German-Hungarian dialogues: Munich and Berlin

A few months ago, on August 7, 2014, Professor Charles Gati wrote an important article about Viktor Orbán’s Hungary,”The Mask Is Off.” The article was inspired by the Hungarian prime minister’s infamous speech on his plans to finish the job of building an “illiberal state” in Hungary. “Orbán has now dropped his democratic mask,” Gati announced. What followed was a thorough analysis of Orbán’s political system. At the end of the article Gati listed options the United States had for influencing Hungarian domestic politics. Among them, he mentioned the possibility of the United States “actively encouraging the European Union . . . to put the question of Hungarian membership in the EU firmly on the agenda.” That is, the European Union should no longer stand by helplessly watching Hungarian domestic developments and the increasingly anti-EU rhetoric of Orbán and his pro-Russian orientation.

If you watched the Budapest Beacon‘s interview with Kim Lane Scheppele, you undoubtedly noticed her rather optimistic assertion that now that Jean-Claude Juncker has finished creating his “cabinet,” Hungary’s case will finally be put on the agenda. If that happens, the question will be how the sides line up. Just today an article appeared entitled “EU allies alarmed at Hungary’s Kremlin drift,” which indicated that opposition to Orbán is growing even in the German Christian Democratic Party, which is in many ways the most important ingredient in an anti-Orbán coalition within the EU.

One of the few places west of Hungary where Viktor Orbán is still welcome in an official capacity is Bavaria, where on November 6 he was greeted by Horst Seehofer, minister president of Bavaria, as the democratically elected head of a coalition government. Hungarian reports indicated that Orbán’s visit was not without its critics but that Seehofer, the leader of the very conservative Christian Social Union, stood by Orbán. However, in an interview that appeared in the conservative Die Welt on November 8 one can see several not so subtle differences between the two men.

Horst Seehofer and Viktor Orbán in Munich Source: Die Welt / Photo Jörg Fokuh

Horst Seehofer and Viktor Orbán in Munich
Source: Die Welt / Photo Jörg Fokuh

Seehofer wholeheartedly supports the European Union and does not see the kind of crisis Orbán invokes every time he has the opportunity. Seehofer talked about big union projects while Orbán thinks that each country is responsible for its own economy and that joint projects must wait. Seehofer wants to widen the eurozone and urges countries outside of that zone to introduce the structural reforms necessary to be eligible for membership. Orbán spoke sharply against the euro and made it clear that he wants none of it. At this point Seehofer became just a tad sharper in his response. He defended the euro as “the basis of our high standard of living.” Orbán did not give up. For him “the future of the euro is unclear.” Well, that was too much for Seehofer, who said that “the euro stays!”

Seehofer might be a good friend of Orbán, but he firmly believes in the founding principles of the European Union: “a value system based on democracy, justice, tolerance, and Christianity.” These values are much more important than a community based only on economic interests.

Finally there were questions concerning the Ukrainian crisis and, although Orbán tried to be diplomatic and not show his true colors on the subject, he indicated that helping Ukraine financially would be difficult. It would cost too much and “I have no idea where we are going to get that much money.” As for Putin, naturally Orbán said nothing about his relationship with Russia, but Seehofer made it clear that he no longer trusts the Russian president.

German-Hungarian relations, even in the most favorable case of Bavaria, are not without their problems. Other German politicians have been more outspoken about Hungary’s place in the European Union. Let’s start with Michael Roth, undersecretary of the German foreign ministry, who was also interviewed by Die Welt (November 12). The whole interview is about Hungary. According to Roth, “we are currently conducting an intensive debate on democracy and the rule of law in the European Union.” He expressed his satisfaction that the new Commission attaches such great importance to this issue. He is especially glad that Frans Timmermans, deputy president, “wants to increase the EU’s credibility in constitutional questions.” Roth was obviously talking about Hungary when he said that western countries press for democratic rights in China and Russia, but how can they be credible if they tolerate the lack of such values within the Union.

Roth brought up Article 7 of the European Constitution, which would take away rogue nations’ voting rights in the case of a gross violation of European values, and indicated that as far as he was concerned this measure “was an appropriate means in many cases,” certainly in cases like Hungary because he sees no improvement in Hungary as far as individual liberties, the rule of law, and the fight against corruption are concerned. All in all, Roth is watching the developments in Hungary with “great concern” because the existence of “liberal democracy is seriously in doubt in Hungary.”

And if that weren’t enough, there was the warning from Frank-Walter Steinmeier, German foreign minister, a couple of days ago when Péter Szijjártó visited Berlin. Steinmeier called on the Hungarian government to comply with fundamental democratic values.”There can be no doubt that all members of the European Union must be committed to the rule of law and the canon of civil rights,” Steinmeier said. How much Szijjártó understood is unclear, especially since in his answer he talked about Hungary’s “balanced, healthy, and pragmatic relations with Russia.” He also tried to assure his German counterpart that any “violation of international law,” presumably by Russia, is “unacceptable to Hungary.”

Péter Szijjártó and Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Berlin Source: Die Welt / Photo Bernd von Jutrczenka

Péter Szijjártó and Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Berlin
Source: Die Welt / Photo Bernd von Jutrczenka

Not only does Szijjártó seem to be impervious to words of warning in Germany and elsewhere, his prime minister is practically taunting western politicians to go to battle with him. I’m almost certain that there will come a time when his wishes will be fulfilled.


  1. @Tim re Seehofer-Orbán interview and its title. It is not the title that matters but what’s in the article. This particular article, as I just discovered, was translated into Hungarian with the following title: “When two politicians agree that they don’t agree.” This is a pretty good description of this particular interview. Since then I also discovered an article in the Oberbayerisches Volksblatt entitled “Ärger um das unsichtbare Interview.” Apparently the editor-in-chief was not satisfied with the journalist who did the interview because he was too soft on Orbán. Eventually, the Hungarian government put pressure on the paper, threatening them with “diplomatic consequences.” They eventually caved.

  2. In recent days time and again I stumbled upon conversations when the question came up, whether liberalism should even exist along democracy, and why I say that Orbán is wrong in his idea about “illiberal state” which could even be “another kind of “democracy.

    There is no such thing that democracy without liberalism according to me, – or I have missed something somewhere.
    Honestly, how can you be a – say – christian-democrat, if you do not relate to your fellow christians in a liberal way? How anyone can be “social-democrat” without the allowance of liberal ideas? Is there any other way of “democracy” what I am unaware of?

    When I tried to define my idea of liberalism, I often got a response like “hey, but you talking about democracy, aren’t you?”

    Well, I am willing to admit my shortcomings – and yes, I can read the definitions too – but in real life I couldn’t really come up with any example of democracy without liberalism.

    Illiberal state yes, more than enough, thank you, but no “illiberal democracy” – whoever might came up with the idea – no way.

    So here we are – or better to say – here I am, who still believe that democracy and liberalism can not exist without each other.

    And yes, Hungary in dire need of liberalism, the liberal way of thinking, if they ever will flatter themselves as a nation belong to the civilised part of the World.

    But, of course it isn’t really mandatory, oh, no.

    However, in a short while there is still a choice.
    But not for long, mind you.

  3. “diplomatic consequences.”..?

    Sounds pretty bold, considering that they are one of the last of the allies of Orbán!

  4. @spectator

    The Germans are always ready to cave in eventually, so why wouldn’t Orban’s repulsive minions use this insight?

    I mean, seriously, what kind of consequences can Hungary threaten a German paper with? It’s utterly ridiculous. Yet, the polite and clueless Germans caved. They always do.

  5. Jamal, I don’t know much about the behaviour of Germans in general, but I dare say that if you – or anybody – would have asked the Hungarians what those aforementioned “diplomatic consequences” might be, they would have had a hard time to answer, for sure.

    First of all, in order to apply “diplomatic consequences” one must be aware what diplomacy means to begin with, – and here it goes. Just look at the dilettante handling of the NAV/Hungary – US situation, you don’t need any more proof ever.

  6. @tim

    You might have not noticed the strongly sarcastic undertone of title of the interview, showing Seehofer as a politician who takes “putinist” Orbán´s utterances at face value, while the entire world by now knows who OV really is… just read the introduction:

    “Heute ist Viktor Orbán einer der umstrittensten Politiker in Europa, wird gar mit Russlands Wladimir Putin verglichen wie am Freitag in der “New York Times”.

    Das EU-Mitgliedsland Ungarn regiert er mit Zweidrittelmehrheit, also mit fast unumschränkter Macht, von der er ohne Zögern Gebrauch macht. Journalisten, Kritiker und politische Gegner haben das am eigenen Leib erfahren.

    By the way: The (conservative!!) “Welt”-editors-in-chief even thought of not printing the interview, since it seemed not critical enough, finally the hungarian government intervened:

    or in Hungarian:

    Greetings from lovely Bavaria,


  7. @Jamal
    “I mean, seriously, what kind of consequences can Hungary threaten a German paper with? It’s utterly ridiculous. Yet, the polite and clueless Germans caved. ”

    Guys, guys, cmon now. You can’t really be this stupid can you? It is all a fairytale that Hungary can achieve anything with a German paper. Have you seen what they write about Hungary sometimes? So you can’t be this naive to think that Hungary would be listened to if it ever said anything like this to Die Welt. Nobody at Die Welt cares about what anyone in Hungary thinks.

    Use your heads people. It was a joint interview. If you want to do a joint interview with a German Newspaper who do you think sets that up? The Prime Minister who speaks German or the foreigner… Probably someone on Seehofer’s staff. And when they set it up they probably ask for guarantees that it will be printed. A Prime Minister’s time like Seehofer is probably pretty valuable. Do you think he just goes to an interview if the paper says it will “maybe” printed? Not likely.

    So it must have been them who told something to the paper if there was any issue. They have some degree of influence over a German paper, Hungary has exactly 0 influence there. It is a nice theory but it really needs some factual basis.

    We can imagine the Bavarian PM having some sort of influence, though even that is stretching it. But with zero influence it is impossible to achieve a thing like this, it is pure nonsense.

  8. @Tappanch The prime minister’s office’s press department did talk about the three additional questions. I happened to read about the case on ATV’s website

    Here they even tell you what the three additional questions were. (1) why is Orbán anti-EU, (2) why is he building an authoritarian state and (3) why did they fire hundreds of journalists and create a huge network of media supervisory organ. Orbán thought that these were accusations posed as questions.

    As for the printed edition perhaps we have someone in Germany who can check it.

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