November 2, 2010


Viktor Orbán and the European Union

I read everything I could about Viktor Orbán's foreign travels since he became prime minister on May 31. Way before his inauguration he must have arranged a trip for the very next day to Poland. This was a break with his predecessors whose first trips were to Vienna, Paris, or Berlin. Surely, he wanted to underscore his administration's foreign policy goals that were intended to develop some kind of East European Polish-Romanian-Hungarian-Serbian-Croatian axis. The alleged aim of such an axis is strengthening the bargaining power of the region within the European Union. However, Viktor Orbán here and there talked about more far-reaching aims as well. For example, about an Eastern European central bank and an extensive infrastructure connecting these countries.

Polish-Hungarian friendship is legendary, and diplomats in the Fidesz orbit complained that the socialists neglected Poland. I don't know whether this accusation is accurate, but one thing is sure: it is unlikely that Hungary was too eager to have very close relations with the Poland of the Kaczynski brothers. I do remember that when President Kaczynski came to Budapest, the Hungarian prime minister was too busy to meet with him. Mind you, no other European country was an admirer of the twins. Orbán himself has rather strong ties to Poland, dating back to his student days when the Solidarity movement was greatly admired in Hungarian democratic circles. In fact, Orbán wrote his final paper on Solidarity and while working on it he made a valiant attempt to learn Polish. Given the difficulty of the language, I'm not surprised that he didn't manage.

The Warsaw visit had to be a real trip for Orbán. A military honor guard, a long private talk with Donald Tusk and the acting president, Bronislaw Komorowski. He even found time to meet Jaroslaw Kaczynski, now in opposition, with whom he has a lot in common. The more conservative Polish papers wrote glowing articles about his trip. One of them even noted that it was a Polish professor who urged Orbán and his friends to establish Fidesz as a student movement.

Therefore it had to be quite a let-down to go from Warsaw to Brussels and hear the bad news about the European Union's insistence on the 3.8% budget deficit for 2010. In Brussels he met everyone who mattered: Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council; Jerzy Buzek, the president of the European Parliament; and Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the secretary-general of NATO. However, these meetings were perfunctory and fairly meaningless. He arranged ahead of time to meet six members of the European Council, all representing conservative parties and all coming from Eastern Europe. He asked them to help his cause but to no avail. The Union was adamant about the reduction of the deficit.

On June 17 Orbán went to Brussels again because the leaders of the Union had a summit to discuss the economic strategy to be followed after the world economic crisis that hit Europe badly. We don't know whether Orbán played any role in the discussions because he wasn't very talkative at the press conference he gave to Hungarian journalists. The only thing of interest he said was that "Hungary is at the forefront as far as the speed of changes necessary to remedy the situation." That was an exaggeration because at that point the Hungarian government had simply announced the "action plan" consisting of 29 points but no action had taken place.

Let's see now the list of politicians who have visited Budapest so far during Orbán's tenure as prime minister. On July 20 the Czech prime minister had a conversation with Orbán in Budapest. The Flemish prime minister visited Budapest at the end of August. In early September the Bavarian prime minister was supposed to come but he cancelled the trip because of the plane crash in Bavaria. In the middle of September the Finnish prime minister, Mari Johanna Kiviniemi, arrived and she was blunter than most politicians paying a visit to a foreign country. She announced that "first and foremost the Finnish investors would like to see stable economic conditions." In addition, she emphasized the necessity of a unified European market. I'm sure that she was aware that Orbán would dearly like to defend the Hungarian market from foreign invaders.

Where did Orbán go besides Warsaw and Brussels? He went to Berlin and had a less than satisfactory talk with Angela Merkel. In addition, he went to Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia. A few days ago he returned to Brussels, where on October 29 the decision was made to create a permanent system for handling any sovereign debt crises that might occur after 2013. There was no agreement on what this permanent system should be. France and Germany would like to make serious changes while some of the economically weaker countries want as few alterations as possible. I gathered from the statement of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry's undersecretary in charge of European Union Affairs that the Hungarian foreign policymakers expected resistance to the suggestions of Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy and counted Hungary among the countries resisting major change. The undersecretary predicted that there will be practically no change to the existing structure.

So great was my surprise when I read that Viktor Orbán while in Brussels announced that "there is a need to alter the basic construction of the Union ... we must restore the principle of responsibility ... we must introduce sanctions." It seems that Orbán's attitude has changed in the last few days. He decided to stand by Merkel and Sarkozy. Quite a change from a man who not long ago tried to convince Barroso to allow him to have a 7.5% budgetary deficit, twice the size of the one agreed upon.

In connection with this new attitude, Orbán tried to endear himself to Nicolas Sarkozy who was severely criticized by Viviane Reding, the vice-president of the European Union. He gave a press conference during which he came to France's rescue, saying that "France is a proud country and Madame Reding insulted France and one cannot do that without repercussions." I don't know whether that will change Sarkozy's negative attitude toward Orbán. When Sarkozy visited Budapest in 2007 he was supposed to have a fairly long conversation with Orbán, the chairman of the biggest opposition party. Fidesz prepared for the meeting with a certain amount of fanfare. Sarkozy arrived and five minutes later he left after patting Orbán on the back. The nonplussed Orbán stood at the door with a confused smile on his face.

And finally, Orbán announced a couple of days ago that he as the next president of the EU from January 1, 2011, will visit the capitals of all twenty-six countries. That is certainly a novel move. I don't remember the prime ministers of Slovenia, the Czech Republic, France, Belgium, just to mention a few countries that held the presidency recently, visiting all the capitals of the EU members. Perhaps Orbán feels neglected and hopes to be able to make his diplomatic rounds this way.