Tag Archives: Visegrád 4

Another European summit, with special attention to the Visegrád 4

The official word sent by the Hungarian government to foreign news agencies about the meeting of the Visegrád 4 prime ministers with President Jean-Claude Juncker over a lavish dinner, which included Jerusalem artichokes and foie gras, was that the meeting was a “success.” Viktor Orbán claimed that the V4 leaders presented a united front on every issue and succeeded in demonstrating to the EC president that the V4 is “a tight, effective, and successful alliance.” It is almost certain that, over and above the migrant issue, the “accelerating drift … toward authoritarianism” in some of the East European countries which most diplomats in Brussels consider “a more serious threat for the EU than Brexit” was also discussed. According to Bloomberg, the dinner “yielded a promise that the commission will seek to build an environment of consensus” between the Visegrád 4 countries and the rest of the European Union.

Source: Népszava / Photo: AFP/Dario Pignatelli

Viktor Orbán, who is capable of staging a fight even with a nonexistent foe, couldn’t go home empty-handed and simply say that the meeting was useful and that he, together with all the others, signed the closing document of the summit. Therefore, the Hungarian government media focused attention on a report by the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee (LIBE) of the European Parliament, which would impose mandatory migrant quotas and strip non-complying member states of EU funding in an effort to revamp the present asylum law. The rapporteur of the report is Cecilia Wikström, a Swedish liberal member of parliament.

What is this new plan all about? It does demand a “permanent and automatic relocation mechanism without thresholds,” calculated on GDP and population size. Refugees with relatives in countries will be able to join them; others will be offered four countries on a rotating basis, from which they can choose one where their case will be decided. As Wikström explained, “it means if the person enters Greece, chooses to go to Hungary, God forbid, then that person is allocated to Hungary.” I’m sure that the committee members spent a great deal of time and effort on this report, but anyone who has been following the ups and downs of the refugee crisis in Europe knows that this plan is dead in the water, especially since the day after it passed Donald Tusk made clear that any and all distribution of the refugees must be voluntary.

The Hungarian government papers are full of stories about the limitless compulsory distribution of migrants, without explaining the status of a parliamentary committee report, which may or may not be approved by the European Parliament. And even if it sails through the plenary session, it must be approved by the European Council, that is, all the heads of governments of the member states, including Viktor Orbán. It was only HVG that pointed out that a committee report means little in the legislative process. Looking upon it as a weighty final decision is just a political ploy. So, Viktor Orbán’s talk about “the bullet already in the barrel,” which will force all countries to accept migrants without limit, merely serves his political agenda. He knows as well as anyone that the general drift of thinking in Europe has been moving away from compulsory quotas and toward effective border control and limited acceptance of bona fide refugees. The European Commission would still like all member countries to participate in the processing of the refugees and their distribution, but only on a voluntary basis.

The closing statement which Orbán signed urges the implementation of Turkey’s acceptance of ineligible migrants; it presses for the strengthening of the EU borders; it doubles efforts at the curbing of human trafficking; it supports easier transfer of information between member states; and, finally, it advocates financial assistance to Libya and other African countries. According to news reports, Viktor Orbán suggested setting up a common fund to assist Italy in the defense of its borders.

The domestic propaganda effort is concentrating on the Wikström report. Zoltán Kovács, government spokesman, was dispatched to the state radio where he assured listeners that “the Hungarian government intends to oppose [the suggestions of the report] by all means possible.” What “LIBE is doing is nothing other than what we call the Soros plan.”

Kinga Gál (Fidesz), one of the deputy chairpersons of LIBE, gave an interview to Magyar Idők in which she called the report a “European invitation to all the migrants of the world.” She added that she hopes that “the European Council will have a sense of responsibility and common sense” and will, if it ever comes to that, refuse to endorse this plan. The Hungarian government still has to struggle “to save a small slice of the country’s national sovereignty.” Orbán described the Wikström report as “the strongest attack against the sovereignty of the country” to date.” National unity would be needed, but “the opposition parties support the migrant policy of Brussels that is based on compulsory quotas,” a false claim, by the way.

What did Viktor Orbán have to say about the Visegrád 4-Juncker dinner? He came to the conclusion that the difference between East and West is “worrisome, almost hopeless” and that “these differences are not so much political in nature but are rooted in cultural differences.” Nonetheless, the meeting was useful because “we could tell Mr. Juncker that we would like to receive more respect for the citizens of the Central European states, including the Hungarians.” Mina Andreeva, spokeswoman of EC President Juncker, called the meeting “friendly and constructive.” As Népszava’s correspondent in Brussels put it, “the president of the European Commission offered compromise and consensus as the main course to the four guests.” Since they agreed to repeat the meetings in the future, I assume the offers were accepted.

Viktor Orbán gave no press conference to the four or five Hungarian reporters who were waiting for him both after the dinner and a day later, at the end of the summit. With his refusal to talk to the reporters, he broke with his past practice of showering reporters with a litany of complaints about the decisions reached or trying to convince them of his own importance during the negotiations. Perhaps his silence indicates a less belligerent stance as far as the European Union is concerned. In any case, his attacks at home this time were directed only against the European Parliament and not against the “Brussels” bureaucrats.

October 20, 2017

Viktor Orbán rails against the European Commission’s “reasoned opinions”

This morning Viktor Orbán delivered one of his most ferocious attacks on the “Brussels bureaucrats.” He usually relegates this kind of conduct to his minions. He himself tries to maintain the level of decorum fit for a “serious” politician of a “serious country,” as he called Hungary and its government in the midst of his rant.

It is hard to tell whether Viktor Orbán was really as upset as he sounded in this interview on state radio or whether it was feigned indignation, preparing the ground for a meeting initiated by Jean-Claude Juncker with the Visegrád 4 countries. I suspect it was the former. I think he meant every word of his harangue, and I am almost certain that this strident attitude of the Hungarian officials led by Viktor Orbán himself will only be magnified in the coming months.

The immediate cause of Orbán’s outburst was the European Commission’s latest “reasoned opinion,” which Hungary received two days ago. In June the Orbán government passed a law on the status of foreign-funded non-governmental organizations that the European Commission considered to be in violation of the right of freedom of association and the protection of private life and personal data, which are safeguarded by the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. The law was, they argued, also a breach of the principle of free movement of capital. In July the Commission initiated an infringement procedure, to which the Hungarian government had three months to respond. If the response was unsatisfactory, the Commission would take the next step in this legal process, issuing a “reasoned opinion.” It was this “reasoned opinion” that reached Viktor Orbán’s desk with the message that “if Hungary fails to reply satisfactorily to the reasoned opinion, then the Commission may refer the case to the Court of Justice of the EU.” In July Hungary also received a reasoned opinion on the higher education law, which disproportionately restricts EU and non-EU universities in their operations.

On October 2 Jean-Claude Juncker invited the prime ministers of the Visegrád 4 countries to a dinner on October 18, which was labelled a “conciliatory” one. But Viktor Orbán, judging from this interview, is girding himself for battle, or at least he is very skeptical that Juncker can offer them anything that will be satisfactory. In any case, Orbán, in his current frame of mind, is not ready for any kind of conciliation. In fact, he has a profound contempt for the whole institution and its politicians, and he finds the European Commission’s legal pronouncements unworthy of serious consideration.

First of all, these two infringement procedures “have nothing to do with the Charter of Fundamental Rights or the European Constitution.” They “smell of politics even from far away.” The opinions issued are “the objects of general derision everywhere in Europe. A sensible lawyer wouldn’t even touch it…. It is clear that this document is the result of a political diktat… A lawyer—how shall I say—can’t even talk about it in all seriousness and without laughing. This is so ridiculous that one doesn’t even know what to do with it…. Perhaps the most ridiculous argument is about the free movement of capital. What does a donation have to do with the free movement of capital? These are ridiculous things…. If we accepted them, we would become laughing stocks. This is a serious country which even after a month of deliberation cannot say more than that this whole thing is ridiculous. Therefore, the case will end up in court.“ Orbán’s conclusion is that “the people like the European Union but they can’t stand its leadership.”

Viktor Orbán’s attitude toward European Union politicians and administrators is well illustrated by his story about the European Parliament’s delegation that visited Hungary about a week ago to assess some EU-funded projects. During the course of their visit members of the delegation went to see one of Orbán’s pet projects, the narrow-gauged train built in Felcsút, the village where he spent his first 14 years. The delegation found everything in perfect order. Why did they come in the first place?, Orbán asked. Because “they must occupy themselves with something while we are defending Europe instead of them.” These no-good MEPs attack the valiant Hungarians whose soldiers and policemen defend Europe. But he doesn’t give a fig.

After this diatribe he moved on to the Soros network and the Soros “plan,” introducing some new elements and twists. One is that his government was the one that “accomplished a very important task. It uncovered “the network of George Soros which until now had been hidden.” He declared that Fidesz politicians will daily prove the connection between the European Parliament’s committee that is investigating the Hungarian government’s undemocratic ways, which may lead to the triggering of Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union, and George Soros. Because all the members of the committee are Soros’s men. “They are his allies who eat out of his hand.” The report they write will reflect Soros’s conclusions. The cards are stacked against Hungary. The Soros “plan” works.

Orbán came up with an entirely new interpretation of the origin of the Soros “plan.” In his opinion, it was a direct answer to his own plan, which he submitted to the European Union as a solution to the migration crisis. Although it is not entirely clear, I suspect he is talking about Soros’s 2016 essay “This is Europe’s last chance to fix its refugee policy.” Orbán recalled that he had published a comprehensive plan at the height of the crisis, which consisted of several points outlining “how Europe should be defended, offering some solutions.” At this very moment, “as an answer,” Soros made public another plan that had several points just like his. Instead of his own ideas, it was this Soros “plan” that was adopted by the European Union. Brussels will deny this, but it is time to let the bureaucrats know that “Hungary is not a country of imbeciles.” They know what’s going on. The EU politicians cannot pretend that all this is just a coincidence. Hungarians “are not simpletons.” On the contrary. They know that “George Soros bought people, organizations … and that Brussels is under his influence. As far as immigration policy goes, the Brussels machinery is carrying out Soros’s plan. They want to dismantle the fence; they want to bring in millions of immigrants; and they want to forcibly disperse them among the member states. And they want to punish those who don’t submit.”

Orbán apparently “smiled mysteriously” when the reporter referred to the “friendly dinner” the Visegrád 4 countries will have with Jean-Claude Juncker. He indicated that he is not sure the meeting will be all that friendly. Of course, we know that Viktor Orbán behaves differently in Budapest and in Brussels. Perhaps today’s tiger will be a bunny rabbit by October 18.

October 6, 2017

Viktor Orbán, the leading statesman of Europe

I’m not sure whether it is worth devoting a whole post to the latest Orbán speech at the Tusnádfűrdő/Băile Tușnad gathering of Fidesz leaders, especially after I waded through the dreadfully boring text. A reporter from one of the Hungarian internet sites asked some people in the audience after it was all over what particular sentence or idea they thought was most memorable. The less imaginative ones just stood there mum, while a clever middle-aged lady in a state of rapture announced that “every word the prime minister uttered” was equally unforgettable. How clever.

The most “exciting” moment of the event was a sight to behold. Muscled-up Szekler “gentlemen” began roughing up a woman who foolishly braved the crowd alone to protest the building of the Paks II Nuclear Power Plant. One of her attackers dragged her to the ground by her hair. Judging from what we can see on the video, the incident could have ended very badly.

I don’t know how other people will judge this speech, how others will interpret the speaker’s state of mind, but my overarching impression is that Viktor Orbán is afraid. This judgment might surprise some people, especially since most people, just like Péter Magyari of 444.hu, would undoubtedly find the speech little more than an attempt to explain “why he is the most important person in the world today.” It was precisely this extended and continuous self-aggrandizing that made me suspicious that the Hungarian prime minister is not as self-assured as he would have us believe.

Let’s start with “the strengthening of the Visegrád 4 countries,” which he considers to be the most momentous event for Europe in the last 12 months. Admittedly, there was the U.S. presidential election and the French presidential and parliamentary elections, which “swept away the whole French party system,” but they fade in comparison to the reality that “the cooperation of the Visegrád 4 has become closer than ever before.” Of course, he takes credit for this feat. But even a superficial perusal of the international media tells a different story. The coming reform of the European Union will most likely force these four countries to make choices that may vary according to their perceived national interests. Orbán’s claim that “Warsaw, Prague, Bratislava, and Budapest speak the same language” might have been true regarding their position on the refugee issue, but it is most likely a very temporary phenomenon. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting with the Visegrád 4 may have served Israeli interests, but it had no appreciable effect on the cohesion of the alliance.

From his alleged diplomatic success he moved on to his incredible foresight in recognizing ahead of everybody else that the days of global, supranational elites are over and that the future will be in the hands of “patriotic national leaders.” Here, I believe, he is thinking of the U.S. presidential election, because the description fits only the political system Donald Trump is trying to create, for the time being without much success. In Europe, most likely to the chagrin of Orbán, those extreme right-wing leaders whom Orbán calls “patriotic political leaders” have not yet emerged–with the exception of Poland, and let’s hope that the European Union will muster its courage and ensure that the Polish “disease” does not spread across Europe.

It is a well-known fact that Orbán, who spent his first 14 years in a small village, is no friend of Budapest, where he never felt quite at home. Yet now he decided to brag about the country’s capital as the only city between Vienna and Istanbul that is a metropolis. As he put it, “our capital is capable of serving more than the Hungarian state.”

Naturally, a good portion of the speech was devoted to the refugee crisis and the dire situation that awaits Europe, which will inevitably be Islamized. He repeated his usual arguments, especially about the alliance of George Soros and the Brussels bureaucrats. The only noteworthy passage from this section of the speech was Orbán’s claim that his determined anti-migrant policies saved Europe “from the migrant invasion.” Therefore, “next year’s Hungarian election will be a special one because all of Europe will have a stake in it.” If he loses the election, his political opponents will take down the fence he built and will allow immigrants into the country. Thus, “they are ready to hand over the Europeans of today to a new future continent with a mixed population.” There are forces in Europe that want to see a change of government in Hungary because they want to weaken the Visegrád 4 alliance and, with it, the whole of Central Europe.

From this rant I think we can hypothesize that Orbán is actually worried about the outcome of the election, however crazy this sounds given the utter disarray in which the opposition finds itself at the moment. The incredible effort Orbán has expending lately urging all Romanian-Hungarians to vote is telling. At the last national election 97% of Romanian-Hungarians voted for Fidesz. So virtually all votes coming from there will be cast for Orbán’s party. Fidesz has managed to get close to a million people to register and the campaign is still under way. Second, the reference to certain political forces that want to weaken the Visegrád 4 alliance is also a telling sign of his worries about the stability of the group.

So, what kind of a picture emerges from all this? He is a politician who wants to portray himself as the leading statesman of Europe. In addition, he, and not Donald Trump, was the harbinger of the “patriotic leader” whose main concern is national interest. He was the man who saved Europe from a migrant invasion. Budapest is destined for greater things than being the capital of Hungary. And finally, his rule over the country is so important that all Europeans must keep fingers crossed for his political survival because otherwise Europe as we know it will be lost. It’s no wonder that the opposition claims that Orbán has lost his sense of reality. Yet, all that brings to mind the saying about the man who whistles in the dark although, in fact, he is fearful of the world around him.

July 22, 2017

Meeting of the minds: Benjamin Netanyahu and the Visegrád 4

Even though many analysts are talking about the impending disintegration of the Visegrád 4 regional alliance, Benjamin Netanyahu decided to use it for his own political ends. The glue that holds the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia together is their determination to keep immigrants and asylum seekers out of their countries. In addition, the Polish and Hungarian governments work hand in hand against the “Brussels bureaucrats” who allegedly want to create a United States of Europe in which national differences will disappear. Both governments refuse to abide by the rules of the European Union while enjoying its financial benefits. Benjamin Netanyahu’s appearance at the Visegrád Four’s Budapest summit gave a huge boost to the anti-migrant policies of these countries and added fuel to the anti-EU posture of Poland and Hungary.

Thanks to an open microphone, we have a fair idea of how the Israeli prime minister wants to use the Visegrád 4. What we could hear was a “blistering attack” on the European Union. It is a well-known fact that Netanyahu has a “barely disguised contempt” for the EU, which often criticizes Israel over issues of the Jewish settlements and Netanyahu’s reluctance to continue the peace process. The Guardian described his remarks as bombastic, predicting the sad end of the European Union which may “shrivel and disappear,” especially if it doesn’t change its attitude toward the present Israeli government. “The European Union is the only association of countries in the world that conditions the relations with Israel, which produces technology in every area, on political conditions.” After this tirade he came to the real reason why he decided to accept Viktor Orbán’s invitation: “I think that if I can suggest that what comes out of this meeting is your ability perhaps to communicate to your colleagues in other parts of Europe: Help Europe … don’t undermine the one western country that defends European values and European interests and prevents another mass migration to Europe.” In fact, according to Netanyahu, “Europe ends in Israel [which] has no greater friends than the Christians who support Israel around the world.” He made it clear that he was talking not only about fundamentalist Christians.

What a happy crowd

The meeting was a real success. The prime ministers of the Visegrád 4 countries were impressed with Netanyahu and liked what they heard. At the end of the meeting he posted the following message on his Facebook page: “I’m happy the Visegrad Group accepted my invitation to hold its next summit in Israel. As the Jewish people say: Next year in Jerusalem!”

Haaretz, not exactly a supporter of the present Israeli government, called the leaked speech “bigheaded Euro-bashing … politically savvy and diplomatically demented” considering that the EU is Israel’s most important trading partner. As for using the Visegrád 4 to reshape the other member countries’ assessment of Netanyahu’s policies on settlements and the whole Palestinian issue, I have my doubts. Both Poland and Hungary are under a cloud in Brussels at the moment. It may just happen that both countries will face concerted efforts in the European Parliament to invoke Article 7 against them for gross transgressions of the basic values the European Union. As for the Czech Republic and Slovakia, they might not be willing to follow the lead of Poland and Hungary when it comes to confrontation with the EU. But as of now, it seems that Netanyahu achieved what he went to the Hungarian capital for.

From the descriptions of the events of the last two or three days, Viktor Orbán was in a fine mood, basking in the glory of being the host of such an important gathering. One can always read Viktor Orbán’s state of mind on such occasions. He can look glum, as when Angela Merkel visited Budapest, or radiant, as during Putin’s first trip to Hungary when he was light-hearted and relaxed.

By tonight, however, when he and Netanyahu paid a visit to the famous synagogue on Dohány utca where they met with the leaders of Mazsihisz (Alliance of Hungarian Jewish Congregations) his good mood may have been dampened. President András Heisler didn’t hide the Hungarian Jewish community’s criticism of Viktor Orbán’s anti-Soros campaign as well as Benjamin Netanyahu’s disregard of the Hungarian Jewry’s fears of anti-Semitism that the thousands of anti-Soros posters provoked. He also brought up the Hungarian government’s ambiguous attitude toward the Holocaust, although he was pleased that Orbán talked about the sin the Hungarian government committed at the time of the Holocaust. Turning to Netanyahu, he said that the disavowal of the Israeli ambassador’s statement on the Soros campaign came as a “cold shower” to him and his co-religionists. He emphasized that only a strong Jewish diaspora can help Israel effectively. Finally, he addressed Orbán and told him that Mazsihisz is ready to work with the Hungarian government when there is an agreement of views between them. I may add that this is not too often the case. Orbán didn’t respond to Heisler’s comments.

This oversized hat is the one Orbán puts on for appropriate occasions

I’m not sure whether too many observers will pay attention to one of the sentences in Heisler’s speech in which he talked about the importance of the unity of Hungarian Jewry and indicated that there are forces that are trying to sow discord among them. Indeed, the Orbán government has its favorite Jews: Rabbi Slomó Köves and his Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation (EMIH). The name of this Jewish group is highly misleading because it is an ultra-Orthodox group affiliated with the Chabad movement that has no deep roots in the Hungarian Jewish past. As opposed to Mazsihisz’s Heisler, EMIH’s Köves didn’t find that Orbán’s campaign against Soros had anything to do with anti-Semitism. Given his very strong relations, even financial, with the Orbán government, his position on the subject is not at all surprising. So, I assume that the reference to sowing discord in the Hungarian Jewish community has something to do with the disparity between the cozy relationship between the tiny EMIH and the Hungarian government on the one hand and the often strained relationship between the government and Mazsihisz, which represents mainstream Jewish congregations based on traditional Hungarian Jewish practices, on the other.

July 19, 2017

What awaits the Visegrád Four?

A couple of weeks ago an excellent article appeared in Atlatszo.hu with the striking title “Visegrád is dead—An anti-Orbán alliance is in the making in Central Europe.” The alliance the author, Botond Bőtös, is referring to is the so-called Slavkov Triangle, comprising Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Slavkov is better known to most of us as Austerlitz, where the Battle of the Three Emperors (Napoleon, Tsar Alexander I, and Emperor Francis II) was fought in 1805.

Actually, the Slavkov Triangle is not new. It was in January 2015, in the middle of the Ukrainian crisis, that on the initiative of the Czech Republic the three prime ministers–Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann, and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico–signed a declaration that envisaged close cooperation in areas of infrastructure development, traffic, energy safety, and, most important, joint consultations prior to European Union summits. At the time quite a few Polish and Czech analyses appeared, but in Hungarian I found only one, in HVG, by Csaba Tóth of the Republikon Institute, which was subsequently translated into English and published by the Budapest Sentinel under the title “Slavkov Triangle threatens to isolate Hungary from its European allies.” The Slavkov Declaration, as Tóth noted,“betrays such a level of cooperation … as to suggest that if this plan is executed, the Visegrád Cooperation will become an empty structure.”

Not much happened in the intervening months. But at the end of June Bohuslav Sobotka, Robert Fico, and the new Austrian chancellor Christian Kern sat down again to continue their project and talk about the “convergence of old and new Europe.” According to Botond Bőtös, in the last couple of years the Czech Republic in particular has become concerned that the Visegrád 4 countries are being labelled intransigent opponents of everything the European Union stands for. Czech politicians began asking whether it was in the best interests of the Czech Republic to be identified with the Polish-Hungarian dominated group.

Bőtös is convinced that Orbán was always something of an irritant to the others, but after the 2015 Polish election that brought the right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) to power, “the foreign policy of Orbán became the official strategy of the Visegrád Group.” That was too much for the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Especially after the September 2016 V4-meeting in Bratislava, it became increasingly apparent that the Czechs and Slovaks held different views from their Polish and Hungarian colleagues. They differ on European integration, and they are not happy with the authoritarian turn of events in Poland and Hungary. They came to the conclusion that the V4 has no common, positive message for the rest of Europe. And the outside political world has a very negative opinion of the V4 countries. These are the considerations underpinning the revival of the Slavkov Triangle.

Christian Kern, Bohuslav Sobotka, and Robert Fico in front of the Austerlitz Palace

A couple of days ago Austrian chancellor Christian Kern gave an interview to the German paper Handelsblatt in which he talked at some length about the Visegrád 4 Group. He began by saying that there is a visible split in the group between Poland and Hungary on one side and the Czech Republic and Slovakia on the other. Kern pointed out that the EU often reproached the Polish and Hungarian governments, to no avail, but “now this conflict must have a resolution.” If necessary, through financial retribution.

Péter Szijjártó, the Hungarian foreign minister, reacted by saying that the Hungarian government has been aware for some time that certain Western European politicians are attempting to divide the Visegrád Group. “But we have bad news for them. It will not work. The Visegrád Group is the closest and most effective alliance within the European Union.”

Yesterday Viktor Orbán himself spoke about the Austrian chancellor’s reference to Hungary and the fractured Visegrád 4 in his Kossuth Rádió interview. Let me translate the passage verbatim because it says a lot about him and his interaction with the rest of the world.

It is never fortunate in politics when someone confuses his desires with reality. I understand that the Austrians are hurt because they are not part of the Visegrád Group. Austria is a lonely country anyway, and thus we don’t even know exactly where it is trying to find its strategic interests. Since the collapse of the monarchy it has been the historical question of Central Europe where Austria belongs. Until now Austria has been a very successful country. Therefore we can tip our hats because between the end of World War II and now it has achieved the highest standard of living and the greatest economic development. So, it is a talented country, but in a foreign policy sense it is at a loss because it is not a member of NATO yet a member of the European Union, not a member of V4 although it belongs to Central Europe. So there are many uncertainties here. It is not worthwhile for our friends to hope that they can break the unity of the Visegrád 4. The basic principle of V4 is simple: one for all and all for one.

Orbán at his best. Condescending, contemptuous, and arrogant when, by the look of it, it is he and his country who seem to be in some trouble on the international stage.

July 8, 2017

A quick look at three recent events in Hungary

Medián’s latest opinion poll on parties and politicians

Today I will again cover several topics, all of which, I believe, deserve attention. I will start with Medián’s latest opinion poll, which shows a slight uptick in Fidesz support while the opposition parties’ positions remain fairly constant. I will not burden you with too many details and will provide figures only for those voters who claim they will certainly vote at the next election. In this group Fidesz leads with 53%, followed by Jobbik at 21%, while MSZP, which looks upon itself as the leading party on the left, currently garners only 12%. DK stands at 6% and LMP at 3%, which means that it wouldn’t meet the 5% threshold for representation in parliament. The smaller parties like Momentum, Együtt, Two-tailed Dog, and MoMa each have a 1% share of the active voters while the Hungarian Liberal Party and Párbeszéd have even less support. As it stands, about 10% of votes would be absolutely wasted if all these parties decided to run on their own. Given the fractured state of the left-of-center opposition, it is not at all surprising that 33% of the likely voters have no idea at the moment for which party they will vote at next year’s election.

Medián also asked people’s opinion of politicians. Hungarians have a very low opinion of politicians in general. Usually, János Áder heads the list, but his rank is due only to his office. People feel they must respect the president of the country. But even Áder’s “popularity” is only 49%. Viktor Orbán trails at 44%. The most popular opposition politician is Gergely Karácsony, mayor of Zugló (District XIV), with 39%. Currently he is Párbeszéd’s candidate for the premiership, which might be responsible for an 8% jump in his popularity in the last two months. On the other hand, MSZP’s László Botka hasn’t captured the imagination of the electorate. On the contrary, between April and June he has lost 8%. His current standing is a mere 26%. There are only two politicians who are less popular than Botka: Lajos Bokros and Ferenc Gyurcsány. Given Botka’s lack of popularity and the stagnating low support for MSZP, the socialist party’s prospects don’t seem too bright. I must say that I’m not surprised.

Egypt and Hungary are political neighbors

At least this is what Viktor Orbán claimed yesterday when Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visited Hungary to confer with the prime ministers of the Visegrád 4 and to have bilateral talks with Viktor Orbán.

El-Sisi arrived in Budapest in secrecy late Sunday night. MTI reported his presence in the Hungarian capital only after his meeting with Viktor Orbán yesterday. The Egyptian press was much more forthcoming. They announced the impending visit to Budapest already on July 1. As 168 Óra said of the strange circumstances of el-Sisi’s arrival, “the Orbán government first wanted to hide the dictator but at the end he was greeted with open arms.” Indeed, just as in the case of Erdoğan, Orbán went out of his way to flatter the dictator. He again came forth with some strange comments. Orbán, who likes to speak in the name of all Hungarians, claimed that when Hungarians look at other countries their first inquiry is “how much they are in love with their own independence.” I’m sure that this odd comment comes as a surprise to most Hungarians. But, the most incredible sentence was: “Egypt is not only a country close by but also politically speaking a neighbor.”

In addition to political matters there was again a lot of talk about the great economic opportunities and the prospects of more intensive trade relations in the future. All the talk about trade with Turkey a couple of days ago and now with Egypt prompted Bálint Ablonczy of Válasz to write an opinion piece titled “Wouldn’t it be time for a western opening?” He rightly pointed out that seven years after the announcement of the Eastern Opening the diversification of Hungarian trade relations hasn’t changed at all. In fact, in 2010 77% percent of Hungarian exports went to the countries of the European Union. Today that figure is 80%. This is so despite bilateral talks with leaders of countries east of Hungary. Meanwhile, Orbán meets European politicians only at EU summits. Perhaps, says Ablonczy, it would be time to turn toward the west. What Ablonczy doesn’t say but I’m sure he knows is that at present there are not too many European politicians who would like to be chummy with Viktor Orbán, friend of Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Abel Fattah el-Sisi, Nursultan Nazarbayev, Ilham Aliyev, and other unsavory leaders.

Trade schools versus gymnasiums

I once wrote a post with the title “Hungarian politicians and learning: Not a good mix,” in which I listed a few truly harmful people in and around Hungarian education, starting with Rózsa Hoffmann, KDNP undersecretary of education between 2010 and 2014, László Palkovics, her successor, and László Parragh, president of the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The fact that a businessman might have such an outsize influence on public education might surprise most people, but the fact is that for one reason or another Parragh managed to convince Orbán that his ideas reflect the way Hungarian education should be structured for maximum economic benefit. Unfortunately, his ideas are totally misguided. He sees Hungary as a huge factory floor where blue-color workers toil on assembly lines. In his opinion, these workers don’t need a broad liberal arts education before embarking on a trade or profession. After eight years of general public education, they should be sent to trade schools. Orbán’s educational establishment has begun to promote trade schools over traditional high school education.

But there is one serious problem. Hungarian parents are smarter than László Parragh and want to have their children go through 12 years of academic learning. Interest in gymnasiums is still as high as ever. A furious Parragh blamed the municipalities for not shuttering gymnasiums. So, if the people don’t do something he and his fellow politicians want, the only way to remedy the situation is to force people to obey. A few days ago Magyar Nemzet received a copy of a background study on the subject which advocates “the introduction of an entrance exam to be taken in grade eight” that would determine the future of 14-year-olds. In addition, the authors of the study suggest “a gradual restriction on the number of gymnasiums.” Let’s kill children’s opportunities after a single test. Because once children are forced into these trade schools there is no way they will ever end up in college or university.

Let me include here a couple of recent photos taken in these “szakközépiskolák.”

My favorite is the one below that accompanies Magyar Nemzet’s article on the so-called educators’ plan for ruining a whole generation.

What in the world will these two guys do with what they are allegedly learning here?

July 4, 2017

Hungary at a crossroads? Viktor Orbán will have to choose

Since Viktor Orbán returned home after last week’s summit, more and more people have noticed a change in his communication tactics. Right after the summit I wrote about the difference in his attitude toward the European Union. As opposed to his customary fiery anti-EU rhetoric, he indicated that perhaps, after all, there might be room for cooperation instead of constant opposition to everything Brussels stands for.

Viktor Orbán’s position within the European Union has been considerably weakened by Brexit and the EU politicians’ firm and steadfast insistence on a “hard Brexit.” His hope for some kind of special relationship with Donald Trump has come to naught. Moreover, there are visible cracks in the regional “alliance” of the Visegrád 4 countries. Also, we shouldn’t forget about the disappointment Orbán must have felt when the far-right parties in Austria, the Netherlands, Germany, and France didn’t achieve the kind of electoral victories he was hoping for when he declared 2017 the year of revolt. Instead, as Attila Ara-Kovács put it, 2017 turned out to be “the year of sobering.” Slovakia and the Czech Republic are reluctant to follow in the footsteps of Poland and Hungary because they are convinced that their anti-EU policies and undemocratic regimes will lead them to isolation and to the economic periphery of the European Union. While Emmanuel Macron indicated that he had no intention of visiting Poland any time soon, he already had a meeting with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis in Brussels and accepted an invitation from the president to visit Romania in the near future. Foreign policy analysts, Ara-Kovács for example, believe that the kind of foreign policy Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński have been experimenting with cannot be conducted in this new Europe.

So, soon enough Hungary, and perhaps Poland as well, must choose. Either their current leaders must accept the inevitable and embark on a road that will lead to more limited national sovereignty or they will be left behind. With the exception of the government media, foreign policy analysts predict that Orbán will have no choice and, however reluctantly, will have to accept the lead of Germany and France. The media Viktor Orbán created in the last couple of years, however, still follows the old Orbán doctrine about the declining West and the successful East. Among the many such articles I was especially struck by one that appeared in the Saturday issue of Magyar Idők written by Károly Kiss, an economist who teaches at Corvinus University. The title is: “Is the West still the model?” I guess no one will be surprised to learn that the answer is a definite “no.” The East Asian and Southeast Asian “limited democracies” have been spectacularly successful, and Hungary should follow their lead.

Kiss complains that even conservative Hungarian economists, sociologists, and political scientists still declare their adherence to the century-old “mistaken” belief that Hungary’s future lies with the West. A good example is a collection of essays that appeared only a few days ago, Ascend: Social and Political Challenges in Hungary. Its authors find “all of our problems … in the fact that we are not following the path of European development.” Although Károly Kiss may not like it, those liberal and conservative thinkers whose ideal is still the west are right. The destiny of Hungary as well as that of Poland, Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria lies in the wholehearted acceptance of western values, institutions, and economic and political norms.

A difficult path ahead

Some of the conservative thinkers whose articles appear in this volume were once advisers to Viktor Orbán, but his policies of the last seven years have turned them against him. Orbán’s rebuff of the west is only one of the reasons for their disenchantment. The other is his undemocratic, autocratic system and his totally mistaken economic and social policies. The appearance of this book is a milestone. As the publisher of the volume said at the book launch, “The Bibó memorial volume was the intellectual end, the tombstone of the Kádár regime, this volume … I will not finish this sentence.” (The Bibó memorial volume was the most important document of the Hungarian samizdat literature, which contained articles by 76 writers, sociologists, historians, and philosophers. Work on it was completed in October 1980.)

As far as western orientation and European integration are concerned, optimists believe that “during the fall Orbán and Co. will receive an offer they cannot refuse” from the European Union. Attila Weinhardt, writing in Portfolió, is certain that the German-French duo will figure out a way to entice still reluctant members to join the Eurozone, where integration will begin. The package, according to the article, would be so advantageous that it would be impossible to say no to it. Moreover, Weinhardt points out that countries in the region which do not yet use the euro will opt for it, and therefore it would be difficult for Hungary to remain outside. He specifically mentions the Czech Republic. I assume Romania would also be an eager participant. The Hungarian people are enthusiastic supporters of the currency change, according to Eurobarometer. I was surprised to read that 64% of them believe that countries that adopted the euro benefited from the change, while 57% would welcome the introduction of the euro in Hungary. The author is obviously a great supporter of Hungary making the jump and joining further integration efforts, even if that means limited sovereignty in certain areas, like finance and perhaps even the judiciary.

So, liberal and conservative economists, financial experts, sociologists, and political scientists all think that Hungary’s further integration into a German-French-led European Union would be the only way of catching up with the west. I find it difficult to believe that the Viktor Orbán we know would gratefully accept the irresistible package Brussels might offer during the autumn months, although I must admit that, as he exhibited in the past, Orbán is perfectly capable of completely reversing himself if time or his own interests so dictate. So, perhaps he will shock us. Of course, the authors of Ascend, who are all avid supporters of a western orientation, would rather first see the fall of Viktor Orbán. This would be an event that would allow Hungary to make another attempt at the “westernization” of the country under a liberal-conservative political leadership.

June 26, 2017