Something new and remarkable happened in the last few months. Due to a “creative reading” of the Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament seized the initiative and managed to have its own candidate, Jean-Claude Juncker, be the likely president of the European Commission. With this act the European Parliament brought the process of electing the Commission president out into the open. Instead of 28 prime ministers bargaining over the nominee behind closed doors and the Parliament meekly voting for their choice, Juncker’s name has been bandied about in every EU country, including Hungary. Thus, the European Union came a little closer to its citizens. All this was due to British Prime Minister David Cameron, who was dead set against Juncker because he found him too much of a “federalist.” After a month of debate the decision has been made. Juncker’s appointment is practically assured since both the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (A&D), the two largest parties in the European Parliament, support Juncker.
The clear loser in this fight is David Cameron, who in the opinion of The Guardian suffered a humiliating defeat. The New York Times wasn’t more charitable. It called the 26:2 vote in favor of Juncker a “humbling defeat.” Neither newspaper mentioned the name of Viktor Orbán, the sole ally of David Cameron who went down with him. Although I doubt that Viktor Orbán can sink much farther in the eyes of the other European politicians.
The Hungarian right-wing press was in ecstasy when Hungary’s strong man flexed his muscles and delivered a speech in the European Council in which he announced his opposition to Juncker. He was suddenly seen as an important player in European affairs who will make a real impact on the future of Europe. Perhaps the funniest manifestation of this admiration was the cover of Heti Válasz with the words: “The strong man of Europe: Three years ago they would have removed him, today they cannot bypass him.”
An article appeared today in the same paper which tried to convince its readers that there will be no unpleasant consequences of Viktor Orbán’s opposition to Juncker. Perhaps Juncker will be magnanimous, but I somehow doubt that Juncker will be as forgiving as José Manuel Barroso was when it came to the games the Orbán government played with the European Union.
Viktor Orbán announced that he was going to vote against Juncker because he “promised [his] voters to stop Juncker.” Of course, nothing of the sort ever happened. In neither the national nor the EP election was Juncker’s name ever mentioned. But lying seems to come naturally to the “strong man of Europe.”
When Angela Merkel finally made it clear that she is standing by her party’s choice, Hungarian newspapers foresaw a great defeat for Orbán. It was also not wasted on the Hungarian public, at least not on those who bother to follow the news, that Orbán was unceremoniously left out of the meeting organized by Fredrik Reinfeldt, the Swedish prime minister, to discuss Juncker’s nomination.
Although it was becoming increasingly apparent that Viktor Orbán was going down, he is not the kind of man who retreats or tones down his rhetoric. On every possible occasion he kept repeating how Hungary rejects any “sneaky” changes to the EU treaty and how he is going to vote against Juncker regardless of what happens. I assume that one reason for Orbán’s decision to pursue this road was domestic: his core voters applaud his fearless stance against the Brussels bureaucrats in defense of the nation. The other reason, at least originally, was his fear that Juncker would not be a pushover.
So, now that it is all over but the shouting, how does Orbán explain himself? He naturally stands by the correctness of his decision: Hungary had to give a “forceful signal that it does not accept the curtailment of national competences.” Yes, the final score was 26:2 but it matters not. He would have voted against Juncker even if he had been the only one to cast a negative vote.
At the press conference after the meeting Orbán talked about his “other accomplishments” during the negotiations. He claimed that his suggestion to lower payroll taxes found universal approval in the Council. His “radical” suggestion to lower energy prices, on the other hand, as he admitted, garnered only a few supporters.
It doesn’t matter how Orbán tries to explain away this defeat, it remains a defeat. One reason Viktor Orbán’s violations of EP laws were tolerated until now was that the EPP caucus, where Fidesz MEPs sit, badly needed the large Hungarian contingent. But now, for Juncker’s election at least, EPP does not need the Hungarians because they have the support of the S&D. As for all the speculation about Fidesz MEPs leaving EPP and moving over to the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists, where the British Conservatives gather, I discard it as a possibility. Fidesz has a much better chance to make a difference in the European Parliament as a member of the EPP caucus.
One of my favorite journalists who writes excellent opinion pieces under the pseudonym of Elek Tokfalvi (the Hungarian mirror translation of Alexis de Tocqueville) with his usual wonderful sense of humor entitled his piece in HVG about the Juncker victory “We will be a colony of Luxembourg.” Poor Viktor Orbán. He’s stuck with a “federalist” at the helm of the European Commission who actually expects member states to obey EU laws.