Tag Archives: Visegrád 4

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

Emmanuel Macron meets the leaders of the Visegrád 4 countries

Viktor Orbán usually leaves these summits full of complaints about the Brussels bureaucrats’ total incompetence, which will lead to the ruin of Europe. Normally, he comes out of these meetings either condemning the results altogether or, if there is anything to praise, bragging about his key role in the negotiations. For reasons that are still unclear, Orbán’s reaction to this particular summit was surprisingly upbeat. He was especially satisfied with the unanimous support for the creation of a European army. “If one day there is a European army, then future history books will consider this summit the point of departure.”

There is nothing surprising about Orbán’s enthusiasm for a common army because he has talked about it often enough in the last year or so. On the other hand, it was unexpected that, although he admitted that there is no agreement on questions related to migration, “the emphasis was on cooperation” instead of “divergence,” which he considered to be a positive development. Orbán was remarkably congenial, although he was still unmovable on the issue of refugee quotas.

For the leaders of the Visegrád 4 countries, especially those of Poland and Hungary, the scheduled meeting with Emmanuel Macron this morning was of paramount importance. If all goes well, with the election of Macron as president of France there is a good possibility of a gradual transformation of the European Union or at least of the Eurozone into some kind of a federation-like construction. In addition, Macron has never hidden his objections to the kind of political system Jarosław Kaczyński is building in Poland and Viktor Orbán has pretty well already built in Hungary. Moreover, Macron believes, and it seems that he has Chancellor Angela Merkel’s backing, that the lack of solidarity the Visegrád countries display in the refugee crisis cannot be left unpunished. In addition, Macron has had some harsh words to say about the blatant disregard for European values in the Polish and Hungarian political systems. None of that boded well for the first person-to-person meeting of the five heads of states.

Having gone through several Hungarian, Polish, and English-language summaries of the meeting, I came to the conclusion that the prime ministers of the Visegrád 4 didn’t change Macron’s view that all member countries must respect the values and joint decisions of the EU and that, if they don’t, they must face political consequences. Nonetheless, the reports insisted that the meeting was friendly and successful. As Hungary’s Híradó, the official news distributed to all media organs, put it, “although the positions didn’t converge, the leaders called the meeting successful because they could share their own points of view with the president.” Well, that’s not much, especially if, as the Polish Gazeta Wyborcza noted, during the meeting “Emmanuel Macron … reiterated the claim that some countries regard the EU as a supermarket.”

All the Hungarian articles quoted Orbán’s somewhat cryptic description of their meeting with the new French president as a “friendship with a manly beginning,” which in English doesn’t make much sense. However, the meaning of the word “férfias ~ férfiasan” (“masculine ~ in a masculine manner”) in Hungarian also means “firm, resolute, uncompromising.” That’s why one of the internet sites continued by saying that “yet by the end of the meeting they came to the conclusion that the basis of cooperation is the mutual respect they will accord each other.” To put all this into more easily understandable language, I suspect that the Visegrád 4, most likely led by Orbán, started off on a high horse but decided after a while to tone down their “uncompromising” attitude as long as Macron shows them respect.

From other sources it is clear that Macron was unyielding on certain topics. When someone from the French president’s entourage was asked about possible sanctions against those countries that refuse to play according to the rules, he asserted that “no subject was avoided, ignored” during the talks with the Central European leaders. Moreover, Angela Merkel, who usually avoids openly criticizing the countries of the East, said yesterday that “Germany and France are totally on the same page” on the issue.

Magyar Idők most likely doesn’t know yet what the official line will be on this particular issue, and therefore it decided to rely on the official Hungarian news agency’s brief report from Brussels. However, the paper’s anti-Macron rhetoric continues. Just today two antagonistic articles appeared about him, including one which gleefully announces that the raid of Havas’ headquarters by the French anti-corruption police might also involve a visit by Macron, at the time economy minister, to Las Vegas. To an article that didn’t have any more information than what MTI released, Pesti Srácok gave the following headline: “The Visegrád Four put Macron in his place.”

The day before the Macron-Visegrád 4 meeting Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies, published an opinion piece in The New York Times: “Central Europe’s Tough Choice: Macron or Orban?” He explains that many countries in Eastern Europe built their economic competitiveness on low wages and low taxes and therefore fear the policies Macron campaigned on, like harmonizing taxes across the union and penalizing countries for exporting cheap labor. If these plans materialize, they “could destroy Central Europe’s business model.” So, these countries now, says Krastev, must choose “between deeper integration on terms set by Germany and France or political marginalization—and the fears of a two-tiered European Union could become self-fulfilling prophecies.” The choice is given, but “the jury is out on which choice governments will make: Macron or Orbán, “Hungary’s hard-line nationalist minister.” Orbán told us several times that a two-tiered Europe is unacceptable to him. I expect that in the next years—unless he loses the election, which is unlikely—Orbán will work to somehow wiggle himself out of this hard if not impossible choice.

June 23, 2017

Viktor Orbán: “The French president is a new boy” who should learn a thing or two

It is no secret that Emmanuel Macron, France’s newly elected president, is no friend of “illiberal democracies.” In an interview at the beginning of May he was pretty blunt when he said: “You know the friends and allies of Mrs. Le Pen. These are the regimes of Orbán, Kaczynski, and Putin. They are not open and free democracies. Every day, freedoms and rules are violated there along with our principles.” Poland’s Foreign Ministry didn’t wait long to react. The Poles were especially outraged at the suggestion that the current Polish regime shows any similarity to Putin’s Russia. The Hungarian government didn’t officially respond to Macron’s charge at that time, although a week earlier Macron had said that if he becomes president he will press the European Union to impose sanctions on those Central European nations that disregard fundamental European values.

As Macron’s chance of electoral victory solidified, the Hungarian government media took an increasingly antagonistic attitude toward him. Now that Macron is installed as president of France and is ready to promote his “European project,” his views on the “rogue states” of the EU have gained in significance to the countries involved, especially Poland and Hungary. Yesterday Macron gave an exclusive interview to eight European papers: The Guardian, Le Figaro, El País, Gazeta Wyborcza, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Le Temps, Le Soir, and Corriere della Serra. In this interview he repeated, even elaborated on, the theme he had talked about earlier. In his opinion “national egotisms are slow poisons that bring about the weakening of democracies and a collective inability to rise up to our historic challenge.” Although he stressed that he didn’t believe in “a conflict between east and west in Europe,” he nevertheless warned against certain European leaders “abandoning principles, turning their backs on Europe, having a cynical approach to the European Union that only serves as dispensing credit without respecting its values.” He stated that “Europe isn’t a supermarket. Europe is a common destiny. It is weakened when it accepts its principles being rejected. The countries in Europe that don’t respect the rules should have to face the political consequences. And that’s not just an east-west debate.” Finally, he added,“I will speak to everyone with respect but I won’t compromise on European principles—on solidarity or democratic values. If Europe were to accept that, it would mean it’s weak and had already ceased to exist.” These are strong words.

By now the heads of governments of the European Union have gathered in Brussels. The two-day summit, as far as I can see, may be more important than some earlier summits because such issues as a common defense, foreign policy toward Turkey and the United States, the Russian sanctions, and Brexit and its consequences will be on the table. As for a common defense, there is a strong likelihood that there will be unanimity on that issue. Discussion of the divisive compulsory migrant quotas has been postponed for the time being, and therefore Viktor Orbán’s referendum with its “record number of signatures” cannot be submitted this time as a prop for Hungary’s position on the issue. The prime minister must wait for the next opportunity to launch his “biggest fight” with Brussels. Independent Hungarian sources think that, with the election of Macron, Orbán will face his greatest challenge, especially if strong French-German cooperation achieves a deeper integration of Europe. Perhaps it is just wishful thinking, but some Hungarian observers think that Orbán is in a tight spot and that his peacock dance will encounter more difficulties from here on.

Upon his arrival in Brussels, Viktor Orbán gave an impromptu press conference to a small group of Hungarian journalists. On the photo one can see the microphones of M1, ATV, and RTL Klub. Naturally, the non-state television networks wanted to cover Orbán’s reaction to Macron’s interview the day before, in which he made no secret of his opinion of the leaders of those illiberal states that violate the common fundamental values of the European Union and that don’t share the common responsibility while they benefit from the largess of fellow member states. Orbán’s answer was typical of the man’s rough edges, which make some Hungarians uneasy and embarrassed. “The French president is a new boy (új fiú) who comes to the summit for the first time. We will take a look at him; we will come to know him. He surely must have some ideas,” Orbán began. And then he continued: “His entrance is not too promising because yesterday he thought that the best form of friendship is a kick into the Central-European nations. This is not customary around here, but I believe he will find his way around.” Orbán is getting too big for his britches. After all, this “new boy” is the president of France, a  country with a population of more than 65 million.

At the same time, in Warsaw, Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski also had a few words to say on the subject but he, unlike the Hungarian prime minister, remained within the realm of diplomatic decorum. According to Polska Agencja Prasowa, the Polish news agency, he expressed his hope that Macron, who will meet Prime Minister Beatą Szydło at the summit, will explain the meaning of his words about the Poles, Hungarians, and other people of Central Europe. Yes, Macron will have an opportunity to meet Szydło because, as a result of a Polish initiative, Macron will have a separate meeting with the heads of the Visegrád 4 tomorrow morning. I would love to be a fly on the wall at that meeting. I’m certain that Macron will bring up his very serious reservations about the state of democracy, at least in Poland and in Hungary. He has been talking about the very serious problems in these two countries for a long time and has repeated time and again that these illiberal, increasingly autocratic states are a cancer on the body of the European Union which, in his opinion, is just now embarking on a new course that will open the door to a more socially sensitive and economically thriving Europe.

The contrast between Macron’s and Orbán’s world views and ideas on the future of Europe can’t be greater. I am, of course, keeping fingers crossed for Macron and for a thriving, more closely integrated European Union because I agree with him that “national egotisms are slow poisons” that can bring only disaster to the continent.

June 22, 2017