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.”
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.