Tag Archives: Poland

Viktor Orbán turns his back on the Polish government

Although Viktor Orbán’s press conference this morning was anything but upbeat, a few hours later both the Polish left and right in addition to the Hungarian government media were full of praise for the prime minister’s superb diplomatic talents. In a Polish conservative opinion piece he was called the Talleyrand of our times who has been winning every major battle with “raging liberals and the Left in Europe.” He is a man who knows what Realpolitik is all about. Why this praise? Orbán had the good sense not to support the Szydło government in its hopeless fight against the reelection of Donald Tusk as president of the European Council.

Donald Tusk, who served as prime minister of Poland between 2007 and 2014, is the bête-noire of Jarosław Kaczyński, chairman of the Law and Justice party. Kaczyński’s enmity toward Tusk has a long history. First of all, at one point the two men were political rivals. Second, Kaczyński, who is convinced that the Russians were responsible for the death of his twin brother, President Lech Kaczyński, in 2010 when his plane went down in Russia, considers Tusk “politically responsible” for his brother’s death by allowing the Russians to investigate the case ahead of the Poles. But perhaps what is even more important, the far-right Polish government accuses Tusk, as president of the European Council, of wanting to bring down the right-wing Szydło government. The current Polish leadership decided to resist the reelection of the man who dared to criticize the present government in defense of democracy. Mind you, Tusk is not a “flaming liberal.” His party, the Civic Platform, is right of center.

Warsaw put up a counter-candidate–Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, like Tusk a Civic Platform member of the European People’s Party. To understand the dynamics of the situation we must keep in mind that the EP members of Kaczyński’s Law and Justice party belong to the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), basically a Euroskeptic lot. ECR doesn’t have the gravitas of EPP, to which Fidesz EP representatives also belong.

The Polish plan to block Tusk’s reelection didn’t go as planned. As soon as Saryusz-Wolski’s nomination was announced, he was removed from Civic Platform. And EPP removed him from all responsibilities within the party.

After this somewhat lengthy introduction let me turn to Viktor Orbán’s role in this ill-fated Polish political maneuver. Apparently, Warsaw was counting on Great Britain and the Visegrád Four for support. But it became apparent soon enough that neither Slovakia nor the Czech Republic would support Saryusz-Wolski’s nomination. The Polish government still hoped that Viktor Orbán would stand by their side, especially since, as we learned this morning from Viktor Orbán himself, at one point he promised that he would vote against Tusk. Orbán didn’t keep that promise.

As Orbán explained at his press conference in Brussels, since EPP’s only candidate was Tusk and since Fidesz is a constituent part of EPP, he had no choice. This is how the European Parliament functions, he explained. Otherwise, he claimed that he had tried his best to broker a deal but, unfortunately, he failed. He added that a couple of days ago he had informed the Polish government of his decision to vote for Tusk because circumstances didn’t allow him to do anything else.

Well, as usual, Viktor Orbán didn’t tell the whole truth. It wasn’t party protocol that forced him to vote as he did since there was another important European Council vote where he did not support the EPP candidate. I’m talking about the election of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission in June 2014. Juncker was EPP’s candidate for the post. At that time David Cameron and Viktor Orbán voted against Juncker, which didn’t prevent him from getting the job. Then, perhaps feeling safe under the protective wing of Cameron, Orbán had no trouble voting against the favored candidate. So his decision had nothing to do with party obligations. Moreover, he could have voted against Tusk as a gesture to his Polish friends because his “no” vote wouldn’t have made any difference: Tusk would have been elected anyway. But, for reasons known only to him, he decided to go with the flow. He even went so far in his press conference as to laud the European Union as the best place to live in the whole wide world. It is a place where people can be truly happy and satisfied with life. A rather amusing comment considering all his earlier talk about the EU being in decline with the attendant miseries for the people.

I don’t want to dwell on the foolish behavior of the Polish government, but I’m afraid the Polish media’s unanimous condemnation of their government’s incompetence is well deserved. The Polish government should be only too well aware of the misfortunes that have befallen the country as a result of the territorial ambitions of its neighbors. Poland is rightfully worried about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But then common sense would dictate good relations with the countries of Western Europe, especially with Germany. Yet the current Polish government treats Germany like its enemy. Perhaps this disastrous defeat will be a wake-up call, but the mindset of the present Polish political leadership doesn’t inspire confidence that it will happen any time soon.

In addition to the Polish fiasco, Orbán covered two other topics at some length in his press conference. One was the “migrant issue,” which had elicited widespread condemnation in the media and in international organizations involved with the refugee crisis and human rights. It turned out that the matter of the amendment to the Asylum Law came up during the summit. As Orbán described it, he “informed the prime ministers about the new [asylum] law, who didn’t raise any objections and did not protest.” He took this as a good sign, adding that the real fight will be with the bureaucrats of the European Union. Whether this silence was a sign of approval or an indication of a reluctance to get into a discussion of the issue we don’t know.

Orbán then explained the real meaning of the detention centers, which he compared to airports as transit zones. He was again quite explicit about the differences between the attitudes of the Hungarian government and the European Union when it comes to the refugee crisis. Hungary’s goal is not to handle the issue “humanely,” which the EU insists on, but to make sure that the refugees are stopped.

The other topic was the most recent conflict between Austria and Hungary. As is well known, an incredible number of Hungarians work in Austria. In 2016 more than 63,500 Hungarians lived in Austria, in addition to those who live in Hungary but cross the border daily to work on the other side. The Austrians recently floated the idea that Romanian, Hungarian and Czech employees would not receive extra family benefits. The Hungarians claim that as a result of such a new law Hungarian workers would receive 50% less than native Austrians for the same work. This is unacceptable for Hungary. Sophie Karmasin, the Austrian minister responsible for family affairs, visited Hungary only yesterday, and Viktor Orbán set up a meeting with Chancellor Christian Kern while in Brussels. On this topic, Orbán was forceful. He called the issue “a serious conflict” which he will take all the way to the top, meaning the European Commission and even the European Court of Justice. Hungarians cannot be discriminated against. If the Austrians discriminate against Hungarians, “we will respond in kind.” That is, if the Austrians proceed with this cut in family benefits, the Hungarian government will make certain that opportunities for Austrian businesses in Hungary will be curtailed. So, if I understand it correctly, Orbán fights against the European Commission at every turn, but once he feels that Hungarian citizens are being slighted he is ready to appeal for protection from the European Union.

March 10, 2017

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

Not on Viktor Orbán’s Christmas list: A European Public Prosecutor

The establishment of a European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) has been on the table since at least 2013. In the last three years, despite intensive negotiations, progress has been slow because of the resistance of some of the member states, among them Hungary. As it stands, in order to create EPPO 25 member states have to support the proposal because the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Denmark have opted out. According to reports, 20 member states support the plan while Poland, Hungary, Sweden, and the Netherlands oppose it. The reluctance to cede certain national rights to the European Union is understandable from the point of view of nation states, but we can be sure that Hungary’s unwillingness has other sources as well.

EPPO will have the authority “to investigate and prosecute EU-fraud and other crimes affecting the Union’s financial interests.” Currently, only national authorities can investigate and prosecute EU-fraud. The existing EU bodies, such as OLAF, Eurojust, and Europol, don’t have jurisdiction here. OLAF can investigate, but the prosecution must be carried out by the authorities of the member states. As we know, in the case of Hungary OLAF finds plenty to investigate, but the Hungarian authorities never find anything wrong. Europol has no executive powers, and its officials are not entitled to conduct investigations in the member states or to arrest suspects. Eurojust, an organization I have not mentioned before, is merely a coordinating body which is supposed to improve the handling of serious cross-border crimes by “stimulating” investigative and prosecutorial coordination among agencies of the member states. This is another body that has no power over the justice system in the member states. Eurojust could “stimulate” Péter Polt’s prosecutor’s office till doomsday and it would never investigate crimes committed by Fidesz officials.

From the description of EPPO’s structure on the website of the European Union I have some difficulty envisaging how this independent prosecutorial body will function. Under a European prosecutor, investigations will be carried out by European delegated prosecutors located in each member state. These delegated prosecutors will be an integral part of the EPPO, but they will also function as national prosecutors. I must say that I have my doubts about this setup, which Viktor Orbán’s regime could easily manipulate. But it will probably never come to pass because, among the Central European EU members, Hungary and Poland have no intention of going along with the plan which, according to Věra Jourová, commissioner in charge of justice, consumers and gender equality, should be voted on within three months.

The head of OLAF, Giovanni Kessler, naturally supports the plan because the number of cases his organization has to investigate increases every year. In 2015 OLAF opened 219 investigations and concluded 304. Hungary alone had 17 possible fraud cases, the third highest after Bulgaria and Romania. But OLAF can only make recommendations to the member states, which at least in Hungary’s case are not pursued. Interestingly, several chief prosecutors in member states support the idea of the setting up a European Prosecutor’s Office, among them the prosecutors of Belgium, Bulgaria, Greece, Spain, France, and Romania. As we know, in Romania corruption is just as bad if not worse than in Hungary, yet there is a willingness to allow an independent body to investigate cases of fraud and corruption.

Last July the Hungarian media reported that the negotiations were in an advanced stage since Jourová called together the ministers of justice for an informal talk in Bratislava. At that point HVG reported that “Hungary supports the goals of the organization but is afraid that the sovereignty of the Hungarian prosecution may be undermined.” The explanation Justice Minister László Trócsányi gave for Hungary’s hesitation concerning EPPO was that in the Hungarian judicial system the chief prosecutor is appointed by the parliament and therefore the sovereignty issue might be a constitutional problem. By December, after Jourová’s visit to Budapest, this hesitation became a flat refusal. In addition to the argument about the parliamentary appointment of the chief prosecutor, a new argument surfaced in parliament, which had its source in Trócsányi’s proposed additions to the Fidesz constitution about Hungary’s “national identity and basic constitutional arrangements.”

Practically on the same day that the parliamentary committee said no to the proposal “in its present form,” Věra Jourová told Handelsblatt Global that “the European Commission could impose financial penalties on Poland and Hungary if they block the creation of a European public prosecutor.” Poland and Hungary receive more aid from the European Union than they pay into the budget, and therefore their refusal is unacceptable. She disclosed that on the basis of the known cases, €638 million of structural funds were misappropriated in 2015. The actual figure is most likely much higher. This must be stopped, she added.

Věra Jourová, commissioner in charge of justice. Despite her pleasant smile she’s apparently tough.

On December 8 EU justice ministers gathered again in Brussels to discuss the creation of EPPO, but while the majority of them support the plan, a few member states refuse to budge. To quote euractiv.com, “with no end in sight to this blockage, France’s Minister of Justice Jean-Jacques Urvoas and his German counterpart Heiko Maas decided to propose an enhanced cooperation deal for those countries that are in favor of this ‘super prosecutor.’” Enhanced cooperation is a mechanism that allows EU countries to bypass the requirement of unanimity. A group of at least nine member states may request a draft regulation. If this draft fails, the states concerned are free to establish enhanced cooperation among themselves. I fail to see how that would be disadvantageous to rogue states like Poland or Hungary. Orbán would gladly acknowledge the fact that EPPO has no jurisdiction over Hungary, and he and his friends could continue to steal about a third of the structural funds EU provides. A perfect arrangement.

Now let’s turn to how the opposition parties see the issue. As far as Jobbik is concerned, the establishment of a European Public Prosecutor’s Office is the first step to the dreaded United States of Europe. In fact, Jobbik accuses Fidesz and the Orbán government of not fighting hard enough in Brussels against this proposal. Jobbik must consider the issue very important because they published a statement in English in which Gábor Staudt, a Jobbik MP, explains the party’s position. He recalls the Fidesz members of the European Parliament not having the guts to vote against the proposal; they only abstained. Jobbik’s opposition is based strictly on its nationalistic defense of Hungarian sovereignty whereas Fidesz worries primarily about the legal consequences of an independent European prosecutor’s office investigating crimes of government officials.

The democratic Hungarian opposition parties are all enthusiastic supporters of a European Public Prosecutor’s Office. DK was actually campaigning with the idea ahead of the 2014 European parliamentary election. Benedek Jávor, a member of the European parliament delegated by PM (nowadays Párbeszéd), joined DK’s demand soon after. István Ujhelyi (MSZP), also a member of the European parliament, is of the same mind. He wrote a lengthy piece, published on the party’s website, about the necessity of such a body in the absence of a functioning Hungarian prosecutor’s office. Ujhelyi is sure that if EPPO is set up “the Fidesz hussars will be behind bars in crowded rows, including those corrupt officials who assist them.” He criticizes Fidesz members of the European Parliament for abandoning the position of the European People’s Party to which they belong. They “almost alone abstained” at the time the matter was discussed in Strasbourg.

Ujhelyi somewhat optimistically points out that if Hungary remains outside the group of countries that are ready to be under the jurisdiction of the European Public Prosecutor, the distinction between honest and dishonest countries will be evident. In case Fidesz refuses to support the decision, “it will be an admission that it is a party of thieves.” I’m afraid Viktor Orbán and his government simply don’t care what others think of them. At the moment Viktor Orbán is in Poland on a two-day visit. I understand that he and Jarosław Kaczyński had a leisurely three-hour dinner. I’m sure that the threat of a European Public Prosecutor to the sovereignty of Poland and Hungary was thoroughly discussed.

December 11, 2016

The collapse of the united front of the Visegrád 4 in Bratislava

The Hungarian media hasn’t paid much attention to Viktor Orbán’s Friday morning interview on Magyar Rádió, which was aired on September 16 around 8:00 a.m. but was recorded the evening before. In it, the prime minster talked a great deal about the common agenda of the Visegrád 4 countries, on which their representatives were working furiously, even overnight. He proudly announced that while “the bureaucrats in Brussels” will most likely not be able to produce a document at the end of their negotiations in Bratislava, the Visegrád 4 will present a common set of proposals. As he said, “this is an important moment in the history of the Visegrád 4.” He added that “the Visegrád 4 are in perfect agreement on these questions.”

So, let’s see the demands of this joint statement, which Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło presented to the leaders of EU27. Its most important “ultimatum,” as some journalists called it, was “the strengthening of the role of national parliaments underlining respect for the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality.” The Visegrád 4 accused Germany and France of making key decisions alone and disregarding the opinions of the eastern European states. “European integration is a common project and all negotiations should therefore be inclusive and open to all member states.” They demanded that “efforts should be channeled to fully implement the already undertaken commitments aiming at strengthening security in the Schengen area as well as the protection of EU’s external borders.” Linked to the security issue was the question of migration, which is considered to be the key issue for the group. The solution of the Visegrád 4 to the problem of the millions of migrants is what they call “flexible solidarity,” “a concept [which would] enable Member States to decide on specific forms of contribution taking into account their experience and potential. Furthermore any distribution mechanism should be voluntary.”

If we take a look at “The Bratislava Declaration,” we can safely assume that very few of these demands were discussed or even considered. The only exception is that the Bratislava road map includes “full control of our external borders…. Before the end of the year, full capacity for rapid reaction of the European Border and Coast Guard.” The goal of the Bratislava summit was to demonstrate unity, not to argue endlessly about the Visegrád 4’s grievances. The European Union is facing difficult challenges for which the member states must find common solutions. Donald Tusk made it crystal clear to Beata Szydło that this is not the time for a public debate of these issues. He even visited Budapest ahead of the summit to try to convince Viktor Orbán to let sleeping dogs lie. It seems that Tusk failed to restrain Orbán from open criticism, although in his interview on Magyar Rádió the prime minister did say that “in the name of fairness there is improvement on this issue,” adding that Tusk is one of the people in Brussels who places “defense” as the top priority. Of course, he credited himself for the evolving change in thinking on the issue.

If Orbán found the joint document of the Visegrád 4 so significant, why didn’t he complain that the summit passed over most of the demands outlined in it? Why did he object instead merely to the European Union’s immigration policies? On this issue “The Bratislava Declaration” said only that “work to be continued to broaden EU consensus in terms of long term migration policy, including on how to apply the principles of responsibility and solidarity in the future.”

First of all, knowing Viktor Orbán, who cannot imagine life without dissent, discord, and constant battling about one thing or the other, we could expect that he, unlike his comrades in arms in the Visegrád 4, would not come out of the meeting smiling and telling the world how happy he is with the outcome. He would have to complain about something. The most obvious target was immigration, or rather sharing the burden of the newly arrived asylum seekers. He could not return home and tell the Hungarian people that all’s well with the European Union and that from here on the remaining 27 member states will try to solve their problems together. After all, the Hungarian referendum on the refugees will be held on October 2, a referendum that he deems of vital importance to his political career. So, the choice of his complaint was a given.

But, in addition to immigration policy, he could have complained that the summit ignored one of his demands: strengthening the nation states at the expense of the center. Why didn’t he? Because, as far as I can see, he lost the support of his allies: Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. They joined the rest and declared the Bratislava summit a success. Even Beata Szydło realized that in the package presented to the members there were substantial incentives to stand by the others.

The roses were not enough

The roses were not enough

From the very beginning dissension was noticeable among the four countries. Poland and Hungary were the most vocal critics of Brussels. Slovakia and the Czech Republic wanted closer relations with Germany. Of course, it is not at all to Hungary’s advantage to have a pro-government media empire that revels in anti-Merkel rhetoric, but Orbán’s political moves are not always rational. While Orbán was advocating a counter-revolution against the existing order in Europe, Ivan Korčok, the Slovak undersecretary for European Affairs, talked to Politico about “a deeper reflection process, [fearing] trenches between West and East.” Moreover, he said that “migration is a phenomenon we have to see with a long term view,” which to my mind means a realization that migration will be part of the lives of the people of the EU, from which there is no escape for individual states.

Even between Poland and Hungary, despite their close ideological ties, there is the troubling issue of Russia. Poland, fearing Russia, supports a permanent NATO force in the region while Orbán would like to see the end of EU sanctions against Russia. The Poles also don’t approve of his cozy relations with Vladimir Putin.

These four countries, in spite of their geographical proximity, are different in many ways and have different national interests. As Korčok said of the upcoming summit, “I don’t think we can surge forward together.” Well, they didn’t.

It seems that Orbán’s revitalization of the Visegrád 4 pretty well collapsed in Bratislava. This diplomatic defeat should trouble him a lot more than the European Union’s immigration policy, over which he has no control. For the sake of winning a useless referendum for domestic political purposes he might have to give up his dream of being the leader of the East European countries and ultimately a major player on the European stage.

September 17, 2016

Viktor Orbán: “We have convinced NATO”

Viktor Orbán’s self-aggrandizing fabrications after international summits never cease to amaze me. He holds so-called press conferences, usually in Hungarian and frequently with a single reporter from M1 state TV, to explain his pivotal role in the negotiations. It is usually, he explains, at Hungary’s insistence or upon his own sage advice that the European Union, or in this case NATO, decides to pursue a certain course of action.

This time the claim is that NATO at his urging decided “to take an active part in the European Union’s efforts at solving the refugee crisis. … We managed to get NATO on our side … We stated that illegal migration must be stopped, the outside borders must be defended, uncontrolled influx carried not just civilian but military security risks.” After this grandiose announcement that gave the impression that soon enough NATO troops will be standing at the Serb-Hungarian border, he said that “first and foremost, certain NATO forces will be moved to the defense of the maritime borders.”

The fact is that NATO has had a presence in the Aegean Sea ever since February when at the request of Germany, Greece, and Turkey it joined other international efforts to deal with the crisis. NATO is also involved in stemming illegal trafficking and illegal migration. These roles were described in the “NATO Summit Guide,” released by NATO ahead of the summit. It was reported in April 2016 that “Barack Obama said he was willing to commit NATO assets to block the traffic in human beings and the people smugglers that we refer to as modern slavers.” In June The Financial Times reported that “NATO will take a more prominent role in handling the EU’s refugee crisis by expanding its presence across the Mediterranean, potentially helping to stem an increased flow of people from north Africa into Italy.” In brief, Hungary didn’t initiate anything. The decision to expand the operation has been in the works for months.

Only one Hungarian publication, 444.hu, noticed this latest untruth of Viktor Orbán.

A few hours ago Jens Stoltenberg, secretary-general of NATO, tweeted that four NATO battalions will be deployed in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Polish, Romanian, and Bulgarian troops will also be used in this new NATO force. Note that neither Hungarian nor Slovak troops will take part in the mission. A U.S.-led battalion will be stationed in Poland. Germany will send 500 troops to Lithuania, and more soldiers will come from the Benelux countries, Norway, and France. Half a battalion, led by Great Britain, will be moved to Estonia. A full NATO battalion, led by Canada, will be sent to Latvia.

The most interesting development is the exchange of troops between Poland and Romania. A Polish brigade will be stationed in Romania, and the Romanians will send a brigade to Poland. It also seems that Bulgaria will send 400 people to Romania, and it is likely that Polish soldiers will be sent to Bulgaria. So, in a way, a kind of international force of former Soviet-dominated countries is taking shape.

Russian helicopters

Although Hungary is not sending any soldiers to regions bordering on Russia, the country will have a forty-member NATO control center (irányítási pont). Orbán is being careful to stay in the background as much as possible so as not to alienate the Russians. He did, however, specifically mention in the “press conference” that in his opinion the present military arrangement does not infringe on the “NATO-Russian agreement.”

Origo assumed that Orbán was talking about the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and Russia signed in 1997 which, according to the paper, includes a clause that prohibits the stationing of NATO troops in countries bordering on Russia. There are commentators, however, who insist that this reading of the agreement is based on a misinterpretation of the text, which has a clause stating that the prohibition is valid only “in the current and foreseeable security environment.” Those who argue that placing NATO troops in the Baltic states is perfectly legal point to “the changed security environment.”

By sending troops to Latvia and Lithuania, the NATO leadership accepted the latter interpretation. But here again Orbán invented a lofty role for himself when he said that “we persuaded NATO that no Russian interest will be violated.” Who are these persuasive “we”?

Although the analysts of the Heritage Institute, a conservative think tank, might argue that the prohibition against stationing NATO troops in countries neighboring Russia is nothing more than “a myth that has been perpetuated by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine,” the Russians see it differently. The Russian foreign ministry blasted NATO for concentrating “its efforts on deterring a non-existent threat from the east.” As had been agreed to earlier, NATO ambassadors will meet their Russian counterparts in Brussels where “Moscow will seek explanations for NATO’s plans.”

Orbán is misleading the Hungarian public about the country’s real standing in the international community and about his own role in shaping international policy. But when the government controls so much of the media it’s easy to tell tales.

July 10, 2016

Viktor Orbán in the wake of Brexit

As I’m following commentaries on “life after Brexit,” I’m struck by the huge divergence of opinions. There are those who are certain that one Euroskeptic country after the other will hold a referendum on membership and that the entire European edifice that has been built slowly and methodically since the 1950s will simply collapse. One Hungarian commentator, former SZDSZ chairman Mátyás Eörsi, thinks a European war is almost inevitable. At the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that the British exit is actually a blessing in disguise. At last the countries of the Continent will be free to deepen integration which, in their opinion, will strengthen the European Union and ensure its political and economic importance in world affairs.

Opinions on the effect of Brexit on the political fortunes of Viktor Orbán also differ widely. A few think the event will be a useful tool in the Hungarian prime minister’s hand, which he can use to force the powerful core states to make concessions to the Visegrád 4 countries and a couple of other Euroskeptic nations in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. The reasoning is that without concessions, the contagion may spread through other member states at a time of right radical ascendancy. After all, these commentators point out, several right-wing groups have already announced plans to force through similar referendums.

I don’t believe in this scenario. The result of the British referendum is having such devastating consequences in both political and economic terms that I doubt too many countries would willingly sign up for such a suicidal undertaking. After all, it seems that the pro-exit Conservatives themselves were not quite prepared for a pro-leave majority and have no idea of what to do next. There are signs that they wouldn’t mind undoing the awful mess they created. Moreover, the first attempt at holding a similar referendum, the Dutch Geert Wilders’ Nexit initiative, has already failed. Yesterday, out of the 75 MPs present Nexit received only 14 votes.

Since the spread of anti-EU referendums is unlikely, Brexit didn’t strengthen Orbán’s position in Brussels. On the contrary. He lost a powerful ally in David Cameron, on whom he relied time and again in resisting every move that, as he saw it, trampled on the sovereignty of the nation states. Now he can only hope that the Visegrád 4 countries, if they remain united, will be strong enough to stand up against likely pressure in the direction of integration. There is a good possibility that Orbán and his fellow prime ministers of the former Soviet bloc countries will have to choose between cooperation and some kind of inferior status that would place them outside “an ever closer union.” That second-tier status would mean turning off the spigot from which billions of euros have flowed to these countries.

Until now one had the impression that Orbán was the leader of the Visegrád 4 group, but this impression might be misleading because news about V4 meetings arrives through the filter of Hungarian government propaganda. A couple of days ago the Polish government announced that it wants to hold “an alternative meeting of EU foreign ministers,” those who weren’t invited to the meeting of the six founding members of the European Union on Saturday. Yesterday, according to the Polish public television, eight foreign ministers–from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Greece, Spain, Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovenia–had accepted the invitation. The United Kingdom will be represented by an undersecretary.

Poland is taking the lead among countries that have issues with the European Union. The Polish initiative is perfectly understandable. Poland is a large country with almost 40 million inhabitants, and therefore its government feels that it should spearhead the movement of those who resist EU “encroachment.” How Orbán feels about this Polish initiative one can only guess. In any case, if this Polish invitation to 22 countries yielded such a small gathering, the prospect of the Poles forging a strong counterweight to the pro-integration forces looks slim to me.

Nonetheless, in Budapest there is hope that with the departure of the United Kingdom the Visegrád countries “will gain much more influence within the European Union.” At least this is what Gergely Prőhle, former Hungarian ambassador to Berlin, believes. He expressed his hope to Boris Kálnoky, Budapest correspondent of Die Welt, that Austria and the Netherlands may also support the program of a Visegrád 4 coalition. But Prőhle is far too optimistic and, as Kálnoky points out, the Hungarian government is nervous about the prospect of a more integrated Europe and “a sharper attack on the Euroskeptic and nationalist governments.”

David Cameron arrives today in Brussels / Reuters / Photo: Francois Lenoir

David Cameron arrives in Brussels / Reuters / Photo: Francois Lenoir

Of course, Viktor Orbán would never acknowledge that Great Britain’s likely exit from the European Union may decrease his effectiveness in Brussels. But László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament, freely admitted that with Great Britain inside the European Union Hungary would have had an easier time of it in Brussels. Moreover, he acknowledged that “the political strength of those who oppose the formation of some kind of united states of Europe has diminished.”

Many Hungarian commentators actually rejoice over Brexit for the very reason Kálnoky and others point out. The absence of Great Britain from the negotiating table will weaken Viktor Orbán. Moreover, these people are strong believers in a federated Europe and look upon Great Britain as an impediment to that ideal. These commentators argue that the United Kingdom from the very beginning was a reluctant member and that, being an island nation, it is a very different place from the countries of the Continent. The strongest Hungarian criticism I read appeared in Index. Its author, M.T., accused Britain of blackmailing the European Union for years.

Viktor Orbán, who is by now in Brussels, has been talking about “the lessons” to be learned from Brexit. Of course, for him the lessons are that the politicians of the EU must listen to the “voice of the people” who are fed up with Brussels’ handling of the “migrant crisis.” From the moment the results of the British referendum became known, Orbán has been trying to convince his voters that the reason for Brexit was the 1.5 million migrants who have arrived in Europe in the last year and a half. But I wonder how long this myth can be maintained once Hungarians learn that, since last Thursday, more than 100 incidents have taken place in the United Kingdom, mostly against Poles.

The defense of “the rights of Hungarians working and studying in the United Kingdom” is Orbán’s self-stated top priority during the negotiations over Brexit. Of course, these negotiations are still far away, but Orbán can show that he is concerned about the fate of his people. It’s too bad that when it came to allowing Hungarian citizens living in Western European countries to have the same voting rights as Hungarians living in the neighboring countries he was not such a staunch supporter of them.

In Brussels this afternoon Orbán gave a press conference in which he placed the “migrant crisis” at the epicenter of all the current ills of the European Union. If it isn’t solved along the lines he suggested, the crisis the EU is experiencing now will only deepen. He emphasized the necessity of holding a Hungarian referendum on the “compulsory quotas,” which we know don’t even exist. This referendum “is necessary in order to represent the Hungarian position clearly and forcefully.” Of course, the Hungarian referendum is totally off topic. The negotiations in Brussels are not about the refugees, but about Great Britain’s likely exit and the future of the European Union.

June 28, 2016

Poland at a crossroads?

After spending three days on domestic affairs, today I will concentrate on the Polish-Hungarian-European Union triangle, with a quick look at Putin’s Russia.

There is no question that Jarosław Kaczyński has been an excellent student of Viktor Orbán. The new Szydło government is copying the Orbán model step by step, just at an accelerated pace. While it took the slower-moving Orbán machinery two or three years to achieve its desired results, the eager Poles thought that a few months would suffice. It didn’t take long for Polish foreign minister Witold Waczczykowski to announce a change in the country’s foreign policy. The Szydło government will not follow its predecessor’s policy of acquiescence toward the European Union, he said. As a result of Polish belligerence, most commentators were certain that Brussels would act quickly and without hesitation. If the European Union opts to avoid a confrontation, the same thing will happen in Poland as happened in Hungary, where Orbán’s political system has solidified to the point that it may last for decades. Poland is too important a country to allow this to occur.

Cass Mudde of the University of Georgia wrote an article in the Huffington Post in which he suggested that “the success of PiS in Poland could turn out to be a poisoned chalice for Orbán” because of the possibility of EU sanctions not just against Poland but against Hungary as well.” As we know, however, Orbán made it clear on January 8 that “it’s not worth it for the European Union to rack its brains over any sanction against Poland because that would require full agreement. Never will Hungary support any sanction against Poland.”

A few days later Kim Lane Scheppele pointed out that a veto by Hungary could easily be neutralized. In an article that appeared on January 11 in politico.eu she sketched out a possible legal action that would take care of Viktor Orbán’s threat of a veto. Here is her scheme:

Sanctions require a unanimous vote of the European Council, minus the offending state, meaning Hungary does have a veto.

But Article 7 includes two separate parts: a warning system outlined in Article 7(1) and the sanctions mechanism of Article 7(2)-(3). The only way to keep the threat of sanctions on the table under Article 7(2) is for European institutions to act against both Poland and Hungary at the same time by invoking Article 7(1) first.

Those who were certain that this time the European Commission would not choose the road of appeasement as it did in the case of Hungary were correct. On January 13 the Commission launched a probe into policy changes in Poland that may clash with EU law. This is an unprecedented move with serious implications. For example, it could lead to the application of Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union.

In the wake of the announcement of the probe, the Poles even copied Orbán, who took up the challenge and faced a very angry European Parliament in 2012. Prime Minister Beata Szydło announced that she would attend the debate on Poland in the European Parliament and defend her government’s right to make changes in the structure of the constitutional court and the media. Her speech was very East European in flavor. In addition to repeating several times that Poland is as much a part of the EU as the other 27 countries, she said that Brussels, instead of “rounding on Poland, ought to be looking to engage with a country with a troubled history and which had fought at great cost for its freedom.” These words could easily have been uttered by Viktor Orbán himself. It is still too early to know what the reaction to Szydło’s speech will be, but people in the know in Brussels are certain that “the stage is set for a ‘carnage’ in the European Parliament.”

Szydlo

Beata Szydło in the European Parliament, January 19, 2016

There have, however, been voices in the western media that have cautioned the European Commission in its handling of Poland. As early as January 13, the day the European Commission decided on a monitoring procedure against Warsaw, The New York Times came out with an editorial which claimed that “punishing Poland through sanctions would be counterproductive and even hypocritical, given the proliferation of like-minded parties across Europe,” the logic of which escapes me, I’m afraid.

What the editors of The New York Times think about Polish-EU relations is neither here nor there, but what Donald Tusk thinks is something else. After all, he is the president of the European Council who is supposed to represent the interests of the Union and not the country of his birth. But although Tusk is a political adversary of Kaczyński, he felt compelled to come to Poland’s rescue. His move was interpreted by The Financial Times as a break “with the rest of the EU’s leadership … by questioning Brussels’ decision to launch a formal review into whether Poland’s new media and judicial legislation violate the rule of law.” He declared that the EU can clarify the situation in Poland “by other methods, not necessarily triggering this procedure.” He didn’t elaborate what these other methods might be.

Meanwhile, in Hungary Viktor Orbán is most likely eagerly watching what’s going on in Brussels. Will the Poles be persuaded to abandon their revolutionary zeal under domestic and foreign pressure? There are signs that President Andrzej Duda (PiS) and other PiS officials began a campaign a few days ago to ease tensions between Poland and the European Commission. If they succeed, Viktor Orbán will not be a happy man because he is counting on the formation of a large eastern bloc of 90 million people as something of an alliance against the core countries in Western Europe. Naturally, such a bloc without Poland is worth nothing.

This kind of fear is reflected in one of Zsolt Bayer’s articles titled “Lengyelek” (The Poles). After recalling all the humiliation and treachery Poland has suffered through her history at the hands of the western powers, especially the United States, Bayer doesn’t understand “Polish devotion to the United States.” Poland must choose. Either they follow Hungary’s example or they will end up with the same “base, unjust, unbearable and unacceptable harassment that Hungary had to suffer.” Poland must be careful, Bayer warns, because it is clear that the United States has been hard at work trying to persuade Poland to loosen its ties with the alliance system Viktor Orbán managed to create from the formerly ineffectual Visegrád4 group. If a 90-million strong Eastern Bloc materializes, it will be the center of a “normal” Europe as opposed to the “mentally deranged West.” So, a lot depends on Poland, a country that should be grateful to Hungary because of Hungary’s generosity toward her in her times of peril. “There is no war yet but the situation is very serious. We should not let them drive a wedge between us.”

After reading Bayer’s lines about the possibility of a war in Europe, one wonders about the psychological state of some of the Fidesz leaders who lately have been discussing ways of strengthening the military capabilities of the country. László Kövér went so far as to talk about “the catastrophe of abolishing compulsory military service” in 2004. Do they really think that war is going to break out in Europe sometime in the near future? Possibly.

Finally, a friendly warning to Poland. Putin is delighted with the growth of right-wing radicalism and the recent emphasis on the sovereignty of nation states within the European Union, as Vladislav Inozemtsev of The Moscow Times, points out. “The events in Europe are being seen with undisguised joy” in Russia. “The Kremlin supports and will support the ultra-right and ultra-left parties who seek to put Europeans back to their ‘private apartments.’” So, going along with Viktor Orbán will be useful to Poland’s archenemy, Russia. The leaders of PiS should think very seriously whether they want to play into the hands of Vladimir Putin or not. Yes, they do have a choice.

September 19, 2016