Slovakia v. Hungary at the European Court of Justice:            The Sólyom case

Here is an old/new story that will provide us some relief from pondering the chances of the Hungarian opposition in 2014.

It was more than three years ago, on August 21, 2009, that President László Sólyom tried to cross the Slovak-Hungarian border at Komárom-Komárno in order to attend the unveiling of a statue of St. Stephen. The Slovak government warned him while he was en route to stay away. Sólyom was undeterred. In the middle of the bridge between the two cities Sólyom and his entourage had to turn back. The Slovak government’s stated reason for denying entry to the Hungarian president was that August 21 was the anniversary of the military invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact countries in 1968, an invasion in which Hungarian troops also participated.

I suspect, however, that this was only an excuse. The real reason was that the Slovaks had become tired of László Sólyom’s frequent visits to their country. A bit earlier the Romanians also reacted angrily to Sólyom’s visits, which were usually announced in the last minute, and at one point they wouldn’t grant his plane permission to land at the Marosvásárhely (Târgu Mureş) airport. Sólyom had to go by car. A fairly long and arduous trip from Budapest.

Sólyom’s humiliation raised the hackles of Hungarian nationalism, and all parties joined ranks in indignation. The media followed suit. I think I was perhaps the first, although not the last, person to publish an article in Népszava expressing  disapproval of these visits that purported to be private when in fact they were official or semi-official. Among other things, when a foreign dignitary visits, the host country is supposed to provide protection. I would have liked to see what the Hungarian government would have said if the Slovak president paid last-minute visits to Hungary every few months.

At the time when this topic was hot in Hungary I heard a conversation with Péter Balázs, then foreign minister in the Bajnai government, and to my greatest surprise found out that Sólyom decided on his foreign trips himself. Until then I assumed it was the foreign ministry that told the president which countries to visit.  Moreover, Sólyom and his staff decided on the details of these “private” visits and contacted the foreign ministry for only one purpose: to have them officially announce the president’s impending visit to the country in question. So, in the days of the Sólyom presidency the foreign minister was no more than a messenger boy. Mind you, the situation of the present foreign minister is no better but for different reasons, and I’d bet that János Áder goes where he is told to go not by János Martonyi but by Viktor Orbán.

The case ended up at the European Commission. The EC decided that although Slovakia used the wrong justification for the refusal, Bratislava had the right to deny entrance to László Sólyom because Sólyom as the president of another country cannot take absolutely private trips abroad. The Hungarian government’s point of view was that Sólyom was denied the free movement of individuals inside the European Union by the Slovak government. I remember the representative of the European Commission visiting Budapest and Bratislava, and even during this investigative phase of the case it was becoming obvious that the EC representative was leaning toward the Slovaks in this dispute. And indeed the European Commission’s position was that member countries have the right “to supervise the entrance of foreign heads of state” to their countries regardless of whether that person is a citizen of the Union or not. The Bajnai government decided not to accept this verdict and turned to the European Court of Justice for a ruling.

The building of the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg

That was in March 2010.  I simply couldn’t understand why the Bajnai government opted for this course of action. The case seemed to me cut and dry. One could only lose it. Perhaps they were afraid of being branded unpatriotic; they already had enough trouble on that front. However, there are times when one must take a stand and this would have been a good time to show some strength. Let the Orbán government bear the odium of losing the case. Because they lost it all right. On March 6 the judge, Yves Bot,  who was in charge of the case announced that Slovakia was within its rights to deny Sólyom entry to the territory of Slovakia because in this case international law supersedes the laws of the EU. Yves Bot suggested that the European Court dismiss the Hungarian suit.

Today we learned the final verdict. No surprise here. Hungary lost. I really don’t know why Hungarian governments feel compelled to go to court at the drop of a hat even with cases that have very little merit. They received plenty of warning that Hungary might end up on the losing side. Yet they forged ahead. Perhaps the old litigious Hungarian tradition simply can’t die. Plus, as Viktor Orbán often says, this “particular Hungarian way of thinking” leads them astray when it comes to assessing their real chances in the courtroom.

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26 comments

  1. Why Olga, don’t you know? Hungarians are SPECIAL. Normal codes of behavior for heads of states or parliamentary speakers do not apply. There is the ‘old’ way and the new, special HUNGARIAN WAY.

    What a sick mentality.

  2. News Flash!

    Seven paintings were stolen from a Rotterdam museum.
    There were three robbers: one was a Hungarian. While
    the others picked a Matisse and a Picasso, the Hungarian
    insisted on taking the Warhol…he thought Orban would like it.

  3. Eva: Although I have a different opinion about Sólyom’s visits, I totally agree that this case should have never reached court. This is just an embarrassment.

    Bernie: WTF??

  4. Jano :

    Eva: Although I have a different opinion about Sólyom’s visits, I totally agree that this case should have never reached court. This is just an embarrassment.

    Moreover, it was predictable from the moment the European Commission sided with Slovakia. I always thought that Péter Balázs was a smart man but at that moment I simply didn’t understand what he was doing.

  5. petofi :
    News Flash!
    Seven paintings were stolen from a Rotterdam museum.
    There were three robbers: one was a Hungarian. While
    the others picked a Matisse and a Picasso, the Hungarian
    insisted on taking the Warhol…he thought Orban would like it.

    In another story Viktor Orban, through his spokesman Pokorny demanded that the male genitals of soccer players were covered up.They were apparently bigger than his.
    http://www.calgaryherald.com/life/Vienna+Leopold+Museum+forced+cover+nude+male+posters+after+outcry/7397629/story.html

  6. “Old litigious Hungarian tradition” — an interesting remark, made on one side, as it were. Expansion? Comment? Comparisons with readiness to go to law shown by persons of other nations, other cultures?

  7. Jano :
    Eva: Although I have a different opinion about Sólyom’s visits, I totally agree that this case should have never reached court. This is just an embarrassment.
    Bernie: WTF??

    I don’t know how you could have a different opinion than that of the the courts. The hypocrisy is OV battling over rights of sovereignty yet continues a court case that would minimize those same rights. I smell cake!

  8. Wondercat :

    “Old litigious Hungarian tradition” — an interesting remark, made on one side, as it were. Expansion? Comment? Comparisons with readiness to go to law shown by persons of other nations, other cultures?

    Of course this opinion is not based on some sociological study but it is almost common place to talk about the litigious nature of Hungarians. The number of court cases is staggering right now but even in the past Hungarian loved to sue neighbors, business partners, relatives. Hungarian literature is also full of stories about cases lasting for years.

  9. tappanch :

    Sorry to mention another topic again:

    Next year, Orban’s government plans to introduce internet censorship in the form of blocking websites they do not like. (Forget the misleading spin that this will be used against the websites of the extreme right )

    http://hvg.hu/itthon/20121016_Megasta_a_Kurucinfo_sirjat_a_kormany

    Oh, yes, it sounds nice that they will block kuruc.info but this law can also apply to all that the government doesn’t like. There are some blogs that use pretty strong language against Orbán and his government. Can they block them? I assume a lot will depend on the wording of the law and knowing Orbán et al the new law will be properly vague.

  10. Bernard De Raadt :
    yes must have contact in the black market organised during the left governements starting 1947

    Apparently, people only from the left side has the ability to value real art – the right erect vultures, buying pathetically kitschy rubbish for paintings, and building a garish National Theater – so you may have a point here…

  11. “Plus, as Viktor Orbán often says, this “particular Hungarian way of thinking” leads them astray when it comes to assessing their real chances in the courtroom.

    – Not only in the courtroom, practically everywhere!

    Somehow it didn’t sink in yet, that outside of the pubs and soccer fields of Felcsút, this manner doomed to fail.
    But of course, only if someone interested of results more than having a good, hearty quarrel with everyone.

    Otherwise it’s working just fine, as we see it, day by day.

  12. Wondercat :
    “Old litigious Hungarian tradition” — an interesting remark, made on one side, as it were. Expansion? Comment? Comparisons with readiness to go to law shown by persons of other nations, other cultures?

    Unnecessary.
    Self-evident.

  13. Wondercat :
    “Old litigious Hungarian tradition” — an interesting remark, made on one side, as it were. Expansion? Comment? Comparisons with readiness to go to law shown by persons of other nations, other cultures?

    We definitely like to quarrel. Our courts and the police are overwhelmed with frivolous petty lawsuits (“tyukperek” in Hungarian). I believe the reason behind this is not the strong belief in the rule of law or a possible monetary gain, but a widespread inferiority complex. “Feljelentes”, reporting someone to the police, always seemed popular even during the Kadar era.

  14. Mutt :

    Wondercat :
    “Old litigious Hungarian tradition” — an interesting remark, made on one side, as it were. Expansion? Comment? Comparisons with readiness to go to law shown by persons of other nations, other cultures?

    We definitely like to quarrel. Our courts and the police are overwhelmed with frivolous petty lawsuits (“tyukperek” in Hungarian). I believe the reason behind this is not the strong belief in the rule of law or a possible monetary gain, but a widespread inferiority complex. “Feljelentes”, reporting someone to the police, always seemed popular even during the Kadar era.

    Complete agreement.
    Hungary–a hotbed of neuroses.

  15. Spectator: “Apparently, people only from the left side has the ability to value real art – the right erect vultures, buying pathetically kitschy rubbish for paintings, and building a garish National Theater – so you may have a point here…”

    Oh yes, the Russian renaisssance housing blocks everywhere, the soc/rel statuary on every square, Sztalinvaros….., the Lomomosov University…the House of Culture in Warsaw….another shared heritage with the nazis……..

  16. Regarding the visit. I share Mrs.Balogh view the August 21st was just an excuse.
    Mainly for international community as it could not be openly claimed “we are afraid of your nationalism”.
    The incident can not be analysed standalone. It was an atmosphere of high national pride/wave on Hungarian side.
    Just some months ago 15 cars of Hungardian garda crossed the border.Orban was coming to power and whole Hungary start once again
    to believe the old glory will come back.
    Dual citizenship, Benes decretes activisation of SMK, dispute about state language law…Last but not least the person of saint Stephan
    is in Slovakia seen as controversial. On one hand he is official saint on the other hand he is associated with defeat Slavic state.
    I heard is is in Hungary associated with bringing of christianity but this is aswell just halftruth.
    Regarrding the court: I would be surprised if current government would not find a way how to object against decision.
    I am quite sure analyses are ongoing. the point is: We are a group of macho men. We are successor of proud huszar elite.
    we never give up. this pride can be seen in many actions and explain many actions. If government would not go to court they would bee seen as weak.
    But its not only about government. This pride is aswell among standard people.this pride is the main blocking point to change government who reference themselve to this pride.

    I do not consider this btw as unique just for Hungary. This way of behaviour can be seen in many nations with rich past. eg Greece
    But I am optimist that the situation will improve soon. Its like temperature. You must come through to heal yourself.
    But that is already too philosophical…Hopefully at least piece of truth is in this long monologue:-) Certainly not whole:-)

  17. “The incident can not be analysed standalone. It was an atmosphere of high national pride/wave on Hungarian side.”

    This has some truth to it, but as far as I remember that was also the time when the Fico-Slota tandem as at it’s peak, not any behind in Slovakian nationalism either.

  18. Jano: Sure. But to be fair. Fico is very similar personality as Gyurcsány. On the left, clever, targeted and with business acumen. He is not nationalist. At the time of government creation he had really no other choice as all parties reject to talk to him about coalition.However Fico rejected to have Slota in any formal official postion.At the end Slota is just an old alcoholics. who recently married with young women and enjoying his hard earned money:-)

  19. I’m surprised nobody has mentioned the most likely explanation: Orban WANTED to lose this case. It supports his narrative that Hungarians are victims of an international conspiracy. There are Fidesz supporters who are mumbling to themselves that only Hungarians are denied freedom to travel. Oh, and this all probably helps remind people that Komárom (which the evil internationalists call “Komárno”) is really part of Hungary, so in this paranoid way of thinking, the nasty EU is denying Hungarians the right to travel within their own country.

  20. Louis Kovach :
    Spectator: “Apparently, people only from the left side has the ability to value real art – the right erect vultures, buying pathetically kitschy rubbish for paintings, and building a garish National Theater – so you may have a point here…”
    Oh yes, the Russian renaisssance housing blocks everywhere, the soc/rel statuary on every square, Sztalinvaros….., the Lomomosov University…the House of Culture in Warsaw….another shared heritage with the nazis……..

    Luois, you are amazing!

    So, according to you, your comment supposed to be relevant here, when I tried – in vain in your case – sarcastically pointing out Bernard fallacious assumption above…?

    Never mind, its not a big deal – I just feel a bit disappointed in you, that’s it.

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