Tag Archives: Manfred Weber

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

Situation report on the fight for Central European University

Yesterday Diana Ürge-Vorsatz, director of the Center for Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Policy at Central European University who as a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, wrote a bitter letter on her Facebook page. She said that she and her husband left the United States in 2001 at considerable financial sacrifice in order for her to return to Hungary and join the faculty of CEU as an associate professor. It was a dream come true until April 4, 2017. As of that date, she finds herself part of an institution that “meddles in the internal affairs of Hungary and represents foreign interests.” What she finds most disappointing is that “colleagues, friends, and family don’t stand by her wholeheartedly.” They keep saying “the laws must be observed, and their glances indicate disapproval. Or, ‘I’m sorry; I don’t dare because I may be blacklisted.’”

Honest words, an honest description of what’s going on in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, but one must ask: Dear Diana, how is it possible that you haven’t noticed that something is very wrong with the party you dutifully voted for every four years? How is it that you as a proud Christian who gave birth to seven children and who, as you feel necessary to mention, “all attend parochial schools,” haven’t realized that this government’s alleged Christianity is hollow? Is it only now, when your own job is at stake, that you discover that something is wrong with the government you helped keep in power? Her statement ends with a whimper: “I am grateful for the support of those who dared to speak, dared to demonstrate, dared to share. Many of them are government-honoring [kormánytisztelő] Christian citizens, who for the first time said that this shouldn’t have been done.”

Fortunately most members of CEU’s administration, beginning with its president, Michael Ignatieff, are determined to fight and win. The contrast between the timid Hungarian academics and the international administration and faculty of CEU couldn’t be greater. Although President Ignatieff and Provost Liviu Matei have emphasized the support they have received from Hungarian colleagues and other Hungarian institutions of higher learning, the truth is that few have stood by CEU. Most of them have been quiet, but there was one “chancellor”—a newly appointed government watchdog over and above the university president and the senate—who outright welcomed the move of the government against CEU. The chancellor of the University of Debrecen pointed out that other Hungarian universities are at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting foreign students because of CEU’s ability to grant American degrees. The administration of Corvinus University was not exactly supportive either. President András Lánczi, the man who got the job as president of the university at the express wish of Viktor Orbán, also stressed the need for “a level legal playing field” for all Hungarian universities. It is true that 250 students and members of Corvinus University’s faculty published a supporting statement, but András Lánczi immediately fired off an e-mail reminding them of the university’s “ethical code,” which obliges members of the university community to maintain the good name of the university in their communications with the world.

Meanwhile the government is doing its best to mislead and intimidate. Two days ago an incredible number of policemen surrounded the parliament building on the occasion of the second demonstration in support of CEU. What was most disturbing was that in front of the row of policemen were apparent civilian strongmen who, as a video shows, provoked some members of the crowd. As it turned out, they were plainclothes policemen. While the uniformed police stood by motionless, these characters were belligerent. Almost as if they wanted to create a reason to arrest a few of the demonstrators. After a while they were recalled by a man in civilian clothes standing behind the police lines.

Last night two organizers of the demonstrations, a Hungarian and a foreigner, received unexpected visits from the police. Government papers want the public to believe that the demonstrators were almost exclusively foreigners. Magyar Hírlap­ reported that the government, as a result of the protest against the treatment of CEU, will be able to uncover the whole Soros network, which engages in such activities as “destabilization efforts by CEU graduates in states along the migration route, for example in Macedonia and Albania.”

The “parrot commando” keeps repeating the same false accusations against CEU, which they persist in calling Soros University. Until recently, László Palkovics, who is in charge of higher education, was given the task of explaining how eminently rational the Hungarian government’s position on CEU is. He steadfastly refused to admit that the amendments’ real purpose was to drive CEU out of the country. On the other hand, his boss, Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, at last told the truth in a radio interview. “There is no need to beat around the bush. There is no need to hide. We ought to say straight out that we don’t want Central European University to function in its present form.” He added that if the United States and CEU want to continue in the present legal framework, “they have to invest.” That is, build a brand new campus in the United States.

The outcome envisaged by Balog is unlikely to materialize. President Michael Ignatieff is in the United States at present and, according to the latest news, has already conferred with Thomas A. Shannon, undersecretary of state for political affairs in the State Department, and Hoyt Brian Yee, deputy assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. (Ignatieff was certainly more successful at the State Department than Hungary’s foreign minister, who visited Washington about two weeks ago and couldn’t meet with anyone at the Foggy Bottom.) He also talked with Fiona Hill, a member of the White House’s National Security Council who advises the president on European and Russian affairs. Next, Ignatieff is off to Berlin and, I trust, to Brussels as well. Angela Merkel’s spokesman already articulated the German government’s position on the matter.

Meeting with Thomas A. Shannon, undersecretary for political affairs

The European Parliament is also responding. Five of the eight political formations have condemned the Hungarian government’s attack on CEU. Even within the caucus of the European People’s Party (EPP), to which the 12-member Fidesz delegation belongs, a storm is brewing. It was the leader of the Fidesz group, József Szájer, who provoked the storm by writing an e-mail to the other members of the EPP caucus in which the Fidesz members contended that critics of the law have been “gravely mislead (sic) by the propaganda and private agenda of the American billionaire Soros” and are fighting with a “virtual reality.” They added that “as in the world of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, there are the equals and there are some more equals (sic) than others.” This e-mail apparently prompted an angry reaction. EPP’s leader, Manfred Weber, tweeted that “Freedom of thinking, research and speech are essential for our European identity. EPP group will defend this at any cost.” Frank Engel, a member of the EPP from Luxembourg, was less polite. He replied in an e-mail: “Forget the crap. We know what is happening, and why. Why don’t you leave both the EPP and the EU on your own terms? … You’re practically and factually out anyway. So go. Please go.”

Time and again the European People’s Party caucus has saved Viktor Orbán’s skin in Brussels. It has been reluctant to expel its Fidesz members, who really don’t belong in this group. The Fidesz delegation would feel much more at home in the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists of Europe, joining their Polish and euroskeptic British friends. But the EPP doesn’t want to lose 12 members from its caucus. Although it is the largest in the European Parliament, its lead is not overwhelming. Still, even without Fidesz it would remain the largest caucus, with 205 members. The Socialists and Democrats have 189 members. To shield a dictatorial regime for the sake of a few votes is too high a price to pay.

April 6, 2017

Jean Asselborn calls for the expulsion of Orbán’s Hungary from the EU

Only a few hours have gone by since Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn gave an interview to Die Welt in which he called for the temporary or permanent expulsion of Hungary from the European Union. But the number of articles on the story is already in the hundreds, in the Hungarian as well as the international media. Asselborn argued that Hungary’s leaving was “the only way to preserve the cohesion and values of the European Union.” The EU shouldn’t tolerate such misconduct as “the treatment of the refugees, the massive violation of the freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary.” Asselborn would like to see a change of EU rules that would allow “the suspension of membership of an EU country without unanimity.”

Asselborn is especially appalled by the treatment of those fleeing war, who “are being treated almost worse than wild animals.” In his opinion, “Hungary is not far away from introducing a firing order against the refugees.” Once he finished with the sins of the Hungarian government, he turned to the person of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whom he made responsible for the perception that, although in words the EU is supposed to be the defender of basic human values, it tolerates the existence of a regime represented by Orbán.

The letter Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó sent from Moldavia was, as Index pointed out, anything but politically correct. “We already knew that Jean Asselborn is not someone who should be taken seriously. He lives only a few kilometers from Brussels and it shows. He is patronizing, arrogant, and frustrated…. As a run-of-the-mill nihilist he tirelessly works on the ruination of European security and culture.” The description of EU politicians as the “nihilists of Brussels” is of very recent coinage. Viktor Orbán used it yesterday in his speech at the opening of the new session of the parliament. The image apparently comes from Aleksandr Dugin, the Russian political scientist whose views have been described as fascist.

Jean Asselborn and Péter Szijjártó, September 21, 2015 / MTI Photo Márton Kovács

Jean Asselborn and Péter Szijjártó, September 21, 2015 / MTI / Photo Márton Kovács

The very first person who came to the defense of Orbán was Jiří Ovčáček, the spokesman of Miloš Zeman, the notoriously anti-EU and pro-Russian president of the Czech Republic. Zeman’s support only further emphasizes how far out of the European mainstream Viktor Orbán is with his views.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steimeier tried to calm the situation. He pointed out that “there is no agreed position” within the Union on the treatment of Hungary, but he added that he “can understand, looking at Hungary, that some people in Europe are getting impatient.” Steimeier is a social democrat who most likely shares Asselborn’s feelings toward Viktor Orbán and his regime but is far more diplomatic.

Soon enough, however, German politicians on the right began to line up behind Orbán. The first of these was Manfred Weber, head of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament. Although occasionally Weber has been mildly critical of the Hungarian prime minister, this time he defended him quite vigorously, pointing out that “Hungary has always carried out all the decisions” of the European Union. On the other hand, he severely criticized the Polish government for its attempt to undermine the rule of law in Poland. An indefensible position, I must say, considering that in the last six and a half years Viktor Orbán has completely destroyed Hungarian democracy and has introduced an autocratic system without any semblance of the rule of law. Weber’s lopsided view is undoubtedly due to the fact that the Polish PiS members don’t sit in his EPP caucus.

The German Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) naturally supports Orbán’s Hungary. The party’s deputy chairman called Asselborn’s demand “grotesque” and added that Orbán should be awarded the Charlemagne Prize. This suggestion is especially amusing in light of the fact that the last two recipients of the prize were Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, and Pope Francis. Orbán at the moment is accusing Schulz of conspiring with socialist Hungarian mayors to smuggle migrants into the country, and we know what the general opinion is in Fidesz circles of the pope who doesn’t understand Europe and is a naïve socialist.

Soon enough Austrian politicians also spoke up in defense of Orbán. Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz considered Asselborn’s statement “unacceptable,” but as I read MTI’s summary of his statement he mostly objected to the fact that Asselborn criticized Orbán and his policies in public and expressed his belief that the topic may come up in Bratislava at the end of this week at the meeting of the European Council. The other Austrian who spoke on the issue in favor of Orbán was Hans-Christian Strache, the chairman of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party.

Too little time has gone by since the appearance of the Asselborn interview for foreign policy analysts to assess the significance of Asselborn’s harsh criticism of Orbán, with the exception of a partisan pro-Orbán piece written by Bálint Ablonczy of Válasz.

Asselborn’s dislike of Orbán is legendary, and this is not the first time that he has openly and harshly criticized the Hungarian prime minister. In 2010 he was one of the first critics of the media law, which he claimed “directly threatens democracy.” In 2012 he raised his voice against the introduction of a new constitution and called Hungary “a blot on the European Union.” In 2015 he suggested placing Orbán in diplomatic quarantine.

Asselborn, who has been in politics ever since the age of eighteen, has been foreign minister since 2004. He is also a close friend Jean-Claude Juncker. Of course, the question is how many people share his view of Orbán in Brussels and elsewhere. According to Hungarian opposition EP members, the anti-Orbán voices are growing, but this might just be wishful thinking.

Although no serious commentary on the Asselborn interview has yet been published, an “open letter from a potential refugee” appeared in Kolozsvári Szalonna, which is as intriguing a site as its name, which means Kolozsvár (Cluj) bacon. It was published both in Hungarian and in English. In it, the author, who calls himself István Kósi, explains to Asselborn how the Hungarian public is misled and how it has become “radicalized, fanaticized,” which can be compared only to the 1940s. The far-right shift then “led to gruesome consequences, so you probably understand why many of us are so worried this time.” He concludes the letter with these words: “Let’s throw them out of the EU, out of Europe in general, and out of the planet.” The author describes himself “as a citizen of the European Union and Hungary, potential refugee in the near future—unless something is being done by those capable of effectively doing anything at all.”

I believe that a lot of people share this sentiment, but only an iconoclastic site like Kolozsvári Szalonna will actually publish something that openly supports Asselborn’s suggestion. I’m curiously waiting to see how the opposition party leaders react and how they indicate that they are in favor of some kind of censure without going as far as Asselborn.

September 13, 2016

Will the European People’s Party abandon Viktor Orbán? Unlikely

Time and again the Hungarian media gets hold of news, which in the end turns out to be unfounded, that Fidesz will be expelled from the European People’s Party. The first article in my data base is from October 2012 when Népszabadság reported that Viktor Orbán, who had been one of the deputy chairmen of the European People’s Party, decided not to be renominated for the post. At that time analysts came to the conclusion that if Orbán decided to run for the post he most likely would still win but that there was a growing number of people who thought that Orbán was too confrontational, someone who didn’t quite fit in. It was possible that leading members of the EPP delegation actually informed Orbán of these reservations. A few months later, in May 2013, the Frankfurter Rundschau reported that the expulsion of Fidesz from EPP was seriously being contemplated because of Viktor Orbán’s “trampling on European values.”

If there were such voices in what Jan-Werner Müller called a “deeply dysfunctional” party, they remained in the minority. Today EPP is the largest delegation in the 751-member European Parliament with 274 members, 14 of whom come from Fidesz. If these 14 were forced or decided to leave on their own, EPP would still remain the biggest caucus. Yet it looks as if most of the Christian Democrats are unwilling to part ways with their Hungarian colleagues.

A few days ago rumors of the possible departure of Fidesz members from EPP began to circulate again. The Europe Society of Hungary held a conference in Brussels about “illiberal democracies” under the sponsorship of the Open Society Foundation and the German liberal Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit. During the conference an unnamed but “first-hand” source claimed that “the place of Fidesz in the EPP delegation might be in danger” unless Viktor Orbán unambiguously declares his commitment to European values. The EPP delegation, he said, expects Orbán to give a clear answer at the forthcoming meeting of the governing body of EPP in Budapest.

The day arrived. Yesterday Orbán gave a long interview to Napi Gazdaság, the new government daily, in which he mostly talked about domestic policy. He promised to steer a calmer course than the one his government followed in the past five years. The little he said about Hungary’s relations with Brussels, however, didn’t sound very promising. Regardless of what he told the EPP leadership today, he said he is planning to continue his fight for Hungary’s sovereignty because “the Hungarian people are in a constant state of endangerment.” As long as the financial, energy, media, and food sectors are in foreign hands, Hungarian sovereignty is just a fiction. This statement belies the domestic calm Orbán now promises. As far as the European Union is concerned, those people who believe Viktor Orbán’s promises will again be disappointed. European values will continue to be trampled on.

Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP caucus, and Viktor Orbán had a long talk over breakfast where Orbán, as was expected, promised everything Weber wanted to hear and perhaps even more. In no time Weber was convinced that Orbán never really meant to introduce capital punishment, which is probably true because Orbán is a master of double talk. One of his really bad blunders was his reference to “illiberal democracy,” which couldn’t be remedied by claiming later that the word “illiberal” in English doesn’t really mean “illiberal.” After he cleared the capital punishment hurdle, he laid it on thick: “The best possible cooperation with the strongest party of Europe, the European People’s Party and its parliamentary delegation, is in the strongest national interest of Hungary.” As he put it, “There is no Europe, there is no European politics, there is no European Union without the European People’s Party.”

Photo Simon Móricz-Sabján / Népszabadság

Photo Simon Móricz-Sabján / Népszabadság

All this praise was necessary to calm the waters in Brussels, where apparently Orbán had a very hard time at a meeting with the EPP MEPs after his appearance in the European Parliament a couple of weeks ago. But in Budapest the leading members of EPP were unwilling to say anything about Fidesz-EPP relations. As Népszabadság put it, “they remained awkwardly silent about Orbán.”

This is not the end of the story, however. Next week the European Parliament will vote on the Hungarian situation, and the European People’s Party will put forth a resolution reflecting their own attitude toward the question. This resolution is much more sharply worded than any previous ones coming from the party. I will quote here only some of the more important sections. The EPP caucus

4. Affirms Members States’ sovereign right to launch national consultations and engage their citizens in a dialogue on issues which are of great importance and have a direct impact on them; recalls that consultations should reflect the readiness of governments to exercise responsible governance aimed at securing democratic political solutions and respect for fundamental European values;

5. Believes, however, that the content and language of the particular consultation launched in Hungary, on immigration and terrorism, are highly misleading, biased and unbalanced; regrets the fact that it casts blame on the EU institutions and their policies, whereas the responsibility lies with the Member States, and recalls that the Member States are fully involved in the EU legislative process;

8. Recalls that the EU is faced with complex international challenges that require strong cooperation across borders, a willingness to exercise realistic solidarity, and a readiness to take responsible action; believes that the EU can only influence strong actors in other parts of the world, with their different values and political systems, when it shows unity in the most important fields;

9. Invites all Member States to participate in a constructive manner in the current discussion on the European Agenda on Migration, which affects equally internal, external and development policies that have to be implemented in the EU and consequently impact on the African continent and the Middle East;

For some time now there has been talk about Orbán moving the entire 14-member Fidesz caucus over to the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR), where the bulk of the delegation of 70 comes from the United Kingdom and Poland, if the EPP caucus is too hard on him and his policies or if the decision is reached to expel Fidesz MEPs from the caucus. People seem to know that Orbán has made some overtures to ECR and that ECR was also interested in gaining 14 new bodies for its parliamentary delegation. If one takes a look at the resolution for next week’s parliamentary discussion on Hungary which ECR submitted, one can see that, although ECR earlier was very hard on Orbán because of his pro-Russian policy, this time it decided not to take a strong position against the Hungarian government. I will quote here only the passages that relate to the national consultation on immigration and terrorism:

2. Affirms that the Member States also have a sovereign competence to establish their own laws and to hold their own democratic debates and consultations with the electorate at a national level; stresses that this principle is consistent with the sovereignty of a democratically elected government;

3. Supports the Commission’s role, as the guardian of the Treaties, in ensuring that national legislation, including that of Hungary, is in conformity with both the EU Treaties and basic European democratic values and human rights;

4. Stresses the importance of any evaluation and analysis carried out by the Commission and Parliament as to the situation in individual Member States being fact-based and balanced;

More than five years have gone by since Viktor Orbán began his crusade against the European Union and against Hungarian democracy. He encountered no serious opposition despite the fact that everybody must know by now that Hungarian democracy is in tatters. As long as the European People’s Party stands by him, Orbán will continue to flout the European Union, which doles out the money that keeps a mini-dictator in power.