Tag Archives: Visegrád Four

The Orbán government’s international conference on the future of Europe, with Milo Yiannopoulos

Yesterday the Hungarian media got wind of an international conference on The Future of Europe, to be held between January 23 and 25, 2018 in Budapest’s Castle Garden Bazaar. The conference is heralded as “an outstanding cultural and scientific event of the V4 Hungarian Presidency” and is being funded by the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Századvég, the Fidesz think tank, and V4 Connects, the fancy name for the Hungarian presidency of the Visegrád Four, are “partners,” while the organizer of the affair is a foundation created during the first Orbán government under the watchful eye of Mária Schmidt, who still serves on its five-member board.

According to the conference’s webpage, it “represents an extraordinary opportunity to analyze the full array of political and cultural processes as well as to put our identity-creating cultural values in the limelight.” The conference is advertised as a gathering of leading politicians, renowned professors and well-known public figures [who] will share their views with each other and with the audience of visitors.”

There will be panel discussions on topics like the “cultural war for body and soul” of Europe, or, to put it another way, “shall we, out of cultural guilt or simple calculation, sacrifice Christianity, freedom and our way of life?” As for geopolitical challenges, the invited guests will discuss such issues as the nature of a European army. The question is whether this army “should consist of soldiers or machines and algorithms.” They will touch upon digitalization, which tomorrow “may radically transform humanity’s own identity or even our physical existence.” Finally, emphasis will be placed on the Visegrád Four as “the engine of Europe’s economy” and what opportunities the emerging giants of the world economy–China, India, Indonesia–offer the Visegrád nations. “Will our region be able to jump several stairs at once and make Europe become a leading force in the future world economy?”

When it comes to “the gathering of leading politicians, renowned professors and well-known public figures,” the keynote speaker on the opening day of the conference will be Milo Yiannopoulos, described as a political commentator, publisher, blogger, journalist, and the author of Challenges of the Western World. The next day Frank Füredi, author, commentator, and sociologist, will deliver a lecture on “Populism and the European Culture Wars.” In the afternoon, Götz Kubitschek, described as a publisher, publicist, and philosopher from Germany, will conduct a panel discussion on “migration, resettlement and the future of Europe.” The closing presentation, still untitled, will be given by Pascal Bruckner, a French philosopher and author of a book on France and Islam. The last day will be given over to such luminaries as Péter Szijjártó, who will deliver a speech, most likely on Europe’s geopolitical challenges, and Tamás Deutsch, who will inquire whether “artificial intelligence is our future.” Closing remarks will be delivered by Sándor Csányi, the president of OTP, Hungary’s largest bank, and the richest man in the country.

Who are these people? Let’s start with the lesser-known characters. Götz Kubitschek is a right-wing activist who espouses ethnocentric positions and is one of the most important protagonists of the Neue Rechte. Apparently, he was instrumental in the consolidation of the German branch of the Identitarian movement, commonly viewed as far right. He has been a frequent speaker at PEGIDA rallies in Saxony. He is also close to the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

Frank Füredi, as his name indicates, is of Hungarian origin. With his parents he arrived in Canada as a refugee after the Hungarian revolution of 1956. He has been living in the United Kingdom since 1969. In the 1970s he became involved in left-wing politics and was the founder and leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party. Nowadays, however, he shows quite a bit of sympathy for populist ideas. I suspect that he was invited to this conference because only a few months ago he published a new book titled Populism and the European Culture Wars, which “argues that the current outburst of anti-populist anxiety is symptomatic of a loss of faith in democracy and in the ability of the demos to assume the role of responsible citizens.” Even more importantly, the book focuses “on the conflict between the European Union’s Commission and the Government of Hungary” and “explores contrasting attitudes towards national sovereignty, popular sovereignty and the question of tradition and the past as the main drivers of the culture wars in Europe.”

Pascal Bruckner was most likely chosen because of his ideas on Islam and the white race, about which he wrote in La Tyrannie de la pénitence. His general criticism of Islam kindled an international debate about ten years ago when he wrote a polemical article titled “Enlightenment fundamentalism or racism of the anti-racists?” In it he talked about an “enlightened elite who deny the benefits of democratic rights to the rest of humanity.” This is an idea that fits in very nicely with the Fidesz ideologues’ hatred of the liberal elite.

Of course, the most controversial character among the invitees is Milo Yiannopoulos, a former senior editor of Breitbart News. He is a critic of feminism, Islam, social justice, and political correctness. He is often described as a member of the alt-right movement, a label he rejects. But in October 2017 leaked emails revealed that he had repeatedly solicited neo-Nazi and white supremacist characters for feedback and story ideas for his work at Breitbart. The same emails also revealed that some of his Breitbart articles were ghost written. His book, which was supposed be published by Simon & Schuster and for which he received $255,000, was eventually rejected and the contract broken. A few days ago an article was devoted to the editor’s notes on Yiannopoulos’s rejected book, which reveal the man’s total inability to write something publishable. One of the funnier remarks by the editor was that the author needed “a stronger argument against feminism than saying that they are ugly and sexless and have cats.” A recent article compares him to Donald Trump in the sense that he “grew out of a grotesque convergence of politics and the internet, and thrived by turning hate speech into show business.”

Milo Yiannopoulos

Well, this is not how the Fidesz far-right looks upon him. Yesterday Pesti Srácok published an article in which Balázs Dezse, the author, talked about Yiannopoulos’s visit to Budapest as a “historic moment” which “for many people is a dream come true.” Dezse is obviously is one of them. According to the admiring author, Yiannopoulos played a key role in the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. The argument is that it is hard to label this man as a Nazi because, after all, he is openly gay, he prefers African-American partners, and he is partly Jewish. As for his firing from Breitbart for his controversial remarks about pedophilia, this was an attempt by liberals to silence him. He had been molested by his own father, and his remarks about the case were simply twisted by his enemies. Dezse, in an earlier article, also published in Pesti Srácok, describes Yiannopoulos as “the most exciting and most controversial figure of the alternative right.” With great enthusiasm he covers every step that Yiannopoulos has ever taken, showing a deep familiarity with the man’s career and the foreign-language sources that have covered his activities. The article is titled “A brilliant and dangerous fagot, evil doer of the internet alt-right.” (Yiannopoulos called himself a “dangerous faggot.”)

The more mainstream Fidesz papers, like Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap, have so far remained quiet about the conference. Mária Schmidt’s Figyelő couldn’t quite ignore it since, after all, Schmidt was involved in the organization of the event. So, an article attacked the liberal media’s criticism of inviting people like Milo Yiannopoulos to an international conference organized by the Hungarian government. The author rejects the label of “extreme right,” which is an arbitrary designation that is given by the so-called independent media and a few liberal politicians. These people complain that “Yiannopoulos as a newspaperman considers his chief mission to be the criticism of feminists, left-wingers, and human-rights activists. This is 100% correct and that’s why we love him.”

Zsolt Jeszenszky, who described himself as a political hobbyist and who has a Bannon 2020 banner on his Facebook page, called the criticisms mere hysteria by the “Hungarian alter egos of Guy Verhofstadt.” In his opinion, “the fellow is extremely well educated, well informed” and often makes fools of his opponents. He is “the greatest enemy of the liberal establishment.” Jeszenszky in this article intimates that conservative Republicans were behind Yiannopoulos’s downfall at Breitbart, taking advantage of his comments on his pedophilic experience.

As time goes by, Viktor Orbán is becoming increasingly open about his far-right ideology and orientation. Looking over the participants of this conference, I find it hard to imagine a group further to the right, unless Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz will decide to invite white supremacists and neo-Nazis to their next international conference on the future of Europe.

December 29, 2017

Was Orbán’s bout with the EU a “points victory”? We will see tomorrow

Viktor Orbán, along with the other prime ministers of the European Union’s member states, is in Brussels at the moment, where among other things they are supposed to come to an understanding on the thorny issue of migration. The goal is naturally unity, a common understanding, a situation in which all member states share in the solution to the problems currently facing the European Union.

The greatest obstacle to reaching this goal is the refusal of three of the four Visegrád countries to accept one single refugee in case the need arises. These countries are the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. The fourth country, Slovakia, would take a very limited number of asylum seekers.

The Visegrád Four countries have jointly come up with a plan of their own. Those countries that already have a number of immigrants from countries outside of the Union should accept most of the refugees while the Central Europeans would redeem their non-compliance with cash contributions. They came out with a figure today. They would pay 35 million euros in assistance to Italy. Hungary’s contribution would be nine million euros. This offer has not found too many enthusiastic supporters. In fact, most of the influential political leaders of the larger states deemed the Visegrád Four’s solution to be unacceptable.

The deep division within the EU became all too visible even before the opening of the summit. In October Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, introduced the idea of sending around a so-called Leaders’ Agenda prior to the summits. Its alleged purpose was to set out topics to be informally discussed. This time the topic was “Migration: way forward on the external and the internal dimension.” It is hard to tell what Tusk meant by this mysterious title, and I’m not surprised that some of Tusk’s critics considered the document badly written. The short letter was full of commonplace notions, like “secure external borders.” But what was strange and new in the document was that Tusk decided that “only Member States are able to tackle the migration crisis effectively” and that the European Commission’s approach to the migration crisis “has turned out to be ineffective.”

Eszter Zalan of Euobserver wrote that Tusk’s note on migration prompted “institutional hysteria” in Brussels. Eventually, the text had to be changed after serious concerns were raised at the meeting of EU foreign ministers on December 11. This was considered by some to be a “humiliating climb-down.” The revised note called for the EU institutions to work together. EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos called Tusk’s note “anti-European,” which might have been an overstatement, but even the official comments coming from the European Commission took umbrage at Tusk’s singular action. Its spokesman conveyed the Commission’s disagreement with Tusk’s criticism of its work.

It was not just the members of the European Council who were critical of Tusk’s move but also the political leaders of Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and even Greece, which has had to manage large numbers of refugees and migrants. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, for example, called Tusk’s comments “aimless, ill-timed, and pointless.” Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose reproofs are usually quite subdued, was openly critical, insisting that “solidarity for the management of borders” is not enough; responsibilities must be shared within the Union as well. Italy might have been pleased with the financial offer but nonetheless reiterated that “we will continue to insist that a commitment on the relocation of refugees is needed.”

The leaders of the Visegrád Four must have been elated when they received Tusk’s note, but the changes that had to be made should have signaled to them that they couldn’t expect an imminent victory for their position. Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó declared that Tusk had “spoken the truth” on mandatory quotas. He went even further in his criticism of the European Commission. “Some Brussels bureaucrats continue to organize and promote illegal migration, and Donald Tusk is now being attacked in a vile and sanctimonious manner by those who have been representing for years now the obviously misguided migration policy of the European Commission.”

The other side considered Tusk’s initiative to be an encroachment on the prerogatives of the European Council. As one unnamed EU diplomat said, “The European Council is not a legislative body.” In his opinion, Tusk couldn’t possibly mean to bypass the normal procedures of the European Union. Moreover, Tusk’s opinions bore a suspicious resemblance to the general argument put forth by the Visegrád Four, which could be a result of his national attachments.

Photo: Stephanie LeCocq / MTI-EPA

Viktor Orbán left Budapest in a combative mood with a backpack on his shoulder which, according to him, contained 2.3 million Hungarians’ rejection of the Soros Plan, which in Orbán’s domestic parlance means the plan of the European Commission. (I should add that no official results of the national consultation have yet been disclosed.) Today he seems to be flying high because his Facebook page is full of videos with English subtitles from Brussels, announcing all of the things he has been accomplishing.

Before the summit the Visegrád Four prime ministers, whose ranks included two new members, Andrej Babiš of the Czech Republic and Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland, met Jean-Claude Juncker of the European Commission and Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni of Italy. Juncker was especially open to the gesture of the four prime ministers and called the offer a sign of solidarity. Orbán was elated and declared that he was “deeply thankful to [Juncker], who was a good partner.” According to Andrew Byrne, Financial Times correspondent for Hungary, Romania, and the West Balkans, Orbán was overtaken by Juncker’s kindness. It’s no wonder that Orbán on one of his videos announced that “after the first bout we are doing well. It looks like a points victory today.”

We will see how the rest of the summit shapes up. After all, Tusk had to retreat, and there is a crucial dinner meeting tonight and another day of negotiations tomorrow.

December 14, 2017

How strong is the Visegrád Four? According to some, it barely exists

Martin Mojžiš, professor at Comenius University in Bratislava, wrote an article recently with the title “How strong is V4?.” He came to the conclusion that “there is no V4, with a real political life, in reality.” Only recently Viktor Orbán claimed that the V4 is “strong as never before,” but Mojžiš’s opinion is that V4’s strength relies only on “strong words,” coming mostly from Viktor Orbán.

The ambassadors to the United States of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia got together the other day and gave a joint press conference which, according to Foreign Policy, is the only way for small countries to call attention to themselves. And yet, asks the author of the article, “Does anyone in the Trump administration care about the Visegrád 4?” The answer is “no.” I suspect that the gathering in the Hungarian Embassy’s Pulitzer Salon was initiated by the new Hungarian ambassador, László Szabó, former human resources director for the U.S. pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. One of his jobs is to promote the concept and policies of the Visegrád Four in Washington. During the press conference the Czech ambassador conceded that to have the four countries act in concert is a “challenge.” For example, a meeting of representatives of the four countries’ foreign ministers was planned, but it never took place.

From left to right Ambassadors Hynek Kmoníček, László Szabó, Piotr Wilczek, Jozef Polakovič / Source: The Georgetown Dish

One reason for the U.S.’s lack of interest is the chaos that has reigned in Washington this year. But I suspect that even the State Department’s seasoned diplomats think that the Visegrád Four might not survive for long. Indeed, there are more and more signs of the regional alliance’s possible demise, which would be a major blow to Viktor Orbán, who considers the recent “revival” of the group his own handiwork. In fact, some people already in early July came to the conclusion that “Visegrád is dead” and that, in fact, “an anti-Orbán alliance is in the making in Central Europe.” This interpretation is a bit too Hungaro-centric for my taste, but there are indications that Orbán’s pride and joy is in trouble. For instance, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are reconsidering the efficacy of partaking in the fight of Poland and Hungary against the European Union. Thus, these two countries are looking for partners elsewhere. One result of this search is the Slavkov Triangle (S3) named after Slavkov, formerly known as Austerlitz, where the prime ministers of Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia met at the end of June. More can be found on the Slavkov Triangle in my post “What awaits the Visegrád Four?”

A couple of months later, on August 15, Robert Fico backtracked from his previous euroskeptic position and distanced himself from Hungary and Poland when he announced that Slovakia’s place is in the deeply integrated “core” Europe. Fico announced that “the fundamentals of my policy are being close to the [EU] core, close to France, to Germany.” He added that he is “very much interested in regional cooperation within the Visegrád Four, but Slovakia’s vital interest is the EU.” One could foresee such a development earlier when Fico, after conferring with Jean-Claude Juncker, announced his willingness to accept 60 refugees. Moreover, of the four Visegrád countries it was only Slovakia against which the European Commission didn’t initiate infringement procedures for rejecting migrant quotas.

But that’s not all. The Czech Republic’s foreign minister Lubomír Zaorálek just announced, according to Reuters, that his country may try to get an observer seat at the Eurogroup of Eurozone finance ministers if the body’s decision-making powers are boosted under plans to reshape the European Union. Having an observer status would be beneficial to the Czech Republic, and it is unlikely that this attitude would change even if a new government wins the elections in October. All in all, there is a fairly rapid abandonment of the hard-line positions of Poland and Hungary by the Slovaks and Czechs.

A couple of weeks ago we learned that the prime ministers of S3 will gather in Salzburg on August 23, where they will meet the French president on his way to a three-day trip of some Central European countries. The topic will be “the future of Europe.” From Austria Macron will fly to Romania and Bulgaria. Hungary and Poland are not included in his itinerary. We don’t know whether Hungary tried to convince Macron to visit Budapest or not but, according to Politico, the Polish government tried its best to entice Macron to stop over in Warsaw but hey “didn’t see much willingness” on the part of the Élysée Palace. Perhaps Macron has given up on the two intransigent illiberal states, although French diplomats keep insisting that Macron has no intention of driving a wedge between the Central European nations that came together in this regional alliance.

Still, there is little doubt that the European Commission and the some of the Western European leaders would like to weaken the influence of Poland and Hungary over the Visegrád Four. Deutsche Welle’s reporter, for example, believes that “the EU is now eyeing Slovakia as a peacemaker,” a country that might be helpful in keeping Poland and Hungary at bay. Moreover, if the Czechs join “core” Europe, Hungary will certainly want to reconsider its relationship with “Brussels.” As we know from past experience, Polish-Hungarian friendship has its limits. Viktor Orbán will not hesitate to abandon Warsaw if he feels that it is no longer to his advantage to support the Polish position. Now that the summer is more or less over, I’m sure that exciting days are ahead of us, especially within the sphere of EU-Hungarian relations.

August 22, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s first day in Brussels without his British prop

Today, after a meeting of the European Council sans David Cameron, several European leaders gave press conferences, starting with President Jean-Claude Juncker. From his brief summary of the meeting, we learned that there had been unanimity on two important issues.

First, there will be no internal à la carte market. “Those who have access have to implement all four freedoms without exceptions and nuances”: the free movement of goods, the free movement of services and freedom of establishment, the free movement of persons (and citizenship), including free movement of workers, and the free movement of capital.

The second point was that while the European Union does need reforms, they can be neither additional nor contrary to what has already been decided. What he has in mind is the strategic agenda of the European Council and the ten priorities the European Commission declared earlier. Here I will mention only four of these priorities that are not at all to the liking of the Visegrád 4 or countries that sympathize with the group: (1) a deeper and fairer internal market, (2) a deeper and fairer economic and monetary union, (3) an energy union, and (4) a common European agenda on migration. From the Hungarian point of view, perhaps the most significant announcement by Juncker was that “it is about speeding up reforms, not about adding reforms to already existing reforms.”

Viktor Orbán also gave an “international press conference,” as the Hungarian media reported the event. Normally, after an ordinary summit, there are only a couple of Hungarian media outlets that are interested in Orbán’s reactions, but this time the prime minister’s press conference was conducted in English and with a larger group of journalists.

The Associated Press’s short summary concentrated on “personnel changes,” which without additional background information didn’t make much sense. In order to have a better understanding of what Orbán was talking about, we must interpret his words in light of Jarosław Kaczyński’s demand for the resignation of Jean-Claude Juncker and other EU officials a few days ago. Orbán, who talks so much about the unity of the Visegrád 4 countries, doesn’t seem to be ready to support the Polish leader’s attack on Juncker and the Commission, at least at this time. The Hungarian prime minister thinks that “time, analysis, thought and proposals are needed” before such changes are discussed. In his opinion, “it would be cheap and not at all gallant in these circumstances to suddenly attack any leader of the Commission or any EU institution.” In addition, Orbán doesn’t stand by Kaczyński on at least two other issues. Kaczyński severely criticized Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, while Orbán praised him. Orbán also rejected, for the time being, the Polish politician’s call for a rewriting of the EU constitution.

Viktor Orbán at his press conference / AP Photo

Viktor Orbán at his press conference / AP Photo

Hungarian summaries of the same press conference are naturally a great deal more detailed and therefore more enlightening when it comes to an analysis of Viktor Orbán’s current thinking on the situation in which he finds himself. Here I will concentrate on two of Orbán’s priorities.

The first is his hope that future negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom will be conducted not by the European Commission but by the European Council. Even if the European Parliament and the Commission were willing to agree to such an arrangement, which I very much doubt, the complexity of these negotiations precludes such an arrangement.

Orbán’s second priority is the introduction of an entirely new set of what he calls “reforms.” He, as opposed to most European politicians, has a different notion of what constitutes “reform.” Instead of the European agenda that aims at deepening integration, he would like to see a loosening of ties among member states. During the press conference, Orbán repeated several times a Hungarian saying, allegedly first uttered by Ferenc Deák, the architect of the 1867 Compromise with the Crown who was famous for his figures of speech. Deák, after the 1848-1849 revolution, likened the absolutist administration to a hussar’s dolman which was buttoned incorrectly and which could be fixed only if the hussar unbuttoned all the buttons and started anew. In plain language, the whole structure of the European Union is wrong and it is time to undo everything and begin again from scratch. But, as we learned from Juncker, this is not what the majority of the European Council has in mind. In sum, I don’t believe that either of Orbán’s two important goals has the slightest chance of being accepted.

There is one issue, however, on which he fully supports Juncker’s position. As far as he is concerned, there can be no question of Great Britain limiting the immigration of citizens of the European Union. In his opinion, the East European countries went beyond what would have been a reasonable compromise when in February they accepted Cameron’s very tough demands on European citizens working in the United Kingdom. But now there can be no concession on this issue. If Great Britain wants to enjoy certain trading privileges with the European Union, its government must allow EU citizens to live and work there.

Restricting immigration from Europe, especially from its eastern part, has been a topic of long-standing political debate in the United Kingdom. Theresa May, the home secretary who has a chance of becoming David Cameron’s successor, has been talking about limitations for a number of years. Both Boris Johnson and Theresa May want to close the door on unskilled labor from Europe without Britain’s losing access to the single market. They interpret the EU’s free-movement principle as the freedom to move to a specific job rather than to cross borders to look for work. And there is no question, the pro-exit Conservatives are not talking about Middle Eastern refugees here. They decry the fact that “a third of Portugal’s qualified nurses had migrated, 20% of Czech medical graduates were leaving once qualified, and nearly 500 doctors were leaving Bulgaria every year.” The Brexit leaders could talk about Hungary as well, which saw about 500,000 people leave for Great Britain, Germany, Sweden, and other countries in the West.

Viktor Orbán did touch on immigration to the British Isles as one of the causes of the anti-European sentiment that has spread across England and Wales, but he maintained that “in British thinking migrants coming from outside of Europe and the employees arriving from the European Union are conflated, the result of which the voters felt that they didn’t get satisfactory answers from the European Union for their questions.” British Conservative politicians’ opinions on the subject, going back at least a year if not longer, leave no doubt that they were not been concerned with the refugees but with those EU citizens already in the country. The person who does conflate the two is Viktor Orbán. Last Friday he, who only a few days earlier had campaigned for David Cameron, manifested a certain glee in blaming EU’s refugee crisis for Brexit. I wonder how he will feel when one of the key sticking points in the U.K.-EU negotiations turns out to be East European immigration to Great Britain.

Meanwhile, I understand that the number of Hungarians planning to make the journey to the United Kingdom has grown enormously since the British exit vote. The hope is that anybody who arrives in Great Britain while the country is still part of the EU will be safe, but who knows what will happen later.

June 29, 2016

Viktor Orbán in the wake of Brexit

As I’m following commentaries on “life after Brexit,” I’m struck by the huge divergence of opinions. There are those who are certain that one Euroskeptic country after the other will hold a referendum on membership and that the entire European edifice that has been built slowly and methodically since the 1950s will simply collapse. One Hungarian commentator, former SZDSZ chairman Mátyás Eörsi, thinks a European war is almost inevitable. At the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that the British exit is actually a blessing in disguise. At last the countries of the Continent will be free to deepen integration which, in their opinion, will strengthen the European Union and ensure its political and economic importance in world affairs.

Opinions on the effect of Brexit on the political fortunes of Viktor Orbán also differ widely. A few think the event will be a useful tool in the Hungarian prime minister’s hand, which he can use to force the powerful core states to make concessions to the Visegrád 4 countries and a couple of other Euroskeptic nations in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. The reasoning is that without concessions, the contagion may spread through other member states at a time of right radical ascendancy. After all, these commentators point out, several right-wing groups have already announced plans to force through similar referendums.

I don’t believe in this scenario. The result of the British referendum is having such devastating consequences in both political and economic terms that I doubt too many countries would willingly sign up for such a suicidal undertaking. After all, it seems that the pro-exit Conservatives themselves were not quite prepared for a pro-leave majority and have no idea of what to do next. There are signs that they wouldn’t mind undoing the awful mess they created. Moreover, the first attempt at holding a similar referendum, the Dutch Geert Wilders’ Nexit initiative, has already failed. Yesterday, out of the 75 MPs present Nexit received only 14 votes.

Since the spread of anti-EU referendums is unlikely, Brexit didn’t strengthen Orbán’s position in Brussels. On the contrary. He lost a powerful ally in David Cameron, on whom he relied time and again in resisting every move that, as he saw it, trampled on the sovereignty of the nation states. Now he can only hope that the Visegrád 4 countries, if they remain united, will be strong enough to stand up against likely pressure in the direction of integration. There is a good possibility that Orbán and his fellow prime ministers of the former Soviet bloc countries will have to choose between cooperation and some kind of inferior status that would place them outside “an ever closer union.” That second-tier status would mean turning off the spigot from which billions of euros have flowed to these countries.

Until now one had the impression that Orbán was the leader of the Visegrád 4 group, but this impression might be misleading because news about V4 meetings arrives through the filter of Hungarian government propaganda. A couple of days ago the Polish government announced that it wants to hold “an alternative meeting of EU foreign ministers,” those who weren’t invited to the meeting of the six founding members of the European Union on Saturday. Yesterday, according to the Polish public television, eight foreign ministers–from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Greece, Spain, Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovenia–had accepted the invitation. The United Kingdom will be represented by an undersecretary.

Poland is taking the lead among countries that have issues with the European Union. The Polish initiative is perfectly understandable. Poland is a large country with almost 40 million inhabitants, and therefore its government feels that it should spearhead the movement of those who resist EU “encroachment.” How Orbán feels about this Polish initiative one can only guess. In any case, if this Polish invitation to 22 countries yielded such a small gathering, the prospect of the Poles forging a strong counterweight to the pro-integration forces looks slim to me.

Nonetheless, in Budapest there is hope that with the departure of the United Kingdom the Visegrád countries “will gain much more influence within the European Union.” At least this is what Gergely Prőhle, former Hungarian ambassador to Berlin, believes. He expressed his hope to Boris Kálnoky, Budapest correspondent of Die Welt, that Austria and the Netherlands may also support the program of a Visegrád 4 coalition. But Prőhle is far too optimistic and, as Kálnoky points out, the Hungarian government is nervous about the prospect of a more integrated Europe and “a sharper attack on the Euroskeptic and nationalist governments.”

David Cameron arrives today in Brussels / Reuters / Photo: Francois Lenoir

David Cameron arrives in Brussels / Reuters / Photo: Francois Lenoir

Of course, Viktor Orbán would never acknowledge that Great Britain’s likely exit from the European Union may decrease his effectiveness in Brussels. But László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament, freely admitted that with Great Britain inside the European Union Hungary would have had an easier time of it in Brussels. Moreover, he acknowledged that “the political strength of those who oppose the formation of some kind of united states of Europe has diminished.”

Many Hungarian commentators actually rejoice over Brexit for the very reason Kálnoky and others point out. The absence of Great Britain from the negotiating table will weaken Viktor Orbán. Moreover, these people are strong believers in a federated Europe and look upon Great Britain as an impediment to that ideal. These commentators argue that the United Kingdom from the very beginning was a reluctant member and that, being an island nation, it is a very different place from the countries of the Continent. The strongest Hungarian criticism I read appeared in Index. Its author, M.T., accused Britain of blackmailing the European Union for years.

Viktor Orbán, who is by now in Brussels, has been talking about “the lessons” to be learned from Brexit. Of course, for him the lessons are that the politicians of the EU must listen to the “voice of the people” who are fed up with Brussels’ handling of the “migrant crisis.” From the moment the results of the British referendum became known, Orbán has been trying to convince his voters that the reason for Brexit was the 1.5 million migrants who have arrived in Europe in the last year and a half. But I wonder how long this myth can be maintained once Hungarians learn that, since last Thursday, more than 100 incidents have taken place in the United Kingdom, mostly against Poles.

The defense of “the rights of Hungarians working and studying in the United Kingdom” is Orbán’s self-stated top priority during the negotiations over Brexit. Of course, these negotiations are still far away, but Orbán can show that he is concerned about the fate of his people. It’s too bad that when it came to allowing Hungarian citizens living in Western European countries to have the same voting rights as Hungarians living in the neighboring countries he was not such a staunch supporter of them.

In Brussels this afternoon Orbán gave a press conference in which he placed the “migrant crisis” at the epicenter of all the current ills of the European Union. If it isn’t solved along the lines he suggested, the crisis the EU is experiencing now will only deepen. He emphasized the necessity of holding a Hungarian referendum on the “compulsory quotas,” which we know don’t even exist. This referendum “is necessary in order to represent the Hungarian position clearly and forcefully.” Of course, the Hungarian referendum is totally off topic. The negotiations in Brussels are not about the refugees, but about Great Britain’s likely exit and the future of the European Union.

June 28, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s interpretation of the Brexit referendum

In the wake of the stunning Brexit referendum outcome, pro-government papers wisely waited for word from the boss before they dared express any opinion on the subject. They didn’t have to wait long. At 8:00 a.m. Viktor Orbán began his regular fortnightly Friday morning interview on the state radio station.

The first topic was of course the British referendum, something the Hungarian prime minister was not at all eager to talk about. The little he said had more to do with his own referendum, to be held sometime in the fall, on the European Union’s right to set “compulsory quotas” of asylum seekers in Hungary. One could ask what these two referendums have to do with one other.  Of course, nothing. What is important for him is his own referendum, and he exploits the opportunity presented by the Brexit referendum.

Brexit1

Source: spectator.co.uk

According to his own version of the story, the whole unfortunate referendum on Brexit was largely the result of the refugee crisis that hit Europe in the last year and a half. He claims that the British people revolted against Brussels because the European Union couldn’t handle the migration crisis. They punished Brussels for its incompetence. Orbán as usual is twisting the truth to fit his own agenda. What the majority of British voters were worried about, in addition to being subordinated to an outside power, was not so much the refugees and migrants who have reached the Continent but those “economic migrants” from East Central Europe who have settled in the British Isles in the last few years.  The 350,000 Poles and the 150,000 Hungarians, for example. At least these are the official figures, though most likely the real numbers are higher.

He was particularly unwilling to talk about the future except to state that “Hungary is in the European Union because we believe in a strong Europe,” a totally meaningless statement, only to return to his main message –the immigration issue. “But Europe can be strong only if it finds answers to such important questions as immigration. Many people, in the case of Great Britain the majority, consider the decisions [on the refugee issue] to be creating not a stronger but a weaker Europe.” So this, in his opinion, is what led to the “leave” vote.

Orbán indicated that he had been in touch with the prime ministers of the Visegrád countries. Robert Fico’s interpretation of the referendum result is almost identical to that of Orbán: “Great numbers of EU citizens reject the migrant policy,” which should obviously be changed. Jarosław Kaczyński went further. He would like to see an entirely new EU constitution which would include “reforms,” after which the EU “could make an offer” to Great Britain. What would these “reforms” include? Among other things, a new definition of the relationship between the EU and the member states, naturally in favor of the nation states. I’m certain that for the Euroskeptic Visegrád countries Kaczyński’s scheme would be a bonanza. Loosen European integration and keep a strong ally, the also Euroskeptic Great Britain, in the fold. This is a totally unacceptable response to the Brexit vote.

Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó regurgitated Viktor Orbán’s wise words about a strong Europe, adding that “the time of honest politics has arrived in Europe” because the EU has for some time been following hypocritical and politically correct policies that have led to wrong answers to the migrant crisis. Lajos Kósa, representing Fidesz as a party, claimed that the majority of the Brits voted to exit from the Union because Brussels couldn’t defend them from the migrants. “It is an impossible situation that the socialist-liberal elite is pro-immigration while the decisive majority of European citizens is not.” Kósa added that “we can agree with the man who came up with the bon mot that Europe for the sake of a few million migrants lost 64 million citizens and the second strongest economy.”

Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság usually uses her contacts with Fidesz politicians to get a sense of their attitudes on particular issues. According to her, the consensus in the party is that with Brexit Orbán lost an important ally. But in the future Orbán’s voice will become more audible in the EU. Her informants also believe that with the departure of anti-Russian Great Britain Orbán will have an easier time convincing the EU to put an end to the anti-Russian sanctions. The couple of Fidesz EP representatives she interviewed emphasized the importance of the unity of the Visegrád 4 countries, which should be used as a counterweight to French-German dominance. One of the EP representatives, György Schöpflin, is convinced that the European left wants to punish the exiting Brits. He had to admit, however, that it is not only the left that wants immediate negotiations but also the Christian-conservative parties in the European People’s Party (EPP). If that is the case, the Fidesz members of EPP have little choice but to go with the flow.

The leaders of the opposition parties naturally see the situation differently. Csaba Molnár, DK EP member, accused the British conservatives of a 20-year-long anti-EU campaign, which resulted in the disastrous outcome of the referendum. Viktor Orbán has been doing the same thing for years, and if he doesn’t stop eventually Hungary too will leave the EU. He therefore implored Orbán to call off the referendum.  Viktor Szigetvári of Együtt also asked Orbán “to stop his mendacious anti-EU campaign and his anti-European provocations.”

István Szent-Iványi, the foreign policy expert of the Magyar Liberális Párt, looks upon the outcome of the referendum as the result of “the British government party’s two-faced, ambiguous policies regarding the European Union.” The same attitude is present in Hungary and, given the lesson of the British decision, he called on the Hungarian government to make its relationship to Europe unambiguous, to stop its campaign against Brussels, and to cancel the referendum on compulsory quotas. At present, neither Hungary nor Europe needs this referendum, which is no longer about refugees but about Hungary’s relations with Europe.

Tibor Szanyi, an MSZP EP member, called David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum irresponsible and selfish since he placed his own political survival ahead of the future of his country. But perhaps Cameron’s political sins will have a beneficial effect on Orbán. One possible outcome of the British decision might be that European politicians will have had enough of the selfish, nationalist members’ behavior and  will continue European integration without them. At the moment, Hungary still has a chance to be part of this work, but only if Orbán drastically changes course. He added that Brexit will have the most negative effect on the Central and East European countries because the leading demand of those who campaigned for Great Britain’s exit was that citizens of the European Union should not take work away from British citizens.

Given the official Fidesz interpretation of the British referendum, the great majority of the Hungarian people, as is often the case, will be misinformed and misled. I suspect that Orbán will go on campaigning against the EU and will hold the referendum. Otherwise, it is hard to predict how serious a handicap the absence of British support for the Visegrád 4 will be in the coming months. I suspect that from here on Orbán will have a more difficult time in Brussels.

June 24, 2016

Viktor Orbán at a crossroads: Alone or together?

By all objective standards Viktor Orbán’s refugee policy is a resounding failure. The hastily constructed fence, as predicted, is useless. This past weekend almost 9,000 refugees arrived in the country. The Hungarian government’s handling of the crisis has been roundly criticized, and by today Germany with the assistance of Austria decided to bend the rules and deal with the situation in a “flexible manner,” which meant taking over the registration of the would-be immigrants from the incompetent and malevolent Hungarian government.

Yet, from the point of view of the Orbán government the outcome of the protracted refugee crisis may not be a total loss. Yes, a lot of money was spent on anti-refugee propaganda and western powers are horrified at the heartless measures introduced and/or contemplated by the Hungarian government. But according to the latest public opinion poll by the Republikon Institute, as a result of the “firm” attitude of the government regarding the refugee issue, the downward slide of Fidesz’s popularity has stopped. The anti-refugee propaganda also reinforced the xenophobic tendencies of Hungarians to the point that, by now, 66% of the population believe that “the refugees pose a danger to Hungary and therefore they shouldn’t be allowed” into the country. Only 19% think that “it is the duty of Hungary to accept them.”

The most vociferous opponents of a generous immigration policy are the Fidesz voters (79%). They even surpass followers of Jobbik (71%). But even supporters of the opposition parties are not too keen on foreigners. For example, 64% of MSZP voters and 52% of LMP supporters harbor anti-immigration sentiments. DK voters polled lowest, at 47%, but this number is still surprisingly high given the liberal disposition of Ferenc Gyurcsány’s followers. Thus, one can safely say that a large majority of Hungarians would recommend strong measures against the influx of refugees and support Orbán’s categorical refusal to accept any refugees whatsoever.

It is another matter, however, whether the policies that have been introduced thus far satisfy the expectations of the electorate. Again, by objective standards, they shouldn’t because the results of these efforts, legislative and otherwise, are zilch. Yet I don’t think that Fidesz’s attempt to gain political advantage from the immigration crisis is in jeopardy. The government can always blame the European Union for its failures. Laying the blame on Brussels is a relatively easy task given the total confusion that reigns in the capitals of the member states and in Brussels itself.

Today’s events are a perfect example of that confusion. Yesterday the ministry of interior categorically announced that without a passport and a valid visa nobody can leave the country. Never mind that in the last few months more than 100,000 people left without either of these documents. This morning the same ministry claimed that there will be plenty of space in Hungarian jails for “illegal immigrants.”

By midday the Hungarian government blamed Germany for the situation that had developed at the railway stations in Budapest and elsewhere. András Giró-Szász, one of the government spokesmen, not without justification complained that Hungary has followed all of the Dublin III regulations governing immigration procedures when it is now Germany that has shown “a more permissive attitude toward Syrian refugees … which has raised hopes among the illegal immigrants who possibly come from Syria.” He asked the German government “to clarify the legal situation.”

Then something happened at the Eastern Railway Station (Keleti) between six and seven this morning. Within an hour all the policemen who were supposed to make sure that no refugee gets on any train heading west disappeared. Within minutes the news spread that Syrian refugees can embark on their journey to Germany where they are being welcomed. That meant a sudden reversal of Hungarian policy, which was undoubtedly prompted by a telephone call from Angela Merkel to Viktor Orbán. The Austrians stopped the two trains carrying the refugees at the border, but after making sure that the trains were not overcrowded they let them proceed to Germany.

The trains at the Austro-Hungarian border,August 31, 2015

The trains at the Austro-Hungarian border, August 31, 2015

I’m not sure whether, after the German change of policy, the Hungarian government will proceed with its plans to modify the criminal code, which would lay the groundwork for declaring a state of emergency. This might be incompatible with Hungary’s membership in the European Union. It seems, however, that the prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia will hold a mini-summit in Prague on Friday. It was expected that these countries would stand together in their refusal to take any refugees. But Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz of Poland announced today that, given the changed situation, Poland is ready to accept far more than the 2,200 refugees it had offered at the time the quota system was originally discussed. So the staunchest holdouts may be limited to the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia.

As 444.hu said, a Kulturkamp has broken out between Western and Eastern Europe over the refugee issue. While the west wants to return to a discussion of quotas, the former socialist countries are refusing to accept any such solution. The tension is palpable. Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner used strong words today. She announced that “pressure should be put on those countries” that refuse to cooperate. In her opinion, Brussels might reduce the amount of support for the recalcitrant member states.

The easterners keep repeating that they want to remain Christian countries. Robert Fico is perhaps the least bashful in expressing this view, saying that Slovakia is willing to take 250 immigrants but they must not be Muslims. But the Poles, Estonians, and Czechs feel the same way about “refugees who come from a different cultural background,” as Miloš Zeman rather politely put it. As a result, in the Western European countries one often hears about the “heartlessness” of East Europeans while they stress their own humane attitudes. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls yesterday recited Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus”: “Give me your tired, your poor, /Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.” Italy, Austria, and Germany have indicated that if there is no common solution, free movement within the European Union cannot be maintained.

Four days ago an opinion piece,”The price of zero,” appeared in Népszabadság by the excellent veteran journalist Endre Aczél. He begins his piece by saying that he wasn’t at all surprised that it was Germany that first decided to abandon the “Dublin Convention” and not to send refugees back to the countries where they reached the territory of the European Union. The Germans remember their own post-World War II history when 14 million Germans were forced to move from east to west. The Germans, the French, and the Italians contemplate a pan-European solution. But Thomas de Maiziere, German minister of the interior, “quietly” mentioned the possibility of guarding national borders in the future. “Anyone, like Orbán, who declares zero acceptance of immigrants should think twice: What would be the benefit or advantage from limitations to Hungarians’ free movement within the European Union?” Of course, it would be a terrible blow. If it came to that, Viktor Orbán wouldn’t be prime minister of Hungary for long. One wouldn’t even have to wait for the next scheduled election.