Róbert Répássy

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.