Tag Archives: Jean-Claude Juncker

Hungary’s press is no longer free

Freedom House’s latest annual report on freedom of the press worldwide was released on April 28. The assessment of the Hungarian situation was so devastating that the best excuse the Hungarian government media could come up with was that Freedom House is under the thumb of George Soros. So, what do we expect?

Those who are familiar with Hungarian media affairs had predicted way ahead of the publication of the report that Hungary’s standing had suffered to such an extent that its listing as a country with a “free” press might be jeopardized. Pál Dániel Rényi of 444.hu described 2016 as the “darkest year of the free press in Hungary.” This unusually sharp turn of events began with the March 2015 rift between Viktor Orbán and his old friend Lajos Simicska, which resulted in an editorial shift at Simicska’s holdings: Magyar Nemzet, Hír TV, Class FM, Metropo, and Lánchíd Rádió. The government spent the rest of the year trying to strangle Simicska’s media and simultaneously set about to create a new government media empire practically from scratch. By now, the pro-government media presence is larger than ever before. Almost all of the regional papers are in government-friendly hands, and even such formerly respectable organs as Origo and Figyelő are now part of the Fidesz stable. The venerable Népszabadság ceased publication. “Public” radio and television now broadcast brazen government propaganda.

The Hungarian government’s expansion of its own media resources at the expense of independent media was of great concern to the compilers of Freedom House’s “Freedom of the Press, 2017.” Hungary figures large in this latest assessment. It is one of the countries that saw the biggest declines in press freedom in 2016. Mind you, Poland and Turkey did even worse, but Hungary found itself in the company of Tajikistan, Congo, South Sudan, Maldives, Bolivia, and Serbia. Hungary is also mentioned under the rubric “Milestones of Decline” together with Venezuela, Turkey, and Poland. Although Hungary’s media freedom has been steadily losing ground since 2010, not until 2016 was Hungary considered to be a country with an “only partly free” press.

In the ranking of 199 countries, Hungary is 84th, along with Montenegro. It tied with Greece for being the worst in the European Union with a total score of 44. (The lower the score, the freer the press.) Even Bulgaria (42) and Romania (38) have better scores than Hungary. While the freest presses in Europe can be found in Norway (with a total score of 8), the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, and Switzerland, Hungary is near the bottom of the heap. It outranks only Turkey (76), Macedonia (64), Bosnia and Herzegovina (51), Albania (51), Serbia (49), and Kosovo (48). Even if geographically speaking Hungary is considered to be part of Central Europe, culturally it shows a close affinity to countries of the Balkans.

So far the Orbán government has been silent on the report, unlike a month ago when the whole cabinet “repudiated the charges” that the state of democracy in Hungary had deteriorated. The charges, they said, were bogus because the organization is financed by George Soros. The office of the government spokesman at that time claimed that the Hungarian press is perfectly free because all political opinions can be found in the Hungarian media. “In Hungary freedom of speech is undiminished and Hungarian democracy is powerful, blossoming and alive.” Lajos Kósa, head of the Fidesz parliamentary group, was especially offended by Romania’s being ahead of Hungary on that list. He came up with the following “joke.” Two Romanian politicians are having a conversation. One of them says to the other: “Did you hear that we have improved our corruption score by five points?” The other answers: “Yes, I’ve heard. It wasn’t cheap.”

As for Freedom House being financed by George Soros, it should be noted that toward the more than $2 million annual budget of the organization, Open Society Foundations contributed just a little over $5,000 last year.

But it seems that facts don’t matter–even though today we learned from Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó that “now is the time that facts will be more important than opinions” in the European Union. Which brings me to Pesti Srácok‘s interview with the head of the Fidesz delegation in the European Parliament, András GyürkHere are a few of Gyürk’s “facts.” (Keep in mind that he was the first signatory to the mea culpa letter the Fidesz MEPs sent to their colleagues in the European People’s Party.) We learn from Gyürk that it wasn’t the Hungarian government that began the attack on Central European University but it was the “Soros network” that picked this particular time to attack the Hungarian government. The reason for the timing is the “fact” that “forces supporting illegal immigration want to force their will on the whole of the European Union this summer.” He doesn’t divulge who these forces are, but from the rest of the interview one gets the impression that Gyürk suspects that “the secret negotiations” between Jean-Claude Juncker and George Soros have something to do with this nefarious plot to import masses of “illegal immigrants into Europe.” Gyürk creates a conspiracy theory out of nothing. Pitted against these evil characters is Viktor Orbán, the savior of Europe, who must be eliminated because he stands in the way of the enemies of the continent. And while he is at it, Gyürk charges the Soros network with fomenting anti-government protests in Hungary just like it did in Ukraine and Macedonia. These are all lies.

But as I just learned this morning listening to four journalists talking about the habitual lying of Fidesz politicians, the concept of falsehood doesn’t really exist in Fidesz mental maps. Gábor Bencsik, brother of the notorious András Bencsik of Magyar Demokrata, was one of the journalists present. One of the participants pointed out that Viktor Orbán for the first time ever admitted during the plenary session of the European Parliament that the dreaded migrants didn’t want to stay in Hungary. With this he implicitly acknowledged that he lied when he plastered the whole country with posters about migrants taking away Hungarian jobs. At this point Bencsik said: “You keep talking about lying. What nitpicking.” The Fidesz team has built a communication network based on lies, a fact that is becoming increasingly evident to the politicians of the European Union.

Today Péter Szijjártó read the riot act to Johannes Hahn, EU commissioner of European neighborhood policy and enlargement negotiations and deputy chairman of the Austrian People’s party, because he dared to criticize Viktor Orbán’s “Stop Brussels!” campaign. “We expect respect for Hungarians,” he demanded. But I’m afraid it is difficult to respect habitual liars and cheats, and unfortunately the Orbán government is rife with such people.

May 1, 2017

The anti-EU, anti-Soros campaigns continue with renewed vigor

As Der Spiegel reported yesterday afternoon, Chancellor Angela Merkel, when asked her opinion of the outcome of the meeting between the presidency of the European People’s Party and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, remarked that promises are one thing but she is waiting for “the actual results.” It seems that Viktor Orbán can no longer hoodwink European politicians. They have learned over the years that it is foolhardy to trust Orbán and his fellow Fidesz politicians.

Merkel’s comment came after the meeting about which we now know a little more. Today Der Spiegel reported that EC President Jean-Claude Juncker and Orbán, who were seated next to one another, engaged in an extended, vehement argument. At one point Jyrki Katainen, vice president for jobs, growth, investment, and competitiveness, apparently warned Orbán that the regional subsidies could be reduced in the future.

Der Spiegel opined that the EPP leadership is mistaken if they think that Orbán’s verbal agreement will be translated into deeds. This is also more or less what Rafał Trzaskowski, a Polish MP from the Civic Platform party who participated in the EPP meeting, suggested when he said that “the question is now whether he will follow what he says. Then, obviously, he can stay with us.” This comment, which I missed yesterday, further convinces me that Fidesz’s position in the EPP is not at all secure and the question of expulsion did come up during the meeting.

Admittedly, only one day has passed since the EPP meeting, but there is no sign of any let-up in anti-EU, anti-Soros propaganda in Hungary. On the contrary, it seems to me that Orbán’s answer to his “humiliation” is open defiance. Nobody really commented on the fact that Viktor Orbán was accompanied by Antal Rogán, his propaganda minister, during his stay in Brussels. Rogán sat silently next to him during his appearance before the European Parliament, and he could be seen at the brief encounter with journalists after the European Council meeting was over on Saturday afternoon.

Orbán’s forced grin may be a sign of discomfort

Rogán’s task is to explain to the Hungarian people what “really” happened in Brussels. He started his propaganda campaign this morning by giving an interview on Magyar Rádió’s “Vasárnapi Újság” in which he emphasized Hungary’s right to maintain positions different from those of the EU majority on certain issues. If necessary, the Hungarian government will take legal action to defend this right. Interestingly enough, he didn’t mention Central European University, the NGOs, or the “Stop Brussels” campaign. His concern was the migrant question. On this there can be no compromise, Rogán maintained. As for Fidesz’s relationship with the EPP, Rogán came up with an intriguing scenario. His claim is that George Soros has been working behind the scenes to have Fidesz expelled from the EPP. According to Rogán, Soros is also putting pressure on the European Union to force Hungary to dismantle the fence and the transit zones on the Serbian-Hungarian border, but this is not negotiable.

We know that the migrant question was discussed during the EPP meeting because politico.hu reported that Saturday’s meeting became tense “when Orbán said he will never accept Muslim migrants” into his country. The refugee crisis is Orbán’s most effective political weapon. Orbán contends that the refugees who came through the Balkans were not desperate people running away from war and the refugee camps in Turkey and elsewhere. Instead, someone for political reasons must have encouraged these men and women to migrate to Europe. Orbán first blamed Angela Merkel, who invited the refugees to Germany. Later he pointed the finger at George Soros, the perfect scapegoat for his political purposes. By accusing Soros of evil designs against Hungary and, in fact, against the whole of Europe, he can move against both the bothersome NGOs and Central European University. CEU may not interfere with his policies as some of the NGOs do, but an independent university over which he has no jurisdiction remains an irritant.

Bence Rétvári, undersecretary of the ministry of human resources, identified Soros as the source of all the problems Europe and Hungary are facing today. Soros’s meeting with Juncker especially bothers the members of the Orbán government. They envisage a whole Soros network that “applies pressure on the country.” Rétvári directed another attack on Central European University and its president, Michael Ignatieff, who after all “led the Canadian Liberal party and therefore behaves like a politician.” Despite all the protestation, he claims, CEU is not an independent university.

The brand new “Stop Brussels!” and anti-Soros ad, which runs on several television channels, can be seen here with English subtitles.

Zoltán Lomnici, Jr., an extreme right-winger and an active member of the government-sponsored CÖF, a pseudo-NGO, demanded on M1, the state television news station, that the 226 members of the European Parliament named in a document released by DC Leaks should be investigated because of the possibility that they serve foreign interests. Lomnici is referring to a publication prepared by the KumQuat Consult for Open Society European Policy Institute titled “Reliable allies in the European Parliament (2014-2019).” The list contains mostly Social Democratic, Green, and Liberal politicians. Lomnici pointed out that of the 17 MEPs who spoke during the plenary session on the Hungarian question 11 appeared on the Open Society’s list. Nézőpont Intézet, a pro-government think tank, devoted an opinion piece to the subject in which the author listed such important politicians as Martin Schulz, Olli Rehn, Gianni Pittella, Guy Verhofstadt, Sophie in’t Veld, and Ulrike Lunacek. Even Frank Engel, a Christian Democrat, is listed, which naturally explains why Engel would like to see Fidesz expelled from the EPP. Magyar Idők was pleased to report that Prime Minister Robert Fico is also contemplating steps to achieve “the transparency of civic organizations in Slovakia” and that the Polish government, just like Hungary, has problems with the Norwegian Fund.

The current Macedonian crisis is a godsend for the Orbán government’s Soros bashing. I should note here that Hungary, alongside Russia, is backing the Macedonian president, Gjorge Ivanov, who was a guest of the Orbán government about a month ago. On April 18 a Fidesz member of parliament addressed a question to Péter Szijjártó concerning the situation in Macedonia where, in his opinion, George Soros is behind the disturbances in Skopje. “The people of Macedonia have had enough of this and they began a ‘Let’s Stop Soros’ movement.” László Szabó, undersecretary in the foreign ministry, the man who will be the next Hungarian ambassador in Washington, replied. He claimed that Soros has been organizing anti-government demonstrations ever since May 2015. Since then, Péter Szijjártó released a statement about foreign interference in Macedonia’s internal affairs, which bore a suspicious resemblance to the statement published by the Russian ministry of foreign affairs.

In any case, the anti-Soros campaign is going on with renewed intensity as is the campaign to sign and return the “Stop Brussels!” national consultation questionnaires, to which both the European Commission and the presidency of the European People’s Party have strenuously objected. In fact, the government just launched a new campaign to urge people to return the questionnaires because they will play a vital role in the government’s defense of the country against the attacks by the European Union. At the same time, the government is trying to explain away the real meaning of the national consultation which, according to the latest interpretation, is simply a way of expressing the Hungarian government’s intentions to reform and improve the structure of the European Union. Somehow, I don’t think that Frans Timmermans and Joseph Daul will fall for this latest ruse of Viktor Orbán.

April 30, 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 turns his back on the Polish government

Although Viktor Orbán’s press conference this morning was anything but upbeat, a few hours later both the Polish left and right in addition to the Hungarian government media were full of praise for the prime minister’s superb diplomatic talents. In a Polish conservative opinion piece he was called the Talleyrand of our times who has been winning every major battle with “raging liberals and the Left in Europe.” He is a man who knows what Realpolitik is all about. Why this praise? Orbán had the good sense not to support the Szydło government in its hopeless fight against the reelection of Donald Tusk as president of the European Council.

Donald Tusk, who served as prime minister of Poland between 2007 and 2014, is the bête-noire of Jarosław Kaczyński, chairman of the Law and Justice party. Kaczyński’s enmity toward Tusk has a long history. First of all, at one point the two men were political rivals. Second, Kaczyński, who is convinced that the Russians were responsible for the death of his twin brother, President Lech Kaczyński, in 2010 when his plane went down in Russia, considers Tusk “politically responsible” for his brother’s death by allowing the Russians to investigate the case ahead of the Poles. But perhaps what is even more important, the far-right Polish government accuses Tusk, as president of the European Council, of wanting to bring down the right-wing Szydło government. The current Polish leadership decided to resist the reelection of the man who dared to criticize the present government in defense of democracy. Mind you, Tusk is not a “flaming liberal.” His party, the Civic Platform, is right of center.

Warsaw put up a counter-candidate–Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, like Tusk a Civic Platform member of the European People’s Party. To understand the dynamics of the situation we must keep in mind that the EP members of Kaczyński’s Law and Justice party belong to the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), basically a Euroskeptic lot. ECR doesn’t have the gravitas of EPP, to which Fidesz EP representatives also belong.

The Polish plan to block Tusk’s reelection didn’t go as planned. As soon as Saryusz-Wolski’s nomination was announced, he was removed from Civic Platform. And EPP removed him from all responsibilities within the party.

After this somewhat lengthy introduction let me turn to Viktor Orbán’s role in this ill-fated Polish political maneuver. Apparently, Warsaw was counting on Great Britain and the Visegrád Four for support. But it became apparent soon enough that neither Slovakia nor the Czech Republic would support Saryusz-Wolski’s nomination. The Polish government still hoped that Viktor Orbán would stand by their side, especially since, as we learned this morning from Viktor Orbán himself, at one point he promised that he would vote against Tusk. Orbán didn’t keep that promise.

As Orbán explained at his press conference in Brussels, since EPP’s only candidate was Tusk and since Fidesz is a constituent part of EPP, he had no choice. This is how the European Parliament functions, he explained. Otherwise, he claimed that he had tried his best to broker a deal but, unfortunately, he failed. He added that a couple of days ago he had informed the Polish government of his decision to vote for Tusk because circumstances didn’t allow him to do anything else.

Well, as usual, Viktor Orbán didn’t tell the whole truth. It wasn’t party protocol that forced him to vote as he did since there was another important European Council vote where he did not support the EPP candidate. I’m talking about the election of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission in June 2014. Juncker was EPP’s candidate for the post. At that time David Cameron and Viktor Orbán voted against Juncker, which didn’t prevent him from getting the job. Then, perhaps feeling safe under the protective wing of Cameron, Orbán had no trouble voting against the favored candidate. So his decision had nothing to do with party obligations. Moreover, he could have voted against Tusk as a gesture to his Polish friends because his “no” vote wouldn’t have made any difference: Tusk would have been elected anyway. But, for reasons known only to him, he decided to go with the flow. He even went so far in his press conference as to laud the European Union as the best place to live in the whole wide world. It is a place where people can be truly happy and satisfied with life. A rather amusing comment considering all his earlier talk about the EU being in decline with the attendant miseries for the people.

I don’t want to dwell on the foolish behavior of the Polish government, but I’m afraid the Polish media’s unanimous condemnation of their government’s incompetence is well deserved. The Polish government should be only too well aware of the misfortunes that have befallen the country as a result of the territorial ambitions of its neighbors. Poland is rightfully worried about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But then common sense would dictate good relations with the countries of Western Europe, especially with Germany. Yet the current Polish government treats Germany like its enemy. Perhaps this disastrous defeat will be a wake-up call, but the mindset of the present Polish political leadership doesn’t inspire confidence that it will happen any time soon.

In addition to the Polish fiasco, Orbán covered two other topics at some length in his press conference. One was the “migrant issue,” which had elicited widespread condemnation in the media and in international organizations involved with the refugee crisis and human rights. It turned out that the matter of the amendment to the Asylum Law came up during the summit. As Orbán described it, he “informed the prime ministers about the new [asylum] law, who didn’t raise any objections and did not protest.” He took this as a good sign, adding that the real fight will be with the bureaucrats of the European Union. Whether this silence was a sign of approval or an indication of a reluctance to get into a discussion of the issue we don’t know.

Orbán then explained the real meaning of the detention centers, which he compared to airports as transit zones. He was again quite explicit about the differences between the attitudes of the Hungarian government and the European Union when it comes to the refugee crisis. Hungary’s goal is not to handle the issue “humanely,” which the EU insists on, but to make sure that the refugees are stopped.

The other topic was the most recent conflict between Austria and Hungary. As is well known, an incredible number of Hungarians work in Austria. In 2016 more than 63,500 Hungarians lived in Austria, in addition to those who live in Hungary but cross the border daily to work on the other side. The Austrians recently floated the idea that Romanian, Hungarian and Czech employees would not receive extra family benefits. The Hungarians claim that as a result of such a new law Hungarian workers would receive 50% less than native Austrians for the same work. This is unacceptable for Hungary. Sophie Karmasin, the Austrian minister responsible for family affairs, visited Hungary only yesterday, and Viktor Orbán set up a meeting with Chancellor Christian Kern while in Brussels. On this topic, Orbán was forceful. He called the issue “a serious conflict” which he will take all the way to the top, meaning the European Commission and even the European Court of Justice. Hungarians cannot be discriminated against. If the Austrians discriminate against Hungarians, “we will respond in kind.” That is, if the Austrians proceed with this cut in family benefits, the Hungarian government will make certain that opportunities for Austrian businesses in Hungary will be curtailed. So, if I understand it correctly, Orbán fights against the European Commission at every turn, but once he feels that Hungarian citizens are being slighted he is ready to appeal for protection from the European Union.

March 10, 2017

A multi-speed Europe and the Visegrád Four

While Viktor Orbán is celebrating his “victory” in his fight with the European Commission over the expansion of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant, politicians in the western half of the continent are busily working on laying the foundation for a new type of European Union, one that might be able to avoid the pitfalls that have besieged Brussels ever since the abrupt enlargement of the Union in 2004.

On March 1 the European Commission published a White Paper on the future of Europe, “Avenues for the EU at 27.” The White Paper sets out five scenarios, each offering a glimpse into the potential state of the Union by 2025 depending on the choices Europe makes. Scenario 1: Carrying On. Scenario 2: Nothing but the Single Market. Scenario 3: Those Who Want More Do More, which means that the 27 members proceed as today but willing member states can do more together in areas such as defense, internal security, or social matters. Thus one or several “coalitions of the willing” will emerge. What will that mean exactly? To give but one example, 15 member states set up a police and magistrates corps to tackle cross-border criminal activities; security information is exchanged as national databases are fully interconnected. Scenario 4: Doing Less More Efficiently, which means delivering more and faster in selected areas, while doing less in other areas. Scenario 5: Doing Much More Together, in other words something close to a real union.

Although Juncker tried to deliver these five options in a neutral tone, it soon became evident that he and the other policy makers preferred scenario 3. “This is the way we want to go,” said an EU official to Euroaktiv.

On March 25 the White Paper will be officially handed over to the 27 governments in Rome at the sixtieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which signaled the first step toward the idea of a united Europe. It is there that the Visegrád 4 countries were planning to propose amendments to the EU treaties, but their hopes are most likely misplaced. As an unnamed EU official said, “for treaty change, there is no market.”

The idea of a multi-speed Europe has been in the air for some time as an answer to the feared disintegration of the European Union after Brexit. But it was only on February 3, at the informal summit of the European Council in Malta, that Angela Merkel spoke of such a solution publicly. Since then behind the scenes preparations for the implementation of this solution have been progressing with spectacular speed.

Today the “Big Four” officially called for a new dynamic, multi-speed Europe. In the Palace of Versailles Angela Merkel, François Hollande, Mariano Rajoy, and Paolo Gentiloni announced their support for a newly revitalized multi-speed Europe. The leaders of Germany, France, Spain, and Italy want to do more than celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the EU. They want “to reaffirm [their] commitment to the future,” said Hollande. Merkel added that “we should have the courage to allow some countries to move ahead, to advance more quickly than others.” To translate these diplomatic words into less polite language, these four countries, most likely supported by a fair number of other western and perhaps also Baltic states, are sick and tired of countries like members of the Visegrád 4. If they don’t want deeper integration and a common policy on defense, the economy, security and immigration, so be it. They will be left behind.

European leaders at the Palace of Versailles / Euroactiv.fr

What is Viktor Orbán’s reaction to these plans? As we know, the Hungarian prime minister can change his positions quickly and frequently, and it looks as if in the last month his ideas on the subject have hardened. Bruxinfo received information from sources close to Orbán at the time of the Malta Summit that the Hungarian prime minister didn’t consider the formation of a multi-speed Europe a necessarily adverse development as far as Hungary is concerned.

On March 2, however, a day after Juncker’s White Paper came to light, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary issued a joint declaration to the effect that the Visegrád 4, strongly supported by Viktor Orbán, find the idea of a multi-speed Europe unacceptable. The declaration said that the Visegrád 4 countries want neither federalization nor a return to the single market. What they find most odious, however, is Scenario 3. They look upon a multi-speed Europe as a sign that they will be treated as poor relatives, second-class citizens. Unfortunately, the four Visegrád countries, besides not wanting to be left behind, can’t agree on the extent of integration they are ready to accept.

Slovakia and the Czech Republic, unlike Poland and Hungary, are ready to cooperate with Brussels in certain areas such as asylum, migration policy, and the digital agenda in the spirit of “Bratislava Plus” adopted in September 2016. You may recall that after the Bratislava Summit Viktor Orbán was the only political leader who announced that the summit was a failure. He was especially unhappy that his Visegrád 4 friends didn’t stick with him during the negotiations. It looks as if Poland and Hungary didn’t manage to force their rigid attitude on the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Because of their differences, the common denominator of the Visegrád 4’s declaration was merely a description of their gripes. As a result, their message was defensive and weak. The four countries “express their concerns about creating exclusive clubs, they demand the equality of member states, and they want to involve national parliaments more in the political process that would control the subnational institutions,” as Vit Dostál, editor-in-chief of Euroaktiv.cz, remarked in his op/ed piece. The news about the decision of the German, French, Spanish and Italian prime ministers yesterday had to come as very bad news for the Visegrád 4. A multi-speed Europe is a frightening prospect for these countries.

Of course, they wouldn’t have to worry so much if they, especially Poland and Hungary, were more accommodating in their attitudes and would accept the fact that by joining the European Union they gave up some of their countries’ sovereignty. If they accepted the fact that the refugee problem is something that can be solved only together. As Merkel said in Versailles yesterday: “Cooperation can be kept open to those that have fallen behind.” We will see which road Orbán will choose, but cooperation is not Orbán’s strong suit.

March 7, 2017

The Orbán regime and the Austrian presidential election

A few hours ago newspapers all over the world announced that Norbert Hofer, the far-right candidate for the Austrian presidency, had lost the election. Pre-election polls indicated that the election was too close to call, but the final result gave a healthy majority to Alexander Van der Bellen, a professor of economics and former head of the Greens. Hofer readily conceded, while Van der Bellen called the result a vote for a “pro-European Austria based on freedom, equality, and solidarity.”

Although the post of the president in Austria is mostly ceremonial, the Austrian election had acquired special significance in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory. Democrats all over Europe fear the spread of populism and looked upon a Hofer win as an event that might have a domino effect, first in France and later in other European countries where elections will be held in the near future. Now these people are relieved.

Just as a reminder, this is the second time that Van der Bellen and Hofer faced each other in this presidential contest. In May Van der Bellen won the election with a margin of about 30,000 votes, but because of some technical irregularities Austria’s Constitutional Court annulled the result and ordered a new round of voting.

The Hungarian right followed the race between the two men closely because it finds in the politicians of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) kindred spirits. Viktor Orbán certainly didn’t hide his preference for Norbert Hofer and the party’s chairman Heinz-Christian Strache, whom he considers “a man of the future.”

The Hungarian right-wing, pro-government press was already full of praise of Hofer in May before and during the election. Two days before the election Magyar Idők published a glowing editorial claiming that while the left symbolizes failure, the Freedom party is “the depository of success.” The same pro-government newspaper was looking forward to “a political earthquake,” which was likely since polls indicated that Hofer would get at least 52-53% of the votes. When this didn’t materialize, they cried foul. They questioned the results and talked about electoral fraud. Zsolt Bayer in his usual style enthused over all those votes cast for Hofer: the peasants of Burgenland, the people of Carinthia, the Alpine graziers, the yodelers of Tyrol. With the exception of Vienna and Vorarlberg, everyone voted for Hofer. Red Vienna, what can one expect? And Vorarlberg, it is “not really Austria.”

The decision of the Austrian Constitutional Court was warmly received in Hungary. The pro-government papers were again hopeful, reflecting the Hungarian government’s wishes and expectations. Hofer was critical of the European Union, which he wanted to reform alongside Viktor Orbán and his allies. He talked about his desire for Austria to join the Visegrád 4 Group. A step toward the far right in Austria nicely fit into Viktor Orbán’s plans. Therefore, a new round of optimistic and encouraging articles appeared in the Hungarian right-wing press.

At the beginning of the second campaign, the pro-government media again talked about the “historic vote” and predicted Hofer’s victory. As Magyar Idők pointed out, “FPÖ may draw strength from the victory of Trump.” Hungarian right-wing commentators were convinced that somebody who doesn’t espouse an anti-migrant stance can’t possible win, and Van der Bellen had supported Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policies during the refugee crisis and after. Mariann Őry, one of Magyar Hírlap’s interpreters of foreign news, elaborated on this theme, practically calling Van der Bellen stupid for telling the Austrians to support Angela Merkel’s policies. He is no better than the Hungarian liberals who are patronizing at home and opportunistic bootlickers abroad.

The Hungarian right's clear choice was Norbert Hofer on the right

The Hungarian right’s clear choice was Norbert Hofer, on the right

Closer to the actual election Magyar Idők reported a story from Kronen Zeitung: that a conspiracy is underway on the part of the European Parliament and Germany to influence the Austrian presidential election. The story was based on a conversation in a restaurant among Martin Schulz, the social democratic president of the European Parliament, Sigmar Gabriel, deputy chancellor of Germany who is also a social democrat, and Werner Faymann, Austria’s rejected (bukott) chancellor. Considering that the three happily consented to a photo of their meeting, claims of a conspiracy were obviously highly exaggerated.

A day before the election Mariann Őry again expressed her disdain of Van der Bellen as an inept candidate who doesn’t know what to say when. Her example is telling. According to Hofer, those Austrians who went to Syria to become terrorists should be stripped of their citizenship. Van der Bellen retorted that no valid citizenship can be revoked in Austria. “Surely, it is hard not to think that the western liberals have completely lost their minds. What kind of an Austrian is Van der Bellen” who considers these terrorists Austrians? “If for no other reason than statements like this, the Austrians should realize what is in their best interest. We will find out Sunday night.” She did. Perhaps Van der Bellen wasn’t that stupid after all.

The most detailed account of the Hungarian right’s thinking on the Austrian election came from a government-employed talking head, Zoltán Kiszelly. He gave a lengthy interview to 888.hu yesterday. I believe that the scenario he outlined here, assuming Norbert Hofer’s victory, accurately reflected the hopes of Viktor Orbán. First of all, the new president will initiate an early national election. In fact, all Austrian parties have been anticipating such an outcome. Today the FPÖ is the strongest party and as such would be the dominant party in a future coalition. The logical coalition partner would be the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), which is part of the present coalition. Sebastian Kurz, foreign minister represent ÖVP and a great pal of Péter Szijjártó, “has already adjusted his program to that of the Freedom Party.” The political changes in Austria would significantly weaken the European Union’s migration policies as represented by Jean-Claude Juncker and Angela Merkel. The Austrian move toward the right would also have an influence on German politics. Another benefit would be that the new government would support the Visegrád 4’s policies, which would force Brussels and Berlin to retreat from their current migration policies.

The journalist of 888.hu at this point reminded Kiszelly of what happened in 1999 when Wolfgang Schüssel, the leader of ÖVP, opted for a coalition with PFÖ, resulting in a long, acrimonious dispute with the European Union. Kiszelly said he was certain that nothing of the sort would happen today because “this time the PFÖ wouldn’t have to cede the chancellorship to the People’s Party just because it is a ‘moderate’ party. There have been significant changes in western politics, like the political climate in the Netherlands and Denmark, Great Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and, for that matter, the election of Donald Trump. After these events, the world that existed sixteen years ago can never return.” Finally, he added that a victory of the far right in Austria would be an event that “certainly could stir up European politics because, following the Austrian example, other countries would also opt for early elections.” So, an avalanche would follow Hofer’s win, which could result in a sharp turn to the right, perhaps sooner than we think.

If I’m correct and Kiszelly was articulating views he shared with Viktor Orbán, the loss today had to be a real blow to the Hungarian prime minister, especially since only three days ago he announced that “it is just a question of time before [real] democracy is restored because in Europe there is no democratic equilibrium now. …We just have to prevail and, in the end, we will predominate.”

Of course, one shouldn’t be unduly optimistic. This is not the end of the spread of populism, but apparently with the victory of François Fillon in the French conservative primaries, Marine Le Pen’s National Front will have a much harder time than she had anticipated. Most commentators are convinced that Fillon will be the next president of France.

December 4, 2016

After the US election: Europe is anxiously waiting

Mother Jones published a funny article back in September about Trump’s hectic first day in office. On the basis of his election promises, the author compiled a to-do list of 21 items. Here are a few that would, directly or indirectly, have an impact on the European Union. He would call the heads of major companies who are moving operations overseas to inform them that they’ll face 35% tariffs. He would “contact countries and say … ‘Folks, we love protecting you, we want to continue to protect you but you’re not living up to the bargain’… They’re not paying what they’re supposed to be paying—which is very little, by the way.” He would immediately “withdraw from TPP.” He would also suspend the Syrian refugee resettlement program.

And this is just the first day. To come are many, even more important items, like his promised suspension of all ongoing free trade negotiations, including the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which is described on the website of the European Commission as an “ambitious and balanced” agreement that would “boost Europe’s influence in the world.”

Then there’s Trump’s unbounded admiration of President Putin, the strong leader whom he compared favorably to our own weak President Obama. And there’s the matter of Russian involvement in the presidential race. Just today Russia’s deputy foreign minister said that during the campaign the Russian government had been in touch with members of Trump’s campaign staff. There is panic in Ukraine, with people writing tweets like “tell me I’m sleeping and this is a terrible nightmare!” Poland’s president already fired off a letter to Trump, urging him to keep Washington’s promise to deploy troops on NATO’s eastern flank.

Photo: Mark Murrmann, Richard Dew/AP, Ti Kirkpatrick/CNP/ZUMA

Photo: Mark Murrmann, Richard Dew/AP, Ti Kirkpatrick/CNP/ZUMA

There is apprehension across Europe, even as the customary congratulations are being sent to the American president-elect. I especially loved the message coming from Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Prolin. In addition to “wishing the new president well,” he “pledge[d] to pray that God enlightens him and supports him in the service of his country … in the service of well-being and peace in the world.” It seems that the European Union’s leading politicians share Cardinal Prolin’s hope for Trump’s enlightenment.

The president of the European Union, Martin Schulz, was not optimistic. He said that he “must respect the future president of the United States [and] hopes that we will find a slot to cooperate.” He added that “it will be hard, harder than with previous administrations but he is the freely elected president.” Just a slot?

Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, doesn’t want to engage in a guessing game about Trump’s future policies. “We would like to know how things will proceed with global trade policy. We would like to know what intentions [Trump] has regarding the [NATO] alliance. We must know what climate policies he intends to pursue. This must be cleared up in the next few months.”

Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, and Jean-Claude Juncker wrote a joint congratulatory letter to Trump yesterday in which they felt it necessary to stress the strategic partnership between the European Union and the United States, which is “rooted in our shared values of freedom, human rights, democracy and a belief in the market economy.” The letter went on: “only by cooperating closely can the EU and the US continue to make a difference when dealing with unprecedented challenges such as Da’esh, the threats to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, climate change and migration.” At the end of the letter they extended an invitation for Trump “to visit Europe for an EU-US Summit at your earliest convenience.” This meeting would allow them “to chart the course of our relations for the next four years.”

There is widespread fear that under Trump’s guidance the United States will retreat to a modern version of “splendid isolation.” Even though with globalization this is well-nigh impossible, many of Trump’s promises to Americans have touched on this theme. Trump said that his “foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people, and American security, above all else. That will be the foundation of every decision that I will make. America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.” Susan Dunn, a political commentator, noted that it was most unfortunate that Trump chose to use “the noxious slogan, ‘America First,’ the name of the isolationist, defeatist, anti-Semitic national organization that urged the United States to appease Adolf Hitler.” Trump’s reference to “America First” was not wasted on European leaders. Tusk immediately fired back: “I do not believe that any country today can be great in isolation. But I do believe that America and Europe can, should and will work together. It is in our common interest. We have to recognize that this will take major efforts from both sides.”

The fact is that we have no idea what the foreign policy of a Trump presidency will be. I doubt that he himself has a clue. On that funny to-do list published by Mother Jones the last item was “learn the difference between Hezbollah and Hamas.” In his victory speech Trumped vowed to “get along with all other nations willing to get along with us.” But, as Dalibor Rohac, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said, “getting along” is not a foreign policy. Moreover, such careless phrasing opens the possibility of getting along with powers like Russia and China, two countries that have in the last year struck a threatening pose against their neighbors.

Because of Trump’s far too friendly comments on Vladimir Putin and Russia many commentators believe that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe are the most vulnerable to Russian influence and expansion if the United States does indeed retreat from its political, economic, and military participation in Europe. Trump’s national security adviser was once asked rhetorically, “Do we want NATO to go on for another half-century?” His answer was “I don’t know.” Given such careless and irresponsible utterances coming from Trump’s closest associates, it’s no wonder that there is such nervousness in Europe, whose security depends largely on the military power of the United States.

Viktor Orbán welcomes a more isolationist American foreign policy. And he continues waging his own version of an isolationist war against Brussels, arguing for country over Union. János Lázár only today announced that the Hungarian government will continue its battle with Brussels over the compulsory quotas even though the opposition refused to support its proposed amendments to the constitution. One is inclined to agree with Tamás Bauer, a keen observer of politics, that “Orbán wants more than Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. He doesn’t want to take his country out of the Union but he wants to destroy it.”

November 10, 2016