Tag Archives: Mariano Rajoy

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

Viktor Orbán: “We are not nice guys from the mainstream”

The Hungarian government responded to a very tough letter from José Manuel Barroso by making a couple of new amendments to the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. The first states that the limitation on political advertisement on commercial electronic media will be restricted to national elections and will not apply to the European parliamentary elections. The second amendment prohibits the president of the National Judicial Office from moving cases from one court to another when the case raises an issue of European law.

According to legal experts, this was a shrewd move on the part of the Hungarian government. By removing amendments that would have been in direct violation of European laws, Hungary has made the European Union’s case against it much harder. Most non-legal types, of course, think that this move only highlights the Hungarian government’s cynical authoritarianism. The opposition will be unable to campaign effectively while the government, with its practically unlimited ways of advertising itself, will dominate campaign rhetoric. And sensitive (especially political) cases will still be referred to government-friendly judges.

But while the Orbán government put on its cooperative face (or mask) in order to avoid what seemed only a few days ago to be unavoidable armageddon in Brussels, it also launched an aggressive PR blitz. Just today three different Orbán interviews appeared: in the German Die Welt and Die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Austrian Die Kurier. In all three he said that for the time being he has no interest in a dialogue with Brussels. “Once they read it … we can talk about the concrete issues.” For good measure he added that “we are democrats who believe in the force of reason.”

Die Welt entitled its interview “Orbán holzt gegen die EU” (Orbán plays rough against the EU). Orbán’s latest favorite expression is “We are not nice guys from the mainstream” (Wir sind keine netten Kerle vom Mainstream), something I don’t think he has to explain to the politicians of Western Europe. For good measure he added that he is a civilized man; after all, “he can eat with a knife and fork.”

So, it seems that Orbán is getting the idea that some of his colleagues abroad look down on him. It is these cultural differences that a Hungarian journalist explored when analyzing Barroso’s latest letter to Orbán. According to him, Barroso learned a lot in these last two years. He now knows that he cannot treat Orbán as he does the prime ministers of other European member countries. “It took the Roman emperor some time before he found out that the king of the Visigoths lies even when he poses a question and that it is much more effective to smash his head with an ax. But by then Roman civilization had had it.”

Orbán then began his usual tirade against the deficiencies of Europe. In our changed world the European model is no longer competitive. The current economic system that “allocates functions between market and state is simply false,” which is a roundabout way of saying that the solution to our current economic problems is greater state ownership. Later in the interview he was a bit more direct about the connection between  market and state. “In the neo-liberalism of the past two decades the market had priority and the state was deprived of important areas.” Unfortunately, we can already see signs of his grandiose plans for nationalization in Hungary.

In the FAZ interview he talked at length about the importance and strength of the nation state. He went on and on about the European Union’s being too rigid and inflexible when it is perfectly clear that European politicians have no solution to Europe’s current problems. As for Die Kurier, he tooted his own horn as is his wont. He is a problem solver. Hungary is a success story. The trouble is that the figures don’t support his contention, but the spin sounds good and perhaps some people believe it. And that’s enough for him.

Orbán spent yesterday and this morning in Spain. Yesterday he delivered a lecture on Christian Europe and this morning he talked with Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy. From the descriptions of the meeting I gather that there was no joint press conference; it seems that Orbán talked only to Hungarian journalists after the meeting. He told them that he had made it clear to Rajoy that Hungary “insists on going on its own way as far as economic policy is concerned and as long as Hungary doesn’t belong to the eurozone.” In brief, the European Union should dole out the money and they should be able to do anything they want with it.

Finally, a few words about Orbán’s lecture at the conference on “Catholics in public life” held in Bilbaó. Orbán is not a Catholic; presumably he was baptized as a Calvinist. His wife is Catholic, but when they were married in the late 1980s they didn’t see the need to get married in a church. Moreover, their children were not baptized as infants. By now, however, he finds great support in the Hungarian Catholic Church and portrays himself as a religious man who wants to transform all those non-religious Hungarians into practicing Christians. Preferably Catholics, it seems. I suspect that his attachment to the Catholic Church is mere political calculation. After all, it is the largest religion in the country.

Christians in Europe and elsewhere, 1900-2050 The trend doesn't support Viktor Orbán's vision for Christian Europe

Christians in Europe and elsewhere, 1900-2050
The trend doesn’t support Viktor Orbán’s vision for a Christian Europe

So, let’s see what he had to say about European society and religion in this lecture. Europe is the only continent in the world where a large part of the political elite thinks that they are able to organize their world without God and divine providence. “Today in Europe an aggressive secular political vision reigns” which is called progress, and in Brussels most of the politicians think that “this should be the future.” These people, wittingly or unwittingly, are building a society without God; they think that religion is only a supplement to individual lifestyle. “The European people can’t get rid of the Christianity in their heads and therefore there is no use forcing a new common European identity on them that doesn’t accept the fundamental fact that it is the Biblical story that is the moral foundation of European life.”

I could go on and on about Orbán’s vision for a Christian Europe, but most of it is not worth repeating.  One sidenote, however. According to Orbán, “Europe needs a religious revival because otherwise it will not be able to be economically competitive again.” I wonder whether Orbán ever read Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I doubt it, but if Weber’s theory has any foundation Orbán shouldn’t be looking for it in Catholic Spain.

One more interesting slip of the tongue by Orbán. He received a question about the new constitution. He admitted that the majority of the population didn’t want a Christian constitution, but eventually he was able to convince them to accept a constitution based on Christian values. He managed to achieve this through national consultations. In plain language, Hungarian society is secular and most Hungarians would have been quite happy with a secular constitution, but with its two-thirds majority Fidesz managed to push it through nonetheless. Well, yes. This is exactly what happened.