Enikő Győri

Hungary has a new “featherweight” foreign minister, a man after Viktor Orbán’s heart

On Friday Viktor Orbán nominated Péter Szijjártó (age 35) to be the next minister of foreign trade and foreign affairs. On Saturday four parliamentary committees in a joint session found him eminently suitable for the job. By Wednesday he will be sworn in. Several readers’ comments following this news item started: “one cannot sink lower.” One described him as a member of five-a-side football team who will find himself on a field where he does not belong. Or, as Endre Aczél, the veteran journalist, put it, Szijjártó is “the featherweight briefcase carrier” of Viktor Orbán.

Indeed, this appointment is a travesty. János Martonyi, the man who was in charge of foreign affairs in the first and second Orbán administrations, had extensive professional experience. First as commercial secretary in the Hungarian embassy in Brussels (1979-1984), later as department head at the ministry of commerce. After the regime change József Antall appointed him undersecretary in the foreign ministry.

Although I always thought Martonyi cut a slightly ridiculous figure with his waxed mustache, Kaiser Wilhelm II style, he was apparently highly regarded in diplomatic circles. The problem was that as minister of foreign affairs in the first Orbán government he mattered very little. Or rather, he said one thing and Viktor Orbán said something else, after which Martonyi tried to explain away the message of the Hungarian prime minister. It was, in my opinion, a demeaning position to be put in, but it did not seem to bother Martonyi, who enthusiastically agreed to be foreign minister again in 2010. In the intervening years behind the scenes he kept in touch with foreign embassies on behalf of Fidesz and Viktor Orbán.

If Martonyi was often ignored during Orbán’s first administration, in the second his influence amounted to zero. Foreign policy was conducted from the prime minister’s office, represented by Péter Szijjártó.

Szijjártó’s rise to power was phenomenal. At the age of 20 he was elected a member of the Győr City Council. In 2002, when he was 24, he became a member of parliament. In addition, after 2010 he was entrusted to be Viktor Orbán’s personal spokesman. Two years later he moved to a new position created especially for him: undersecretary of foreign trade and foreign affairs in the prime minister’s office. In brief, he became the real foreign minister in all but name.

Péter Szijjártó as Viktor Orbán's spokesman

Péter Szijjártó as Viktor Orbán’s spokesman

After the last election the handwriting was on the wall: János Martonyi’s days were numbered. There was little doubt who would be his successor. Therefore, I don’t quite understand the game of musical chairs Viktor Orbán played with the ministerial positions. Instead of immediately naming Szijjártó to replace Martonyi, he moved Navracsics to the foreign ministry, renamed the ministry of foreign affairs and trade (külgazdasági és külügyi minisztérium). Everybody knew, including Navracsics, that his tenure as a diplomat would last approximately four months, when he would be nominated to serve as Hungary’s representative on the European Commission.

Szijjártó with a more diplomatic demeanor at his hearing yesterday

Szijjártó with a more diplomatic demeanor at his hearing yesterday

Navracsics’s only noteworthy “achievements” in his new post were closing the Hungarian embassy in Tallinn, Estonia, and sacking about 300 diplomats, subsequently filling their positions with people from the prime minister’s office and from the ministry of justice. As one Hungarian newspaper put it, the first floor of the ministry’s building was cleared out completely. Employees, even high level ones, had no idea what would happen to them. Rumors were swirling about who would be the next victim.

Currently there are six undersecretaries in the ministry, each with a staff of 20. The minister has a staff of 40. In the previous administration Martonyi and his sole undersecretary, Zsolt Németh, together had a staff of 25. There is no longer a joint press department; each undersecretary has his own. No more separate department dealing with European affairs. Its former head, Enikő Győri, who had excellent connections in Brussels, has been exiled to Madrid. Hungary’s relations with the European Union were transferred to the prime minister’s office, under the jurisdiction of János Lázár.

Szijjártó at his hearing in front of the four parliamentary committees talked about the “renewal of Hungary’s foreign policy.” Indeed, why not? Viktor Orbán already “renewed” the country to an illiberal democracy, now it is time to renew the country’s foreign policy. A frightening thought. The man who four years ago managed to shake the financial stability of the world for a few days now like a bull in the china shop will conduct a foreign policy that will have practically nothing to do with diplomacy as we know it because we are in an entirely new world that needs entirely new diplomatic efforts. At least this is what Viktor Orbán and his faithful “janissary,” as István Józsa (MSZP) called Szijjártó at the hearing, think. Hungary will be a pioneer yet again. It will conduct diplomacy without diplomats. Of course, this entirely new world exists only in Viktor Orbán’s imagination.

I fear the worst given Szijjártó’s new “non-diplomatic” course. Hungary’s reputation has been greatly tarnished, but at least foreign diplomats in Budapest could negotiate with more or less seasoned diplomats in the foreign ministry. After this change of personnel not even the semblance of normal diplomatic relations between Hungary and the West will be possible.

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Changes in the Hungarian foreign ministry and the growth of the third Orbán government

Today I would like to say a few words about the reorganization of the government. First, one wonders why it took so long to create the third Orbán government considering that on the top level there were very few personnel changes. Only two ministries were affected–the ministry of foreign trade and foreign affairs and the ministry of administration and justice. Not much changed in the latter, but what happened in the former is truly astonishing. With the arrival of Tibor Navracsics and Péter Szijjártó about 200 new faces appeared in the ministry; their corresponding numbers were either dismissed or moved to other positions in other ministries. It is just now becoming evident how dissatisfied Viktor Orbán must have been with János Martonyi and the men and women around him.

In 2010 Viktor Orbán announced that there were two ministers whose presence in his second government was assured: Sándor Pintér and János Martonyi. Martonyi hadn’t been officially nominated at the time, but Orbán sent him nonetheless to Bratislava to negotiate with the Slovaks.

Martonyi has been loyal to Viktor Orbán ever since 1998 when he was first named foreign minister. From the WikiLeaks documents we know that after the lost election of 2002 Martonyi was a frequent and welcome visitor in the U.S. Embassy in Budapest where he was especially highly regarded by Ambassador April H. Foley (2006-2009). As a result, the relationship between Ferenc Gyurcsány and the American ambassador was outright antagonistic.

János Martonyi made an almost clean sweep in the personnel of the ministry in 2010 and yet, it seems, the atmosphere and the foreign policy strategies devised by Martonyi were not to Orbán’s liking. More and more areas of foreign policy were taken away from the ministry and given to others: first to Tamás Fellegi, minister of national development, and later to Péter Szijjártó. The former was supposed to woo China and Russia while Szijjártó concentrated on the Middle East. And yet Martonyi defended the prime minister and remained loyal to the end. If he was insulted by being sidestepped and ignored, he didn’t show it.

Now his tenure is over. For six months Tibor Navracsics will fill Martonyi’s place after which Orbán’s real favorite, Péter Szijjártó, will become minister. He will most likely continue the policy of the “Eastern Opening,” the brainchild of Viktor Orbán. For such a drastic change in orientation an entirely new staff was necessary. Not one of the six undersecretaries remained, and out of the ten assistant undersecretaries only one kept his job.

Among the victims was Enikő Győri, undersecretary in charge of Hungary’s relations with the European Union, who will be leaving to serve as ambassador to Spain. Her departure might be connected to a debate about which ministry should deal with the EU.  János Lázár wants to move the responsibility to the prime minister’s office, while Navracsics insisted that relations with Brussels belongs to the ministry of foreign affairs. After Navracsics’s departure Lázár may well have his way.

The third Orbán government / MTI Photo Attila Kovács

The third Orbán government / MTI Photo Attila Kovács

Gergely Prőhle, the assistant undersecretary about whom I wrote several times, is also leaving. Zoltán Balog created a new position for him in the ministry of human resources. With this change Prőhle’s diplomatic career seems to be coming to an end. Earlier he served as ambassador to Bern and Berlin.

The most noteworthy change is the departure of Zsolt Németh, undersecretary of foreign affairs in both the first and the second Orbán governments. He was one of the founders of Fidesz who has held high positions in the party ever since 1989. In fact, between 1995 and 2003 he was one of the vice-presidents of the party. He has been a member of parliament since 1990. He will now be the chairman of the parliament’s committee on foreign affairs. According to NépszabadságNémeth was offered the post of ambassador to Washington but he preferred to retire completely from the conduct of foreign affairs. He supports a foreign policy based on transatlantic ties and “would like to see better relations between Hungary and the United States.” Apparently, he is not happy with the cozy relations between Hungary and Putin’s Russia.

In other ministries the changes were not that drastic, but practically everywhere the number of undersecretaries and assistant undersecretaries has grown. Perhaps the most spectacular growth occurred in the Office of the Prime Minister where there are eight undersecretaries and, believe it or not, 27 assistant undersecretaries. One of these new assistant secretaries has already made his mark. He is the one who is “negotiating” with the Norwegians about their grants to Hungary. In total, according to a new HVG article, there are 100 assistant undersecretaries in the third Orbán government.

I see no attempt on the part of the government to be frugal. Not only is the government growing steadily but grandiose plans are being hatched practically daily. The government is planning to build a new museum quarter, to move ministries from Budapest to various cities across the country, and to move the office of the prime minister to the Castle district, near the current residence of the president.

The Hungarian government is also continuing its mania for acquisitions. It is currently negotiating “to buy Bombardier’s stake in Hungarian rail transportation firm Bombardier MAV Kft.” The new minister of national development told Napi Gazdaság that “it’s a clear aim of the government and the ministry to carry out further acquisitions. It’s not a secret that there are talks under way in this respect with E.ON, for example.”

After this spending spree, who is going to replenish the Hungarian piggy bank?

The tenth anniversary: Hungary and the European Union

It was ten years ago that ten new countries were admitted to the family of the European Union: Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Latvia, Estonia, Czech Republic, Malta, Hungary, Slovenia, and Cyprus. The Hungarians were somewhat disappointed because they felt that Hungary was better prepared for membership than some of the others and had hoped that the admission would not be wholesale, that Hungary would be handled differently from the rest.

Since then an incredible amount of money has arrived in Hungary from Brussels, but unlike some other countries in the region Hungary has not made good use of this largesse. To make the size of the contribution easier to grasp, 16 Metro4s could have been built from the EU monies. Or, between 2004 and 2013 the money Hungary received amounted to a gift of half a million forints for every citizen of the country. Or, as someone put it, Hungary received 2 billion forints every day for the last ten years from the Union. In forints, Hungary received 6.2 trillion forints that went straight into the budget while another 2.1 trillion came in some other form of financial assistance. In the last four years 90% of all government investment came from the European Union. Yet there is little to show for it.

The results are especially disappointing if we compare Hungary to other countries in the region. In 2004 Hungary’s economic advancement measured in GDP per capita was 63% of the EU average. Today that figure is 67%, only 4% higher. Slovakia, on the other hand, during the same period managed to gain 20% and now stands at 77% of the EU average. The very low Hungarian wages have also been slow to rise. Ten years ago the average wage was 93,000 forints. It is now 151,000. But in terms of real wages that is only a 12% rise. The number of jobs has grown by 38,000–only 1% more jobs than in 2004.

According to The Economist there are four clear winners among the new member states: Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, and Slovakia. One has only to look at the IMF chart below to see how badly the Hungarian economy has done in the last ten years despite EU subsidies that were the highest, given the size of the population, of any country in the region:

10-year EU tagsagThe Bruegel Institute, a European think tank specializing in economics, published a study yesterday entitled “10 years EU enlargement anniversary: Waltzing past Vienna.” According to the study, measured in terms of purchasing power Warsaw, Bratislava and Prague now have a higher GDP per capita than Vienna. Budapest failed to surpass Vienna, although it is not too far behind.

Enikő Győri, the person responsible for Hungary’s dealings with the European Union (I don’t envy the woman), naturally puts a better spin on the state of affairs. She emphasizes that Hungary’s EU membership is “an unqualified success.” I guess she is right if we look at the inflows, but the story is different when we look at the meager results. She claims that in the last ten years Hungary managed to increase its GDP by at least 10% and its economic growth by 1.2% . These figures apparently come from an unnamed Belgian research institute. She had to admit, however, that on the basis of purchasing power Hungary in 2004 was in second place, just behind the Czech Republic, whereas by 2014 both Slovakia and Poland managed to surpass Hungary. The Washington Post described the last ten years in countries such as Poland as a period of “galloping growth.” That was certainly not the case in Hungary.

The tenth anniversary came and went, but there was no commemoration of Hungary’s ten years in the European Union. Magyar Narancs published a very, very short article. It had only a headline and a “picture.” The headline read: “A telling picture of the celebrations of the tenth anniversary.” And underneath was an empty picture frame. ATV collected a list of comments by politicians from both camps. Those from Viktor Orbán’s side were uniformly negative. We must keep in mind, however, that the prime minister said in his victory speech that the election results showed that Hungarians want to stay in the European Union, albeit with a strong national government. There is no alternative to the European Union.

The Orbán faithful try to follow his lead, although it is clear that they find it difficult to be enthusiastic. Gábor Stier in an opinion piece in Magyar Nemzet does write that “we are on the right path,” but he bemoans the lack of “solidarity” in the Union. I don’t know how many more billions of euros would be enough for Stier to feel true solidarity coming from the richer members of the Union. And naturally, he is uncomfortable with the “crisis of values” the Union allegedly suffers from. But in the end, he even risks saying that the “rules of the club are a disciplinary force that keeps Hungary on the straight and narrow.”

Before we get too optimistic about future relations between the Orbán government and the European Union we might want to take a look at a headline in today’s Magyar Nemzet: “The European Union wants to shove dangerous honey down our throat.” Here we go again!

A severe blow to the Orbán government: The Tavares report is accepted by the LIBE Commission

After less than a day of very hard work getting everything installed and tweaked on my new computer I’m up and running with only minor temporary inconveniences. So, it is time to return to my daily routine of  monitoring the Hungarian media. Today I’ll concentrate on the Tavares report that was prepared for a vote in the European Parliamentary Committee of  Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE).

You may recall that I left off with the approximately 500 amendments to the draft report, of which about 200 were submitted by Fidesz MEPs and a Slovak and a Romanian member of parliament of Hungarian nationality. The vote was scheduled for June 19.

Given the enormous number of amendments, Hungarian newspapers predicted that the session would be very long, taken up with debating each of the submitted amendments, and they seemed to be surprised that after only two or three hours it was all over. They also emphasized that the committee was highly divided on the issue and so the vote one way or the other would be very close. That prediction also turned out to be erroneous. Of the 58 people present (the committee has 60 members) 31 voted for the report, 19 against it, and 8 abstained. I wouldn’t call that exactly close. In fact, observers in Brussels were somewhat surprised at the outcome. They expected a much closer vote, considering that half of the members come from either the European People’s Party (EPP) or the group of conservatives and reformers.

Kinga Gál (Fidesz), one of the deputy chairmen of LIBE, immediately announced that it was a lie that some EPP members voted for the Tavares report, adding that a few of them abstained. But the numbers don’t add up. Someone from that group had to endorse the report. After all, there were 29 right-of-center MEPs present. But even Fidesz MEPs had to admit that, in spite of very heavy lobbying, they failed to alter the text of the original proposal in any significant way. Most of the Fidesz amendments were thrown out.

One substantive suggestion came from the chairman of LIBE, Juan Fernando López, who proposed some additional text. He suggested that a serious investigation of the new Hungarian election laws be undertaken and that the Office of Human Rights actually monitor the forthcoming election. Quite a blow for a member country of the European Union. A first.

It seems that some Hungarian MEPs felt compelled to make a scene. I guess nobody who knows anything about Krisztina Morvai (Jobbik) will be terribly surprised to learn that she managed to wreak havoc in the committee meeting. Morvai is not a member of LIBE, she was there only as a spectator. Just before Chairman López called for a final vote, she interrupted the proceedings. She  denied the legality of the procedures followed by the committee and held up a poster reading: “The European Union is a dictatorship.” López warned her that “the European Parliament is not a circus.”

The tooth lion of the Chain Bridge, Budapest / commons.wikipedia.org

The toothless lion of the Chain Bridge, Budapest commons.wikipedia.org

As it turned out, some members of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats were convinced that Morvai was a Fidesz MEP; after all, her arguments in defense of the Hungarian government’s position were identical to those articulated by Enikő Győri, undersecretary in charge of European Union Affairs, except Győri used milder language. She called the report “deeply biased” and claimed that even the report’s facts don’t stand up to scrutiny. The committee discarded corrections of factual errors that EPP members submitted to the committee. Therefore, the Hungarian government still cannot subscribe to the report’s conclusions. She contended that the report is a political document that was heavily influenced by party politics. After all, she claimed, European parliamentary elections will be held next year and therefore it was predictable that the split in the committee was entirely along party lines. As we have seen, Győri is not exactly reliable on this point. Her verdict was that “the committee clearly overstepped its authority.”

The Fidesz MEPs went even further. They announced point blank that the Tavares report’s acceptance by the LIBE commission has “neither legal, nor budgetary, nor economic consequences.” The same is true of the possible adoption of the report by the full plenary session of the European Parliament sometime in July. One could ask: if the European Parliament is such a toothless lion, what on earth is the Fidesz delegation doing in Brussels? Why do they even bother to participate in the useless activities of the European Parliament?

As for the Tavares report, it is no more than “a party dictate of the European Left.” As far as the Fidesz delegation is concerned, this document is simply unacceptable. In any case, it is the end of the excessive deficit procedure that really matters and that was approved by Ecofin today. The delegation also expressed its optimism concerning a satisfactory resolution to the Hungarian government’s debate surrounding the fourth amendment to the new Hungarian constitution which, they are certain, will end in Hungary’s favor. I find this last prediction just a bit premature considering the very strong condemnation of the latest constitutional amendments by the Venice Commission, which is comprised of internationally renowned constitutional lawyers.

There is no question that the adoption of the Tavares report is a severe blow to the Hungarian government. The answers referencing bias, party politics, and the European Parliamentary election next year sound hollow, especially if one takes the trouble to read the Tavares report or the opinions of the Venice Commission.