Tag Archives: Tibor Navracsics

Brussels after the Hungarian referendum

Although the Hungarian media is full of the story that Antal Rogán lied about his extravagant helicopter ride to a wedding, I would rather talk about the Hungarian referendum’s reception in Brussels.

The initial reaction came from Margaritis Schinas, the first spokesman of the European Commission, who, in his October 3 press conference, tried to give the impression that the Commission takes an absolutely neutral position as far as the result of the referendum is concerned. As he put it: “If the referendum had been legally valid, we would have taken note of it; now that it is declared legally void, we also take note of it. We respect those who voted and those who didn’t vote.” A day later, in response to a question from a Hungarian journalist, the European Commission spokesman said: “The pertinent authorities declared the results of the referendum invalid. I leave it to you to draw the conclusion how this will influence the decision-making process of the European Union.”

We know that there was a sigh of relief in Brussels after the referendum failed. Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, indicated that Viktor Orbán’s failure to produce a valid referendum had weakened his position in any future negotiations with the officials of the European Union. As he put it, “Budapest should take it … seriously that it was not a majority and we have therefore a good chance for a dialogue.” This indicates that Viktor Orbán will most likely have a harder time in his negotiations in Brussels after the referendum fiasco.

On October 5 Jean-Claude Juncker made it clear in a speech to the European Parliament that he has no intention of lifting the quota of 1,294 refugees that Viktor Orbán himself approved already in February 2016. His remarks were interpreted by the anti-EU British Daily Express as a “brazen statement [that] is likely to cause consternation in Budapest.” Again today in Paris Juncker called on the member states to honor the decision on the distribution of refugees that was agreed upon in February. The Hungarian internet site Index seems to agree with the British paper when it predicts that Juncker’s hard-line attitude regarding compulsory quotas will only provide further ammunition for Viktor Orbán. However, Juncker’s steadfast, hard-hitting words of late don’t bode well for a friendly future encounter with the Hungarian prime minister, especially since Juncker looks upon referendums as the death knell of the European Union. Apparently, Juncker was specifically thinking of the Hungarian referendum when he talked about the problems of the European Union.

On October 6 Bertalan Havasi, head of the public relations department of the prime minister’s office, released the news that Viktor Orbán had sent a letter to Jean-Claude Juncker in which he gave details of the result, emphasizing that “3.33 million people expressed their will that without the approval of the Hungarian parliament no foreign nationals can be settled on the territory of the country” and therefore “he is initiating an amendment of the constitution.” He reassured Juncker that the proposed amendments will be in accord with European Union law as well as with Hungary’s international obligations. Copies of the letter went to Donald Tusk, Martin Schulz, and Robert Fico as the current president of the Visegrád 4 Group.

Jean Claude Juncker's door is always open Source: The Telegraph, credit AP

Jean-Claude Juncker’s door is always open / Source: The Telegraph, credit AP

At the October 3 press conference Margaritis Schinas, again in an answer to a question by a journalist, said that if Viktor Orbán would like to meet with the president of the European Union, “Mr. Juncker’s door is always open to all the heads of the member states.” Although Havasi made no mention of any such request, apparently Orbán did ask for an urgent meeting with Juncker in the same letter, as Népszabadság learned. But since Juncker already had a fixed schedule yesterday and today, “he could give Orbán only an impossible time that Orbán couldn’t accept.” As someone half-jokingly said, perhaps Juncker suggested meeting him late afternoon today, which certainly wouldn’t have suited the football-crazy Orbán who wanted to be present at the Hungarian-Swiss game held in Budapest. I suspect that the meeting between the two men will take place soon.

There is another issue in connection with the referendum. Tibor Navracsics, once one of the highest office holders in Fidesz and the Orbán government, is currently an EU commissioner. On the very day of the referendum he gave an interview to pestisracok.hu, a far-right Fidesz internet news site. In the interview he disclosed that he had voted “no” on the referendum question because in his opinion the question has nothing to do with the European Union or the European Commission. It is a national issue and therefore, despite his position as one of the commissioners, he can freely express his opinion. Index’s “Eurologus” agreed with the commissioner and quoted the European Commission’s “Code of conduct for commissioners.” Csaba Molnár, DK European Parliamentary member, thinks otherwise and asked Juncker to investigate the case. The leader of the Alliance of Socialists and Democrats of the European parliament, Gianni Pittella, agrees with Molnár that European commissioners have a duty to promote the general interest of the EU, not the interests of their own national governments.

The comments by Commissioner Navracsics on the failed referendum in Hungary calls this into question. A legal decision was taken on the resettlement of refugees, and the question in the referendum went directly against this and against the proposal coming from the EU Commission, of which Navracsics is a member. If Commissioner Navracsics does not believe in what his own Commission put forward and on the contrary thinks that national governments should not follow decisions taken by the whole of the EU, then we have a problem. If this is how he feels, then why is he working for the European Commission? Commissioner Navracsics must clarify his comments immediately.

Alexander Winterstein, deputy chief spokesman for the Commission, when asked about Navracsics’s action by euroactive.com, was evasive, claiming ignorance of the case. By today, however, it looks as if Juncker’s office is looking into the matter, asking for translations of Navracsics’s interviews and statements. Népszabadság learned that the officials of the commission find Navracsics’s public statements ambiguous, from which it is not clear whether they side with the Hungarian government or the commission on the issue of “the compulsory settlements.” Winterstein announced today that Juncker will bring the topic up at the meeting of th commissioners.

It is possible that in purely legal terms Navracsics is correct when he claims that no conflict of interest exists in this case. But one thing is sure: as euronews.com reported a day after the vote, Brussels considers Orbán’s failure to be their victory.

October 7, 2016

Tibor Navracsics’s political “coming out”

Tibor Navracsics, who is EU commissioner in charge of education, culture, youth and sport, doesn’t appear too often in the Hungarian media, and when he does he is asked mostly about matters relating to Hungary rather than the work he does in Brussels. Thus, the Hungarian public knows very little about Navracsics’s views on and role in the European Union.

Last November Navracsics gave an interview to Mandiner’s András Stumpf in which he said that he has always been committed to the idea of the European Union, adding that “on the Hungarian right I am pretty much all that remains.” This sentence made a big splash as proof that, at least in Navracsics’s opinion, none of his former colleagues in the Orbán government is committed to the idea of European integration.

Navracsics had a rough time being confirmed as an EU commissioner. As I said at the time, “the long shadow of Viktor Orbán” followed Navracsics. After all, Orbán named him deputy prime minister in 2010, and he was also minister of justice between 2010 and 2014 when the European Union had serious reservations about the legality of several Hungarian laws. As a result, Navracsics received a post that came with very little actual power. Education and culture are fields handled exclusively by the individual nation states.

Since the Hungarian media pays mighty little attention to Navracsics’s role as commissioner, I thought I should say something about one of his tasks that, as a result of the refugee crisis, has given him greater freedom of movement and the possibility of making a more substantial impact.

Navracsics’s job description includes, among other things, “empowering young people of all social and cultural backgrounds so that they can participate fully in civic and democratic life.” It is this sentence that allowed Navracsics to expand his role considerably after the January 2016 Paris terror attack. By March Navracsics called together the EU ministers of education and urged them “to use education more effectively in building open, tolerant societies.” He talked to them about social inclusion, about combating prejudice, about encouraging critical thinking. Of course, this sermon made not the slightest dent in the Hungarian government’s policies at home.

Navracsics4

Then there is the refugee crisis. Navracsics proposed a program of “integration of refugees and migrants,” which the Commission acted on. Navracsics received  €1.6 billion “under the Creative Europe program for cultural projects promoting the inclusion of refugees and migrants.” So, what Navracsics is doing in Brussels is the exact opposite of what the Orbán government stands for. While he is working for the integration of refugees and migrants, Orbán is fighting tooth and nail for their exclusion.

In light of this, Navracsics’s most recent interview on June 6 with Péter Zentai on KlubRádió’s “Eurozóna” shouldn’t have been such a revelation. But suddenly the Hungarian media realized that Navracsics doesn’t agree with Viktor Orbán on either the refugee issue or Hungary’s relations with the European Union.

In the interview he expressed his optimism about the future of the EU. Its history has been full of clashes of interests among the member states, but at least until now the result was always deeper integration. He believes that “if common sense prevails in the majority of the member states” the current problems will be solved. This didn’t convince the interviewer, who said that the situation in Europe is “dramatic,” especially in light of a possible Brexit. Navracsics admitted that the European Union is at a turning point, but whatever happens with the British referendum, it is his “conviction that there are far more strategic interests in favor of the continued existence of the Union and its continued integration than against them.”

Perhaps the highlight of the interview was Navracsics’s criticism of the Hungarian opposition, which has been far too timid in standing by a common European policy on the refugee issue. Politicians supporting the European Union should argue as loudly in favor of common action as those do who promulgate a policy based on individual nation states. “We must clearly explain that membership in the Union and the continuation of integration is in Hungary’s national interest…. I regret that on the domestic political stage pro-EU politicians constitute only a soft-spoken tiny minority which doesn’t argue forcefully enough in favor of the point of view that I’m trying to express here.”

Finally, Navracsics, unlike many of the politicians of the democratic opposition, decided to go on record as agreeing with the Commission’s stand on quotas. It is, he said, “an absolutely acceptable solution which only means that if the number of refugees exceeds the regular numbers in a given country—which so far has not occurred anywhere—then the other members would come to its assistance and help in the placement of those affected. Therefore it is not the same as a mechanically enforced compulsory quota.”

Echoing Navracsics, Júlia Mira Lévai in HVG admonished those opposition politicians “who don’t dare to go against the current public mood and who are not brave enough to represent their own values.” In Lévai’s opinion, Navracsics’s “coming out” will play a significant role in the disintegration of Fidesz, which might be near, especially if leaders of the democratic opposition follow Navracsics’s advice.

I agree with Lévai that the timid response of the democratic opposition to Orbán’s refugee policies is mistaken. Always trying to follow a middle ground, as MSZP leaders usually do, will not satisfy the growing number of voters who are turning against the government and Fidesz. But I disagree that it is the refugee issue that will be the catalyst for the inevitable disintegration of Orbán’s power structure. A more likely candidate is the government’s disregard of the Hungarian National Bank’s highly illegal financial dealings, orchestrated by the chairman of the bank, who is exhibiting increasingly erratic behavior. And to the bank scandal one can add the boorish behavior of the newly created Fidesz media, which even some members of the inner circle find distasteful. But more about these developments tomorrow.

June 15, 2016

The case of the Bálint Hóman statue from a different angle

You may find it strange that I am starting a post about the controversial statue of an anti-Semitic minister of education and culture, Bálint Hóman, with a quotation from an opinion piece on Viktor Orbán in a recent issue of politico.hu, but I hope that by the end of this article I will be able to justify this choice. Here are the crucial sentences in which the author, Luke Walker, explains why the European Union tolerates Viktor Orbán’s behavior:

Once a critic of most things Russian, Orbán embraces Putin and seeks to secure Russian energy supplies for Hungary, even as he signs off on EU sanctions against Moscow. Many Hungarians say, in hushed tones, that Orbán is better than the alternative: Jobbik, the openly anti-Semitic far-right party that has a fifth of the vote [sic]. One imagines that Brussels agrees.

Those Hungarians who whispered their opinions into Walker’s ears are sadly mistaken in their belief that supporting Viktor Orbán will stave off the ascent of the worse alternative, Jobbik. And if the politicians of the European Union fall for this Fidesz propaganda they deserve what they get. Because as this Bálint Hóman statue controversy clearly indicates, Jobbik and Fidesz work hand in hand. To support Fidesz is to support the main tenets of Jobbik’s platform.

I’ve already written two posts on Bálint Hóman, one in May and another in August. The first one was published when a Hungarian court rehabilitated Hóman, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment in 1946 for taking part in the cabinet meeting that gave its blessing to the declaration of war on the Soviet Union. The second was written when it became known that the city of Székesfehérvár was planning to erect a statue of Hóman in Hungarian gala-dress (díszmagyar) in front of a gymnasium on, of all places, Béla Bartók tér.  The anti-German Bartók left Hungary in 1940 when the strongly pro-German Hóman was still minister of education. In both posts it was Hóman’s anti-Semitism that was the center of attention, as it still is.

Ever since domestic and international Jewish organizations got wind of the impending erection of the statue protest followed protest. Just lately Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, “called on Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to intervene in this matter and to ensure that this statue is not built with public funds.” A couple of days later the co-chairs of the U.S. House Bipartisan Taskforce for Combatting Anti-Semitism sent a letter to Viktor Orbán protesting the monument. In Hungary, conferences were organized where historians explained yet again why Hóman doesn’t deserve a statue, and last night a small group of people gathered in Székesfehérvár to protest. Meanwhile, work has begun on the pedestal. The statue is supposed to be erected by the 130th anniversary of Hóman’s birthday, which is December 29.

I don’t think I can add anything new to the subject of Hóman’s anti-Semitism. I have already covered what historians know to date about his political career. Instead, today I would like to take a couple of steps back and look at the issue from a different perspective.

Who came up with the idea of a Hóman statue in the first place?  In 2011 a local Jobbik politician, Gábor Kováts, obviously a great admirer of Bálint Hóman, decided to establish the Bálint Hóman Cultural Foundation. On the board of the foundation was Mrs. Marth, née Krisztina Vida, who in 2010 was Jobbik’s parliamentary candidate in Székesfehérvár. According to an article that appeared on kettosmerce.blog.hu, Kováts’s Facebook profile includes the number 88, the normal code for Heil Hitler. By now, gone with the wind.

From the beginning, the Hóman Cultural Foundation was supported by such Fidesz organizations as the Hungarian Academy of Arts led by György Fekete which, thanks to Viktor Orbán’s special favor, was given equal standing with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in the new constitution of Hungary.  In 2012 the foundation received 1.5 million forints for a conference and a poetry competition. In 2013 it received, also from the Hungarian Academy of Arts, 2 million forints to organize a “poetry camp” in Szekler country in Romania. Kettősmérce has been unable to discover where the roughly 5 million forints came from in 2013 and 2014. It is also a mystery how many employees the foundation has, whose “personal expenses” last year were over 2.5 million forints.

András Cser-Palkovics, mayor of Székesfehérvár

András Cser-Palkovics, mayor of Székesfehérvár

In 2013 another conference was held on Bálint Hóman, which was opened by András Cser-Palkovics, Fidesz mayor of Székesfehérvár. According to him, during the years of socialism “they concealed the real history of the city,” a bizarre claim because the authorities didn’t prevent historians from writing local histories during the Kádár regime.

Obviously, the far-right Hóman Foundation and the Fidesz leadership of the city get along splendidly. In fact, it was the foundation that came up with the idea of a statue for Hóman back in 2011. At that time, however, Hóman was still considered to be a war criminal, and thus Cser-Palkovics couldn’t possibly embark on such a project. But then came May 2015 when Hóman was rehabilitated. The doors were opened for the foundation to realize its cherished dream, and the Fidesz majority with the one Jobbik member of the city council happily voted for the statue.

Normally one cannot extrapolate from local politics, where party affiliations are often not so sharply delineated as on the national level. But the Hóman case highlights the close ties between Jobbik and Fidesz on the national level. Otherwise, it couldn’t have happened that the Hóman Foundation received 15 million forints for the statue from the Ministry of Justice in addition to the 2 million that was given to them by the city.

There is a puzzling aspect to the grant from the Ministry of Justice. Although the rehabilitation of Hóman didn’t take place until May of 2015, the grant had already been awarded to the Bálint Hóman Cultural Foundation sometime prior to June 6, 2014 because, according to the current minister of justice, László Trócsányi, the foundation received the money for the statue during Tibor Navracsics’s tenure. This is the same Navracisics who was allegedly “exiled” to Brussels for his moderate political views. Indeed, in Brussels he tried his very best to convince members of the European Parliament that he agreed with practically nothing the Orbán government had done between 2010 and 2014. And yet this “moderate” man gave 15 million forints to Gábor Kováts’s Hóman Foundation. Surely, even if most people in Székesfehérvár have no idea of who Hóman was, Navracsics certainly does.

Tibor Navracsics, sweating it in Brussels at his hearing

Tibor Navracsics, sweating it in Brussels at his hearing

Currently three cabinet members–János Lázár, Zoltán Balog, and László Trócsányi–are against the erection of the statue, but surely it will go up. This hideous statue is in the corner of some studio, waiting to be installed in late December. But if these three important members of the cabinet are against the statue, who is insisting on it? It can be only one person, Viktor Orbán, who seems to follow in the footsteps of Jobbik in practically everything. And his strategy is working. Fidesz’s popularity is growing and Jobbik’s is the lowest it has been since 2010. Yielding to domestic and foreign pressure and nixing the statue would show him to be weak, which might result in some Jobbik sympathizers leaving the fold.

Let me repeat: there is no appreciable difference between the two parties, and Fidesz is the more dangerous because it is the party in power. The real enemy is not Jobbik but Fidesz. The dangerous man is not Gábor Vona but Viktor Orbán. Dangerous for his own people and dangerous for Europe.

Full-court press against the Orbán government

Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó compared the European Union to an old gent with halting steps, but lately the old man has quickened his stride. At least as far as Brussels’ relation with Hungary is concerned. Patience seems to have run out with Hungary’s maverick prime minister, Viktor Orbán. One after the other, officials of the EU and the Council of Europe have called on the Hungarian government to explain its past unlawful or at least legally questionable moves.

First came, on November 19, the official announcement that “the European Commission decided to launch an infringement procedure against Hungary concerning the implementation of the Paks II nuclear power plant project.” The reaction of the Hungarian government was predictable. János Lázár, instead of talking about the actual case–the lack of an open tender, which is an EU requirement–talked about the EU allegedly prohibiting Hungary from signing bilateral commercial agreements with so-called third countries. For details see my post titled “Infringement procedure against Hungary on account of the Paks nuclear power plant.” Hungary has two months to give a satisfactory answer. If the answer is not satisfactory, the case will go to the European Court of Justice.

Four days later, on November 23, it was announced that “the European Commission has opened an in-depth state aid investigation into Hungary’s plans to provide financing for the construction of two new nuclear reactors in Paks.” The question is “whether a private investor would have financed the project on similar terms or whether Hungary’s investment constitutes state aid.” Margrethe Vestager, commissioner in charge of competition policy, and her staff think that “this investment may not be on market terms, as Hungary argues.”

Two days after the announcement of the second in-depth investigation, on November 25, Chancellor Angela Merkel delivered a speech in the Bundestag in which she talked about solidarity as “the acid test” for the maintenance of the borderless Schengen area. She stressed that “a distribution of refugees according to economic strength and other conditions … and the readiness for a permanent distribution mechanism … will determine whether the Schengen area will hold in the long term.” The speech was interpreted as a sharp warning aimed at the new EU members. Hungary’s immediate reaction was that Hungary couldn’t possibly take any refugees because its economic situation wouldn’t allow such generosity. The government spokesman talked about 15,000 possible “migrants,” who in time would bring other family members. Within a few years Hungary would be stranded with close to 200,000 Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans.

On November 27 Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, after spending three days in Hungary, issued a statement about Hungary’s response to the current refugee crisis and came to the conclusion that “Hungary has not lived up to this challenge.” He complained about the “accelerated asylum procedure lacking essential safeguards.” Under this new procedure “asylum-seekers have seen their claim processed in less than a day and sent back to Serbia directly from the Röszke transit zone.” Muižnieks also noted that the crisis measures Hungary introduced are still in effect although hardly any refugees are in Hungary. After detailing all the reproachable and outright illegal pieces of legislation and practices, he called on the Hungarian government “to refrain from using xenophobic rhetoric linking migrants to social problems or security risks.”

By that time Szijjártó became convinced that “a mysterious conspiracy is unfolding against Hungary.” According to the foreign minister, “it is evident that some people would like see an opaque and confused situation in Hungary.”

On the very same day it was reported that the European Commission had given the green light to a citizens’ initiative launched by the European Humanist Federation (EHF) to strip Hungary of its voting rights in the European Union. What is a citizens’ initiative? According to the official explanation, “a European citizen’s initiative is an invitation to the European Commission to propose legislation on matters where the EU has competence to legislate. A citizens’ initiative has to be backed by at least one million EU citizens, coming from at least 7 out of the 28 member states. A minimum number of signatories is required in each of those 7 member states.” A list of these minimum numbers can be found online. In Hungary’s case only 15,750 valid signatures are needed.

Call of the European Humanist Federation for a citizens' initiative on their website

Call of the European Humanist Federation for a citizens’ initiative

The European Humanist Federation launched its initiative called “Wake up Europe!” on October 2. Its official website outlines the reasons for the initiative. Nine individuals from eight countries charge Viktor Orbán’s government with “anti-democratic and xenophobic measures that openly violate the basic principles of the rule of law.” In response, “a committee of EU citizens has launched an ECI to call on the European Commission to trigger Article 7 of TEU and bring the Hungarian issue to the Council.”

The Commission approved this citizens’ initiative on a day when Tibor Navracsics, the commissioner representing Hungary, happened to be away. Navracsics “in a strongly-worded letter criticized the decision to hold the meeting in his absence as well as the substance of the initiative.” He claimed that this was “a sensitive political issue” which could result in consequences reaching “far beyond the aim of the initiative.” Szijjártó considered the acceptance of the citizens’ initiative by the Commission to be a case of “revenge by Brussels” for “the successful migration policy of Hungary.”

The most fanciful explanation for the launch of the citizens’ initiative in the first place came from Magyar Idők. The editorial board of this pro-government paper is convinced that, once again, it is George Soros who is behind this attack on Hungary and Viktor Orbán. The explanation, according to Magyar Idők, is simple. Since the European Humanist Federation’s affiliated partners all share Soros’s concept of an Open Society, the EHF must be a front organization for Soros. Moreover, since the Commission accepted the EHF’s citizens’ initiative, “IN ADDITION TO THE CIVIC GROUPS THE EU COMMISSIONERS ARE ALSO IN SOROS’S POCKET.” Yes, in boldface caps. Magyar Idők accuses the commissioners of purposely picking a date when Navracsics would not be present.

Yes, it seems that the whole world is against the poor, innocent Orbán government. But pulling the strings is one man who has the power to move twenty-seven commissioners and their staff to make a concerted attack not just against Hungary but against the very idea of the “nation state.” I don’t know how effective such simple-minded explanations are, but I guess they might resonate with some people, especially since Soros’s name is associated with Jewishness and financial speculation, notions that are anathema to the far right.

Well, George Soros may not be pulling the strings in Brussels, but Viktor Orbán definitely is in Budapest. And through his mouthpieces he’s sounding more and more like Jobbik (and as a result is siphoning off Jobbik supporters).

Commissioner Tibor Navracsics on the Orbán government and the European Union

After spending some time on foreign policy issues, I will return to domestic affairs by analyzing two Tibor Navracsics interviews given a day apart, to mandiner.hu and Magyar Nemzet. As you most likely remember, Tibor Navracsics at one point was Viktor Orbán’s right-hand man who in the second Orbán government was named deputy prime minister in addition to his post as minister of justice. Currently, he is EU commissioner for education, culture, youth, and sport.

Tibor Navracsics was considered to be a moderate, although I find it difficult to forgive him for assisting Viktor Orbán as minister of justice in the destruction of Hungarian democracy. His encounters with Vivian Reding, EU justice commissioner, are hard to forget. On many occasions, with his “reasonableness” and polite manner, he served Orbán well. And let me quote myself here, from the first part of my review of Eleni Kounalakis’s memoirs: “He could explain in a most reasonable manner how Orbán’s undemocratic policies were not undemocratic at all. A case in point is a conversation between Attorney General Eric Holder and Navracsics that resulted in Holder’s not bringing up the question of the Hungarian media law because Navracsics ‘eloquently explained the government’s position.’ (p. 163)”

These two interviews are not the first Navracsics gave this year. A couple of months after his appointment as EU commissioner he gave one to 444.hu, in which he addressed many of the same points he dealt with in the two new interviews. But today, eight months later, in the middle of the refugee crisis, Navracsics’s criticism of political life in Hungary has sharpened. Although theoretically it would be possible for Viktor Orbán to recall Navracsics from Brussels because of his open disagreement with the prime minister’s views, in reality it is unlikely that Navracsics will not complete his full five-year term as an EU commissioner. He is liberated in a way.

Navracsics3

The first interview was conducted by András Stumpf, an aggressive fellow whose style doesn’t appeal to me. Stumpf tried his darndest to make Navracsics condemn the European Commission as a useless body headed by a drunkard who was chosen by the “great powers” to be their puppet. He rather undiplomatically called the Commission insignificant. Not the best way to start a conversation with one of the commissioners.

During the conversation, while Stumpf kept denigrating the Commission as a weak, bureaucratic mediator between the European Parliament and the European Council, Navracsics took a strong stand in defense of the Commission as well as of the European Union. The Commission’s role as a mediator is powerful and Juncker is perfect for that job, he claimed. After his last round of EU bashing, Stumpf pretty well gave up and moved on to presumably less risky topics, mostly about the relationship between the member states and the Commission. And at this point Navracsics began his complaints about the Orbán government’s methods of dealing with Brussels. “The greatest problem the Commission encounters with the Hungarian government is that it is ready to talk to the officials of the Commission only when there is already trouble (balhé).”

Navracsics doesn’t share Viktor Orbán’s mistaken notion that Hungary has never been a multicultural state. Unlike Orbán, he doesn’t see danger in immigration either. The problem is that the two sides take extreme points of view: either no immigrant can come or all can come. In the West people are accustomed to receiving large numbers of immigrants, while in Eastern Europe, because of invasions and unsuccessful attempts at integration, people see them as dangers. Stumpf got the impression that Navracsics considers “western integration a success story,” surely a sin in Stumpf’s eyes. In any case, although Navracsics nowhere called western integration a success story, he certainly stands by the Commission against those individual member states who refuse to cooperate.

It was at this point that Navracsics made a statement that has shaken the Hungarian media and public. He revealed that he is practically the only leading Fidesz politician who is pro-European Union. So, that means that the whole Fidesz leadership by now is Euroskeptic, and if they could, they would gladly leave the European Union.

In connection with Navracsics’s “exile to Brussels,” Stumpf brought up the rumor that circulated in 2013-2014 that Viktor Orbán was not convinced of Navracsics’s loyalty. Hence, the story went, he was sent to Brussels so he couldn’t build a base of support in Hungary. If we can believe Navracsics, he was chosen because by then he was the only possible candidate who would have accepted the job. His faith in the future of the European Union is still strong, and in the struggle between the institutions of the European Union and the European Council he takes the side of the former.

Navracsics’s second interview with Magyar Nemzet is also revealing. Although some of the topics were repeated, this time he leveled even more specific criticisms of the Orbán government’s dealing with the European Union. “Double standard” is the usual Hungarian complaint. The Hungarian government claims that the European Union deals with Hungary more severely than with other member states. The question was whether this is still the case. Navracsics was unwilling to blame the EU for treating Hungary unfairly. Instead, he said that he is convinced that the government’s unyielding attitude and harsh, antagonistic communication alienates EU officials. A willingness to cooperate is totally missing, and as long as this is the case Hungary will not be successful in Brussels. In fact, in Navracsics’s opinion the Orbán government has defined itself in opposition to the European Union.

Another topic that came up in the Magyar Nemzet interview was the role of the United States in the refugee crisis. Is the United States trying to turn EU member states against one another? What is the new U.S. offensive against Hungary all about? Navracsics was not about to fall into this trap, and he refused to engage in any kind of U.S. bashing. In fact, he noted that the United States actually accepted the Hungarian solution of building fences around the perimeter of the country. He defended Merkel as “one of the most significant politicians” today. Viktor Orbán is among the strong political actors, “but those who believe that a leader must consider all circumstances and factors think he is far too radical.” One has the feeling that Navracsics is among them.

Ambassador Eleni Kounalakis on her years in Hungary, Part I

I just received Eleni Kounalakis’s Madam Ambassador: Three Years of Diplomacy, Dinner Parties, and Democracy in Budapest (New York: The New Press), recounting her years in Budapest as U.S. Ambassador. I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by the book, which luckily, despite its subtitle, has little to do with dinner parties. Instead, we have an account of the turbulent first three years of the Orbán administration (January 2010-July 2013), told from the perspective of someone who desperately tried to develop a friendly relationship with the Hungarian officials with whom she had to deal.

As far as I know, no former U.S. ambassador to Hungary has written a book about his or her stay in Budapest since John F. Montgomery’s Hungary: The Unwilling Satellite (1947), which is by and large an apologia for the pro-German policies of Admiral Horthy and his governments. So, it is not an everyday affair that a book is published about U.S. -Hungarian relations that allows us to glimpse behind the scenes.

madam ambassadorKounalakis was a political appointee, as most U.S. ambassadors to Budapest are, and therefore upon her arrival she was pretty green, especially since originally she was supposed to be sent to Singapore and the State Department initially prepared her for that post. From sentences dropped here and there, I came to the conclusion that she had very little knowledge of the recent history of the country. What I mean by “recent” is the last 10-12 years of Hungarian politics, because otherwise she should have known that her stay in Budapest was going to be anything but dull, as she anticipated. From her book we also learn that the officials of the U.S. Embassy seemed to have forgotten the years of the first Orbán government (1998-2000) and occasionally showed signs of political naivete when it came to assessing the policies of the prime minister.

I will write more about this book later because the author discusses many aspects of U.S.-Hungarian relations during her tenure. Here I would like to concentrate on Eleni Kounalakis’s attitude toward the Orbán government and her personal relations with Viktor Orbán.

My impression is that while she had uneasy feelings about the direction in which Hungary was headed under the premiership of Viktor Orbán, she desperately tried to convince herself that she would be able to have good relations with the members of the Hungarian government. Orbán himself might be a difficult man, but he “had managed to attract some of conservative Hungary’s best and brightest to work in his government.” She “reasoned that if he was ever tempted to throw a grenade into the U.S.-Hungarian relationship … his own ministers might be motivated enough to hold him back.” (p. 105) Anyone who’s familiar with the servile ministers around Orbán knows that Kounalakis was sadly mistaken in her assessment.

She was especially impressed with Foreign Minister János Martonyi and Justice Minister Tibor Navracsics and describes both of them in glowing terms. Navracsics was “a star of Hungarian politics,” “a brilliant transatlanticist.” For some strange reason she believes that Navracsics was “a politician in his own right, with his own following” and that it was Orbán’s good fortune that he joined his cabinet. In fact, as we know, Navracsics served Orbán well. He could explain in a most reasonable manner how Orbán’s undemocratic policies were not undemocratic at all. A case in point  is a conversation between Attorney General Eric Holder and Navracsics that resulted in Holder’s not bringing up the question of the Hungarian media law because Navracsics “eloquently explained the government’s position.” (p. 163) János Martonyi was equally useful in persuading the Americans that all would be well with the new constitution. In fact, when some small changes were made to the constitution in the summer of 2012 the U.S. officials in Budapest “were very proud that our intervention had resulted in many tangible improvements.” (p. 197)

Other ministers with whom Kounalakis had close relations were Interior Minister Sándor Pintér and Defense Minister Csaba Hende. There are two chapters in which Csaba Hende is the main character, one titled “Travels with Csaba” and the other “Afghanistan Revisited.” But more about them later.

Kounalakis arrived in Budapest in January 2010, practically in the middle of the election campaign. She wanted to meet Orbán, especially since the Americans on the spot heard rumors that Orbán “regretted not working with the United States in a more collaborative way during his first stint as prime minister.” (p. 41) But the meeting was a disaster, due both to Kounalakis’s inexperience and to Orbán’s way of dealing with people with whom he disagreed. The second meeting, however, a few months later, went well, and one senses that the American ambassador was impressed with the “clean-cut, sharply dressed, confident young staffers, busily moving around with efficiency and purpose.” (p. 82)

This kind of ambivalence is evident throughout her book. But she was not alone in failing to grasp the true nature of Viktor Orbán and the people working for him. For example, although the staff of the embassy realized that “the new prime minister and his supermajority in Parliament added a certain level of unpredictability,” they believed that “Orbán would be careful because of the historic importance of Hungary’s first EU presidency.” The Americans were wrong. Hungary took over the presidency on January 1, 2011, and “on January 2, all hell broke loose.” (pp. 156-157) The media law was passed.

Perhaps the best example of  how Eleni Kounalakis, despite her protestation to the contrary, misjudged Viktor Orbán is her description of Viktor Orbán’s performance in Strasbourg before the European Parliament. It is worth quoting the whole passage:

Orbán went to Strasbourg on January 19 [2011] to speak to the European Parliament on general EU matters, but he ended up confronting a hostile gathering. Socialist parliamentarians appeared with duct tape over their mouths to protest the new media restrictions, and “Danny the Red”–Daniel Marc Cohn-Bendit, a German Green Party member–lashed out at Orbán from the floor, comparing him to Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez. Orbán calmly rebutted the criticism and promised to abide by the European Commission’s forthcoming legal opinion on the new media law–as long as the same standards applied to all EU members. With his cool responses to the circus that the Socialists created, Orbán was able to frame the debate of the Hungarian media law along partisan political lines. When I went to see Péter Szijjártó, the prime minister’s senior adviser, a few days after Orbán’s EU speech, he gleefully reported that “we are getting calls from conservative politicians from all over Europe, congratulating us for standing up to these liberals. The response from our friends is overwhelming.” (p. 159)

Just to balance this description of Orbán’s appearance in Strasbourg, I will quote from my post titled “The Hungarian Prime Minister in Strasbourg: A Day Later”:

It is one thing to read written reports of an event and something else to see it on video. It also helps to read other people’s reactions a day after. I did both this morning and I must say that today I consider Viktor Orbán’s performance in the European Parliament a disaster.
….
At the beginning of this post I talked about the two Viktor Orbáns. The one that tries to impress the world outside of Hungary and the other not-so-nice domestic Viktor Orbán. A Jekyll and Hyde story that could be played by Orbán while in opposition. The question was how long he could play the same game when in power. The answer is: the game is over. He showed his true self when he answered his critics in Strasbourg. He talked very loudly and his voice by that time had become hoarse. He tried occasionally to be light-hearted but his levities fell flat. For example, when he claimed that he feels quite at home because he receives criticism in similar tones in Hungary. He paused for a second, hoping for an applause that didn’t come.

What did she intend to convey about Viktor Orbán in an exchange with Condoleezza Rice? “So,”[Rice] asked, “you are saying he’s a bully but not a brute?” A bully is certainly better than a brute. What does that mean from the point of view of the U.S. government? Not so dangerous?

There is a fairly long description of a conversation between President Bill Clinton and Kounalakis in his office in New York. Clinton wanted to know what she thought of Viktor Orbán. Here is the whole conversation:

Mr. President, some people say he’s crazy. I don’t think that’s right. I see him as a very smart, very rational man. But he doesn’t seem to me to have the same concept, the same definitions as we do of democracy, freedom, and even free markets. I think he sees himself as the only one who can protect the Hungarian people from what he believes are corrupting outside influences…. But when it comes to the larger issues we’ve been talking about, like energy security for Europe and the Eastern Partnership–and Afghanistan–we are still very much on the same page as the Hungarians. They are as much a reliable partner on international issues now as they have ever been. (p. 259)

Eleni Kounalakis’s confidence was tested when, not long after this conversation, “Hungary faced a decision that pitted its economic interests against its diplomatic ones. The choice would, for the first time, shake our faith in the country’s reliability as a partner and cast a pall over our relations.” (p. 259) She was talking about the release of Ramil Safarov, an Azeri who was serving a life sentence in Budapest for the ax murder of an Armenian.

Kounalakis’s final meeting with Viktor Orbán, when she was about to leave her post, was freewheeling. Out of the blue Orbán began talking about Milan Kundera’s book The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Kounalakis took the opportunity to say that for Kundera “freedom meant the ability to live free from oppression–especially free from oppression by your own government. That’s what democracy is all about.” Orbán’s “eyes narrowed and he waved his hand abruptly as if to beat away the comment. ‘All this talk about democracy is bullshit!'” The departing U.S. ambassador couldn’t quite believe what she heard. “He probably didn’t mean to say that democracy was bullshit, but that he rejected, and resented, my raising the subject with him again.” (pp. 281-82) I wonder what Kounalakis thinks now after hearing the Hungarian prime minister talk about “illiberal democracy” and even the superiority of autocracy over democracy.

Strasbourg verdict on disenfranchised churches: the Hungarian government dithers

The Hungarian government has had an awful lot of bad news lately coming from various institutions of the European Union. Yesterday I wrote about the veto by Euratom and the European Commission of certain parts of the Russian-Hungarian agreement concerning Rosatom’s supply of nuclear fuel for the two new reactors of the Paks power plant. Today I will look into an older decision of the European Court of Human Rights that the Hungarian government has yet to act on, despite a March 8 deadline. What I have in mind is the infamous law on churches.

The law that Zsolt Semjén called a masterpiece has had some rough sledding. The law stipulated that only churches approved by the Hungarian parliament could partake of the benefits churches usually enjoy in democratic countries. Smaller, less traditional churches or congregations, including some following reformed Judaism, were stripped of their church status. In February 2013 the Constitutional Court, which at that time wasn’t yet packed with Fidesz loyalists, found the law to be discriminative and therefore unconstitutional. The Orbán government’s answer was to change the constitution and to leave the objectionable law unaltered.

Since all remedies at home had been exhausted, sixteen small churches decided to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to seek justice. Nine churches were represented by TASZ, the Hungarian equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, while Dániel Karsai represented another six. Csaba Tordai represented perhaps the most important church, which was most likely the victim of Viktor Orbán’s personal vendetta: the Magyarországi Evangéliumi Testvérközösség (MET) led by Gábor Iványi, basically a Methodist church.

Dániel Karsai, who frequently appeared on ATV during 2013, was certain already in late May of that year that their case was so strong that the Hungarian government would suffer another setback in Strasbourg. It took a year, but in April 2014 the verdict was announced. It was in favor of the small churches. The Hungarian government and the churches will have to agree on a financial settlement. If they cannot reach an equitable arrangement, the Strasbourg court will decide on the amount of compensation these churches deserve for the financial loss they suffered as a result of being deprived of their church status. Moreover, the law on churches doesn’t conform to European law and hence must be changed.

It all started rather small

This church started off rather small, after all

Dániel Karsai, the lawyer for some of the churches, was elated. He expressed his hope that “after this great victory the first business of the new government will be to put in order the question of religious freedom.” Well, a year went by and nothing happened. No settlement was reached. Instead of writing a new law, the government decided to appeal the case. I should note that it was the Ministry of Justice and Administration under the leadership of Tibor Navracsics that handled the case in Strasbourg on behalf of the Hungarian government. The same Navracsics who today is desperately trying to distance himself from the Orbán administration and attempting to portray himself as a moderate liberal in his new capacity as a member of the European Commission.

Another five months went by. On September 9, 2014, the Court of Human Rights rejected the appeal of the Hungarian government. The law would have to be changed and the churches in question compensated. The court gave the Hungarian government six months, until March 8, to settle the question of compensation. Well, I just read in Magyar Nemzet that “the government heeds the Strasbourg verdict but does not want to be overhasty.” What an understatement. The government wants to be fair, but at the same time “it doesn’t want to waste the taxpayers’ money” and the sum in question is rather large. According to some estimates, the churches claimed damages amounting to about 20 billion forints. The Magyar Nemzet article indicated that the government finds some of the claims unacceptable. On the other hand, Csaba Tordai, the lawyer for Gábor Iványi’s Methodist church, is optimistic that there will be an agreement within a few weeks. The Magyarországi Evangéliumi Testvérközösség (MET) originally asked for 1.4 billion forints, but that was in 2012. I assume the current claim is at least double that amount.

As far as the law itself is concerned, the government is again in no hurry. Dániel Karsai might have hoped that the new government would immediately take care of the problem, but today Miklós Soltész, undersecretary in charge of social policy in the ministry of human resources, announced that the government is not planning to write a new law because, after all, they already revised the original law once, in 2013. So, there will be only changes in certain points. And, he continued,”we must guard those values [in the law] that assist the spiritual work of the churches in all facets of their activities,” whatever that means. I have the feeling that this is not the end of the story.