Viktor Orbán was evidently pleased with his administration’s impressive show of diplomatic prowess when he boasted two days ago that “This is a strong beginning to the year; in two days two prime ministers of the European Union visited Budapest.” He announced this during the press conference that he and Leo Varadkar, Taoiseach of Ireland, held on Thursday. Varadkar’s was only a quick working visit. By contrast, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was received the day before with great fanfare, which included the appearance of a colorful “huszár bandérium.”
The trip to Budapest was the first official visit of the newly appointed Polish prime minister. In addition to acknowledging the historical friendship between the two countries and to reinforcing the ideological ties that bind Kaczyński’s Poland and Orbán’s Hungary, the trip was intended to serve pragmatic interests. Under normal circumstances, Hungary has to play second fiddle to the much larger and stronger Poland, but today it is Poland that badly needs the goodwill and benevolence of Hungary. The reason is that Frans Timmermans, vice president of the European Commission, announced on December 20, 2017 that “it is with a heavy heart that we’ve decided to trigger article 7 point 1 [of the EU Treaty], but the facts leave us no choice.” The expectation in Poland is that Viktor Orbán would veto the implementation of article 7 against Poland if and when such an eventuality actually takes place. In fact, Euobserver took the Hungarian veto for granted, which might be premature because that threat didn’t come from Viktor Orbán but from Zsolt Semjén, who is prone to hyperbole. While journalists in Brussels looked upon the new Polish prime minister’s visit to Hungary as a snub, Polish commentators saw the trip very differently. The consensus is that Morawiecki traveled to Budapest to receive assurance from Viktor Orbán that the expected veto would be forthcoming. Polish diplomatic moves in the next months will depend on such assurances.
Polish commentaries reported that the Poles were expecting Viktor Orbán to say it out loud, right there, during the press conference that “he would not allow the EU to punish” Poland. But the word everybody was waiting for was not forthcoming, as the pro-government, conservative Rzeczpospolita pointed out. What follows in this article is a long list of Orbán’s sins, among them his pro-Russian policies and his demand for autonomy for the Hungarian minority in Ukraine during the Russian aggression against that country. The conclusion is that Hungary is a difficult and perhaps even unreliable ally. For the Poles, Viktor Orbán’s Facebook note, “Poland has not yet perished, So long as we still live,” didn’t mean much because these words are merely a line from the Polish national anthem, not a promise to stand by Poland.
Hungarians also noticed the absence of any mention of Article 7 in the hour-long press conference because surely, said Szabolcs Vörös of Válasz, it is hard to imagine that the matter wasn’t brought up during the conversation between the two men. Orbán mostly talked about Eastern Europe as the engine of the European economy, strong and economically successful member nations, and migration, which will spark serious debates in 2018. As for Morawiecki, his comments were even less enlightening. According to him, the two countries see eye to eye on current issues in Europe, member nations must be united on the question of Brexit, and, naturally, Poland has the same opinion on migration as Hungary does.
That wasn’t much, but what was really surprising was that no journalist who attended the press conference directed a question to either man on the crucial topic of Article 7, Poland’s current headache. But then a Polish paper, Gazeta Wiadomosci, revealed that the Polish journalists who accompanied Morawiecki to Budapest had agreed ahead of time to inquire about Article 7, but when it came time for the two questions they were allowed to ask of the two prime ministers their inquiries turned out to be trivial. The same was true of the Hungarian journalists. The paper came to the conclusion that “there was censorship in Budapest.”
It is true that Orbán subsequently gave a lengthy interview to Poland’s public television station in which he assured his audience that “Hungary stands by Poland,” whatever that means. Yet there are signs that the Poles don’t really trust Hungary as an ally. The spokeswoman of the liberal Nowoczesna, a liberal party, said in a radio interview: “I was just stunned; our diplomacy hasn’t changed at all. We entrust our security to Hungary, who sides with Russia. It is sad that we had to go to Hungary for Orbán’s veto, which at the end we didn’t get.”
The most detailed analysis of current Polish-Hungarian relations appeared in Független Hírügynökség. The article is simply signed as “Sikorsky,” although I suspect the author is Hungarian, someone who seems to be thoroughly familiar with Polish as well as Slovak and Czech affairs. In his opinion, the Czechs and Slovaks believed that Morawiecki’s trip to Budapest was first and foremost “a message to Brussels” that Hungary stands squarely behind Poland, and that was most likely the expectation of the Polish government as well. The new government spokesman, Michał Dworczyk, told the Polish Press Agency (PAP) that the dispute between Warsaw and Brussels will be “among the most important items on the agenda.” In fact, he pretty well admitted that it was the real purpose of the meeting. The Polish prime minister wanted to have assurances of a solid alliance before he faced the European Commission.
After Orbán’s silence, several commentaries appeared in the Visegrád countries, among them one in the Slovak Pravda, in which Ivan Drábek reminded people that the leaders of PiS haven’t forgotten Orbán’s duplicity when, instead of keeping his promise to Poland to block the reelection of Donald Tusk, he actually supported Tusk’s appointment as president of the European Council. The Polish Gazeta Wyborcza’s editorial also considers Hungary an unreliable ally. According to the author, Poland needs an ally that would be a reliable partner in the long run against both Russia and Germany. A Hungarian commentator in Népszava in a different context talked about Morawiecki and Orbán as two fantasts. Such a designation might be true of the Poles, who dream of being a great power between Russia and Germany, but it is certainly not true of Orbán, who is an unsentimental pragmatist. If he decides that it is not in his interest to support Poland, he will abandon the country without a second thought. He might already have done so.