Tag Archives: refugee strategy

The Helmut Kohl – Viktor Orbán meeting

I think the best description of the joint statement of Helmut Kohl and Viktor Orbán after their meeting at Kohl’s residence in Ludwigshafen is “baffling.” In Hungary at least, neither the right nor the left can decide what to make of it. The pro-government papers use the very first sentence of the communiqué “Europe cannot be the new home of suffering millions” as their headline while Népszabadság found another sentence from the text more to its liking: Kohl and Orbán “are in complete agreement with Chancellor Angela Merkel as far as her goals are concerned.” On balance, Viktor Orbán signed a document that goes against everything he previously stood for.

Until now, humanitarian considerations did not enter Viktor Orbán’s mind. Currently hundreds if not thousands of refugees camp outside the barbed-wire fence on the Serb-Hungarian border without food or drink for days on end. Last year the government made almost no effort to give food and temporary shelter to the refugees. Now, however, Viktor Orbán signed a document that emphasizes “the humanitarian aspects” of the question. What’s going on is about “the future of Europe and the peace of the world…. Angela Merkel’s efforts are toward these goals.”

The statement also talks at some length about the irresponsibility of politicians who try “to create political conflicts.” These conflicts certainly don’t help the handling of the refugee issue, which after all involves the fate of millions. Let me note in passing that, earlier, Viktor Orbán judiciously avoided describing the new arrivals in Europe as refugees.

There was an interview today on Deutschland Radio with Michael Rutz, a well-known journalist. In his opinion Kohl does not share Orbán’s policies, and therefore Rutz thought that Helmut Kohl would “send a signal of his concern at the meeting with Orbán.” From MTI’s summary of the statement it looks as if he did. My impression is that most of the conversation between the two men was about Europe today and tomorrow. Orbán seemed to agree with Kohl that “the fate of European people depends on the political union of Europe.” Also, Europe must urgently revive the idea of solidarity because the “unification of Europe” can be done together or not at all. The member states must work together. Kohl added that “solidarity is the most important prerequisite for solving the refugee crisis, terrorism, the stability of the euro and the Eurozone.

Kohl and Orban

Orbán’s answer to this lecture by Kohl was, at least in my reading, ambivalent because I don’t know what to make of the following: “Viktor Orbán again assured the former chancellor that Hungary naturally wants to contribute toward solidarity (szolidáris hozzájárulás).” This sounds to me as if the only solidarity Orbán has in mind is the amount of money he has already promised toward the 6 billion euros the EU member states will pay Turkey in exchange for giving shelter to additional refugees. As for his own thoughts, he offered his Schengen 2.0 plan as a constructive first step toward common action.

A few words about Schengen 2.0. First of all, trying to depict his ten-point plan as tangible assistance to a common policy borders on the bizarre. He himself said in Lisbon, where he presented his plan at a meeting of the Centrist Democratic International, that his proposals are necessary because the European Commission’s solutions are “wrong-headed.” The action plan is in no way a departure from Orbán’s earlier position. It is in no way based on common action. “We think that there are countries that want to solve their problems one way and there are others who think in different terms.” No solidarity here. Each nation according to its own selfish interests.

Yet after the meeting Orbán made some gestures, indicating that he might have been urged by Kohl to show a more positive attitude toward Angela Merkel’s efforts at solving the crisis. He gave an interview to Bild after the meeting in which he said, “I would like to wish all the best to Chancellor Angela Merkel. Hungary and I as the country’s prime minister stand by Berlin, and we will support Angela Merkel with further suggestions as our action plan shows.” I’m afraid his action plan is a non-starter, although Merkel graciously called Orbán’s meeting with Kohl “useful and sensible.” She found the topics covered indispensable.

Viktor Orbán has been a constant critic of Angela Merkel for years and rarely spared words when it came to the German chancellor’s refugee policies. The latest attack against Merkel came from Zsolt Bayer of Magyar Hírlap, one of the co-founders of Fidesz and a friend of Orbán. Bayer is well known for his unspeakable verbal attacks on practically anyone whose ideas or actions don’t appeal to him. It was only a few days ago that Bayer wrote a piece in which he called Merkel “a vile, lying, rotten wench … who dared to show her pharisaical mug” in the first row in the demonstration after the Charlie Hebdo attack. If Orbán wanted Bayer to stop his disgusting outbursts it would take only a telephone call. But obviously he thinks that Bayer can say certain things that he himself cannot. His old friend serves a useful political purpose: to keep the far-right of his party in line. But the somewhat more moderate pro-government paper, Magyar Idők, is not much kinder to Merkel. In one of its opinion pieces the author talks about the mediocre politicians who cannot be compared to Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, and others. In this article Angela Merkel is sarcastically called “the chosen representative of the Brussels aristocracy.” The author of another opinion piece in the same newspaper is outraged that Merkel didn’t apologize to Viktor Orbán for all those attacks on Hungary in the German press.

According to a long opinion piece that appeared in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung today titled “The Teacher and His Student,” Thomas Gutschker claims that while in Germany Orbán wanted to have meetings with Winfried Kretschmann (Green), minister president of Baden Württemberg, and Hannelore Kraft (Social Democrat), minister president of North Rhine-Westphalia, but apparently he was rebuffed by both. So, for the time being he will have to be satisfied with a meeting of the prime ministers of the Visegrád 4. Unfortunately, his staunchest ally, Robert Fico, will not be able to attend since he is recuperating in a Bratislava hospital from a heart attack. Next week Orbán is apparently planning a whirlwind trip to several capitals to promote his Schengen 2.0 plan. I’m curious who will be ready to meet him. Maybe his hearty greetings via Bild to Merkel was an opening bid for a talk. We will see whether he succeeded.

April 19, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s refugee strategy

Non-Hungarian media outlets are covering the events in Hungary extensively. Everything that goes on in the country with regard to the refugee crisis is immediately reported, so I don’t think it makes sense to describe the current state of affairs here. I would just be repeating the same stories one can read in the pages of The New York Times, The Guardian, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,  or Libération. Instead, I would like to share my thoughts on the real motivation behind Viktor Orbán’s latest twists in his “handling” of the refugee crisis.

Most commentators are baffled by the Hungarian government’s shifting positions on the would-be immigrants from the Middle East and Africa. Why did the Orbán government change its position suddenly and inexplicably in the last month or so? Earlier the Hungarian police patrolling the border between Serbia and Hungary allowed anyone who registered to leave as soon as they were ready to undertake the trip. No one was rushing after them, no one dragged them off trains or stopped cars to find “illegal economic immigrants.” As a result, there were no more than 1,000-2,000 refugees in Hungary at any given time. That arrangement suited both parties: the refugees were happy to leave Hungary and the Orbán government was pleased that they didn’t have to take care of these people.

But then the number of refugees started growing by leaps and bounds. While in 2014 41,900 people crossed the Serb-Hungarian border, half of whom were Kossovars, so far in 2015 more than 160,000 migrants have arrived on Hungarian soil. With the swell in numbers the government decided it needed a long-term “solution” to the problem.

The Orbán government’s final aim is to make sure that no refugee would ever choose a route that takes him to Hungary. To achieve this goal the government started inciting the population against the immigrants. Not that they needed much urging since Hungarians seem to be a xenophobic lot, but most of the population had never encountered these people since after their arrival they departed as speedily as possible. So, the government had to call attention to the “problem.” Hence the questionnaires and Hungarian-language billboards.

The marching refugees just leaving the city limit of Budapest

The marching refugees leaving the city limits of Budapest

Once it became clear that more refugees were opting for the land route instead of the much more dangerous and expensive trip across the Mediterranean, the decision was made to slow the flow of refugees by building a fence. I’m almost certain that Viktor Orbán and his advisers on the refugee crisis knew all along that the fence would not stop the refugees from entering the country. They foolishly thought, however, that it would at least stem the tide. They were wrong. News about the construction of the fence galvanized the refugees to start off for Hungary as soon as possible. Before the construction of the fence began about 1,000 refugees arrived each day. By now three times as many are managing to get through.

It was at this point that the Hungarian government decided to keep the would-be immigrants in such miserable conditions that soon enough no refugee in his right mind would head toward Hungary. The chaos and cruelty one sees at the border, in the camps, and in and around the railway stations is not the result of incompetence or a lack of financial means. It is, I believe, a purposeful strategy devised by Hungary’s prime minister. The Hungarian government is doing practically nothing to alleviate the suffering of these people. If the volunteers didn’t provide food, clothing, and medical care for the refugees stranded at railway stations, those who have run out of money would starve. But as far as the Hungarian government is concerned, the worse the better.

For the time being one isn’t seeing a dramatic decrease in numbers despite the cruel treatment of the refugees. Yesterday, for example, according to the website of the Hungarian police, 3,313 people crossed the border. But as a result of the horror stories coming out of Hungary, I’m certain that eventually fewer people will try to cross into the country. News travels fast in the refugee community, and soon enough they, or smugglers, will figure out a different route that avoids Hungary.

In case word of mouth doesn’t work, there is a plan to set up transit camps that will be closed toward Hungary and open toward Serbia. Soon enough those who are already on their way will learn that the route through Hungary is blocked. This is “a solution” which, according to Jean-Claude Juncker, is incompatible with the European Union’s principle of “non-refoulement,” which forbids the expulsion of refugees where they can rightfully claim refugee status to a place where they may face persecution or other threats.

I’m sure all of you have heard about the 1,000-1,500 refugees who are marching along the highway toward Vienna, a trip of about 200 km. Six hundred Austrian civilians gathered on Facebook to travel either by car or to rent buses to pick up these people and take them to Austria. But Viktor Orbán today called attention to the fact that without valid visas these people cannot enter Austria. He said he is waiting to hear from the Austrian government about its stand on that issue. He also made it clear that he considers those civilians who are contemplating the rescue of the refugees to be human traffickers. Interestingly enough, a couple of months ago he wasn’t concerned about the legality of refugees going to Austria from Hungary with or without registration.

Today, in the late afternoon, Népszabadság‘s correspondent in Brussels learned from a very reliable source that the European Commission is planning to take over 50,000 registered asylum seekers from Hungary. Apparently, Orbán was hoping to get more money from Brussels, but it looks as if the EU decided that one cannot expect decent treatment of the asylum-seekers from the Orbán government and that it is much better if these people are moved out of Hungary as quickly as possible.

With his strategy Viktor Orbán might gain a domestic victory, but the international reputation of Orbán’s Hungary has been irreparably damaged.