Tag Archives: Visegrád 4

A multi-speed Europe and the Visegrád Four

While Viktor Orbán is celebrating his “victory” in his fight with the European Commission over the expansion of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant, politicians in the western half of the continent are busily working on laying the foundation for a new type of European Union, one that might be able to avoid the pitfalls that have besieged Brussels ever since the abrupt enlargement of the Union in 2004.

On March 1 the European Commission published a White Paper on the future of Europe, “Avenues for the EU at 27.” The White Paper sets out five scenarios, each offering a glimpse into the potential state of the Union by 2025 depending on the choices Europe makes. Scenario 1: Carrying On. Scenario 2: Nothing but the Single Market. Scenario 3: Those Who Want More Do More, which means that the 27 members proceed as today but willing member states can do more together in areas such as defense, internal security, or social matters. Thus one or several “coalitions of the willing” will emerge. What will that mean exactly? To give but one example, 15 member states set up a police and magistrates corps to tackle cross-border criminal activities; security information is exchanged as national databases are fully interconnected. Scenario 4: Doing Less More Efficiently, which means delivering more and faster in selected areas, while doing less in other areas. Scenario 5: Doing Much More Together, in other words something close to a real union.

Although Juncker tried to deliver these five options in a neutral tone, it soon became evident that he and the other policy makers preferred scenario 3. “This is the way we want to go,” said an EU official to Euroaktiv.

On March 25 the White Paper will be officially handed over to the 27 governments in Rome at the sixtieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which signaled the first step toward the idea of a united Europe. It is there that the Visegrád 4 countries were planning to propose amendments to the EU treaties, but their hopes are most likely misplaced. As an unnamed EU official said, “for treaty change, there is no market.”

The idea of a multi-speed Europe has been in the air for some time as an answer to the feared disintegration of the European Union after Brexit. But it was only on February 3, at the informal summit of the European Council in Malta, that Angela Merkel spoke of such a solution publicly. Since then behind the scenes preparations for the implementation of this solution have been progressing with spectacular speed.

Today the “Big Four” officially called for a new dynamic, multi-speed Europe. In the Palace of Versailles Angela Merkel, François Hollande, Mariano Rajoy, and Paolo Gentiloni announced their support for a newly revitalized multi-speed Europe. The leaders of Germany, France, Spain, and Italy want to do more than celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the EU. They want “to reaffirm [their] commitment to the future,” said Hollande. Merkel added that “we should have the courage to allow some countries to move ahead, to advance more quickly than others.” To translate these diplomatic words into less polite language, these four countries, most likely supported by a fair number of other western and perhaps also Baltic states, are sick and tired of countries like members of the Visegrád 4. If they don’t want deeper integration and a common policy on defense, the economy, security and immigration, so be it. They will be left behind.

European leaders at the Palace of Versailles / Euroactiv.fr

What is Viktor Orbán’s reaction to these plans? As we know, the Hungarian prime minister can change his positions quickly and frequently, and it looks as if in the last month his ideas on the subject have hardened. Bruxinfo received information from sources close to Orbán at the time of the Malta Summit that the Hungarian prime minister didn’t consider the formation of a multi-speed Europe a necessarily adverse development as far as Hungary is concerned.

On March 2, however, a day after Juncker’s White Paper came to light, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary issued a joint declaration to the effect that the Visegrád 4, strongly supported by Viktor Orbán, find the idea of a multi-speed Europe unacceptable. The declaration said that the Visegrád 4 countries want neither federalization nor a return to the single market. What they find most odious, however, is Scenario 3. They look upon a multi-speed Europe as a sign that they will be treated as poor relatives, second-class citizens. Unfortunately, the four Visegrád countries, besides not wanting to be left behind, can’t agree on the extent of integration they are ready to accept.

Slovakia and the Czech Republic, unlike Poland and Hungary, are ready to cooperate with Brussels in certain areas such as asylum, migration policy, and the digital agenda in the spirit of “Bratislava Plus” adopted in September 2016. You may recall that after the Bratislava Summit Viktor Orbán was the only political leader who announced that the summit was a failure. He was especially unhappy that his Visegrád 4 friends didn’t stick with him during the negotiations. It looks as if Poland and Hungary didn’t manage to force their rigid attitude on the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Because of their differences, the common denominator of the Visegrád 4’s declaration was merely a description of their gripes. As a result, their message was defensive and weak. The four countries “express their concerns about creating exclusive clubs, they demand the equality of member states, and they want to involve national parliaments more in the political process that would control the subnational institutions,” as Vit Dostál, editor-in-chief of Euroaktiv.cz, remarked in his op/ed piece. The news about the decision of the German, French, Spanish and Italian prime ministers yesterday had to come as very bad news for the Visegrád 4. A multi-speed Europe is a frightening prospect for these countries.

Of course, they wouldn’t have to worry so much if they, especially Poland and Hungary, were more accommodating in their attitudes and would accept the fact that by joining the European Union they gave up some of their countries’ sovereignty. If they accepted the fact that the refugee problem is something that can be solved only together. As Merkel said in Versailles yesterday: “Cooperation can be kept open to those that have fallen behind.” We will see which road Orbán will choose, but cooperation is not Orbán’s strong suit.

March 7, 2017

The Orbán regime and the Austrian presidential election

A few hours ago newspapers all over the world announced that Norbert Hofer, the far-right candidate for the Austrian presidency, had lost the election. Pre-election polls indicated that the election was too close to call, but the final result gave a healthy majority to Alexander Van der Bellen, a professor of economics and former head of the Greens. Hofer readily conceded, while Van der Bellen called the result a vote for a “pro-European Austria based on freedom, equality, and solidarity.”

Although the post of the president in Austria is mostly ceremonial, the Austrian election had acquired special significance in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory. Democrats all over Europe fear the spread of populism and looked upon a Hofer win as an event that might have a domino effect, first in France and later in other European countries where elections will be held in the near future. Now these people are relieved.

Just as a reminder, this is the second time that Van der Bellen and Hofer faced each other in this presidential contest. In May Van der Bellen won the election with a margin of about 30,000 votes, but because of some technical irregularities Austria’s Constitutional Court annulled the result and ordered a new round of voting.

The Hungarian right followed the race between the two men closely because it finds in the politicians of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) kindred spirits. Viktor Orbán certainly didn’t hide his preference for Norbert Hofer and the party’s chairman Heinz-Christian Strache, whom he considers “a man of the future.”

The Hungarian right-wing, pro-government press was already full of praise of Hofer in May before and during the election. Two days before the election Magyar Idők published a glowing editorial claiming that while the left symbolizes failure, the Freedom party is “the depository of success.” The same pro-government newspaper was looking forward to “a political earthquake,” which was likely since polls indicated that Hofer would get at least 52-53% of the votes. When this didn’t materialize, they cried foul. They questioned the results and talked about electoral fraud. Zsolt Bayer in his usual style enthused over all those votes cast for Hofer: the peasants of Burgenland, the people of Carinthia, the Alpine graziers, the yodelers of Tyrol. With the exception of Vienna and Vorarlberg, everyone voted for Hofer. Red Vienna, what can one expect? And Vorarlberg, it is “not really Austria.”

The decision of the Austrian Constitutional Court was warmly received in Hungary. The pro-government papers were again hopeful, reflecting the Hungarian government’s wishes and expectations. Hofer was critical of the European Union, which he wanted to reform alongside Viktor Orbán and his allies. He talked about his desire for Austria to join the Visegrád 4 Group. A step toward the far right in Austria nicely fit into Viktor Orbán’s plans. Therefore, a new round of optimistic and encouraging articles appeared in the Hungarian right-wing press.

At the beginning of the second campaign, the pro-government media again talked about the “historic vote” and predicted Hofer’s victory. As Magyar Idők pointed out, “FPÖ may draw strength from the victory of Trump.” Hungarian right-wing commentators were convinced that somebody who doesn’t espouse an anti-migrant stance can’t possible win, and Van der Bellen had supported Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policies during the refugee crisis and after. Mariann Őry, one of Magyar Hírlap’s interpreters of foreign news, elaborated on this theme, practically calling Van der Bellen stupid for telling the Austrians to support Angela Merkel’s policies. He is no better than the Hungarian liberals who are patronizing at home and opportunistic bootlickers abroad.

The Hungarian right's clear choice was Norbert Hofer on the right

The Hungarian right’s clear choice was Norbert Hofer, on the right

Closer to the actual election Magyar Idők reported a story from Kronen Zeitung: that a conspiracy is underway on the part of the European Parliament and Germany to influence the Austrian presidential election. The story was based on a conversation in a restaurant among Martin Schulz, the social democratic president of the European Parliament, Sigmar Gabriel, deputy chancellor of Germany who is also a social democrat, and Werner Faymann, Austria’s rejected (bukott) chancellor. Considering that the three happily consented to a photo of their meeting, claims of a conspiracy were obviously highly exaggerated.

A day before the election Mariann Őry again expressed her disdain of Van der Bellen as an inept candidate who doesn’t know what to say when. Her example is telling. According to Hofer, those Austrians who went to Syria to become terrorists should be stripped of their citizenship. Van der Bellen retorted that no valid citizenship can be revoked in Austria. “Surely, it is hard not to think that the western liberals have completely lost their minds. What kind of an Austrian is Van der Bellen” who considers these terrorists Austrians? “If for no other reason than statements like this, the Austrians should realize what is in their best interest. We will find out Sunday night.” She did. Perhaps Van der Bellen wasn’t that stupid after all.

The most detailed account of the Hungarian right’s thinking on the Austrian election came from a government-employed talking head, Zoltán Kiszelly. He gave a lengthy interview to 888.hu yesterday. I believe that the scenario he outlined here, assuming Norbert Hofer’s victory, accurately reflected the hopes of Viktor Orbán. First of all, the new president will initiate an early national election. In fact, all Austrian parties have been anticipating such an outcome. Today the FPÖ is the strongest party and as such would be the dominant party in a future coalition. The logical coalition partner would be the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), which is part of the present coalition. Sebastian Kurz, foreign minister represent ÖVP and a great pal of Péter Szijjártó, “has already adjusted his program to that of the Freedom Party.” The political changes in Austria would significantly weaken the European Union’s migration policies as represented by Jean-Claude Juncker and Angela Merkel. The Austrian move toward the right would also have an influence on German politics. Another benefit would be that the new government would support the Visegrád 4’s policies, which would force Brussels and Berlin to retreat from their current migration policies.

The journalist of 888.hu at this point reminded Kiszelly of what happened in 1999 when Wolfgang Schüssel, the leader of ÖVP, opted for a coalition with PFÖ, resulting in a long, acrimonious dispute with the European Union. Kiszelly said he was certain that nothing of the sort would happen today because “this time the PFÖ wouldn’t have to cede the chancellorship to the People’s Party just because it is a ‘moderate’ party. There have been significant changes in western politics, like the political climate in the Netherlands and Denmark, Great Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and, for that matter, the election of Donald Trump. After these events, the world that existed sixteen years ago can never return.” Finally, he added that a victory of the far right in Austria would be an event that “certainly could stir up European politics because, following the Austrian example, other countries would also opt for early elections.” So, an avalanche would follow Hofer’s win, which could result in a sharp turn to the right, perhaps sooner than we think.

If I’m correct and Kiszelly was articulating views he shared with Viktor Orbán, the loss today had to be a real blow to the Hungarian prime minister, especially since only three days ago he announced that “it is just a question of time before [real] democracy is restored because in Europe there is no democratic equilibrium now. …We just have to prevail and, in the end, we will predominate.”

Of course, one shouldn’t be unduly optimistic. This is not the end of the spread of populism, but apparently with the victory of François Fillon in the French conservative primaries, Marine Le Pen’s National Front will have a much harder time than she had anticipated. Most commentators are convinced that Fillon will be the next president of France.

December 4, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The roses were not enough

The roses were not enough

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

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

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

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

September 17, 2016

The Bratislava Summit: No “victory lap” for Viktor Orbán

I often stress that Hungarian Spectrum is a cooperative enterprise because we have readers who, in the comment section, carry on an active exchange of ideas. That in turn enriches my own contributions. Here I would like to have a discussion with “István” on Orbán’s chances of success in Bratislava. I, of course, have the massive advantage of hindsight.

Today István, on the basis of preliminary statements ahead of the Bratislava summit, predicted that the meeting in the Slovak capital could be “Orbán’s victory lap.” He cited a report by Népszabadság about the meeting that Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, had had with Viktor Orbán ahead of the summit. According to the article, Orbán in no uncertain terms told Schulz what he thinks of the treatment Hungary receives from the European Union. He demanded greater respect for Hungary. He also accused the European Parliament and the European Commission of “dirty tricks” because they had changed the resolution of the European Council concerning voluntary quotas behind the prime ministers’ backs to compulsory ones. “I asked them not to do that ever again because the nation states cannot accept this.”

István, on the basis of this article, believes that “Orbán effectively, gently lectured the EU” and therefore came out a winner. The trouble with this interpretation is that we don’t know what Orbán said or didn’t say. But I very much doubt that he dared to lie straight to Schulz’s face about the alleged legislative trick of the EP and EC, changing voluntary quotas to compulsory ones. There may have been no “effective and gentle lecture” at all. On the other hand, we know from Schulz himself the deep division between them still exist and he wasn’t impressed by Orbán’s arguments.

István further writes that “Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister, has withdrawn his statement on the expulsion of Hungary from the EU.” But this is not quite the case. The foreign minister of Luxembourg didn’t take his words back. After all the criticism he received, he merely told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that his statement “was a wake-up call ahead of the Friday Bratislava summit.” So, if I understand this sentence correctly, it was meant, in fact, as a warning to Viktor Orbán to behave.

I also have a different reading of Donald Tusk’s letter. The sentence about the European Union as “a single state” is utterly meaningless because no such a goal has ever been stipulated in any of the EU treaties. What the member states accepted was “the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as openly as possible and as closely as possible to the citizen.” Tusk, as president, is fully aware of the true meaning of the concept of “an ever closer union.”

So, why then did he give an utterly false interpretation of the concept of the United States of Europe? I guess because he wanted to calm the nerves of the prime ministers of the East-Central European countries on the future of Europe. It will never be one state, he assured them. Right now the Visegrád 4 prime ministers are demanding a structural change of the EU in favor of the nation states, but any such modification, according to Tusk, “requires a change of attitude of the national governments towards the European Union as such.” To me this is a message to the Visegrád 4 that they are the ones who have to change their attitudes because the current problems have been aggravated by the attitude of people like Orbán, Szydło, and Fico. If you want change, you have to change.

If I understand István correctly, he believes that Orbán and Fidesz have already won their game against the European Union and doesn’t understand why they are so “greatly restrained in proclaiming victory.” He believes that Tusk and Merkel are willing to concede to the demand of Orbán and Co. that decisions should be made only by the European Council. They claim that the European Commission is pursuing an independent policy to which it is not entitled. The trouble with this argument is that it has no basis in fact. Every decision made in the EU must be and is sanctioned by the prime ministers or chancellors of the member states, including Viktor Orbán. He will not be able to go to Bratislava with this accusation because his colleagues would think he has lost his mind. Orbán, Lázár and the rest can tell this fairy tale to the Hungarian people, but they cannot carry this message to an EU summit. The reason for the restraint of Orbán and Fidesz is their knowledge that their chances of winning the game by accusing the Commission of overstepping its prerogatives or ex post facto nullifying decisions voted on by the European Council are nil.

bratislava-castle

So, let’s see what we know so far about what transpired in Bratislava. Beata Szydło was leading the charge of the Visegrád 4 because Poland is currently acting as president of the group. Yesterday she was still rather sure of herself and her cause and even named the culprits of the refugee crisis: Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker, and Martin Schulz. The incompetent politicians who reacted too late to the crisis. Visegrád 4 has the solution: a total change in the very structure of the European Union in favor of the nation states. However, the Poles, as well as the Hungarians, most likely know that they will not succeed against the majority of the member states. In fact, Szydło’s foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, was already talking about “a flexible solidarity,” by which he meant a dispersion of refugees according to the countries’ economic capabilities. He also came up with the idea that those countries that have labor shortage problems should take the bulk of the refugees. Most likely he didn’t realize that in the last few months Hungary, which refuses to take one single person, is suffering from a severe labor shortage and that Mihály Varga, minister of economics, is desperately trying to find guest workers who, of course, are “culturally close to the majority population.” The countries of the Visegrád 4 know that in the end they will have to share the burden of the refugee crisis.

On the basis of Viktor Orbán’s press conference held after the meeting, most commentators decided that Orbán “had lost that game.” He admitted that the participants had made some progress. No one wants to follow the United Kingdom and leave the Union; Bulgaria will get assistance to relieve the immigration pressure from Greece, just as Juncker had promised in his State of the Union speech; the EU will set up refugee hot spots outside the Union that will be defended militarily; and agreement was reached on a timetable: the next meeting will be in Vienna on September 24. Two demands of the Visegrád Group were not met: the promise of a change in the very structure of the European Union was postponed and no drastic change in its immigration policy was adopted. Therefore, Orbán considers the meeting a failure. As he put it: “they still talk more about speeding up the distribution of migrants than stopping them at the borders of Schengen.”

Naturally, Polish Prime Minister Szydło was equally unhappy with the outcome of the meeting on the immigration issue. But she expressed her satisfaction that there was agreement that some changes will have to be made to the structure of the European Union. Although Tusk might have expressed his belief that “giving new powers to European institutions is not the desired recipe,” it doesn’t mean that they will loosen the ties as much as she and Orbán would like. That would be the death knell of a united Europe.

All in all, in my opinion the Bratislava summit was anything but “a victory lap” for Viktor Orbán.

September 16, 2016

European solidarity and Orbán’s Hungary

It would be far juicier to write about György Matolcsy’s fascination with Buddhist ten-million multiplier days, which seem to direct the work of the Hungarian National Bank, and his new girlfriend’s fabulous pay of 1.7 million forints a month that she receives from four different foundations of the bank and as a researcher of Indian culture and philosophy. But I think I should return, even if briefly, to the affairs of the European Union, especially since Jean-Claude Juncker delivered his State of the Union Message to the European Parliament today.

Juncker’s speech was almost an hour long, and its primary aim was to pour oil on troubled waters, caused mostly by Viktor Orbán’s assiduous efforts to turn the countries of the Visegrád 4 against the European Union. In fact, Orbán spent the day in Bulgaria, working hard to convince Prime Minister Boyko Borissov to support his cause. I would be surprised if Borissov would oblige since he has been working closely with the European Commission on the defense of the Bulgarian-Turkish border, as we learned from Juncker’s speech.

juncker

In comparison to some of Juncker’s past speeches, this one was beseeching rather than strident. He tried to convince those countries that throw seeds of discord into the soil of the Union to be more constructive. He appealed to them, saying: “Europe can only work if speeches supporting our common project are not only delivered in this honorable House, but also in the parliaments of all our member states.” In plain language, don’t foment ill feelings against the common cause at home, as European politicians often do.

Juncker pretty much admitted that the European Union is broken at the moment. As he put it, “I believe the next twelve months are decisive if we want to reunite our Union. If we want to overcome the tragic divisions between east and west which have opened up in recent months.” He went on to say that he has never seen “so little common ground between our member states…. Never before have I heard so many leaders speak only of their domestic problems, with Europe mentioned only in passing, if at all…. Never before have I seen national governments so weakened by the forces of populism and paralyzed by the risk of defeat in the next elections. Never before have I seen so much fragmentation, and so little commonality in our Union.”

Juncker also announced that since Great Britain is on its way out of the European Union, a common European army can finally be established, as he had proposed at least a year ago. This announcement should please Viktor Orbán who, to everybody’s surprise, announced his desire to set up a common army in his speech at Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad, Romania, on July 23. It was strange to hear Orbán’s insistence on an EU army when he is so keen on national sovereignty. I suspect that this announcement was designed to give Orbán a way out of the corner into which he painted himself with his constant opposition to everything coming from Brussels–with the exception of EU funds. He knew full well about the plan for a common army and decided to throw his weight behind it, acting as if it was his own idea. That way, when Juncker announces the decision to go ahead with the plan, he can proclaim victory, which his domestic supporters will believe and applaud. After all, “Brussels” had to accept his demand for a strong border defense. This way, after the Bratislava meeting he can justify his adherence to other common decisions by pointing out that, after all, his main demand, a common army and border defense, was satisfied. Very cagey fellow. As for the future, let’s not be at all optimistic about Orbán’s behavior. No matter how European politicians emphasize the need for cooperation, he will continue his fight against Brussels, the West, and liberal democracy.

But let’s return briefly to the part of Juncker’s speech that addressed the refugee crisis. He asked for more solidarity, “but I also know that solidarity must be given voluntarily. It must come from the heart. It cannot be forced.” Well, let’s peek into some Hungarian hearts.

Orbán sent out all Fidesz politicians, from the highest to the lowest, on a three-week campaign for the referendum. One Fidesz MP who was campaigning with László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament, cracked a joke about refugees at a town meeting in Jászberény. The “joke” went something like this. Three beggars are hard at work in Budapest. After the day is over they compare notes. The first one says that he got 2,000 forints because he wrote on a piece of paper that he was hungry. The second announced that he got 3,000 forints because he wrote on a poster that he had three hungry children. Finally, the third told them he did very well. He got 10,000 forints because he told the people that he needs the money to go home. Apparently they thought “the joke” was hilarious.

Kövér was no better. He accused the bureaucrats in Brussels of wanting to change the cultural, religious, and ethnic composition of Europe. The migrants are only the instruments of their evil plans. “This is a war in which they don’t use weapons.” The mayor of the town urged the Gypsies who were present to vote “no” in the referendum because otherwise they might lose their government assistance since the Hungarian state’s resources are finite. Kövér also accused the refugees of being rich. In his opinion, ten people in the audience don’t have as much money in the bank together as these “migrants” have alone. And it went on and on for two and a half hours.

But I left the “best” to last. A Hungarian Reformed minister, László Károly Bikádi of Hajmáskér, a small town about 14 km from Lake Balaton, delivered a sermon last Sunday, offered to the soldiers and policemen defending Hungary’s borders against the refugees. The text for his sermon was Luke 10:25-37, the parable of the Good Samaritan. In his exegesis he said: “You just have to take a look at the story of the Samaritan. Jesus asks who the brethren of this man are. Everybody? Are we all brethren of each other? It is true that we are all children of God. But who are the brethren? Those who are merciful to us.” Then the merciful reverend launched into a muddled story about “us as white men who didn’t treat the colored people, be they Arabs, Negroes, Africans, Asians, as our brethren and therefore we shouldn’t be surprised if they don’t look upon us as their brethren. And they are coming like locusts, coming because we chased them away from their lands. … Allow me to say that they are like ants, like the feral of the wilderness” and because the white men pushed them out from their natural habitat “they come like ants. They move into our houses. What happens with mice, voles, and other creatures of the field? They come and beset us.” He finished his sermon by asserting that although it might be our fault that these people are on the run, “we shouldn’t make the mistake of throwing out our values just because people arrived among us who don’t consider us their brethren.”

As far as I know, the Hungarian Reformed Church has issued no statement, despite the appearance of at least two articles on the disgraceful performance of one of their own.

On a positive note, I should report that two Catholic parish priests recently stood up against the Hungarian Catholic Church’s indifference toward the refugees. Alas, their leaders, the bishops, are either quiet or outright antagonistic. One of the worst is Gyula Márfi, archbishop of Veszprém, who believes that what Europeans are facing is “the yoke of Mohamed.” Today, in an interview, he went so far as to claim that what “we consider sin [the Muslims] consider virtue.” Even Miklós Beér, bishop of Vác, who occasionally says a few nice words about the downtrodden, announced the other day that he will vote “no” at the government-inspired referendum. As he put it at a recent international conference on “Reconquering Europe” held in Vác, every time Europe has abandoned its Judaeo-Christian moral heritage, Europeans were led astray. Thus, any dilution of that Christian heritage is dangerous and must be avoided.

September 14, 2016

The Orbán government under fire

Viktor Orbán was named “Man of the Year” at the Economic Forum held in the Polish city of Krynica. He was chosen from a list of dignitaries, politicians, and scholars that included Pope Francis, but the devout Polish Catholics preferred the herald of hate over the messenger of love. They can be proud of themselves.

Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) and the strong man behind the Polish government led by Beata Szydło, and Orbán Viktor declared a “cultural counterrevolution” in the European Union. While, earlier, the former Soviet satellite countries had tried to make up for the time lost in the deadly embrace of Moscow, the Visegrád 4 countries discovered that their backwardness is in fact an asset. They have set out to spread the gospel of a better Europe across the Continent. As Orbán put it, “the European dream moved to Central Europe.” It seems that they would like to remake Europe in their own image.

As The Financial Times editorial argues, this “cultural counterrevolution” stands against the tolerance, human rights, and liberal democratic values that are the cornerstones of European culture. Their attempt to create an axis against the rest of the EU is a dangerous game and an immoral one as well because they are using the difficulties the Union is currently facing to their own selfish political ends. In addition, wittingly or unwittingly they are serving Vladimir Putin’s mission to extend Russian influence westward.

While the Visegrád 4 countries are proud of their firm stand on the refugee issue, others are horrified at the inhumane treatment of the refugees by the Hungarian authorities and at the East European countries’ unwillingness to cooperate in trying to find a solution to the problem at hand. One of these people is UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who delivered a speech at a gala in The Hague on Monday:

I wish to address this short statement to Mr. Geert Wilders, his acolytes, indeed to all those like him—the populists, demagogues and political fantasists…. What Mr. Wilders shares in common with Mr. Trump, Mr. Orban, Mr. Zeman, Mr. Hofer, Mr. Fico, Madame Le Pen, Mr. Farage, he also shares with Da’esh. All seek in varying degrees to recover a past, halcyon and so pure in form, where sunlit fields are settled by peoples united by ethnicity or religion – living peacefully in isolation, pilots of their fate, free of crime, foreign influence and war. A past that most certainly, in reality, did not exist anywhere, ever. Europe’s past, as we all know, was for centuries anything but that.

The proposition of recovering a supposedly perfect past is fiction; its merchants are cheats. Clever cheats….

History has perhaps taught Mr. Wilders and his ilk how effectively xenophobia and bigotry can be weaponized. Communities will barricade themselves into fearful, hostile camps, with populists like them, and the extremists, as the commandants. The atmosphere will become thick with hate; at this point it can descend rapidly into colossal violence….

Do not, my friends, be led by the deceiver. It is only by pursuing the entire truth, and acting wisely, that humanity can ever survive. So draw the line and speak. Speak out and up, speak the truth and do so compassionately, speak for your children, for those you care about, for the rights of all, and be sure to say clearly: stop! We will not be bullied by you the bully, nor fooled by you the deceiver, not again, no more; because we, not you, will steer our collective fate. And we, not you, will write and sculpt this coming century. Draw the line!

Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó responded promptly, accusing Zeid bin Ra’ad of “half-truths and lies” with which he tries to manipulate public opinion. “Because of these pronouncements he has become unfit to fill any position at the United Nations. He has completely ruined the reputation of the office of high commissioner for refugees.” The problem is that Zeid bin Ra’ad is the high commissioner for human rights and not refugees. Our instant diplomat still has a lot to learn.

populism2

Zsolt Bayer also noticed that this gentleman with a strange-sounding name said something unflattering about Hungary’s great prime minister and so attacked him in an article in his series “Intolerable.” After describing the horrors of the Islamic State, Bayer expressed his outrage that Zeid bin Ra’ad compared populists like Trump or Orbán to this terrorist organization. With this speech “the Jordanian prince demonstrated that, despite being a prince, he has not as much dignity as a pig, in addition to being as stupid and thick as a slop bucket.” There can be another explanation according to Bayer: “Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, the high commissioner for human rights of the United Nations, is a paid agent of the Islamic State. So, he is not a stupid pig but an ignominious, abject traitor, a miscreant who sold his conscience for money. By and large these are the two possibilities.”

Zeid bin Ra’ad’s speech wasn’t the end of the criticism of Hungary coming from the United Nations. Yesterday the UN held a High-Level Forum on Antisemitism where U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power delivered a speech. She spent a considerable amount of time on Hungary as an example of a country where public outcry against anti-Semitism has borne fruit. Hungarian papers described the length of the time Power spent on Hungary as 1.5 pages out of 4. Actually, it was more than that. Of the 2,225-word speech 935 were devoted to the Hungarian situation. Here are the relevant parts of the speech:

This brings me to the third challenge I want to highlight today. We must underscore the fact that antisemitism poses a threat not only to Jews, but to the principles of pluralism, diversity, and the fundamental freedoms that we hold most dear. Time and again throughout history, we have seen that when the human rights of Jews are violated, the rights of others are not far behind. This is true in the case of individuals – as we have seen how the people who troll Jewish journalists and disseminate antisemitic memes on social media also routinely target minority groups such as immigrants and, increasingly, refugees.

It is also true for governments. Consider the case of Hungary, where in 2015, a foundation planned to build a statue honoring Balint Homan, a government minister who championed antisemitic laws in the thirties and who, in the forties, called for the deportation of Hungarian Jews, an estimated 420,000 of whom were murdered in Auschwitz and other camps. And just last month, the Hungarian government bestowed one of its highest honors on Zsolt Bayer, a virulently antisemitic columnist. These actions have occurred against a backdrop of growing antisemitism in the country, reflected in part by the rise of the extreme ethnic nationalist Jobbik party, which refers to the Holocaust as the “Holoscam.”

In addition to being profoundly alarming in and of itself, this growing antisemitism has gone hand in hand with rising xenophobia and other forms of bigotry. Hungary’s prime minister has openly declared his desire “to keep Europe Christian” by barring Muslim refugees who come seeking sanctuary from mass atrocities and persecution, and he’s fanned popular fears by claiming that all terrorists in Europe are migrants. And both Homan in the thirties and forties – and Bayer in recent decades – mixed their antisemitism with the hatred of other minorities; Bayer once wrote of the Roma, “These animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist.”

Yet from Hungary we can also draw important lessons about how to effectively push back against antisemitism – and it is with this point that I wish to conclude. The planned statue to Balint Homan was never erected. A widespread coalition of Hungarian and international organizations, faith leaders, and governments came together to signal their opposition – persuading the Hungarian government to withdraw its support. I’m proud that American civil society organizations and government officials were part of this effort – including many of you here in civil society, and including U.S. Envoy for Combatting and Monitoring Antisemitism and the U.S. Envoy for Holocaust Issues, both of whom are also here with us today. Their engagement is one of the many reasons we continue to urge other countries to create a ranking position for monitoring and combating antisemitism within their own governments. But these envoys were far from the only U.S. government officials involved in the effort; as President Obama said recently, our government made clear that the statue was, “not a side note to our relations with Hungary – this was central to maintaining a good relationship with the United States.”

And while the Hungarian government may have given an award to Zsolt Bayer, organizations, civil society groups, and governments have rightly expressed their disapproval and dismay. So have more than 100 individuals who have received honors over the years from the Hungarian government – including some of the country’s most renowned economists, historians, politicians, poets, filmmakers, and scientists – who have returned their awards in protest.

Let me close, then, by reading from a few of the statements that they gave upon returning their awards.

Former parliamentary commissioner for the rights of national and ethnic minorities Jenő Kaltenbach wrote: “With this you rendered dishonorable and unacceptable both the award itself and the one bestowing it. How you hold yourself to account for this is your business. How I choose to live with this is mine.”

András Heisler, the president of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, wrote: “I value diversity, not destructive extremism. As a civil activist I received the award, and as a responsible Hungarian citizen I am returning it.”

City mayor Tamás Wittinghof simply posted a picture of his award on Facebook with the caption: “Now we say goodbye to each other.”

And Hungarian-American Katrina Lantos Swett, who many of you know, who had received her award for setting up an organization in Budapest to defend minority rights, said she could not share an award with a man who “deserves censure, not honor, for his loathsome writings and speech.” Katrina named the rights organization she founded after her father – Tom Lantos – the only Holocaust survivor to have served in the U.S. Congress, and a lifelong champion of human rights.

These efforts – which I find very moving – show us that when governments are willing to stand up and speak out in the face of antisemitism, rather than stand by, even hatemongers take notice. And when civil society groups and citizens partner in these efforts – and make clear that such hatred poses a threat not only to Jews, but to the pluralism, rights, and freedoms that we hold as sacred – these efforts are exceptionally more effective.

Imagine, for just a moment, how much violence – against Jews and other minorities – might have been avoided if similar efforts had been undertaken in the past. Imagine all of the hatred and suffering that we can prevent if we come together in such an effort today.

The last time I checked, no government response had been posted. A couple of independent media outlets reported on the speech, which elicited mostly hateful comments. Some commenters believe that Power is totally ignorant of what’s going on in Hungary despite her flawless description of the Hóman and Bayer cases. Others think that Jews and/or members of the domestic opposition are behind Power. Some go as far as to say that Jewish complaints usually follow a brilliant Hungarian move, so they should rejoice. And, of course, there are those who think that the United States has no business whatsoever poking its nose into Hungary’s affairs.

I assume Szijjártó will issue an official response shortly, and I can hardly wait for Bayer’s comments.

September 8, 2016

The leaders of Visegrád 4 meet with Angela Merkel

The European Union has gone through some rough times in the last year and a half. The Brexit decision certainly shook an EU already battered by the influx of almost two million refugees and immigrants. But at least the British departure, whenever it actually happens, will not undermine the foundations of the European Union. Some commentators, in fact, think that further integration, which they consider a necessity for the long-term survival of the EU, can be more easily achieved in the absence of a reluctant United Kingdom, which in the past consistently opposed any changes to the already very loose structure of the Union.

Closer cooperation would have been necessary even without the refugee crisis, but the presence of so many asylum seekers–mostly in Greece, Italy, and Germany–makes a common policy and joint effort by the member states a must. Thus, Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to launch a series of consultations with European leaders. To date she has talked with 17 prime ministers.

Her first trip was to Italy where she, Matteo Renzi, and François Hollande met first on the Italian Aircraft Carrier Giuseppe Garibaldi and later visited the grave of Altiero Spinelli on the Island of Ventotene. There, while a prisoner of Benito Mussolini’s regime, he composed the Ventotene Manifesto “For a Free and United Europe,” which envisaged a European federation of states. After this trip Merkel continued to meet with leading politicians. From newspaper reports it looks as if they more or less agreed that greater cooperation and a common security apparatus are necessary to handle the refugee crisis. Just this past weekend she met with the prime ministers of Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, and Bulgaria. According to Miro Cerar, the Slovenian prime minister, “there was no great difference of opinion between the German chancellor and her visitors.”

Only the so-called Visegrád 4 countries are unmovable in their opposition to common action and sharing the refugee burden. Merkel traveled to Warsaw to meet the four recalcitrant prime ministers. Although Hungarians are apt to think that it is their prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who creates the most trouble within the European Union, this might not be the case. Orbán is belligerent mostly at home. Once he gets to Brussels or, in this case, to Warsaw, he remains rather subdued. His Slovak and Czech colleagues, on the other hand, were widely quoted in the western media, not in the best light. Fico, for example, said that he would “never bring even a single Muslim into his country.” Bohuslav Sobotka of the Czech Republic, although more tempered, announced that he doesn’t want a “large Muslim community—given the problems we are seeing.” Fico, just before his meeting with Merkel, had paid a visit to Moscow, after which he renewed his call for the European Union to end sanctions against Russia. The Polish foreign minister accused Germany of selfishness and an unwillingness to compromise. Poland’s deputy foreign minister, Konrad Szymański, after the meeting hit back at Angela Merkel for criticizing those member states that are refusing to give refugee protection to Muslims.

Photo by Rafal Gruz MTI/PAP

Photo by Rafal Gruz MTI/PAP

Viktor Orbán’s views didn’t receive much coverage, but at least one of the four propositions he arrived with in Warsaw–the creation of a common European army–has enjoyed some limited support. Whether the creation of a European army is his idea or not is debatable. Orbán did talk about such an army in July in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad, but apparently already in May The Financial Times reported a German plan to set up such an army. And Zsolt Gréczy of Demokratikus Koalíció claims that the idea was actually stolen from Ferenc Gyurcsány, who suggested the creation of such an army a year ago.

The reception of the other three suggestions remains unknown. Let’s start with the most weighty one which would, if accepted, reinvent the European Union by practically annulling the European Commission. To quote it verbatim, first in the original Hungarian: “az Európai Tanács vezesse és csak ő vezesse az Európai Uniót. Az Európai Bizottság a politikai szerepjátszást fejezze be.” (The European Council should lead, and it should be the only one that leads the European Union. The European Commission should end its political pretensions.) I suspect that Viktor Orbán never presented this idea in such stark terms to Angela Merkel during their talks because, as an eagle-eyed friend of mine discovered, the English translation of the above passage on the official government website reads as follows: Viktor Orbán “went on to say that institutions such as the European Council and the European Commission should go back to fulfilling their ‘original roles’.” The first one for Hungarian consumption, the second for foreigners.

His next suggestion was economic in nature. Orbán suddenly discovered the benefits of austerity. This is quite a switch from his position six years ago, when as the new prime minister he visited Brussels in the hope of getting permission to continue running a 7% deficit instead of having to bring the deficit down below 3%. Now he is a firm believer in a tight budget, which made Hungary, in his opinion, an economic success. I’m not quite sure why Orbán felt the need to lobby for the continuation of this economic policy which, according to many economists, is responsible for Europe’s sluggish economic growth. I suspect that he might be responding to a perceived movement toward an economic policy that would loosen the current restrictions for the sake of more robust economic growth. Merkel has been talking a lot lately about higher living standards that would make the European Union more attractive to Europeans.

Finally, Orbán insists that the European Union should keep pouring money into the East European countries as part of the cohesion program, which in his estimation “has been a well-proven policy.” Sure thing. Hungary’s questionable economic success is due largely to the billions of euros Budapest receives from Brussels. Naturally, he wants to keep the present agrarian subsidies as well, a program severely criticized by many experts.

Whatever the prime ministers of the Visegrád 4 countries told Angela Merkel, it didn’t sway her from her original plans for solving the crisis. It doesn’t matter what Fico said, Merkel thinks “it is wrong that some say we generally don’t want Muslims in our country, regardless of whether there’s a humanitarian need or not.” She keeps insisting that “everyone must do their part” and that “a common solution must be found.”

Meanwhile Russian propaganda against Merkel is growing. Just today sputniknews.com portrayed her as the chief obstacle to an understanding between Moscow and the European Union. According to Russian political analysts, “Merkel is a supporter of the idea that it is Germany’s natural role to become the leader of Eastern Europe … and to drive the economic development of these countries,” naturally in line with German interests. According to these political scientists, Washington is actively working to turn Germany into a stronghold of anti-Russian influence, which “means that we will have to encounter a Germany that is strengthened not only in economic and political terms but perhaps militarily as well.”

In adopting an anti-German policy, the Visegrád 4 countries are implicitly allying themselves with Russia. I think they are playing with fire.

August 29, 2016