I really hate leaving the topic of the teachers’ revolt because I am convinced that this is an important event that may have lasting consequences in the political life of Hungary. Of course, we will return to the subject by Saturday at the latest. But, although Hungarians in the eighteenth century liked to think that “extra Hungariam non est vita, si est vita, non est ita” (there is no life outside of Hungary and if there is, it is not the same), the world is currently teeming with events that may have a substantial impact on Hungary, which Viktor Orbán is trying to insulate from the rest of the world.
I think it is patently obvious by now that the Hungarian prime minister imagines himself to be a key player on the world stage. In the last few weeks he has positioned himself as a counterweight to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, offering an alternative policy of how to handle the refugee issue.
Russian bombers are furiously attacking moderate opposition forces in Syria, driving tens of thousands more people into exile in Turkey and thereby swelling the number of refugees who are embarking on the dangerous voyage to Greece and from there to points farther north. In bombing Aleppo, Russia is wittingly or unwittingly exacerbating the crisis within the European Union, fueled in no small measure by Viktor Orbán himself. Clearly, Europe must find a solution to the crisis. It’s not that even two or three million people couldn’t be absorbed by a region of 500 million inhabitants, but such numbers, especially if the refugees swarm into only one or two countries, can become unmanageable. So, the influx must be slowed and regulated.
Currently there are two very different concepts in circulation regarding the defense of the European Union’s external borders. One is an orderly resettlement of refugees, which involves slowing the influx of refugees by controlling the Aegean Sea. This idea is supported by Angela Merkel. The other is “the brainchild” of Viktor Orbán and is supported by some of the Central European politicians. The greatest supporter of Orbán’s scheme is Miro Cerar, prime minister of Slovenia. This involves constructing an insurmountable fence between Greece and her three neighbors: Macedonia, Albania, and Bulgaria. Which of these two plans has the better chance of being approved at the end of the day? Most observers think that Orbán’s plan will fail because “it would needlessly and unfairly antagonize Greece, destabilize the Western Balkans, and create a huge demand for readily available smuggling services.” In addition, it would require a fence as long as and as sturdy as that between Israel and Egypt that took three years to build. It would also entail a willingness to use deadly force.
As the result of Orbán’s masterplan, Hungary’s relations with Greece are strained. How tense they are became public only very recently when Nikos Xydakis, the Greek deputy foreign minister for European affairs, paid a visit to Budapest. The Greek foreign ministry announced on February 8 that Xydakis, whom the Greeks call “alternate minister,” was to visit Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary. In Austria he had a meeting scheduled with Minister of the Interior Johanna Mikl-Leitner and the secretary-general of the Austrian foreign ministry, Michael Linhart. From Vienna he was to travel to Slovakia, where he was to have a meeting with Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák and Deputy Foreign Minister for European Affairs, Ivan Korčok. Finally, he was to meet with officials in Budapest.
Xydakis got a mouthful from Johanna Mikl-Leitner, who severely criticized Greek measures taken in keeping the refugees at bay. She “wanted to know why the Greek leadership did not use its deployment-ready naval fleet for civilian purposes.” In Bratislava, where he met with the foreign minister himself, he had an easier time. Their meeting was described as friendly. Instead of criticizing Greece, the Slovak foreign minister wanted to hear about Greece’s refugee management.
In Hungary Xydakis had three meetings. One was with Interior Minister Sándor Pintér, the second with Levente Magyar, deputy to Péter Szijjártó, and the third with Szabolcs Ferenc Takács, undersecretary in charge of European affairs. We don’t know what transpired at these talks, but Xydakis wasn’t in a very good mood when Népszabadság asked him for an interview. He minced no words, calling Hungarian policy towards Greece “hostile.” Hungary hasn’t even sent one tent to Greece, and it contributed only five policemen to the staff of Frontex’s mission. At the same time Hungary sent 100 km of barbed wire and 31 soldiers and policemen to assist in the building of a fence along the Greek-Macedonian border. “This was a political decision, which we consider to be a hostile act from a NATO ally and an EU partner whom we considered our friend. The Macedonian and Bulgarian action is unfriendly, but it understandable that they want to defend their own borders. What, however, is unacceptable is that other EU countries send policemen and soldiers to the Macedonian-Greek and Bulgarian-Greek borders. Who is the enemy? We, the Greeks?”
From the interview we learned that both Vienna and Bratislava offered material aid to Greece, which has had an influx of almost a million refugees. In Budapest Pintér offered nothing. He said only that he will take a look at the list of items Greece desperately needs. Xydakis also reported during the interview that German-Greek relations, which during the Greek financial crisis were severely strained, have improved greatly. The refugee crisis has brought Germany and Greece closer, and today they work hand in hand because collaboration is an absolute necessity under the present circumstances.
In Xydakis the Hungarians found somebody who is not like the usual overly cautious and overly diplomatic West European politicians. Xydakis, who is relatively new to politics, used to be the editor-in-chief of Greece’s premier daily Kathimerini. Knowing the Orbán regime’s policy of immediate counterattack at the slightest criticism of its policies, you can imagine what Péter Szijjártó had to say after reading this interview. The diatribe against Greece was long, but one can summarize it easily: Greece has no right to give lessons on solidarity. It is entirely Greece’s fault that Europe is defenseless because Greece isn’t fulfilling its obligations. Hungary had the remedy from the very beginning: one needs soldiers, policemen, ships, helicopters, airplanes, not Frontex officials. If Europe is ready to defend the border by force, Hungary is ready to contribute to the effort.
I wonder what Szijjártó thinks now that a few hours ago the decision was made to deploy the NATO fleet to the Aegean Sea. The decision was made right after Greece declared Turkey a “safe third country,” which gives it the legal framework to turn back asylum-seekers arriving through Turkey. The fleet, which is currently under German command, “will be tasked to conduct reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance of the illegal crossings in the Aegean sea.” It seems that the West, which has been so severely criticized by Orbán, is quite capable of acting without his assistance. The idea of keeping Greece under quarantine failed. I wonder what will happen to the 100 km of barbed wire Budapest sent to the Macedonian border.