Guido Westerwelle

Hungarian move toward the Arab world and a possible assault on the United States

It was only yesterday that I learned from Péter Szijjártó that the “Eastern Opening” also means Hungary’s move toward Africa. Very soon I think they will have to change the name “Eastern Opening” to “Opening to any country outside of the European Union.” Admittedly, it is cumbersome but apt.

You may recall that a few months ago one Hungarian delegation after another made pilgrimages to affluent Middle Eastern countries, targeting Saudi Arabia in particular. They made at least twenty official and semi-official trips to Riyad in the last year and a half, but, as Hetek, the publication of Faith Church, reported, until now with no great results. Prince Abdulaziz, son of King Abdullah, spent a few days last week in Budapest since he is the sponsor of an event called “Saudi Arabian Days” that showcased the culture and history of the Saudi Kingdom. Abdulaziz met Foreign Minister János Martonyi, who was especially eager to establish student exchange programs between the two countries.  From here the next step was to entice the Arab country to invest money in Hungary’s poverty stricken higher education.

Corvinus University was the first to offer the Saudis an opportunity to be generous. The university’s senate decided to establish a Center of Islamic Studies and an M.A. program to go with it. Apparently the suggestion was welcomed by the faculty because the university is so strapped for funds that “it will be a miracle if [they] survive the summer.”  The university also bestowed an honorary doctorate on Khalid bin Mohammed Al-Anqari, Saudi minister in charge of higher education.

The dean of Corvinus, László Csicsmann, is convinced that if Corvinus establishes an Islamic Center “one could speedily agree on a few million dollars of assistance to the university.” He used the expression “strike while the iron is hot.” After all, the minister received an honorary doctorate only recently, the university delegation just returned from Riyad, and here is the occasion of the Saudi Arabian Days in Budapest.

I suspect that Csicsmann is too optimistic about Corvinus’s chances of receiving a few million dollars with no strings attached.  How much say would the Saudi government have in setting up the Islamic Center and how much influence they would demand when it comes to the curriculum?  The dean was unable to give a clear answer, and why should he?After all, Saudi assistance cannot be taken for granted; discussions of the matter haven’t even begun.

According to the students, the new president, Zsolt Rostoványi, is very interested in developing close contacts with Arab countries. Since he took office there have been many conferences and the number of honorary doctorates to Arab officials has multiplied in the hope of some Saudi money coming to the university’s aid.

Corvinus is desperate in the wake of severe budgetary cuts. You may recall that about two years ago there were rumors that Corvinus might not survive a future reorganization of Hungarian higher education planned by the Orbán government. In the end, it seems, Viktor Orbán didn’t dare close or amalgamate into another institution one of the best universities in the country. But he doesn’t like the institution, which he considers to be a stronghold of liberal, “orthodox”  economics. Slowly starving it to death is a perhaps less obvious strategy.

As Hungary seeks alliances with countries in the “East,” it’s burning its bridges with those in the West. Viktor Orbán’s ill-fated words about the German tanks didn’t remain unanswered by the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, who considers Orbán’s statement “a regrettable derailment that [Germany] rejects.” The Hungarian Foreign Ministry is desperately trying to explain away Orbán’s remarks, but this time their job seems especially difficult. Undersecretary Gergely Prőhle, who is usually quite skillful at defending the government’s position, did a poor job today during an interview with György Bolgár on Klubrádió. He is normally diplomatic and can even be semi-convincing; today he was irritated and aggressive.

fight easyway1234.blogspotcom

But if the troubles with Germany weren’t enough, it seems that the Orbán government is taking on another “enemy,” the United States. On Friday Magyar Nemzet launched a frontal attack in a lead editorial. Magyar Nemzet has taken a consistently anti-American stance, but I’ve never seen such antagonistic writing as the piece by Gábor László Zord.

There is no question that Viktor Orbán is not exactly crazy about the United States. He has been snubbed too many times by successive American presidents ever since September 11, 2001. What did the young Hungarian prime minister do, or rather didn’t do, in 2001? He remained silent while the anti-Semitic István Csurka delivered a speech in parliament in which he stated that the U.S. deserved what it got on 9/11. Later, when there were attempts to make Orbán mend his way and at least belatedly express his sympathy with the United States, he neglected to do so. Subsequently, he tried to get an invitation to the White House but without success. I remember that János Martonyi was certain that Orbán would have an opportunity to make a state visit to Washington sometime in the fall of 2010. As we know, the doors of the White House seem to be closed to him. So it’s no wonder that Orbán carries a grudge against the United States and is irritated by what he considered “lectures” on democracy from Hillary Clinton and others. It seem that Magyar Nemzet’s reporters have a free hand to publish violently anti-American articles.

I don’t know what has happened in U.S.-Hungarian relations lately, but this latest attack on the United States is unprecedented. The reporter latches onto some of the problems currently facing the Obama administration to announce that “the United States doesn’t have the moral authority to tell the Hungarian government anything about democracy. If anyone is guilty of undemocratic acts it is the United States.” He offers a laundry list of sins, from the “murdered millions in pointless wars” to “doing business with representatives of dictatorship.” He is convinced that “if international law would work properly, masses of American officials and soldiers would be dragged to the Hague where they would receive the hospitality of the International Court of Justice.” But, says the reporter, sadly there is no justice in the world. “The truth lies with the powerful.” So, what can we do?

One thing Hungary can do, the reporter writes: “Keep up the list of their sins and always be ready to come back with our own answers. Don’t worry, we have a lot we can be proud of and they’d better huddle in some corner quietly.”

The Orbán government currently has enough problems with the country’s most important ally, Germany. I wouldn’t advise them to pick a new fight, this time with the United States.

Hungarian president will sign the objectionable amendments while Viktor Orbán seems cocksure in Brussels

Hungarian President János Áder returned from Berlin where he presumably got an earful. Both Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle gave their opinions about the Hungarian government’s policies in general and the latest outrage in Budapest: the castration of the constitutional court and the destruction of the most basic principle of constitutional rule, the separation of powers.

While in Berlin Áder told reporters that he tried to enlighten the German politicians about the true nature of the amended constitution and assure them that their criticism was unfounded. Their criticism is based on their lack of knowledge of the details, he claimed. At home demonstrators and public figures tried to convince the president that he should refuse to sign the bill. But some legal scholars argued that Áder, as a result of the amendments, has no choice but to sign the document. Others, including László Sólyom, former head of the Hungarian constitutional court, argued that he does have the power to deny his signature. After all, as long as his signature is not on the bill, the old constitution is still in force and that constitution didn’t take his prerogative away. Áder decided to opt for the first interpretation. He announced that he has no choice but to sign.

Áder made the announcement on MTV, Hungary’s public television station. While a day before he was convinced that all was well with the amended constitution, in “his speech to the nation” he didn’t stress this point. Instead, he told his audience that he had studied the amendments carefully, listened to experts, read all the letters he received. But “a responsible thinking citizen cannot urge anyone to disregard the letter of the law. This is especially true in the case of the president because if he were to step onto the path of unconstitutionality there would be only one consequence. Something none of us wants. Chaos. Anarchy. Illegality.” And then he quoted the words in the newly amended constitution that he hadn’t yet signed: “The President of the Republic shall sign the Fundamental Law or the amendment thereof sent to him within five days of receipt and shall order its publication in the Official Gazette.”  So, he claimed that he has no choice but to sign, adding that this is his duty regardless of whether he personally likes the amendments or not.

Representatives of the new university student movement, HaHa, pointed out that he could have resigned. But no, Áder belongs to the inner sanctum of Fidesz. He has served Viktor Orbán well for years. He wavered only once, after the second lost election in 2006, when he apparently joined the ranks of those who thought that it might not be a bad idea if Viktor Orbán retired.

Tamás Deutsch, his old friend, was elated with his decision to sign. On Twitter Deutsch wrote: “You also know Jánó that THIS is what we once dreamed of.”  Does it mean that these guys have been planning to destroy Hungarian democracy for the last twenty-four years? Let’s hope not.

While Áder was returning to Budapest, Orbán was getting ready to travel to Brussels to take part in one of the periodic summits of the European Council. The European Council is supposed to define “the general political directions and priorities” of the Union. It is the EU’s strategic and crisis solving body, acting as the collective presidency of the EU.

Cheshire cat2Given “the unparalleled uproar” in Brussels and other capitals over Viktor Orbán’s defiance of the European Union, the interest in the Hungarian prime minister was more intense than usual. Normally he doesn’t talk to reporters before these meetings, but this time the Hungarians organized an “international press conference.” Orbán managed to avoid answering questions by insisting that he didn’t want to hear opinions; he demanded ” facts.” Since foreign reporters are not experts in the minutiae of the Hungarian constitution, the “dialogue” became rather strange. He kept repeating: “I beg you, only the facts!”  because so far he hasn’t been presented with any proof that what Hungary is doing is unconstitutional.

All in all, he was very cocky and sure of himself. Luke Baker, Reuters’  reporter in Brussels, tweeted: “Hungary’s Orban smiling like a Cheshire cat as he comes into press conference with international media to defend constitutional changes.” I’d wager to say that Baker had the original Cheshire Cat in mind, not the jolly fellow that appeared in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. The original cat as depicted by John Tenniel, the illustrator of the 1866 publication of  Lewis Carroll’s book, is a much more sinister character.

Orbán might get off his high horse soon because there are new developments afoot. One is that, according to “reliable information,”  the “Hungarian question” will be on the table at the summit. Second, the German parliament (Bundestag) spent more than an hour today on the amendments to the Hungarian constitution. The initiative came from the social democrats, but all parties joined the socialists in demanding strong action on the part of Germany and Angela Merkel. At the same time Viviane Reding, European commissioner of justice, fundamental rights, and citizenship, warned Hungary of severe consequences as a result of Budapest’s latest moves. Reding talked about the possibility of invoking Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty and added that Hungary’s subsidies might be cut. “The Constitution is not a toy that can be changed every six months.”  (The students said exactly the same thing.)

Orbán may appear to be unruffled, but all observers agree that the situation is serious. There are signs of impatience and annoyance in Brussels at Orbán’s provocations and games with the European Union. This time he might have gone too far.

President János Áder’s visit to Berlin and the “stormy meetings” with German politicians

MTI, the Hungarian news agency, by now completely under the thumb of the Orbán government, makes sure that Hungarians get mighty little foreign news about their country. A good example is MTI’s coverage of President János Áder’s visit to Berlin. The news agency filed four reports on Áder’s visits to Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Chancellor Angela Merkel. All four are basically descriptions of what Áder himself told MTI’s reporter with the exception of one sentence that was based on information received from the spokesman of the German foreign ministry.

According to MTI’s story, Áder talked about the excellent German-Hungarian economic relations and as an afterthought mentioned that Angela Merkel would like to see more “legal security.” As far as his conversation with Guido Westerwelle was concerned, Áder concentrated on his efforts to explain to the German foreign minister that the latter’s knowledge of the Hungarian constitution and its amendments are wanting. He tried “to fill this hiatus.” When a newspaperman asked him about possible friction between the two countries due to the controversy over the latest changes introduced into the Hungarian constitution, Áder minimized the differences between Westerwelle and himself. Differences of opinion are natural. For example, Germany is against the entry of Romania and Bulgaria to the Schengen Area while Hungary supports it. Of course, this is not what the reporter was interested in.

Angela Merkel with János Áder in Berlin /

Angela Merkel with János Áder in Berlin /

So, what was the sole sentence uttered by the spokesman of the German foreign ministry that MTI found important enough to include in its report? The topics discussed included the Hungarian constitution. The discussion was frank (nyílt) and during the discussion “rather contradictory” (meglehetősen ellentmondó) opinions were expressed. Here we have to stop a bit because the Hungarian version doesn’t make a lot of sense. Népszabadság, which used the MTI report, didn’t know what it could possibly mean and tried to improve on it by calling it “meglehetősen ellentmondásos.” But the original German is a great deal stronger and straightforward: “it was an open and in parts quite adversarial meeting” (gab es einen offenen und in Teilen durchaus kontroversen Meinungsaustausch). All in all, the true nature of this meeting couldn’t possibly be grasped by someone who has to rely on the news as it is presented to all newspapers via MTI.

So, let’s see what other news agencies made of the story. According to Reuters, Áder’s meeting with Westerwelle was “stormy.” The foreign minister “could not hide his concern at the way Orban and his government were operating.” However, the article in Reuter’s continues, there may be frustration and denunciation, but “there is little the European Union can do with any alacrity and immediacy that might make the mercurial Orban sit up and listen.” The reporter outlines the various possibilities open to the European Commission. It can launch an infringement proceeding, but that might take as long as a year. Moreover, “to prove that they’ve breached a law is very difficult.”

Here we may turn to an article that appeared in Népszabadság after the reporter, Károly Lencsés, had a chance to talk to some Hungarian experts on international law. They think that Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty might be a good point of departure. So, let’s see what this Article 2 is all about:

Article 2 TFEU
1. When the Treaties confer on the Union exclusive competence in a specific area, only the Union may legislate and adopt legally binding acts, the Member States being able to do so themselves only if so empowered by the Union or for the implementation of Union acts.

2. When the Treaties confer on the Union a competence shared with the Member States in a specific area, the Union and the Member States may legislate and adopt legally binding acts in that area. The Member States shall exercise their competence to the extent that the Union has not exercised its competence. The Member States shall again exercise their competence to the extent that the Union has decided to cease exercising its competence.

3. The Member States shall coordinate their economic and employment policies within arrangements as determined by this Treaty, which the Union shall have competence to provide.
4. The Union shall have competence, in accordance with the provisions of the Treaty on European Union, to define and implement a common foreign and security policy, including the progressive framing of a common defence policy.

5. In certain areas and under the conditions laid down in the Treaties, the Union shall have competence to carry out actions to support, coordinate or supplement the actions of the Member States, without thereby superseding their competence in these areas.
Legally binding acts of the Union adopted on the basis of the provisions of the Treaties relating to these areas shall not entail harmonisation of Member States’ laws or regulations.

6. The scope of and arrangements for exercising the Union’s competences shall be determined by the provisions of the Treaties relating to each area.

There is also a lot of talk about the famous Article 7 that could under special circumstances suspend certain rights, including voting rights in case of a breach of Article 2. However, almost everybody agrees that such an outcome in Hungary’s case is highly unlikely. Here is the text of Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty:

1. On a reasoned proposal by one third of the Member States, by the European Parliament or by the European Commission, the Council, acting by a majority of four fifths of its members after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, may determine that there is a clear risk of a serious breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2. Before making such a determination, the Council shall hear the Member State in question and may address recommendations to it, acting in accordance with the same procedure. The Council shall regularly verify that the grounds on which such a determination was made continue to apply.

2. The European Council, acting by unanimity on a proposal by one third of the Member States or by the European Commission and after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, may determine the existence of a serious and persistent breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2 after inviting the Member State in question to submit its observations.

3. Where a determination under paragraph 2 has been made, the Council, acting by a qualified majority, may decide to suspend certain of the rights deriving from the application of the Treaties to the Member State in question, including the voting rights of the representative of the government of that Member State in the Council. In doing so, the Council shall take into account the possible consequences of such a suspension on the rights and obligations of natural and legal persons.

The obligations of the Member State in question under the Treaties shall in any case continue to be binding on that State.

4. The Council, acting by a qualified majority, may decide subsequently to vary or revoke measures taken under paragraph 3 in response to changes in the situation which led to their being imposed.

5. The voting arrangements applying to the European Parliament, the European Council and the Council for the purposes of this Article are laid down in Article 354of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

No wonder that the headline of the Reuter’s article is “EU sweats over how to bring Hungary into line.” This point is also addressed by Jan-Werner Mueller, professor of politics at Princeton University in his latest article in The Guardian. In his opinion the EU should create an institution that would systematically monitor democracy and the rule of law in all member states. Since there is something on the books called “Copenhagen criteria,” which are the rules that define whether a country is eligible to join the European Union, this new EU watchdog could be called the “Copenhagen Commission.” An excellent idea. I hope the European Union will listen.

Maiming the Hungarian constitution: Is the Orbán government willing to pay the price?

While opposition politicians are unable to agree on any meaningful joint action and the so-called intellectual class is deeply divided, the Orbán government is merrily proceeding with its plans to rewrite the new constitution. According to constitutional experts, if the latest amendments are voted into law Hungary will be without a valid constitution.

There was only one group that was ready to take things into their own hands. They decided to engage in civil disobedience. Since ordinary opposition gatherings are not even reported in the public media, tightly controlled by the government, they decided to do something that was guaranteed to get media coverage. They climbed a fence and settled in the courtyard of the Fidesz party headquarters. There they sat  for ten hours and repeated a few slogans. Mostly: “Constitution, Freedom” and “We protest the destruction of the constitutional system of the Hungarian Republic.”

The organizers of the Peace March, András Bencsik and Zsolt Bayer, immediately counterattacked. On Facebook they called on their followers to come and teach a thing or two to these little “Bolsheviks.” And they arrived. Someone described “the fruitful political dialogue” this way:

Youngsters: “We protest the destruction of the constitutional system of the Hungarian Republic.” And here are some of the answers from “the peace guardists”: “Do you want to have some acid in your face?” “Get lost and work!” “I’ll slap you on the face, you rat!” “Rotten, lousy communist stooge!” “Go to Moscow!” “Filthy f…ing Jews!” “Stupid fag!” “Come on out, if you dare, you little queers!”  That will give you an idea about the Fidesz fans who gathered in the name of Christian love and peace.

Here is our gentleman who threatened a young man with acid:

Perhaps the officials inside the building no longer trust the police because they were ordered to retire after a while. “Volunteers”  arrived to save the building and those inside it from the peaceful demonstrators. Most of them came from the notorious Fradi (Ferencváros) fan club. One of the volunteers spent ten years in jail for murder and now serves as a “coordinator” for the fan club. The football hooligans physically tried to remove the protesters. Eventually the demonstrators left on their own but not before some of them climbed a wall and positioned themselves on a balcony. The clever student leaders began reciting Fidesz’s 1989 party program which was full of liberal demands. The counter-protesters naturally had no idea that what they were screaming at was really Victor Orbán, their idol.

Older women were especially vocal. They simply couldn’t understand what the protesters were complaining about. How can they be dissatisfied when at last the country has a “good government”? One woman, obviously a pensioner, claimed that it is her money that these students are wasting.

One really has to be deaf and blind to claim that the small crowd that gathered in the courtyard of the Fidesz headquarters was “rabble” as Péter Boros, prime minister of Hungary for a few months after József Antall’s death in 1993-1994, did. Interestingly enough, he had nothing to say about the behavior of the counter-protesters. One can get a vivid picture of the Fidesz crowd by watching this video:

But perhaps the most shocking and most telling example of the mindset of the peace marchers and Orbán supporters is a very professionally executed banner. On it one can see practically all the important MSZP politicians in addition to Ferenc Gyurcsány, Gordon Bajnai, Lajos Bokros, and András Simor. The banner reads: “The nation is in mourning! It suffers from the presence of traitors.”  In Hungarian it has even more punch: “Gyászol a nemzet! Hazaárulóktól szenved!”  Just think about this horrendous statement. I don’t know whether the people actually know what they are saying, because from this banner it is clear that what they want is a one-party system. The opposition has no right to exist. In fact, they should be eliminated as traitors used to be. Perhaps hanged.

The nation is in mourning! It is suffering from the presence of traitors / Népszabadság Árpád Kurucz

The nation is in mourning! It is suffering from the presence of traitors / Népszabadság Árpád Kurucz

Yesterday’s protest was laudable in many ways. Take, for instance, the poise and dignity of the protesters. As you can see on the video, the young man didn’t lose his cool despite repeated physical and verbal abuse. Second, their protest lasted over ten hours. At the beginning they were alone, but once word got out about the gathering others joined them. By the time the demonstrators decided to walk over to the building of the Constitutional Court their numbers had swelled to about 1,000. By contrast, the counter-demonstrators got tired of screaming and their numbers decreased fairly rapidly.

The football hooligans of Gábor Kubatov’s Ferencváros football team, I think we can now say with conviction, are in the employ of Fidesz. Not necessarily in the sense of having paid positions but in being ready to assist “their party”  if necessary. Certainly, someone from the building called on them. One can’t help thinking of the storming of the public television station by Fradi football hooligans.

And finally, the protesters are determined to continue their fight for democracy, the constitution, and the rule of law. Moreover, they seem to have realized that without parties they cannot be successful. At their next demonstration tomorrow parties are welcome.

And, in a critical turn of events, the European Union and the Council of Europe are also waking up to the harsh reality in Hungary. I already wrote about German Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs Michael Link’s warning letter in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung a few days ago. I was sure at that time that something was brewing in Germany. And, indeed, today ” in a statement reflecting deep seated anxiety at the direction Orbán is taking Hungary, Germany and three other EU countries called for Brussels to be given new power allowing it to freeze EU budget funds to a member state in breach of Europe’s ‘fundamental values.'” The three other countries are the Netherlands, Denmark, and Finland. Since then we found out from the spokesman of the European Commission that José Manuel Barroso phoned Viktor Orbán this morning and warned the Hungarian prime minister that the proposed changes in the Hungarian constitution are not only incompatible with the rule of law but also might violate laws of the European Union. Following the conversation Barroso sent a letter in which he summarized the points he made during the telephone conversation.

I should also mention that today we learned that President János Ader will be in Berlin on Monday and Tuesday next week. On Monday he will meet President Joachim Gauck. Tuesday his first trip will be to Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle followed by a conversation with Chancellor Angela Merkel. Some might say that this trip was arranged some time ago and has nothing to do with the current brouhaha over the Hungarian constitution. Perhaps, but I find it odd that the president of Hungary has an appointment with the German foreign minister. I doubt that this is normal protocol. My hunch is that although the trip might have been arranged earlier, the meeting with Westerwelle was added only recently. But this is only a guess on my part.