topic or have only bits and pieces of information that don’t make a coherent whole, I like to follow up. Since I didn’t remember all the details of the Hungarian decision to allow the East German tourists who refused to return to the German Democratic Republic to cross into Austria, I decided that I would reread Gyula Horn’s autobiography, Cölöpök (Piles).

It took me a little while to find the appropriate pages because the book has no table of contents. There are some chapter numbers but no chapter titles. Moreover, Horn jumps from topic to topic, and not necessarily in chronological order. Once I found it, however, the passage turned out to be full of interesting details.

Let’s start with the crucial question of whether the Soviet Union gave the Hungarians permission to allow the thousands of East Germans to cross into Austria. No, there was no permission. The Soviets were “informed on the day that the Hungarians opened the border for the East Germans to cross.” That was on September 10, 1989.

Gyula Horn in 1990 / parlament.hu

Gyula Horn in 1990 / parlament.hu

According to Horn, the Hungarian foreign ministry suspected that the Soviets already knew about the Hungarian decision, either directly through their intelligence forces in Hungary or from the leadership of the GDR. Because the East German party and government leaders had been informed by the Hungarians of their decision on August 29. The East Germans insisted that Hungary fulfill its obligation of a 1969 treaty between Hungary and East Germany by which Hungary was supposed to force East German citizens to return to their homeland. It was this treaty that the Hungarians were going to suspend. Why suspend instead of abrogate? Because in the latter case Hungary would have been obliged to wait three months before they would have been free to let the Germans go. And the number of East Germans in Hungary had already swelled to the thousands by then.

The East German side insisted on a meeting with Miklós Németh, the prime minister, and Gyula Horn. The Germans were still hoping that the Hungarians could be cajoled, blackmailed, persuaded, take your pick, to return the East German citizens who were staying in the West German embassy, in student hostels, in camping facilities. But when the two politicians got to Berlin, the hosts were told about the suspension of the 1969 treaty.

If Gorbachev had wanted to prevent the escapade of the Germans across the Austro-Hungarian border he had more than a week to send word to the Hungarians warning them against such a step. But although Horn gives a very detailed account, there is not a word about any visit from the Soviet ambassador to the Foreign Ministry.

The relationship between Horn and Eduard Shevardnadze was cordial, and in the previous year or two the Soviets usually took the Hungarian more liberal side against the noisiest hard-liners–Romania, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. When, shortly after the momentous event, Horn met Shevardnadze in New York, the Soviet foreign minister expressed his agreement with the Hungarian solution. In fact, he asked Horn to estimate the number of dissatisfied East Germans who would gladly leave and was duly impressed with Horn’s answer that the number might be one or two million.

Horn admits that there was some fear that Gorbachev might be pressured by others in the government and party to intervene. After all, the existence of an East Germany within the Soviet bloc might be considered of paramount interest to Moscow. Horn adds that he never feared military intervention because he knew that Gorbachev was not in favor of any kind of military action. But he did consider possible economic or political action, although elsewhere in the book Horn mentions that by that time the Soviet Union was in such dire economic straits that they were unable to fulfill their delivery obligations to Hungary.

Horn outlines the different ideas the Hungarians entertained over time, but he claims they never contemplated sending the East Germans back home.  When there were only a few hundred escapees, they offered them refugee status in Hungary which they categorically refused. Then the German and the Hungarian governments came up with a plan that  in the middle of the night in great secret a large German plane would land in Budapest and the East Germans would be smuggled onto the plane. But soon enough that idea was abandoned because the East Germans continued to arrive in greater and greater numbers, not so much from East Germany as from Yugoslavia where they had spent their holidays. Once they got to Hungary, they refused to continue northward. Something had to be done.

It was at this point that Németh and Horn secretly visited Bonn and talked to Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. They outlined the difficulties and promised that a solution would be found. A few days later when the decision was made to open the border, Horn phoned Genscher and asked him to send his undersecretary to Budapest immediately to begin serious negotiations about the details of the border opening. Genscher kept repeating that “this is fantastic, we never in our wildest dreams imagined such a brave and humane step.” The undersecretary arrived overnight and was told about the details of the operation. The reach of the East German intelligence services worried Horn, and he asked the Germans not to send cipher telegrams. Only handwritten notes by courier.

It was around 6 p.m. on September 10 that Horn gave an interview on MTV in which announced the government’s decision to open the border between Austria and Hungary. In his book he added: “Naturally I did not know at that time that with this step we began the road toward the unification of the two states and with it a new chapter in the history of Europe.”