A new Hungarian government and a new interim foreign minister

Right after the election, the media began the usual guesswork on the composition of Viktor Orbán’s new government. Most of the speculation turned out to be wrong,  but four days after the election it looked pretty certain that Miklós Szócska, undersecretary in charge of health care, Rózsa Hoffmann, undersecretary in charge of education, and János Martonyi, foreign minister, would leave the government. The media also learned early on that Tibor Navracsics will move from the Ministry of Administration and Justice to the Foreign Ministry. Otherwise, at least on the ministerial level, very few changes were made. With the exception of Mrs. László Németh at the head of the Ministry of National Development and János Martonyi, all other ministers remained part of the team.

First, perhaps I should say a few words about the odd structure of Viktor Orbán’s government. While in opposition, Orbán harshly criticized expenditures he found superfluous. If it depended on him, all ministers would have used ten-year-old cars with 500,000 km on them. He promised a frugal government. In order to demonstrate that frugality, he got it into his head that his new government will be the smallest of all Hungarian governments since 1848. So, he created only eight ministries, as Lajos Batthyány did on March 23, 1848. But the world has changed a bit since, and it was apparent from the very beginning that a lot of tinkering would be necessary to create a functioning government with only eight ministries. Mega-ministries were created, the largest and most unmanageable being the Ministry of Human Resources that was supposed to deal with education, health care, sports, and culture.

The new arrangement did not result in the desired frugality. On the contrary, the reorganization entailed additional expenses. Moreover, although there might have been only eight ministers, the number of undersecretaries who actually functioned as ministers multiplied. In the past, there were twelve or fourteen ministries and each had two undersecretaries: one who was a kind of deputy minister who could represent the minister in parliament and answer questions from the floor and the other, the administrative undersecretary who was allegedly in charge of running the ministry itself. Thus if there were fourteen ministries the number of undersecretaries would be 28. Now with eight ministries we have 48!

At one point Viktor Orbán quipped that one will hardly notice that a new government has been formed because so few changes will be made. Actually, this is pretty much the case. There is only one personnel change on the ministerial level: in place of Mrs. László Németh, Orbán picked Miklós Seszták. More about him in a forthcoming post.

Moving Tibor Navracsics to the Foreign Ministry is a strange decision, especially since it was already decided that in six months he is leaving for Brussels to be one of the 28 commissioners. The current Hungarian commissioner, László Andor, was appointed by the socialist-liberal government in 2009. With the formation of the new European Commission, Orbán at last has the opportunity to appoint his own man. When Navracsics goes to Brussels, Péter Szijjártó will replace him as foreign minister. Péter Szijjártó has already moved from the Prime Minister’s Office to the Foreign Ministry, where he is considered to be Navracsics’s temporary deputy. And by the way, the ministry was renamed the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Foreign Affairs.

There were plenty of rumors to the effect that Viktor Orbán wasn’t entirely satisfied with Navracsics, who apparently did not agree with some of his decisions. Journalists learned that he rarely spoke at cabinet meetings, but his face registered his bemusement or disagreement. Politicians who fall out of favor are often sent out to pasture in Brussels.

In today’s Népszabadság there is a long interview with Navracsics. It is hard to tell how honest Navracsics is in this interview, but he claims that he is happy with his new post because he has always been interested in foreign affairs. I find it hard to imagine that anyone can be happy with a six-month stint holding the position for someone else, especially for Péter Szijjártó. After all, Navracsics in civilian life was a university professor of some standing, and I can’t imagine that he considers this young man suitable for the job. And now he is forced to make him his deputy and later hand over the job he most likely wouldn’t mind having himself.

Tibor Navracsics, interim foreign minister / Photo Miklós Teknős, Népszabadság

Tibor Navracsics, interim foreign minister / Photo Miklós Teknős, Népszabadság

His task as foreign minister is “to carry out the foreign policy of the Hungarian government … which is headed by Viktor Orbán.” Specifically, he stressed that “the opening to the East does not mean the closing to the West, just as Prime Minister Orbán says.” In brief, the “peacock dance” will continue in the next six months, not that I expected anything else. There might, however, be a slight change in the delivery of the messages, especially since Navracsics is well versed in political philosophy. He knows, for example, that all that talk of Viktor Orbán about the “decline of the West” is “a century-old idea that turns up from time to time.” Here he sounds like a man who doesn’t take Orbán’s ideas terribly seriously. He also stressed that with cooperation one can achieve more than with confrontation, but added that “cooperation is not equal to friendship.” Some of his incredibly aggressive encounters with Commissioner Viviane Reding are striking counterexamples of this principle of cooperation.

Navracsics is quite capable of contradicting himself. For example, in one sentence he claims that in the last ten years Hungary was not able to make its “European policy really successful.” He added that “one must take size into consideration … therefore we cannot have such ambitions as Germany or even Poland.” But when the journalist reminded him that Viktor Orbán is acting like the prime minister of a great power, he quickly retreated, saying that “he can certainly do that because after all our weight in the European Council is the same as all others.”

He showed himself to be open toward the opposition when he emphasized that “we are the members of the same political class as the opposition parties.” When it was pointed out to him that he himself in the election campaign claimed that Fidesz alone represents national interests in Europe, naturally he couldn’t deny it, but he said that he does not want to open “that chapter again.” Now, after the election, “the two sides should take a deep breath and begin a new kind of cooperation.” (The few comments to this interview called Navracsics a liar.)

Tibor Navracsics is heading to Brussels. There he is supposed to represent the interests of the European Union, but clearly he will be there to represent the interests of Viktor Orbán. He will have to hone his obfuscation skills even more finely to appear acceptable to his colleagues in the Commission.

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11 comments

  1. Well, Navracsics is a smart man. At the same time he is an opportunist. He’ll be only serving Orban as long as Orban seems strong… but if he sees any opportunity for himself, he’ll exploit it. I think he’ll pose in Brussels as some kind of reasonable moderate (despite his nasty run-on with Vivian Reading), and would try to position himself as a potential alternative to Orban in the eyes of the west in preparation for the time when Hungarians finally have enough of Orban. Brussels could actually work out very well for his political career.

  2. @An. Very good observation. Quite possible. But his task will not be easy. Orbán is thoroughly hated in Brussels by now. And not just Brussels but in most European countries.

  3. @Ron, You are right. I forgot about the incident with Kroes. Yes, he can be very nasty. He was very nasty when he was the whip of the Fidesz caucus in parliament. He learned very fast how to be ugly.

  4. Nobody in Fidesz will have a political career once the Great Felcsutian has done with Hungary.
    Certainly no foreign government, with the possible exception of the Russian (and it’s flunkies like Belarus) will do anything with Orban’s left-overs…

  5. I hope you can understand why some of us are somewhat sceptical about the way the EU operates. This unpleasant man, appointed by a gangster, is being placed on the EU commission where he will be electorally unaccountable to anyone, and yet responsible for legislation that affects our lives. The many hundred years process of democratisation is being reversed and it is not “nationalistic” to point it out…

  6. HiBoM, you should learn how the EU works: most EU legislation is the result of a codecision procedure where both the Council and the European Parliament have to agree on proposals made by the Commission. Who’s accountable? The European Parliament made of elected representatives at EU level and the Council made of ministers and heads of state supported by national parliaments. Don’t forget that the Commission has to be approved by the European Parliament too. So it is democratic; if citizens don’t give a damn, it’s their problem.

  7. @thee – thank you for the positive illustration of the EU.

    Without am occupational force in the Budapest parliament, the nation could try to imitate the Austrian example, and become a member of the European family.

  8. theestampe – excactly, thank you!
    The EU Parliament will have to approve of Navracsics’s candidacy first.
    Future commissoners are designated by the head of government of the given member state, the same way as government members are.

    Also, the Commmission is not responsible for legislations, it is the executive arm (civil service) of the EU. It proposes legislation that the Council / Parliament will vote on, then is in charge of making sure they are carried out. The Council consists of heads and members of gvernments (all elected), and the MEPs are of course directy elected.

    The idea of “democracy deficit” in the Commission is a myth.

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