Martin Schulz

“Coup from above”? Anti-federalist forces in the European Council

Anyone who took Magyar Nemzet seriously would think that Viktor Orbán is not only the strongman of Hungary but also of Europe. A great statesman who is jealously guarding the rule of law in the European Union. According to Magyar Nemzet, Jean-Claude Juncker’s bid for the presidency of the European Commission is down the drain. On the other hand, several commentators (for example Julian Priestley, the former secretary-general of the European Parliament) think it likely that in the final analysis Juncker will be in charge of the European Union for the next five years. We can, however, expect a protracted political fight between the European Council and the European Parliament.

The issue, as far as I can see, brings into focus two vitally important issues: first, the supremacy of the elected European parliament vs. the heads of member states and, second, the very future of the European Union itself.

This is the first time that the European Parliament has an important role to play in the elections and the choice of candidates for president. The leading members of the European Parliament wanted to democratize the election process and run a campaign with the names and pictures of the candidates (commonly known as “Spitzenkandidaten”) heading the party lists. In early March the European People’s Party chose Jean-Claude Juncker, former prime minister of Luxembourg, as their man while Martin Schulz was chosen by the socialists. Since as the result of the election the EPP will again be the largest party in the European Parliament, the assumption in parliament is that it will be Juncker who will lead the Union. All the party leaders of the European Parliament stand behind his candidacy.

Enter the European Council, composed of the twenty-eight heads of the member states. The president of the Council is Herman Van Rompuy. Last night these people gathered to discuss the results of the election, and it turned out that there was at least four countries that opposed Juncker’s nomination: Great Britain, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Hungary. Viktor Orbán announced immediately after the election results became known that Hungary cannot support Junker’s presidency. Hungarian sources claim that the real instigator of the anti-Juncker move was not Orbán but either David Cameron, prime minister of Great Britain, or Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany. My hunch is that it was Cameron who was most opposed to Juncker, who is known as a “federalist.” Cameron believes in a union of nation states. During the meeting Merkel, as is her wont, sat on the fence, not committing herself one way or the other. The only agreement to come out of the meeting was that the president of the European Council will negotiate with leading members of the European Parliament and the heads of states about the future president of the EU.

So, on one level the fight that is developing is between the federalists and the “states rights” advocates, while on another it is a struggle between the European Council and the European Parliament. An Austrian paper called the move coming from the European Council a “coup from above.” The coup may not succeed. As EuroActiv reported, Van Rompuy after the meeting said that this first discussion had been “useful,” which is a diplomatic euphemism for inconclusive. However, he also made it clear that he would not embark on a collision course with the European Parliament. According to a source who seemed to have been present at the meeting, Merkel apparently announced that “she is still supportive of the Spitzenkandidaten system and of Juncker,” but made no strong statements to discipline the dissidents. On the Council doorstep Merkel declared: “Jean-Claude Juncker is our Spitzenkandidat.”

Jean-Claude Juncker and Viktor Orbán are great friends here

Jean-Claude Juncker and Viktor Orbán are great friends here

Leading members of the European Parliament are outraged, including Joseph Daul, leader of the EPP group, who told Die Welt after Viktor Orbán announced his intention to pick another candidate that one simply cannot pull a new candidate out of the hat. Hannes Swoboda, leader of the Socialist and Democrats group, tweeted that it  is “absurd that Juncker has our backing to start negotiations but is blocked in the European Council by his own EPP family!” Julian Priestley expressed the opinion of many that “only if the negotiations between the European parties and the parliament fail does it become conceivable that the European Council might have to reach out for a candidate outside the election process. But they have every incentive to succeed, because what’s at stake is bringing the direction of the EU within the parliamentary system.”  And let me add that in my opinion it is essential that the anti-federalist forces are defeated on this issue and that a man is elected who wants “a more perfect union.” The British Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party (Ukip), said of Juncker, “there is nobody more fanatical about building the United States of Europe.” That certainly does not make Juncker a friend of David Cameron and Viktor Orbán.

What is happening at the present in the European Parliament is a “grand coalition between right and left which is taking shape, with the aim of isolating the Eurosceptics.” Not only does Schulz support Juncker, but the leader of the third largest group, Guy Verhofstadt of the liberals, also wants to join them. He emphasized that for the election of the next president they need “a stable majority, that means more than 400 seats. Otherwise it will depend on the backing of parties such as those of Mr. Orbán or Mr. Berlusconi.”

There is at least one Hungarian commentator, Gyula Hegyi, who claims  in his article “Juncker-Orbán 2:0” that Cameron and Orbán lost this match. Hegyi used to be a socialist MEP, but in the last five years he has been working for László Andor, commissioner for employment, social affairs, and inclusion. In his interpretation it is true that at the Tuesday night meeting no decision was reached, but those present admitted that the results of the election must be taken into consideration. They also took cognizance of the fact that Juncker is unanimously supported in the European Parliament. So, as far as Hegyi is concerned, it is a done deal. Juncker will be the candidate and will likely be elected by a large majority.

My feeling is that Hegyi and Priestley are right, but given the business practices of the European Union, it will most likely take a whole month, until the very last minute, to agree on the candidacy of Jean-Claude Juncker.

Viktor Orbán is getting ready for a fight

If anyone thought that a second victory, especially with two-thirds parliamentary majority, would slow Viktor Orbán down, he was sadly mistaken. In fact, if it is possible, since his reelection he has been surpassing his own past performance as far as attacks on the European Union are concerned.

In the last few weeks numerous articles have appeared, especially in Népszabadság, on the possible shape of the third Orbán government. Most of the reporting is based on hearsay, but a couple of personnel changes seem to be certain. First, Rózsa Hoffmann, undersecretary for public education, has finished her controversial activities in the Ministry of Human Resources. Second, the mysterious minister of national development about whom nobody knew anything turned out to be a flop. If you recall, no one knew her first name for weeks because she was introduced to the public only as Mrs. László Németh. By the way, she was the one who signed the agreement on Paks with Gazprom. And then there is János Martonyi, the one cabinet member in whom European and American politicians still had some trust. Mind you, his words didn’t mean much because he was stripped of practically all power to conduct Hungary’s foreign policy. According to the latest, it looks as if his replacement will be Tibor Navracsics.

I consider Navracsics’s move to the foreign ministry a demotion for the former close associate of Viktor Orbán. By now the foreign ministry is largely impotent, and I hear rumors to the effect that it might be further stripped of its competence. Earlier Navracsics had a position of real power. He was entrusted with the position of whip of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation. The ministry of administration and justice, which Navracsics headed during Orbán’s second term, had a dual mandate. On the one hand, it was supposed to oversee the restructuring of the entire public administration and, on the other, it was responsible for preparing bills for parliament. At least in theory. Most of the hundreds of bills presented to parliament in the last four years were in fact proposed by individual members. Their authors were most likely outside law firms. It seems that the ministry’s chief job in the legal field was not so much drafting bills as battling with Brussels over legislation the Hungarian parliament enacted.

In the third Orbán government the ministry of administration and justice will be dismantled. In its place there will be a separate ministry of justice, and the section of the ministry that dealt with the country’s territorial administration will be transferred to the prime minister’s office. This ministry’s chief job will be, according to Viktor Orbán, to concentrate on future legal battles with the European Union. He already warned his people that the European Union will try to force the Hungarian government to undo the lowering of utility prices which assured Viktor Orbán his resounding victory at the last election.

Hungary seems to lose one legal battle after the other in the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights, which functions under the jurisdiction of the Council of Europe. The latest is the question of  life sentences without the possibility of parole. The European Court of Human Rights, in a unanimous ruling, found the law inhumane and degrading. The court is not against life sentences as such, but they held that courts should be allowed to review life sentences in order to assess whether prisoners had made such significant progress toward rehabilitation that their continued detention might no longer be justified. There are perhaps 40 such cases in Hungary at the moment, and if all the “lifers” turned to Strasbourg it could be a very costly affair for the Hungarian state.

Viktor Orbán remains adamant in the face of the court ruling since he knows that, if depended on the Hungarian public, the majority would be only too glad to reintroduce the death penalty. Therefore, Orbán fiercely attacked the ruling and blamed the European Union for preventing Hungary from having its own laws. He repeated his favorite claim that in the European Union “the rights of those who commit crimes are placed above the rights of innocent people and victims.” Friday morning during his customary interview on Magyar Rádió he elaborated on the theme and went even further. He said that the European Union forbids capital punishment, although he personally is convinced that it is a serious deterrent.

In cases like this, one is not quite sure whether Orbán is ignorant of the facts or for political reasons is simply lying. It is not the European Union that forbids the death penalty. Article 1 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms specifies that “The death penalty shall be abolished. No-one shall be condemned to such penalty or executed.” The Council of Europe is a signatory to this convention. Moreover, the European Court of Human Rights functions not under the European Union but under the Council of Europe of which Hungary is a member. And quite aside from all this, the Hungarian Constitutional Court on its own volition abolished the death penalty in 1990. So, either Orbán doesn’t know any of this or he for political reasons is trying to turn his people against the European Union while he is campaigning for the European parliamentary election. He must know that the reintroduction of the death penalty in Hungary is out of the question.

But before his fight against Brussels and Strasbourg on utility prices, pálinka distillation, acacia trees, and life sentences without parole, Orbán has another fight ahead of him which he may easily lose. It is his opposition to the election of Jean-Claude Juncker for the presidency of the European Commission. Juncker is the candidate of the European People’s Party, which currently has the largest caucus in the European Parliament. It has been clear for some time that Juncker is not the favorite politician of Viktor Orbán. Already on Friday in his interview he mentioned that just because Juncker is the head of the 212-member EPP caucus it doesn’t mean that the Christian Democrats have to nominate him. Juncker is far too liberal for Orbán, who would prefer the far-right Joseph Daul, the Alsatian farmer who is an admirer and defender of the Hungarian prime minister. Orbán thus made up his mind that he and the Fidesz MEPs will try to prevent the election of Juncker in the likely event that EPP is again the largest bloc in the European Parliament.

Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz

Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz

Today he announced his decision to try block Juncker’s nomination and/or election. I myself doubt that he will succeed at the nomination level. As for the election, currently EPP has 212 seats and Fidesz’s estimated 10-12 MEPs will vote against him. Juncker will have to get at least 376 votes to be elected, so he will need supporters outside of EPP. The socialist Martin Schulz will also look for supporters outside of the socialist caucus. It looks as if the Fidesz group will lobby against both Juncker and Schulz in favor of some other EPP politician. I’m sure that Orbán’s favorite would be Daul, but I think he is too far to the right to have a chance at either the nomination or the election.

So, what will happen if Juncker wins? Orbán, even if Fidesz MEPs were to support Juncker, would have a harder time with him than he had with Barroso. The same is true if Schulz becomes president. Actually the two men’s views are rather close. Both are miles away from Viktor Orbán’s worldview. In either case, Orbán will be even more unhappy with Brussels than he has been until now.

The European Parliament’s debate on Hungary

I spent almost three hours watching the debate in the European Parliament on the Tavares report. We discussed this report at length at the time of its passage in the LIBE Commission of the European Parliament. In addition, I published Rui Tavares’s letter to the Hungarian people both in English and in Hungarian. So, the readers of Hungarian Spectrum are aware that the report is a thoroughly researched document that in many ways echoes the findings of the independent judges of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe.

I found two good summaries of the debate, both in Hungarian. One appeared in Népszabadság and the other on the new Internet website called 444! But it is one thing to read a summary and another to see the debate live. Just to watch Viktor Orbán’s face was itself educational. Sometimes he looked vaguely amused, but most of the time his smile was sardonic. Who can forget that disdainful expression on Orbán’s face when one of his critics, Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the liberals in the European parliament and former prime minister of Belgium, mentioned the name of  György Konrád, “the great Hungarian writer”? And when he heard something he didn’t like, Orbán raised his eyebrows and shook his head in disbelief. He considered all criticism utterly baseless and, through body language and facial expressions, made no secret of it. It’s too bad that most of the people in the chamber didn’t see all that since Orbán sat in the front row.

Viktor Orbán listening to the speeches / Reuters, Vincent Kessler

Viktor Orbán listening to the speeches / Reuters, Vincent Kessler

Unfortunately the camera didn’t show Orbán when several people tried to explain to him that his concept of democracy is peculiar. He believes in the “dictatorship of the majority” or “majoritarian rule.” Verhofstadt even invoked John Stuart Mill’s words on the subject in his work On Liberty. In fact, one of the major criticisms centered around the nature of democracy and whether Hungary can still be called a democracy. If one were to ask Verhofstadt he would say: “No, Hungary is not a democracy anymore but ‘demokratúra’ as György Konrád called it.” Several other critics agreed with Verhofstadt although they may not have been so explicit.

A second core topic was the question of freedom and the Orbán government’s “war of independence” against the European Union. Several people expressed their bafflement at the very idea of defending the country from a Union to which Hungary belongs. Actually, here again two worldviews clashed. The one held by Viktor Orbán and his entourage maintains that nation states are the only legitimate formations and that they shouldn’t be superseded in any way by a supranational entity such as the European Union. If one holds this view, as Orbán does, then it is perfectly understandable that he defends his nation against the encroachment of the European Union. The problem is that Hungary joined the European Union of its own volition and thereby its government is obliged to follow EU rules. Orbán attempts to resolve this apparent conflict by claiming that the Union is overstepping its authority, and therefore he has every right to resist its attempt at a “guardianship” that he will never accept.

Another important topic of discussion was Orbán’s interpretation of the criticism of his government as an attack on Hungary and the Hungarian people. Several critics rejected this view, making it clear that their criticisms are directed against the Orbán government and not the Hungarian people. In fact, some of the speakers argued that in their opinion it is the Hungarian people who must be shielded against the authoritarian behavior and laws of their own government.

As for Viktor Orbán, he had two opportunities to speak. At the beginning, right after Rui Tavares and Juán Manuel Barroso, and at the end, just before the leaders of the various parliamentary caucuses could answer him. In his first speech he was quite polite and a great deal less aggressive than is his wont. However, after listening to the debate where the Christian Democratic and Conservative voices were drowned out by speeches delivered by the liberals, socialists, and greens, Orbán returned to his true self. As Gabriella Zimmer (a German socialist) said, Orbán didn’t come to Strasbourg “to debate”; he came to express his anger at what he considers to be interference in Hungarian domestic affairs that are within the sole jurisdiction of the Hungarian government, parliament, and courts. He finished his speech with a refusal to accept tutelage from Brussels. For good measure he accused them of  having double standards and of defending the multinational corporations and banks. I had the feeling that by that time Orbán believed that he had nothing to lose. It was no longer necessary to try to mollify the EU parliamentarians. No matter what he does, I suspect he reasoned, the vote will go against him.

And a few more words about the performance of Fidesz and Jobbik MEPs. What can I say? It was embarrassing. Szájer’s comments were the most outrageous. He was not on the list of official speakers but he asked to be recognized perhaps three times. In the first instance he outright lied when he announced that foreign investment was never greater in Hungary than in the last two or three years. Then he claimed that the members of the European Union are afraid of the truth and that’s why they don’t want to give Orbán the opportunity to speak. Both Verhofstadt and Martin Schulz, the president of  the EP, corrected Szájer. After all, they were the ones who asked Viktor Orbán to come to the plenary session of the European Parliament. But that was not enough for Szájer. He retorted that even in Stalin’s show trials more time was allotted to the accused than to the accusers. Well, that’s when Martin Schulz’s patience ran out. He reprimanded Szájer for making any comparison between Stalin’s show trials and the European Union. But Szájer is not the kind of guy who knows when to stop. He got up again and tried to explain away his unfortunate remark. He repeated his reference to Stalin’s show trials and added that it was only the time limit that he had in mind. Schulz was not impressed and rebuked him again. Szájer did a disservice to the Fidesz cause.

Kinga Gál, another Fidesz MEP, was one of the official speakers. She didn’t fare any better than Szájer. In her speech she challenged the democratic nature of the European Parliament that voted in committee for the Tavares report. Schulz gave her a piece of his mind. He told her that it is impossible to claim that majority rule in Hungary is perfectly legitimate while questioning the democratic nature of majority rule in the European Parliament. After all, the majority of LIBE members voted for the Tavares report.

The third Fidesz MEP, Ágnes Hankiss, asked to raise a “question.” It turned out that she in fact planned to deliver a lecture on the injustices of the Tavares report. Schulz interrupted her, saying that she was abusing the privilege of posing questions. Hankiss tried to go on but was stopped.

And if that weren’t enough, we had the privilege of listening to Krisztina Morvai (Jobbik) twice. No EU parliamentary caucus accepted Jobbik and therefore they sit as unaffiliated members. Thus she had the privilege of speaking twice, just as the other leaders of the various parties. She sported a blouse adorned with Hungarian folk motifs and held up a sign reading “HUNGARY ≠COLONY.” Otherwise, although Orbán emphasized that he is the one who is most fiercely attacked by the far-right Jobbik, Morvai defended Fidesz and its policies all the way while accusing Viviane Reding of meddling in Hungarian affairs. Her second speech was especially remarkable. She recalled her days working with battered women who often thought that they could change their abusive husband’s behavior by pleasing him, working harder, and being the best of housewives. But eventually when the husband’s behavior remained the same, they came to the conclusion that there was only one remedy: divorce. So, Hungary should pack up and leave the Union if this abuse continues. After that ringing defense of Fidesz it will be difficult for Orbán to maintain his fierce opposition to the far right. After all, they speak the same language and Jobbik fights alongside Fidesz for the “honor of Hungary.” Frank Engel (Luxembourg EPP member) sarcastically remarked immediately afterwards that he hoped that “Ms Morvai has not just offered to go into coalition with Fidesz.”

The vote will take place tomorrow at 11:30 European time or 5:30 EDT. I will be watching.

The right-wing media on the parliamentary debate on Hungary in Strasbourg

While the opposition papers published scores of articles before and after the European parliamentary discussion in Strasbourg, government organs have been fairly quiet. Of those few articles that did appear in Magyar Nemzet and Magyar Hírlap some were simply personal attacks on European parliamentary members who are in one way or the other connected with the Hungarian case.

Way ahead of the parliamentary debate Magyar Nemzet made certain that its readers know who that horrible Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, is. Where he came from and how he got the top EP job. The article was written by János Boros, a professor of philosophy who made a rather unsavory name for himself as one of the henchmen of the Orbán government involved in the attack against liberal philosophers back in 2011. I wrote about him and the Institute of Philosophy of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences at that time. His new mission was to explain to those unsuspecting Hungarians who don’t read Der Spiegel or any other foreign newspaper that Schulz is a truly despicable character.

A while back Der Spiegel had a spread on the career of  Schulz–from a troubled youth to one of the best known figures in European politics. But while Der Spiegel talked about the road he traveled in admiring terms, Boros finished his article this way: “His first girlfriend, who left him because he was in a drunken stupor too often, today is proud of him. Schulz is also proud of himself. But whom should Europe be proud of? And the European Hungary?” Although the article is not at all original because Boros only quotes a sentence here and a sentence there from Der Spiegel, his choices were intended to show Schulz in the worst possible light.

T. Gyula Máté of Magyar Hírlap wrote an even more tasteless piece on Hannes Swoboda, the leader of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, whom he called “the lapdog of Reding.” He imagined a breakfast meeting with the Hungarian socialist MP Zita Gurmai–Genosse Zita, as Máté called her–who naturally misinforms Swoboda about the Hungarian situation. As if Swoboda needed a lot of outside information. He is an Austrian who is connected to Hungary by family ties. His mother’s family is from Miskolc and he visits Hungary quite often. In any case, according to Máté, Swoboda’s argumentation during the debate clearly showed that Reding’s strategy of courting the socialists and liberals to bolster her candidacy for the presidency of the European Commission is bearing fruit. I might add that Máté misspelled the name of Swoboda as well as Luxembourg throughout.

Only Hungary has gripes against Viviane Reding? Europe's bulldog / Heti Válasz, April 11, 2013

Only Hungary has gripes against Viviane Reding?
Europe’s bulldog / Heti Válasz, April 11, 2013

Well, if Swoboda is a lapdog, Reding is a bulldog. At least according to Heti Válasz, a pro-government weekly. A bulldog is considered to be stubbornly persistent. But it seems that Reding is more than that. She is also a schemer, at least according to Magyar Nemzet, who most likely passed on the “lie” about the dissatisfaction of the European People’s Party with Viktor Orbán to Új Magyar Szó, a Hungarian-language paper from Cluj/Kolozsvár. She decided to pick a journalist from a Hungarian paper in Romania to spread the news worldwide!

Another Magyar Nemzet article appeared today under the headline “The left uses the methods of the communist secret police.” This piece of nonsense came from Ágnes Hankiss, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament. In her opinion the very fact that the debate on the “Hungarian question” took place in Strasbourg signifies that the 2014 European parliamentary campaign has already begun. At the center of the campaign is “the weakening of the EPP and the Christian Democratic parties.”  She also immediately addressed a letter to Viviane Reding asking her opinion on the Slovak government’s prohibition of dual citizenship for its Slovak-Hungarian minority. Surely, this is an attempt to prove Reding’s partiality.

I might also mention here that during the parliamentary debate only a Pole from the PiS of Jarosław Kaczyński and Krisztina Morvai of Jobbik defended the Hungarian government. Morvai’s speech is available on YouTube. Judging from the comments, it seems that only Jobbik members and sympathizers have visited the site. Morvai, just like her close friends in Fidesz, lobbed personal attacks on Viviane Reding and Rui Tavares, the chairman of  a parliamentary committee (LIBE) that is in charge of preparing the working documents on the Hungarian case for consideration by the whole parliament.

She declared that since neither Reding nor Tavares has a law degree neither of them is qualified for the job. Moreover, the whole procedure against Hungary is unlawful and “explicitly arbitrary.” It is part of the “European Union’s war against Hungary.”

This is how the Orbán government, its media, and their Jobbik friends are casting the European Union debate. Surely, if they were so confident that their legislative actions would pass scrutiny they wouldn’t have to resort to character assassination. But we shouldn’t be surprised. This is exactly what Fidesz politicians have been doing for almost twenty years. They have plenty of practice.

How did the Hungarian government fare in the European Parliament today?

Today I would like to concentrate on two topics: Fidesz’s relation to the European People’s Party, an umbrella organization of right of center parties in Europe, and the Orbán government’s current situation within the European Union. Let me state at the very beginning that I’m more upbeat about today’s hour-long discussion in the European Parliament on the Hungarian situation than some of the people who commented right after the event on Hungarian Spectrum. Let me also add that I consider  Fidesz’s status within “the family” of the European People’s Party less secure than most people are inclined to believe.

Let’s start with the parliamentary debate. György Schöpflin, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament, predicted a couple of days ago that this debate would be “a third-rate affair” and therefore it was wise of Viktor Orbán not to do attend the session. Subsequently we learned that no invitation was extended to either Orbán or any member of his government. Enikő Győry, undersecretary in charge of European affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was present in observer status only.

Schöpflin seemed to know that neither the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, nor any of the leaders of the parliamentary caucuses would be present. Well, Schöpflin was wrong. Martin Schulz  presided over the session, and for the most part the heads of the parliamentary delegations were present and delivered speeches. The notable exception was Joseph Daul of EPP, who only a year ago fiercely defended Viktor Orbán during the last grilling of the Hungarian government in the European Parliament. In his place Frank Engel, a member of  the EPP caucus, spoke; his defense of the Orbán government was muted. He basically asked his fellow parliamentarians to delay their judgment until the legal analysis of the Hungarian constitution is completed by the European Commission.

Viviane Redings delivering her speech in the European Parliament  MTI  / Photo Patrick Seeger

Viviane Redings delivering her speech in the European Parliament
MTI / Photo Patrick Seeger

Viviane Reding gave a brief talk in which she outlined the European Commission’s position on the issue of Hungarian compliance with EU law. At the very beginning she made it clear that she represents President Barroso and the opinion of the European Commission. She emphasized that the Commission has been closely monitoring developments related to the Hungarian Constitution ever since 2011. The Commission “has played a very active role as guardian of the Treaties” and “is currently conducting a detailed legal analysis of the amendments.”

But, continued Reding, the Hungarian constitution, quite aside from not being compatible with European laws, has serious flaws as far as the rule of law in general is concerned. And then she added:  ” Hungary will also need to take due account of the opinion that the Council of Europe/Venice Commission will deliver in June, in full accordance with both European Union and Council of Europe principles, rules and values. The Commission expects a responsible answer from Hungary to this opinion.” In addition, there is the work of Rui Tavares (Portugal), an independent member of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) of the European Parliament who has been preparing a resolution “on the situation of Fundamental Rights in Hungary: standards and practices.” (I might add here that Frank Engel, who delivered the EPP’s message on the Hungarian situation today, is also a member of  LIBE and, like Reding, a Luxembourgian.) Reding said that “the Commission expects the Hungarian authorities to engage in a political dialogue with this House.”

So, this is just the beginning. As things stand now, the legal experts of the European Commission are studying the Hungarian constitution and its amendments, as is the Venice Commission. And the LIBE resolution will be ready by early summer. So, it looks as if by June there will be a concerted effort on the part of organizations of the European Union and the Council of Europe to take up the issue of Hungarian non-compliance with European law and the Orbán government’s transgression of democratic principles and the rule of law in general.

The criticism from the socialists, the liberals, and the greens was naturally hard-hitting, but the general consensus was that ¶7, which could deprive Hungary of its voting rights, shouldn’t be the first step. Lucia Creighton of Ireland, the country currently serving as president of the Union, emphasized that Ireland supports the point of view of the Commission. Moreover, she thought that it might be worthwhile to discuss a possible “new mechanism” that would be entrusted with the enforcement of union law in member states. She suggested putting the topic on the agenda of the meeting of the foreign ministers next Monday.

All in all, I’m satisfied with the results. Since the final analyses of the Commission, the Venice Commission, and LIBE were not ready, nothing more could have been done.

The other topic I would like to cover, however briefly, is Fidesz’s position vis-à-vis the European People’s Party. The Romanian Hungarian-language paper isn’t backing down on its story of a discussion between Joseph Daul and Viviane Reding about the possible removal of Fidesz from the EPP caucus. First, the spokesman of the EPP caucus denied the “rumor,” but a day later Joseph Daul himself wrote a letter to the Új Magyar Szó. He claimed that the “articles in question are both distorted and without foundation.” I would suggest that it would have been wiser to say that they were either distorted or without foundation, not both. And if one wants to deny that the topic of the conversation was Fidesz, one doesn’t claim that “the main topic of the conversation was Croatia and not Hungary” because that doesn’t preclude the possibility that Hungary was discussed. In brief, it looks more and more as if Daul did initiate a talk with Reding in Dubrovnik and that the fate of Fidesz was discussed there. The spokeswoman of Redding didn’t deny the existence of a  private conversation between the two politicians. She only said to Magyar Nemzet that she is not at liberty to reveal the contents of the conversation.

There are signs that Orbán’s appearance before the EPP caucus wasn’t as jolly as Viktor Orbán tried to make out. In his usual fashion he cast it as a huge victory. He claimed that “it was good to be Hungarian tonight.” It turned out, however, that after a fifteen-minute talk he received about twenty questions. Apparently, most of the questions came from German and Polish members of the delegation, which leads me to believe that Új Magyar Szó’s information that it was the Polish delegation that informed EPP about Fidesz’s exploratory talks with another caucus was most likely correct.

As for the exploratory talks, the EPP members of parliament asked Orbán about this rumor, but he refused to answer it directly. Instead, his answer was formulated as a question: “EPP is the best place, so why should [I] leave it?” And the 50-50 split within the EPP caucus also seems to be on target. Even József Szájer admitted that “not everybody supports Hungary” in the body. According to an EPP member, earlier there was a fairly large group of people within the caucus who tried to mediate between supporters and critics of Viktor Orbán. By now the EPP is much more divided on the issue. You are either for or against Orbán and his government. There is no longer a middle ground. I predict that EPP will not vote en bloc against whatever resolution the European Parliament adopts later this year.

Another round of talks between Viktor Orbán and José Manuel Barroso

Viktor Orbán had a full schedule today: a lecture in Brussels and three important meetings with José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission; Herman Van Rompuy, president of the Council of Europe; and Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament. A pretty exhausting schedule, especially since tomorrow the Hungarian prime minister is flying to Moscow to have a discussion with Vladimir Putin. The meeting will be brief, only half an hour, but the topics to be covered are weighty: setting natural gas prices for the next ten years and possible Russian involvement in the extension of the Paks Nuclear Plant.

In anticipation of the Orbán visit to Brussels, commentators differed in their assessment of what Viktor Orbán could expect in his negotiations. Some predicted difficult negotiations while others contended that after the two-year-long “freedom fight” it was time for Hungary to mend fences and normalize relations. Interestingly enough, Magyar Nemzet‘s commentator predicted a tough time, especially in light of the IMF-EU report released on January 28. The IMF officials predicted that in both 2013 and 2014 Hungary’s deficit will exceed 3%. If the European Commission takes the report seriously, their opinion might adversely influence Ecofin’s decision about lifting Hungary’s Excessive Deficit Procedure (EDP). And Viktor Orbán’s political future might depend on this decision. If the EDP is lifted, the Hungarian government could spend more freely in 2013 and early 2014 in anticipation of the election sometime in April of that year. Otherwise, further austerity measures must be introduced.

Viktor Orbán’s meeting with  Herman Van Rompuy was also more than a courtesy visit. As it stands, the European Union is planning to reduce the subsidies to Hungary by 30% over the next seven years. Considering that the little investment there is in the country comes from the EU convergence program, a 30% reduction could be devastating to the Hungarian economy.

Orbán began his Brussels schedule with a lecture at the Bruegel Institute, a European think tank specializing in economics. HVG somewhat sarcastically entitled its article about Orbán’s appearance at Bruegel “Orbán teaches economics to his audience in Brussels.” The very idea of Viktor Orbán giving a lecture on “work-based economies” to a group of economists working for this think tank borders on the ludicrous. I also wondered what his listeners thought when he boasted about his government’s achievements and called his economic policies a “true success story.”

The meeting between Barroso and Orbán took place in the afternoon and lasted a little longer than expected. At the subsequent joint press conference Barroso told the reporters that they talked about the upcoming EU summit in early February, about the 2014-2020 EU budget, and naturally the present state of the Hungarian economy. For the time being the Commission has no definite opinion about the past performance of the Hungarian economy, but by February 22 their recommendations to Ecofin will be ready. There was one sentence here that I think needs more clarification: “We also discussed the quality of the economic adjustments.” To me this means that Barroso and the Commission are aware that the way the Hungarian government achieved the low deficit may not be optimal.

Viktor Orbán and José Manuel Barroso at the press conference, January 30, 2013

Viktor Orbán and José Manuel Barroso at the press conference,
January 30, 2013

Viktor Orbán was more exuberant. “It was an excellent meeting,” he announced. They discussed matters that had created friction between the the Commission and Hungary in the past. He claimed that on the issue of the Hungarian National Bank they came to an agreement quickly. He admitted, though, that there are outstanding issues. Orbán indicated that he has no intention of backing down: the European Court of Justice will decide those issues he refuses to address himself. I might add here that cases the Commission sends to the Court usually go in the Commission’s favor.

Barroso sent a message to the Hungarians about the “rights and duties of the European Commission to insist that all national governments respect the laws of the Union.” The Commission tries to be impartial and objective. The Commission, like an umpire, must enforce the rules and regulations. This comment was most likely prompted by last year’s anti-European Union demonstrations instigated by the Orbán government.

Viktor Orbán might claim that the meeting was successful, but serious differences of opinion remain between the European Union and the Hungarian government over economic policies. The IMF-EU delegation predicted that further budget adjustments will be necessary to hold the deficit under 3%. Viktor Orbán disagrees, but I would be surprised if in the next few months, sometime before April, György Matolcsy didn’t announce another new tax in order to boost revenues.

All in all, at least on the surface, the meeting was friendly, or at least the two men pretended that it was. However, both Barroso and Orbán were careful in formulating their thoughts. In fact, Orbán opted to speak in Hungarian instead of his customary English, ostensibly because most of the reporters present were from Hungary. I suspect that the real reason was to avoid any imprecise formulation of his carefully worked out statement.

Whether Viktor Orbán was hoping for a public promise of support with regard to the Excessive Deficit Procedure I don’t know, but he didn’t get it. Olli Rehn, the commissioner in charge of finance, will have to mull over the details of the IMF report as well as the 2012 economic data submitted by the Hungarian Statistical Office. In my opinion, the 2013 budget belongs in a Brothers Grimm collection. The question is what the experts in Brussels will think of it.