José Manuel Barroso

Europe fights back: Viktor Orbán may be in real trouble this time

When on April 9 I wrote about the verbal duel between Tibor Navracsics, Hungarian minister in charge of administration and justice, and Viviane Reding, EU vice-president and commissioner responsible for justice, fundamental rights, and citizenship, I should have known that this would not be the end of the story. Members of the current Hungarian government don’t have much sense about when to stop. Just as they doggedly pursued their domestic opponents and used all sorts of unacceptable methods to destroy them, they are employing exactly the same methods on the international scene: personal insults, insinuations, blackmail, lies, half-truths, and the practice of “divide and rule.” The Fidesz government’s strategy worked well at home. Just think of the trade unions and the student associations. So why not try it with the European Commission? Perhaps setting José Manuel Barroso against his vice president, Vivien Reding, both members of the European People’s Party, would bear fruit as well.

First, Navracsics questioned the integrity and impartiality of Reding. Then he said that she was not qualified. A day later Magyar Nemzet came out with a new theory. Next year there will be a new European parliamentary election and perhaps a new president of the European Commission. Reding has a chance to replace Barroso, but in order to be elected she will need the help of the European liberals and socialists. That’s why she is so tough on Hungary. It’s a career move, according to Magyar Nemzet.

On April 10 an op/ed piece by Tibor Navracsics appeared in the European Voice. Up until then these distasteful and totally counterproductive exchanges had appeared only in the Hungarian media. But now they were spread far and wide via an English-language weekly dealing with the politics of the European Union. Navracsics leveled the same accusations against Reding in the European Voice as he had in the Hungarian media. He questioned her neutrality and predicted that any decision about Hungary in Brussels will not be fair. It will be a “purely political decision.” Moreover, Navracsics challenged Reding’s authority “to question the right of a democratically elected government majority to change its own constitution.” If we take this last sentence literally, we must conclude that the Hungarian government categorically refuses to abide by the laws of the European Union. But in this case why do they bother about the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe? After all, it was Foreign Minister János Martonyi who asked the Commission to render a legal opinion on the most recent amendments to the new Hungarian constitution.

Following Navracsics’s lead, Magyar Nemzet inquired “in whose name Reding speaks.” Surely, the implication is that whatever this woman is saying cannot possibly be the opinion of the European Commission. The answer came swiftly after the appearance of Navracsics’s article in the European Voice. Newspapers rushed to Pia-Ahrendkilde Hansen, spokeswoman for the European Commission, to ask her what the real situation was. They were told in no uncertain terms that “President Barroso and Vice President Reding are in complete agreement” over the amendments to the Hungarian Constitution. So that old trick didn’t work.

But the wheels of the Hungarian campaign to discredit Viviane Reding were already in motion. The decision was apparently made that next Tuesday the government will use its very large parliamentary majority to pass a resolution condemning Viviane Reding for her statement about the Tobin case, which involved a car accident that resulted in the death of two children in Hungary a few years back. As I mentioned in my earlier post, Francis Tobin returned to Ireland and refused to go back to Hungary to serve his sentence in a Hungarian jail and the Irish Supreme Court backed him by refusing his extradition. On this occasion, Reding in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said: “I’m personally not surprised [about the decision] because lately Hungary has enacted a number of  laws that cast doubt as to the independence of the Hungarian judiciary.” Although the Tobin case will be discussed in parliament on Tuesday, details on the planned resolution are still not available. Perhaps they never will be. The government may decide that passing such a resolution against Vice President Reding a day before the Hungarian question is discussed in the European Parliament might be counterproductive.

Barroso, in order to make clear that he backs Reding 100%, decided to write another letter to Orbán. In the letter Barroso reiterated that the Commission has serious concerns over the compatibility of the Fourth Amendment to the Hungarian Constitution with Union laws and with the principle of the rule of law in general. Barroso also indicated that once the ongoing legal analysis is carried out by the Commission, it will have “to take the necessary steps in order to start infringement procedures where relevant. I strongly appeal to you and to your government to address these concerns and to tackle them in a determined and unambiguous way.”

Orbán immediately answered Barroso‘s letter and assured Barroso that Hungary is committed to European norms and pledged full cooperation with Brussels. “I will certainly pay full attention to the points you raised and I should like to inform you that I have already initiated the necessary legislative steps to follow them up.” The same meaningless stuff Orbán reiterates every time he is trouble only to renege on it at the earliest opportunity. Navracsics weighed in later, saying that one doesn’t have to take Barroso’s letter very seriously; it’s simply an empty threat.

Meanwhile a six-member delegation arrived in Budapest from the Venice Commission. The members of the Commission are internationally renowned legal scholars. The Venice Commission already tackled the problems of the original constitution. Some of the criticized sections were very reluctantly rewritten by the Hungarians, but now the Venice Commission is confronted with an entirely different document that most experts consider to be unacceptable for a member country of the European Union.

Again, it was Magyar Nemzet that learned from government sources that the Venice Commission will meet József Szájer (Fidesz EP member and allegedly the author of the original new Fidesz constitution), Róbert Répássy, and Bence Rétvári (both undersecretaries in the Ministry of Administration and Justice). The members of the Commission also wanted to talk to the party leaders of the opposition parties represented in the Hungarian parliament. Attila Mesterházy insisted that other opposition parties–DK, LMP, and Együtt 2014-PM–also be present.

The meeting with the government officials took place in the morning and by noon it was all over. Clearly, the talks didn’t go well. Répássy announced that “the members of the delegation showed partiality”; “they arrived with preconceptions.” The government had a 50-page defense of the constitutional changes but “one could hear from members that they will read it but it is unlikely that they will change their minds.” Considering their very careful  prior analysis of the text, I don’t know what the Hungarian government expected.

In the afternoon the members of the Commission met with the opposition forces. According to Attila Mesterházy, the visitors seemed to be extremely well informed but they mostly listened. I’m sure that the members of the Commission didn’t hear anything from the opposition leaders that they didn’t already know.

Maybe it is a good idea that Viktor Orbán will not attend the session of the European Parliament Here he is after his debate in the European  parliament / Reuters Vincent Kessler

Maybe Viktor Orbán is wise not to attend the session of the European Parliament.
Here he is after his last debate in the European Parliament. / Reuters Vincent Kessler

A few days ago Orbán was still not sure whether he should attend the European Parliament’s Wednesday session on Hungary. By now the decision has been made. He will not. Instead he will attend the funeral of Margaret Thatcher on April 17. Looking through the list of  invitees I could find no non-British Commonwealth prime ministers on the list. For the most part countries will be represented by their ambassadors to the Court of St James’s. But I guess he had to come up with some “obligation” to justify his absence from the European Parliament.

He is, however, supposed to attend the meeting of the European People’s Party parliamentary caucus the day before, on April 16th. Even here we may find that Orbán has another urgent meeting somewhere else on the globe because if the information coming from Dubrovnik, Croatia is correct, support of the EPP caucus for Orbán and Fidesz has evaporated.

Here are the details. Currently, the EPP caucus is holding a meeting in Dubrovnik. No Fidesz EP member was in attendance. As it turned out, the caucus made a critical decision about Fidesz during a dinner meeting last night. A reporter from Új Magyar Szó, a Hungarian-language newspaper in Romania, learned from anonymous sources present at the meeting that EPP decided to give the Hungarian government party one week to accept the resolutions of the European Union. If it does not, Fidesz will be removed from the EPP caucus. Apparently the decision was made by an important trio: Joseph Daul, the leader of the caucus, Viviane Reding, and Antonio López-Istúriz White, secretary-general of EPP.

Poor Orbán. First it was all those foreign capitalists and speculators who conspired against Hungary. Then the left-wingers and their international allies went on the attack. And now Orbán’s own conservative EU caucus is threatening him. The noose is tightening.

The Orbán government’s favorite pastime: Crossing swords with everyone

Although I know that some of you have already discovered Kim Scheppele’s answer to Gergely Gulyás’s attacks on her scholarly credentials, those who haven’t should visit Paul Krugman’s blog on The New Times and read her rebuttal entitled: “Hungary, The Public Relations Offensive.” Her analysis of the public letter addressed to her highlights the way members of the Orbán government operate. And in case you didn’t see Gulyás’s letter to Scheppele, make sure that you read it now.

A couple of days ago I also wrote about the scandalous personal attack on George Kopits, this time by the new deputy governor of the Hungarian National Bank. This young and apparently unqualified upstart, who owes his position to his allegiance to Fidesz, Viktor Orbán and György Matolcsy, attacks a man with an impressive academic and professional background. I suggest taking a look at his curriculum vitae.

They like to fight

They like to fight

But the list doesn’t end here. The latest is an attack on Viviane Reding, Vice-President and Commissioner responsible for Justice, Fundamental Rights, and Citizenship, who happens to be a Christian Democrat. Just like Fidesz politicians in the European Parliament, she is affiliated with the European People’s Party (EPP). So her attackers can’t even claim that her criticism of the current Hungarian government derives from her left-liberal political leanings. One can read about Viviane Reding’s career here.

Regardless of how many degrees, prizes and distinctions she has received, the Hungarian minister of justice and administration, Tibor Navracsics, still thinks that she is unqualified for her job. Navracsics shouldn’t throw stones: his own legal background is minimal. After he graduated from law school he immediately switched to political science, which he taught at his alma mater until Viktor Orbán discovered him and made him the whip of the Fidesz caucus between 2006 and 2010.

It is obvious from the statements Navracsics’s ministry released lately that the minister of justice and administration either decided on his own or was instructed from above to launch an anti-European Union campaign. First, he came up with the bizarre explanation that the “renewed attacks” on Hungary have something to do with the German elections that will take place in five months and the EP elections more than a year from now. According to Navracsics, “the European left uses all means at its disposal to discredit the European right” through its attacks on Hungary. It seems that Navracsics, who is supposed to know something about political science and politics, considers Hungary a linchpin in the political war between right and left in Europe. Political commentators laughed at the very suggestion.

But why the renewed attack on Viviane Reding? She made the mistake of giving a lengthy interview to the Hungarian paper Népszava. In it she emphasized that she has no grudge against Hungary or the Hungarian government as Navracsics often claims. It is her duty to enforce the laws of the European Union. She expressed her disappointment that the Hungarian government didn’t heed José Manuel Barroso’s request for a postponement of the vote on the latest amendments to the constitution. She used some pretty strong words in connection with the Hungarian government’s lack of responsiveness when it comes to adjusting Hungarian law to conform to the laws of the Union. Here is one of the many statements she made during the interview that may indicate that the European Commission means business. “As President Barroso mentioned, if necessary we will not hesitate to use all means at our disposal–I repeat, all means at our disposal–if Hungary disregards the legal norms of the Union and those of the Council of Europe.” Reding repeated what she had said earlier: “a constitution is not a plaything that can be changed every few months. This is especially true when the independence of the judiciary is at stake.”

Finally, there seems to be a difference of opinion about the information flow between Reding and Navracsics. Navracsics complains that he finds out about Reding’s positions on certain issues only from the media. Naturally, Reding denies the charge, claiming that she and her staff are in constant touch with Navracsics’s ministry. As for the veracity of Navracsics, it is worth recalling his run-in with Nellie Kroes, European Commissioner for Digital Agenda in Brussels, about a year ago. Kroes and Navracsics had a long private talk after which there was a press conference during which Navracsics’s position suddenly changed. Kroes was furious and announced to Navracsics and all those present: “That is not what you told me half an hour ago.”

There are a couple of nasty international situations where Navracsics thinks that Reding is not sufficiently supportive of the Hungarian position. One is the so-called Tobin case. Tobin is an Irish national who caused the death of two Hungarian children. He was released on bail but left Hungary and went back to Ireland. For years Hungary has been trying to get Tobin extradicted to Hungary where he is supposed to serve his sentence. However, according to Irish law, Ireland extradites somebody only if the person actually escaped from the country asking for his extradition. Tobin didn’t, and therefore the Supreme Court of Ireland ruled in Tobin’s favor. As Reding explained, this is the law, whether we agree with the outcome or not. Under the circumstances she can do nothing.

Then there is another case in which Navracsics suddenly discovered that Reding didn’t do her best on Hungary’s behalf. A Hungarian woman in the middle of a divorce ended up with her husband and child in Bora Bora. The husband took her passport away and has been keeping her and her son captive. According to Navracsics, he wrote to Reding about the case on February 14 but has gotten no answer. By now it seems that Reding is really fed up with Navracsics and his ministry because she found it interesting that “these accusations surfaced only after the Commission announced that it is analyzing the legality of the constitutional amendments.” Reding claims that she answered Navracsics’s letter on March 19. Moreover, she got in touch with the French minister of justice and asked her to investigate the case. Reding sarcastically mentioned that perhaps Navracsics should check his mailbox because the Hungarian Embassy in Brussels acknowledged the receipt of her letter. And she added her final observation: “Such mistaken information surely doesn’t improve the relations between Budapest and Brussels.”

I doubt that Navracsics’s answer to Reding dated April 8 will mend the already strained relations between the commissioner and Navracsics. Here are a few choice sentences: “Your statements of late have plenty of factual errors.” He goes on to elaborate. He claims that he wrote a second reminder on March 17 to Reding which must have prompted her to write him on the 19th. He added that two of his letters have still been unanswered. The first he wrote on November 13 and second on November 16 about the Tobin case. In addition, Reding keeps talking about judicial independence in connection with the early retirement of judges when the European Court of Justice in its ruling wrote only of “discrimination on the basis of age”; the decision had nothing to do with the independence of the judiciary. And a final dig: “Madam, you asked me to check my mailbox. I ask you to check your facts.” So, relations between Brussels and Budapest are splendid!

I should mention that Hungary has problems not only with the European Commission but also with the European Parliament, which will discuss the Hungarian constitution on April 17. As far as we know Viktor Orbán was not invited, but Orbán is “theoretically ready to debate” with the MEPs. This weekend he will consult with József Szájer whether he should go. Meanwhile the European Parliamentary Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs prepared a document “on the situation of Fundamental Rights: standards and practices in Hungary (pursuant to the EP resolution of 16 February 2012)”–Rapporteur is Rui Tavares, Portuguese MP. Apparently even the European People’s Party members of the committee signed the report. Doesn’t sound too promising from the Hungarian point of view.

 

The Orbán government’s swift move toward the far right

I wrote about some of the people who received high awards from the Orbán government on March 15, one of the official national holidays in Hungary. They were either racist, antisemitic neo-Nazis or representatives of unscientific, bogus “scholarship” whose numbers have been growing in Hungary in the last twenty years or so. The greatest attention was showered on Ferenc Szaniszló, who received the Táncsics Prize from Zoltán Balog.

I left the story at the point that Zoltán Balog claimed that he knew nothing about Szaniszló’s program on EchoTV. He simply accepted the recommendation of the committee appointed by the Orbán government and made up of right-leaning journalists. Balog also insisted that he couldn’t withdraw the prize. Either Szaniszló gives it back on his own volition or everything remains as is. (I might mention here that when the writer Ákos Kertész made the mistake of saying something derogatory about Hungarians his honorary citizenship of Budapest was withdrawn without the slightest difficulty.) In any case, Balog wrote a letter to Szaniszló in which he practically begged him to return the prize. He did, but only after he delivered another of his harangues on March 18 in an extra edition of Világ-Panoráma. This extra edition was just as long as his other programs, but this time it dealt only with all the indignities he had to suffer from the “szocik” and the “liberok.” One shouldn’t have expected anything else, but at least at the end he announced that he would return the prize–but not to the ministry but to the U.S. Embassy!

Balog might have thought that his troubles were over, but then came the revelation in Heti Válasz, a right-wing, pro-Fidesz publication, that Balog hadn’t told the truth earlier. The committee didn’t recommend Szaniszló for the prize. In fact, as Ágnes Osztovits, who is on the staff of Heti Válasz, revealed, the committee endorsed only one person, a reporter for Magyar Rádió, out of the three who eventually received the awards. In addition to Szaniszló, Márta Ágnes Vertse of Vatikán Rádió was also picked by the ministry against the advice of the nominating committee. Moreover, Heti Válasz learned who promoted Szaniszló and Vertse. None other than the new undersecretary in charge of cultural affairs, János Halász. Balog doesn’t seem to have much luck with his undersecretaries. He couldn’t get along with László L. Simon, who after eight months was fired, and now here is Balog’s own man who immediately gets him into trouble. Both the American and the Israeli embassies officially protested and demanded immediate action in connection with the case.

Szaniszló became an international cause célèbre, although he wasn’t the only one whose recognition by the Hungarian government was questionable. Let’s start with the award of the “Magyar Érdemrend középkeresztje” to Gábor Széles, who is the owner of the very EchoTV that employs Szaniszló in addition to Zsolt Bayer. Széles is also the owner of Magyar Hírlap where Zsolt Bayer is senior editor. Or there is Kornél Bakay, the “archaeologist” who received the “Magyar Érdemrend Tisztikereszt (polgári tagozat)” on March 15. When he was the director of the museum in Szombathely in 2003 Bakay organized an exhibit entitled “Soldiers of Horthy, Arrowmen of Szálasi.” On the basis of this exhibit it became clear that Bakay is “an enthusiastic propagandist of the Szálasi cult.” After a huge outcry the exhibit was dismantled.

The government claims that these awards, decorations, and prizes demonstrate the “Hungarian nation’s recognition of and gratitude to those who represent the best of the nation.” So, let’s see what János Petrás, lead singer of the “nemzeti” rock band, represents because he also received the “Magyar Arany Érdemkereszt (polgári tagozat).” This pride of the nation said at the “Magyar Sziget” neo-Nazi gathering in 2009: “Those people–who are really not human as far as we are concerned–are misfits, inferior somethings. They are gay and they are proud of it….One day this breed will become extinct. They should go somewhere and live together but separately. We will pass a law that will state that we don’t tolerate this perversity.”

It is hard to imagine that all these awards, prizes, and decorations given to people belonging to the far right are simply mistakes. There is a concerted effort to court the Hungarian neo-Nazis. It is government policy. So is the whipping up of nationalist sentiment.

Orbán imitates members of the Magyar GárdaPhoto MTI / Attila Kovács

Orbán imitates the uniform of the Magyar Gárda
Photo MTI / Attila Kovács

This morning I was reading about Viktor Orbán’s latest Friday morning interview on Magyar Rádió when I noticed something that might be significant. Normally on such an occasion Orbán wears a suit but no tie. This morning it was brisk in Budapest. During the day, around 6°C. At 7:00 a.m. it was most likely close to O°. Yet Orbán appeared in a white shirt with a black vest. An outfit preferred by people who are close to Jobbik or the far right in general. Journalists noted, for example, that Attila Vidnyánszky, the new director of the National Theater, began wearing this type of outfit lately; he seems to have committed his career to creating a truly “national” theater.

I suspect that Orbán’s choice of clothing this morning was a conscious decision to be identified with the Hungarian far right. The outfit was certainly appropriate, given the content of the speech in which he made no bones about his determination not to accept lectures or limits on Hungary’s national sovereignty from Brussels. As one of the headlines in a paper reporting on the speech read, “Orbán: They shouldn’t phone here from Brussels.” And that was before it became known that José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, will in the future personally oversee all contested issues concerning the amendments to the Hungarian constitution. Perhaps it is not only telephone calls that should stop coming from Brussels. What about money?