Tag Archives: Joseph Daul

What really happened at the EPP meeting this morning?

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.”

This is the EPP gathering Viktor Orbán had to face this morning

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.

April 29, 2017

“Coup from above”? Anti-federalist forces in the European Council

Anyone who took Magyar Nemzet seriously would think that Viktor Orbán is not only the strongman of Hungary but also of Europe. A great statesman who is jealously guarding the rule of law in the European Union. According to Magyar Nemzet, Jean-Claude Juncker’s bid for the presidency of the European Commission is down the drain. On the other hand, several commentators (for example Julian Priestley, the former secretary-general of the European Parliament) think it likely that in the final analysis Juncker will be in charge of the European Union for the next five years. We can, however, expect a protracted political fight between the European Council and the European Parliament.

The issue, as far as I can see, brings into focus two vitally important issues: first, the supremacy of the elected European parliament vs. the heads of member states and, second, the very future of the European Union itself.

This is the first time that the European Parliament has an important role to play in the elections and the choice of candidates for president. The leading members of the European Parliament wanted to democratize the election process and run a campaign with the names and pictures of the candidates (commonly known as “Spitzenkandidaten”) heading the party lists. In early March the European People’s Party chose Jean-Claude Juncker, former prime minister of Luxembourg, as their man while Martin Schulz was chosen by the socialists. Since as the result of the election the EPP will again be the largest party in the European Parliament, the assumption in parliament is that it will be Juncker who will lead the Union. All the party leaders of the European Parliament stand behind his candidacy.

Enter the European Council, composed of the twenty-eight heads of the member states. The president of the Council is Herman Van Rompuy. Last night these people gathered to discuss the results of the election, and it turned out that there was at least four countries that opposed Juncker’s nomination: Great Britain, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Hungary. Viktor Orbán announced immediately after the election results became known that Hungary cannot support Junker’s presidency. Hungarian sources claim that the real instigator of the anti-Juncker move was not Orbán but either David Cameron, prime minister of Great Britain, or Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany. My hunch is that it was Cameron who was most opposed to Juncker, who is known as a “federalist.” Cameron believes in a union of nation states. During the meeting Merkel, as is her wont, sat on the fence, not committing herself one way or the other. The only agreement to come out of the meeting was that the president of the European Council will negotiate with leading members of the European Parliament and the heads of states about the future president of the EU.

So, on one level the fight that is developing is between the federalists and the “states rights” advocates, while on another it is a struggle between the European Council and the European Parliament. An Austrian paper called the move coming from the European Council a “coup from above.” The coup may not succeed. As EuroActiv reported, Van Rompuy after the meeting said that this first discussion had been “useful,” which is a diplomatic euphemism for inconclusive. However, he also made it clear that he would not embark on a collision course with the European Parliament. According to a source who seemed to have been present at the meeting, Merkel apparently announced that “she is still supportive of the Spitzenkandidaten system and of Juncker,” but made no strong statements to discipline the dissidents. On the Council doorstep Merkel declared: “Jean-Claude Juncker is our Spitzenkandidat.”

Jean-Claude Juncker and Viktor Orbán are great friends here

Jean-Claude Juncker and Viktor Orbán are great friends here

Leading members of the European Parliament are outraged, including Joseph Daul, leader of the EPP group, who told Die Welt after Viktor Orbán announced his intention to pick another candidate that one simply cannot pull a new candidate out of the hat. Hannes Swoboda, leader of the Socialist and Democrats group, tweeted that it  is “absurd that Juncker has our backing to start negotiations but is blocked in the European Council by his own EPP family!” Julian Priestley expressed the opinion of many that “only if the negotiations between the European parties and the parliament fail does it become conceivable that the European Council might have to reach out for a candidate outside the election process. But they have every incentive to succeed, because what’s at stake is bringing the direction of the EU within the parliamentary system.”  And let me add that in my opinion it is essential that the anti-federalist forces are defeated on this issue and that a man is elected who wants “a more perfect union.” The British Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party (Ukip), said of Juncker, “there is nobody more fanatical about building the United States of Europe.” That certainly does not make Juncker a friend of David Cameron and Viktor Orbán.

What is happening at the present in the European Parliament is a “grand coalition between right and left which is taking shape, with the aim of isolating the Eurosceptics.” Not only does Schulz support Juncker, but the leader of the third largest group, Guy Verhofstadt of the liberals, also wants to join them. He emphasized that for the election of the next president they need “a stable majority, that means more than 400 seats. Otherwise it will depend on the backing of parties such as those of Mr. Orbán or Mr. Berlusconi.”

There is at least one Hungarian commentator, Gyula Hegyi, who claims  in his article “Juncker-Orbán 2:0” that Cameron and Orbán lost this match. Hegyi used to be a socialist MEP, but in the last five years he has been working for László Andor, commissioner for employment, social affairs, and inclusion. In his interpretation it is true that at the Tuesday night meeting no decision was reached, but those present admitted that the results of the election must be taken into consideration. They also took cognizance of the fact that Juncker is unanimously supported in the European Parliament. So, as far as Hegyi is concerned, it is a done deal. Juncker will be the candidate and will likely be elected by a large majority.

My feeling is that Hegyi and Priestley are right, but given the business practices of the European Union, it will most likely take a whole month, until the very last minute, to agree on the candidacy of Jean-Claude Juncker.

Viktor Orbán is getting ready for a fight

If anyone thought that a second victory, especially with two-thirds parliamentary majority, would slow Viktor Orbán down, he was sadly mistaken. In fact, if it is possible, since his reelection he has been surpassing his own past performance as far as attacks on the European Union are concerned.

In the last few weeks numerous articles have appeared, especially in Népszabadság, on the possible shape of the third Orbán government. Most of the reporting is based on hearsay, but a couple of personnel changes seem to be certain. First, Rózsa Hoffmann, undersecretary for public education, has finished her controversial activities in the Ministry of Human Resources. Second, the mysterious minister of national development about whom nobody knew anything turned out to be a flop. If you recall, no one knew her first name for weeks because she was introduced to the public only as Mrs. László Németh. By the way, she was the one who signed the agreement on Paks with Gazprom. And then there is János Martonyi, the one cabinet member in whom European and American politicians still had some trust. Mind you, his words didn’t mean much because he was stripped of practically all power to conduct Hungary’s foreign policy. According to the latest, it looks as if his replacement will be Tibor Navracsics.

I consider Navracsics’s move to the foreign ministry a demotion for the former close associate of Viktor Orbán. By now the foreign ministry is largely impotent, and I hear rumors to the effect that it might be further stripped of its competence. Earlier Navracsics had a position of real power. He was entrusted with the position of whip of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation. The ministry of administration and justice, which Navracsics headed during Orbán’s second term, had a dual mandate. On the one hand, it was supposed to oversee the restructuring of the entire public administration and, on the other, it was responsible for preparing bills for parliament. At least in theory. Most of the hundreds of bills presented to parliament in the last four years were in fact proposed by individual members. Their authors were most likely outside law firms. It seems that the ministry’s chief job in the legal field was not so much drafting bills as battling with Brussels over legislation the Hungarian parliament enacted.

In the third Orbán government the ministry of administration and justice will be dismantled. In its place there will be a separate ministry of justice, and the section of the ministry that dealt with the country’s territorial administration will be transferred to the prime minister’s office. This ministry’s chief job will be, according to Viktor Orbán, to concentrate on future legal battles with the European Union. He already warned his people that the European Union will try to force the Hungarian government to undo the lowering of utility prices which assured Viktor Orbán his resounding victory at the last election.

Hungary seems to lose one legal battle after the other in the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights, which functions under the jurisdiction of the Council of Europe. The latest is the question of  life sentences without the possibility of parole. The European Court of Human Rights, in a unanimous ruling, found the law inhumane and degrading. The court is not against life sentences as such, but they held that courts should be allowed to review life sentences in order to assess whether prisoners had made such significant progress toward rehabilitation that their continued detention might no longer be justified. There are perhaps 40 such cases in Hungary at the moment, and if all the “lifers” turned to Strasbourg it could be a very costly affair for the Hungarian state.

Viktor Orbán remains adamant in the face of the court ruling since he knows that, if depended on the Hungarian public, the majority would be only too glad to reintroduce the death penalty. Therefore, Orbán fiercely attacked the ruling and blamed the European Union for preventing Hungary from having its own laws. He repeated his favorite claim that in the European Union “the rights of those who commit crimes are placed above the rights of innocent people and victims.” Friday morning during his customary interview on Magyar Rádió he elaborated on the theme and went even further. He said that the European Union forbids capital punishment, although he personally is convinced that it is a serious deterrent.

In cases like this, one is not quite sure whether Orbán is ignorant of the facts or for political reasons is simply lying. It is not the European Union that forbids the death penalty. Article 1 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms specifies that “The death penalty shall be abolished. No-one shall be condemned to such penalty or executed.” The Council of Europe is a signatory to this convention. Moreover, the European Court of Human Rights functions not under the European Union but under the Council of Europe of which Hungary is a member. And quite aside from all this, the Hungarian Constitutional Court on its own volition abolished the death penalty in 1990. So, either Orbán doesn’t know any of this or he for political reasons is trying to turn his people against the European Union while he is campaigning for the European parliamentary election. He must know that the reintroduction of the death penalty in Hungary is out of the question.

But before his fight against Brussels and Strasbourg on utility prices, pálinka distillation, acacia trees, and life sentences without parole, Orbán has another fight ahead of him which he may easily lose. It is his opposition to the election of Jean-Claude Juncker for the presidency of the European Commission. Juncker is the candidate of the European People’s Party, which currently has the largest caucus in the European Parliament. It has been clear for some time that Juncker is not the favorite politician of Viktor Orbán. Already on Friday in his interview he mentioned that just because Juncker is the head of the 212-member EPP caucus it doesn’t mean that the Christian Democrats have to nominate him. Juncker is far too liberal for Orbán, who would prefer the far-right Joseph Daul, the Alsatian farmer who is an admirer and defender of the Hungarian prime minister. Orbán thus made up his mind that he and the Fidesz MEPs will try to prevent the election of Juncker in the likely event that EPP is again the largest bloc in the European Parliament.

Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz

Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz

Today he announced his decision to try block Juncker’s nomination and/or election. I myself doubt that he will succeed at the nomination level. As for the election, currently EPP has 212 seats and Fidesz’s estimated 10-12 MEPs will vote against him. Juncker will have to get at least 376 votes to be elected, so he will need supporters outside of EPP. The socialist Martin Schulz will also look for supporters outside of the socialist caucus. It looks as if the Fidesz group will lobby against both Juncker and Schulz in favor of some other EPP politician. I’m sure that Orbán’s favorite would be Daul, but I think he is too far to the right to have a chance at either the nomination or the election.

So, what will happen if Juncker wins? Orbán, even if Fidesz MEPs were to support Juncker, would have a harder time with him than he had with Barroso. The same is true if Schulz becomes president. Actually the two men’s views are rather close. Both are miles away from Viktor Orbán’s worldview. In either case, Orbán will be even more unhappy with Brussels than he has been until now.

How did the Hungarian government fare in the European Parliament today?

Today I would like to concentrate on two topics: Fidesz’s relation to the European People’s Party, an umbrella organization of right of center parties in Europe, and the Orbán government’s current situation within the European Union. Let me state at the very beginning that I’m more upbeat about today’s hour-long discussion in the European Parliament on the Hungarian situation than some of the people who commented right after the event on Hungarian Spectrum. Let me also add that I consider  Fidesz’s status within “the family” of the European People’s Party less secure than most people are inclined to believe.

Let’s start with the parliamentary debate. György Schöpflin, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament, predicted a couple of days ago that this debate would be “a third-rate affair” and therefore it was wise of Viktor Orbán not to do attend the session. Subsequently we learned that no invitation was extended to either Orbán or any member of his government. Enikő Győry, undersecretary in charge of European affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was present in observer status only.

Schöpflin seemed to know that neither the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, nor any of the leaders of the parliamentary caucuses would be present. Well, Schöpflin was wrong. Martin Schulz  presided over the session, and for the most part the heads of the parliamentary delegations were present and delivered speeches. The notable exception was Joseph Daul of EPP, who only a year ago fiercely defended Viktor Orbán during the last grilling of the Hungarian government in the European Parliament. In his place Frank Engel, a member of  the EPP caucus, spoke; his defense of the Orbán government was muted. He basically asked his fellow parliamentarians to delay their judgment until the legal analysis of the Hungarian constitution is completed by the European Commission.

Viviane Redings delivering her speech in the European Parliament  MTI  / Photo Patrick Seeger

Viviane Redings delivering her speech in the European Parliament
MTI / Photo Patrick Seeger

Viviane Reding gave a brief talk in which she outlined the European Commission’s position on the issue of Hungarian compliance with EU law. At the very beginning she made it clear that she represents President Barroso and the opinion of the European Commission. She emphasized that the Commission has been closely monitoring developments related to the Hungarian Constitution ever since 2011. The Commission “has played a very active role as guardian of the Treaties” and “is currently conducting a detailed legal analysis of the amendments.”

But, continued Reding, the Hungarian constitution, quite aside from not being compatible with European laws, has serious flaws as far as the rule of law in general is concerned. And then she added:  ” Hungary will also need to take due account of the opinion that the Council of Europe/Venice Commission will deliver in June, in full accordance with both European Union and Council of Europe principles, rules and values. The Commission expects a responsible answer from Hungary to this opinion.” In addition, there is the work of Rui Tavares (Portugal), an independent member of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) of the European Parliament who has been preparing a resolution “on the situation of Fundamental Rights in Hungary: standards and practices.” (I might add here that Frank Engel, who delivered the EPP’s message on the Hungarian situation today, is also a member of  LIBE and, like Reding, a Luxembourgian.) Reding said that “the Commission expects the Hungarian authorities to engage in a political dialogue with this House.”

So, this is just the beginning. As things stand now, the legal experts of the European Commission are studying the Hungarian constitution and its amendments, as is the Venice Commission. And the LIBE resolution will be ready by early summer. So, it looks as if by June there will be a concerted effort on the part of organizations of the European Union and the Council of Europe to take up the issue of Hungarian non-compliance with European law and the Orbán government’s transgression of democratic principles and the rule of law in general.

The criticism from the socialists, the liberals, and the greens was naturally hard-hitting, but the general consensus was that ¶7, which could deprive Hungary of its voting rights, shouldn’t be the first step. Lucia Creighton of Ireland, the country currently serving as president of the Union, emphasized that Ireland supports the point of view of the Commission. Moreover, she thought that it might be worthwhile to discuss a possible “new mechanism” that would be entrusted with the enforcement of union law in member states. She suggested putting the topic on the agenda of the meeting of the foreign ministers next Monday.

All in all, I’m satisfied with the results. Since the final analyses of the Commission, the Venice Commission, and LIBE were not ready, nothing more could have been done.

The other topic I would like to cover, however briefly, is Fidesz’s position vis-à-vis the European People’s Party. The Romanian Hungarian-language paper isn’t backing down on its story of a discussion between Joseph Daul and Viviane Reding about the possible removal of Fidesz from the EPP caucus. First, the spokesman of the EPP caucus denied the “rumor,” but a day later Joseph Daul himself wrote a letter to the Új Magyar Szó. He claimed that the “articles in question are both distorted and without foundation.” I would suggest that it would have been wiser to say that they were either distorted or without foundation, not both. And if one wants to deny that the topic of the conversation was Fidesz, one doesn’t claim that “the main topic of the conversation was Croatia and not Hungary” because that doesn’t preclude the possibility that Hungary was discussed. In brief, it looks more and more as if Daul did initiate a talk with Reding in Dubrovnik and that the fate of Fidesz was discussed there. The spokeswoman of Redding didn’t deny the existence of a  private conversation between the two politicians. She only said to Magyar Nemzet that she is not at liberty to reveal the contents of the conversation.

There are signs that Orbán’s appearance before the EPP caucus wasn’t as jolly as Viktor Orbán tried to make out. In his usual fashion he cast it as a huge victory. He claimed that “it was good to be Hungarian tonight.” It turned out, however, that after a fifteen-minute talk he received about twenty questions. Apparently, most of the questions came from German and Polish members of the delegation, which leads me to believe that Új Magyar Szó’s information that it was the Polish delegation that informed EPP about Fidesz’s exploratory talks with another caucus was most likely correct.

As for the exploratory talks, the EPP members of parliament asked Orbán about this rumor, but he refused to answer it directly. Instead, his answer was formulated as a question: “EPP is the best place, so why should [I] leave it?” And the 50-50 split within the EPP caucus also seems to be on target. Even József Szájer admitted that “not everybody supports Hungary” in the body. According to an EPP member, earlier there was a fairly large group of people within the caucus who tried to mediate between supporters and critics of Viktor Orbán. By now the EPP is much more divided on the issue. You are either for or against Orbán and his government. There is no longer a middle ground. I predict that EPP will not vote en bloc against whatever resolution the European Parliament adopts later this year.