Hungarian Government In A Bind

  • 12 Nov 2014 8:00 AM
Hungarian Government In A Bind
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán will have the toughest period of his career if both the United States administration and the newly installed European Commission maintain their criticism of his government's policies. That is a likely scenario, and the European People's Party is now less eager to back him. At stake is how to ensure funds for the development of the Hungarian economy.

Though Washington is angry, Brussels is quiet – so went the argument among Hungarians who were worried about the US ban on visas for some Hungarians. A cursory look indicated that the leading EU bodies, which in recent years repeatedly criticized the Hungarian government, are now tranquil.

Tibor Navracsics has been elected commissioner for education, youth and culture relatively smoothly whereas Alenka Bratušek of Slovenia couldn’t make it to the European Commission. Even the European Parliament’s debate on the state of democracy in Hungary was uneventful as only a handful MEPs parroted hackneyed arguments.

But a closer look at the European Commission produces a different picture. Heti Válasz has learned that – after its official inauguration on November 1 – the European Commission will focus on Hungary and even a political decision has already been made on initiating the strongest possible proceedings.

There were earlier signs. During his hearing on October 7, Dutch commissioner Frans Timmermans (who spent a part of his life in Hungary because his diplomat parents worked in Budapest) implied that a storm is about to break out. Timmermans is a commissioner for the rule of law and a deputy of Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. He said that if a dialogue with Hungary is ineffective, “measures” need to be taken.

A thoroughly problematic country

Complex causes might lead to EU proceedings against Hungary. In recent years there has been disagreement between the EU and Hungary on the judiciary, the freedom of the media, the rule of law and on democracy. There were so many “issues” that even the friends of Hungary are now uncertain of their loyalty.

That the Hungarian media law threatened the freedom of the press got ample press coverage but the international media failed to report that with time the EU and the Hungarian government reached a compromise in that field. In October 2013 Thorbjørn Jagland, president of the Council of Europe, declared that the Hungarian parliament had amended the laws related to the media and justice, which means the controversy was over.

However our source in Brussels has informed this weekly that, after four years of controversies between Hungary and the EU, the newsreel that showed the head of Ökotárs Foundation (Hungarian Environmental Partnership Foundation) escorted by robust police officers to a police car in downtown Budapest had a devastating effect.

Although even André Goodfriend, chargé d’affaires at the US Embassy (who is soon to earn the title: “honorary demonstrator”), agreed that during the recent demonstrations against the Internet tax police acted professionally (unlike during the demonstrations in 2006), given Hungary’s current international image, explanations mean nothing. The international community is considering Hungary a thoroughly problematic country.

The Hungarian government’s conspicuously cordial relation to Putin’s Russia has strengthened Hungary’s international criticism and questioned its commitment to the West. Certain events perhaps would have happened unnoticed a year ago: decision has been made about the expansion of the Paks nuclear power plant; Hungary supports the building of the South Stream pipeline; Hungary stopped supplying natural gas to Ukraine after Gazprom Chairman Alexey Miller had visited Budapest; Hungary has been emphasizing the importance of its commercial ties with Russia. However, in just one year the Crimean has been annexed; a part of Eastern Ukraine has been de facto severed from Ukraine. In the eastern border region of Europe there is a situation that has been unseen since the end of the Cold War.

The European Union and the United States acted without a strategy when they upset the status quo by helping the ouster of President Victor Yanukovich – which in turn provoked a Russian backlash. That said, NATO has encountered an armed threat on its eastern flank and Russian energy blackmail within its borders.

It was in this chilly geopolitical context that the Hungarian prime minister delivered his tinderbox of a speech in July 2014 at Băile Tușnad (Tusnádfürdő), Hargitha county, Romania. His speech – in which he defined his creed as illiberal, which in Western languages is synonymous with a soft version of dictatorial – retroactively justified the European Parliament’s and the European Commission’s criticism of the state of the rule of law in Hungary. After Russian separatists had shot down the Malaysian airliner, Orbán’s positive reference to the “Russian model” strengthened the opinion that Hungary has become the weakest link of the Western alliance.

Who likes a weak link at times of conflict?

Hungary has zero room of maneuver because Hungary is only precious for Moscow as long as it is a member of the European Union and NATO. If Hungary’s position weakens in any of those two alliances – even if temporarily because Hungary’s right of vote is suspended or the transfer of EU funds is suspended – Russia will not move a finger to help Hungary.

Weakening support from the European People’s Party

Hungary has not been the only country that has flirted with Russia. Before the sanctions against Moscow were adopted, Slovakia threatened to veto the measures; in earlier stage of the Ukraine crisis the president of Finland flew to Sochi to negotiate; France had only suspended the delivery of a helicopter carrier to Russia after it came under US and British pressure. But, unlike Hungary, those countries are playing the entire gamut of the diplomatic instruments and keep carefully maneuvering to promote their national interests. And step by step all the other EU countries have given up their pro-Russian stance because that is disapproved in the European Union. Take the example of Romania: for a long time it stuck to the South Stream – which is criticized by the European Commission on the grounds of competition law and energy supply security – but most recently, sensing the riskiness of such a stance, has given up that position.

Hungary has been moving in the opposite direction: it favors the building of the South Stream even by bypassing the European Union. By doing so Hungary is risking an immense competition law fine from the EU and consolidating its image as a pro-Russian state. Given such a context, no one really appreciates the immense efforts the Hungarian government has taken since 2010 – when the country was on the brink of economic collapse – to satisfy Brussels’ requirements by bringing down the deficit/GDP ratio to below three percent and relaunching economic growth.

Worse, the Hungarian government is without allies in its flirt with Russia. By sticking to the anti-Russian sanctions, Germany is risking more: although German firms had invested EUR 22 billion in Russia by 2013 and the German Chamber of Industry says that the future of 300 000 jobs depend on the Eastern markets, Germany is adhering to the sanctions. Instead of proposing to soften the sanctions, Chancellor Angela Merkel has declared that Germany won’t do business with Moscow as long as Russia doesn’t stop supporting the east-Ukrainian separatists.

Although the Fidesz leadership is considering Berlin a priority partner, it has provoked an economic row with the Germans. By proposing to introduce the Internet tax it has provoked an angry backlash in Hungary and stepped on the toe of Deutsche Telekom, a company that is taken seriously also in German Chancellor’s office.

In February 2014 Hungary and Deutsche Telekom agreed that by 2018 the Deutsche Telekom would bring to every Hungarian household broadband Internet. Small wonder, when Michael Roth, minister of state at the German Foreign Ministry, visited Budapest the other day, he called the Internet tax a problem.

Now that Germany is unlikely to intervene on behalf of Hungary in Brussels, can we count on the European People’s Party, which always stood up for Hungary in the European Parliament during the previous term? We probably cannot.

“Unlike three years ago, the European People’s Party will not defend Hungary if it is criticized by the European Commission or the leftwing parliamentary groups. Hungary’s pro-Russian policies are disapproved, for instance, by the Poles, who used to side with Hungary,” said to Heti Válasz an influential Fidesz Member of the European Parliament. Another sign of the weakening of the European People’s Party support for Hungary was that during the European Parliament debate on Hungary Esteban González Pons of Spain only repeated “compulsory minimum” phrases. He said, in short, that it wasn’t the job of the European Parliament to judge what a member state does.

If the European Union initiates proceedings against Hungary, we cannot count on the solidarity of the Visegrád Four countries either. “We have become a toxic country,” a high-ranking Hungarian foreign ministry official has told this weekly. Though the Slovaks and the Czechs count as doves in connection with Russia, it wouldn’t pay for them to side with Hungary.

Note that the European Union doesn’t have the right to use sanctions against one of its member states because of a foreign policy stance or because of laws adopted in the past. However, our high-level source at the European Commission says that inquiries could be expected in three fields, and sooner or later such inquiries usually produce some result.

As a consequence of those inquiries, the EU funds that are crucial for the growth of Hungarian economy might be frozen. Some believe in Brussels that such a freeze would be the most effective measure to regiment the Hungarian government. (Ninety-five percent of the investment projects of Hungary are now realized from EU resources. In the forthcoming Multiannual Financial Framework 60 percent of the EU funds are to be spent on stimulating the Hungarian economy.)

Custom-tailored measures

The first field of inquiry is already known: the European Union might attempt to reopen the excessive deficit procedure against Hungary. If Brussels succeeds to open such proceedings, it has a strong control over that process. The first related warning came this last summer. In July 2014 the European Commission declared that Hungary’s debt-to-GDP ratio has been consistently so high that the excessive deficit procedure against it might be relaunched in 2015. Moreover, the European Commission is doubtful that the Hungarian government can keep the deficit/GDP ratio under three percent. That is why the Hungarian parliament has defined a very tight draft budget. The official plan foresees a deficit/GDP ratio as low as 2.4 percent for 2015 – which the Hungarian government hopes will impress even the toughest European bureaucrat.

In the second field the European Commission might deploy a weapon that has not been used so far. It has already been proposed to invoke Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, which might mean suspending the right of vote of a maverick member state. Such proceedings would require the approval of four-fifth of the European Council. Until now politicians have avoided citing that clause because they are afraid that their country might also fall victim to such proceedings in the future.

Perhaps a “custom-tailored” weapon will be used against the Hungarian government. Frans Timmermans, foreign minister at the time, and others have raised the idea that the observation of the so-called “Copenhagen norms” – which candidate countries had to pledge to honor before joining the European Union – would be checked upon continuously.

In February 2014 the European Parliament approved a report that called on the European Commission to create a mechanism for examining whether or not the member states adhere to the fundamental values of the European Union. The mechanism to check on democracy would have, among other things, the tool of freezing the transfer of EU funds. That mechanism is not fine-tuned yet but Timmermans has made it clear in Brussels that Hungary would be the first country to be subjected to it. Fidesz apparently knows that.

Last Sunday Gergely Gulyás (Fidesz), a vice-speaker of the Hungarian parliament said that in 2015 the parliament might pass a new law on Churches to replace the one that had been sharply criticized by Strasbourg European Court of Human Rights.

The way this weekly knows the third package of measures would be linked to a front that has been opened by the United States. OLAF, the anti-fraud watchdog of the European Union has been looking into over three dozens of Hungarian major investment projects (many of them road building). The European Commission might decide to speed up those inquiries, and Cornelia Cretu of Romania, who is the commissioner overseeing regional development funds, will probably not protest. Whereas the United States has not produced any evidence to substantiate its claim of corruption in Hungary, the European Union will have to come up with proof if it intends to proceed in that field.

To sum up: in Brussels the climate around the Hungarian government is chilly; it cannot count on any countries to act as its ally; and the European Commission is likely to launch inquiries against it in three fronts: budget, rule of law and corruption. The question perhaps is not whether or not Hungary is to be subjected to sanctions but what consequences those sanctions will have on Hungary.

Since the start of his career, Viktor Orbán has already been a liberal activist, middle-class conservative politician and plebeian tribune. That is to say, he has already proved his skill in changing directions. The question now is whether he can yet make further maneuvers to avoid that powerful external players could remove him from his position.

Source: Heti Válasz

Translated by Budapest Telegraph

  • How does this content make you feel?