The Orbán government’s secretiveness is a well-known fact of life. While in other European countries trips of the prime minister are made public way ahead of time, in Hungary the announcement is usually made only when Viktor Orbán is already on the plane. The same seems to be true of foreign visitors who come to Budapest for an official visit. The Hungarian government usually announces the arrival of a foreign politician days after his own government discloses the impending trip. This was even the case with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s visit. The Polish government released the news on December 26, but the Hungarian government’s announcement came only two days later.
The visit of Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar was not announced until about 9:00 a.m. on January 4, the very same day he was supposed to meet Viktor Orbán. But this time, the Irish government wasn’t too eager to let the world know about the Taoiseach’s visit to Hungary. The media pointed to the unusually late announcement of the trip on January 3, which, as the Irish Examiner noted, “has raised questions.” Labor Party leader Brendan Howlin wanted to know why Varadkar didn’t inform the Dáil, the Irish Parliament, about his impending trip to Hungary and Bulgaria. As Howlin put it, given Viktor Orbán’s undemocratic policies, the visit “will be seen as an implicit endorsement by the Taoiseach and Ireland of the policies that Orbán’s government has pursued including his recent propaganda campaigns against Muslims, the EU, and also on George Soros that has verged on anti-semitism.” Howlin added that he hoped “the Taoiseach will have the courage to defend both the values Ireland and the EU have upheld when he meets with Orbán tomorrow and to criticize the divisive path that Hungary is pursuing within the EU.”
First, a few words about Leo Varadkar. He made international news in June 2017 when he was elected leader of Fine Gael, Ireland’s Christian Democratic Party. He was no ordinary candidate for the job of prime minister. First of all, at the time of his election, at age 38, he was the youngest prime minister in Europe. Second, he is one of the four openly gay heads of government on the Continent. And if that weren’t enough, he is of mixed Indian-Irish heritage. In brief, he is everything Orbán and his friends hate. And now here is a one-on-one talk for a whole hour during which Viktor Orbán will have to explain why he finds the “mixing” of different kinds of people and cultures dangerous for Hungary.
The official government site, which summarized Viktor Orbán’s short speech at the press conference, wasn’t exactly expansive on the issue of refugees, but even the little he said was further reduced to a couple of sentences on the government’s official website. “Regarding migration, [Orbán] said, he made it clear to his negotiating partner that ‘Hungary is not against anyone’ but insists on its own identity, culture, and the results it has achieved. Hungary stands on the foundations of legality.”
In fact, in his statement, which it seems he didn’t want to share with the world in English on the government website, Orbán said more than that. Here is the longer version:
We touched on the question of migration. I tried to make clear to the prime minister why migration is such an important question for Hungary. I tried to clarify the historical and cultural dimensions of the question; I wanted to make clear that Hungary is not against anyone but wants to adhere to its identity, culture, and the results it has achieved. One must look at the question of migration through these lenses.
Obviously, Varadkar wasn’t convinced. He announced at the press conference that
“Ireland doesn’t agree with Hungary on the issue of migration and supports the concept of a common burden-sharing within the European Union,” a statement which was greeted by 24.hu with enthusiasm: “An unheard-of thing happened in Budapest. Leo Varadkar announced that he doesn’t share Orbán’s migration policies.” This is what Hungary has come to.
We learn more about the meeting and its flavor from the Irish prime minister, who gave an interview to The Irish Times after the encounter. Apparently they had “a very direct exchange of views” about Hungary’s refusal to resettle refugees, about the tightening government control over civil society, and about the shuttering of Central European University, which is ‘a bastion of liberal values’ in the region.” He added that he can’t tell whether this very direct exchange had much of an impact because Orbán is someone who is “very firm in his views and world views.”
All in all, the meeting couldn’t have been very pleasant, even if the two see eye to eye on several issues. First, Hungary, whose corporate tax of 9% is the lowest in Europe, supports Ireland against the so-called tax harmonization efforts of the European Union. Earlier Ireland had a close partner in its fight against such legislation, but The Irish Times sadly announced in October that after Brexit Ireland “will have to fight its own corner.” Hungary is, however, ready to stand by Ireland, alongside Liechtenstein, which also has a very low corporate tax rate (12.5%).
Another matter the two prime ministers agreed on was the benefit of the current agricultural policies (CAP) of the European Union. Ever since his election as French president, Emmanuel Macron has been talking a lot about both tax harmonization and reform and a reduction in agricultural subsidies. Not surprisingly, neither Ireland nor Hungary is keen on reforms. Ireland is the beneficiary of low taxes, and in Hungary Orbán and his oligarchs have been madly buying up farmland precisely because of the generous EU subsidies.
The third item was Irish concerns related to Brexit. Although Hungary’s support of Irish interests in this context remains quite vague, Orbán promised to stand by Ireland in the Brexit negotiations.
Viktor Orbán didn’t look too happy after the talks were over. He is a firm believer that no other country should “meddle” in Hungary’s affairs, just as he refuses to pass judgment on the dictatorships he courts and thinks so highly of. He is also convinced that he is right and all others are wrong when it comes to the migrant issue.
Those Eastern despots who have visited Budapest in the last few years haven’t argued with him about the correctness of his positions. Orbán cannot really hide his feelings, and it was pretty obvious that, despite all those kind words about the freedom-loving Irish people and their fantastic economic achievement, he was annoyed. Most Western European heads of government simply avoid Budapest. But then one comes calling, and he gives the Hungarian prime minister a lecture — on his own turf. Can you imagine how irritating Orbán must have found that?