Tag Archives: Matteo Renzi

The leaders of Visegrád 4 meet with Angela Merkel

The European Union has gone through some rough times in the last year and a half. The Brexit decision certainly shook an EU already battered by the influx of almost two million refugees and immigrants. But at least the British departure, whenever it actually happens, will not undermine the foundations of the European Union. Some commentators, in fact, think that further integration, which they consider a necessity for the long-term survival of the EU, can be more easily achieved in the absence of a reluctant United Kingdom, which in the past consistently opposed any changes to the already very loose structure of the Union.

Closer cooperation would have been necessary even without the refugee crisis, but the presence of so many asylum seekers–mostly in Greece, Italy, and Germany–makes a common policy and joint effort by the member states a must. Thus, Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to launch a series of consultations with European leaders. To date she has talked with 17 prime ministers.

Her first trip was to Italy where she, Matteo Renzi, and François Hollande met first on the Italian Aircraft Carrier Giuseppe Garibaldi and later visited the grave of Altiero Spinelli on the Island of Ventotene. There, while a prisoner of Benito Mussolini’s regime, he composed the Ventotene Manifesto “For a Free and United Europe,” which envisaged a European federation of states. After this trip Merkel continued to meet with leading politicians. From newspaper reports it looks as if they more or less agreed that greater cooperation and a common security apparatus are necessary to handle the refugee crisis. Just this past weekend she met with the prime ministers of Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, and Bulgaria. According to Miro Cerar, the Slovenian prime minister, “there was no great difference of opinion between the German chancellor and her visitors.”

Only the so-called Visegrád 4 countries are unmovable in their opposition to common action and sharing the refugee burden. Merkel traveled to Warsaw to meet the four recalcitrant prime ministers. Although Hungarians are apt to think that it is their prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who creates the most trouble within the European Union, this might not be the case. Orbán is belligerent mostly at home. Once he gets to Brussels or, in this case, to Warsaw, he remains rather subdued. His Slovak and Czech colleagues, on the other hand, were widely quoted in the western media, not in the best light. Fico, for example, said that he would “never bring even a single Muslim into his country.” Bohuslav Sobotka of the Czech Republic, although more tempered, announced that he doesn’t want a “large Muslim community—given the problems we are seeing.” Fico, just before his meeting with Merkel, had paid a visit to Moscow, after which he renewed his call for the European Union to end sanctions against Russia. The Polish foreign minister accused Germany of selfishness and an unwillingness to compromise. Poland’s deputy foreign minister, Konrad Szymański, after the meeting hit back at Angela Merkel for criticizing those member states that are refusing to give refugee protection to Muslims.

Photo by Rafal Gruz MTI/PAP

Photo by Rafal Gruz MTI/PAP

Viktor Orbán’s views didn’t receive much coverage, but at least one of the four propositions he arrived with in Warsaw–the creation of a common European army–has enjoyed some limited support. Whether the creation of a European army is his idea or not is debatable. Orbán did talk about such an army in July in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad, but apparently already in May The Financial Times reported a German plan to set up such an army. And Zsolt Gréczy of Demokratikus Koalíció claims that the idea was actually stolen from Ferenc Gyurcsány, who suggested the creation of such an army a year ago.

The reception of the other three suggestions remains unknown. Let’s start with the most weighty one which would, if accepted, reinvent the European Union by practically annulling the European Commission. To quote it verbatim, first in the original Hungarian: “az Európai Tanács vezesse és csak ő vezesse az Európai Uniót. Az Európai Bizottság a politikai szerepjátszást fejezze be.” (The European Council should lead, and it should be the only one that leads the European Union. The European Commission should end its political pretensions.) I suspect that Viktor Orbán never presented this idea in such stark terms to Angela Merkel during their talks because, as an eagle-eyed friend of mine discovered, the English translation of the above passage on the official government website reads as follows: Viktor Orbán “went on to say that institutions such as the European Council and the European Commission should go back to fulfilling their ‘original roles’.” The first one for Hungarian consumption, the second for foreigners.

His next suggestion was economic in nature. Orbán suddenly discovered the benefits of austerity. This is quite a switch from his position six years ago, when as the new prime minister he visited Brussels in the hope of getting permission to continue running a 7% deficit instead of having to bring the deficit down below 3%. Now he is a firm believer in a tight budget, which made Hungary, in his opinion, an economic success. I’m not quite sure why Orbán felt the need to lobby for the continuation of this economic policy which, according to many economists, is responsible for Europe’s sluggish economic growth. I suspect that he might be responding to a perceived movement toward an economic policy that would loosen the current restrictions for the sake of more robust economic growth. Merkel has been talking a lot lately about higher living standards that would make the European Union more attractive to Europeans.

Finally, Orbán insists that the European Union should keep pouring money into the East European countries as part of the cohesion program, which in his estimation “has been a well-proven policy.” Sure thing. Hungary’s questionable economic success is due largely to the billions of euros Budapest receives from Brussels. Naturally, he wants to keep the present agrarian subsidies as well, a program severely criticized by many experts.

Whatever the prime ministers of the Visegrád 4 countries told Angela Merkel, it didn’t sway her from her original plans for solving the crisis. It doesn’t matter what Fico said, Merkel thinks “it is wrong that some say we generally don’t want Muslims in our country, regardless of whether there’s a humanitarian need or not.” She keeps insisting that “everyone must do their part” and that “a common solution must be found.”

Meanwhile Russian propaganda against Merkel is growing. Just today sputniknews.com portrayed her as the chief obstacle to an understanding between Moscow and the European Union. According to Russian political analysts, “Merkel is a supporter of the idea that it is Germany’s natural role to become the leader of Eastern Europe … and to drive the economic development of these countries,” naturally in line with German interests. According to these political scientists, Washington is actively working to turn Germany into a stronghold of anti-Russian influence, which “means that we will have to encounter a Germany that is strengthened not only in economic and political terms but perhaps militarily as well.”

In adopting an anti-German policy, the Visegrád 4 countries are implicitly allying themselves with Russia. I think they are playing with fire.

August 29, 2016

European Union in crisis: David Cameron and Viktor Orbán

In the last few days we discussed at some length U.S.-Hungarian relations, which are not in the best of shape. We also briefly talked about the harebrained ideas of a Hungarian Catholic bishop on the death of Christian Europe. During these few days some newsworthy events took place in the European Union, the most important being British Prime Minister David Cameron’s “ultimatum” to the European Union. Analysts suspect that Cameron doesn’t really want to get to the point of holding a referendum on Great Britain’s membership in the EU but wants concessions that he can present to domestic critics of the EU. Given the fragile state of the EU, brought about first by the Greek financial collapse and now the refugee crisis, Cameron’s belligerence couldn’t have come at a worst time.

Cameron’s demands include a safeguard to prevent countries that use the euro from discriminating economically against Britain; an end to Britain’s legal commitment to pursue an “ever closer union”; and the right to restrict welfare entitlements, including benefits for low-income workers, for four years for migrants arriving from other European countries. Of these demands the last is the most troubling since it “would be a departure from current European rules stipulating that citizens of all countries in the bloc should be treated equally.” Politico.eu, on the basis of a conversation with a “diplomat familiar with the talks,” claims that the “EU leaders will offer to create a transition clause that restricts the ability of citizens of possible future EU members such as Serbia and Albania to work elsewhere in the EU.” At present there are restrictions for seven years after a country joins the bloc but, according to politico.hu‘s source, “this could be increased to as much as 20 years.”

Such a deal sounds unfair to me, although it might appease the three Visegrád countries–the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia–whose leaders have already protested loudly. After all, London is full of “economic migrants,” the overwhelming majority of whom come from poor East European countries. Witold Waszczykowski, Poland’s incoming foreign minister, finds the British move “humiliating.” Peter Javorcik, Slovakia’s ambassador to the European Union, declared that “we cannot create two categories of EU citizens.” According to Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, to put limits on the freedom of movement within the EU poses “a serious problem for the Czech Republic.”  I trust everybody noticed that Hungary said not a word on the issue.

While these leaders were objecting, the energetic Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, in an interview with Die Welt had a few harsh words of his own about the East European newcomers to the EU. He spoke about the walls that “are not protection but traps.” Renzi didn’t mince words on the behavior of the East European countries. According to him, “the Western European [politicians] paid a political price for the enlargement,” but now they are faced with uncooperative and belligerent Easterners. When the reporter brought up the intransigence of Viktor Orbán, Renzi pointed out that the dividing line on this issue is not left versus right but East versus West. There is socialist rule in the Czech Republic and Slovakia and yet they side with the right-wing Viktor Orbán and many Poles. He elaborated: “It is a geographic, not a political division between those who know Europe as a great ideal and those who primarily see it as an economic benefit.” The problem must be solved together and it will take years: “Only Marine Le Pen or other right-wing demagogues” believe that the problem can be solved in a week. I have no doubt that Renzi includes Viktor Orbán among these right-wing demagogues.


During the same period Orbán gave an interview to the Swiss Die Weltwoche in which he more or less reiterated the outlandish ideas he outlined in his recent speech about the organized nature of the refugee crisis. But this time, I think wisely, he neglected to mention the name of George Soros. He did, however, repeat his belief in a left-wing conspiracy to dilute Christian Europe. This time he also shared his conviction that the socialists of Western Europe welcome the newcomers because they will add to the shrinking voter base of leftist parties.

It seems that Orbán doesn’t have the patience to think through his pronouncements. Years and years will go by before these newcomers receive citizenship. When a large wave of immigrants arrives at the same time, the newcomers’ inclination is to vote for the party that was in power when they were admitted. This was definitely true of the 56ers in the United States and Canada. At least in the first ten or fifteen years after their arrival. Why would the Syrians, who at the moment are so grateful to Angela Merkel, vote for the socialists?

In this interview, which unfortunately is not available online and which I could read only in a Hungarian-language summary, I found two statements that shed light on Viktor Orbán’s state of mind. The first is that he pretty much acknowledges here, if only indirectly, that he has been isolated in the last few years because he “doesn’t fit in,” because he doesn’t “represent the euro-liberal mainstream.” Last night on PBS’s NewsHour I saw Viktor Orbán walking alone, one hand in his jacket pocket, at the Malta Summit, where sixty leaders gathered yesterday. The second telling sentence came at the end of the interview. He explains that the “European, civic, Christian Democratic camp is in such shambles that [he] must take upon himself the task that others cannot accomplish.” Nowhere before have I read such a bald confession of Orbán’s soaring ambition to lead Europe to accept his solution to the refugee crisis.