Viktor Orban is starting a Crusade for Europe

Author: Szabolcs PANYI Original title: Orbán Viktor keresztes hadjáratot indít Európáért Publication:, Photo: MTI – Zoltán MÁTHÉ Date: 08:38 21/09/2015 Viktor Orban is starting a Crusade for Europe After diverging from the rule of law, creating a new constitution and laws on media in the first part of the decade, then talking about an illiberal state – which may be perceived … More Viktor Orban is starting a Crusade for Europe

Author: Szabolcs PANYI Original title: Orbán Viktor keresztes hadjáratot indít Európáért
Publication:, Photo: MTI – Zoltán MÁTHÉ Date: 08:38 21/09/2015

Viktor Orban is starting a Crusade for Europe

After diverging from the rule of law, creating a new constitution and laws on media in the first part of the decade, then talking about an illiberal state – which may be perceived as the result of the previous processes – and making several mistakes in foreign policy, the Hungarian government is touching bottom over and over again according to the European press and the international opinion. At the same time, the Greek crisis has proven that Orban was not as much of a villain as Tsipras was; and his intuition – that the European mainstream was shifting right – proved to be right. Orban has learnt that not even the European press could overthrow him. Now, the Hungarian government is expecting – and not without reason – that the European public discourse as well as elections will now take a turn; thus, the Hungarian diplomacy may find itself in a friendlier Europe.

The coldest winter of Hungarian diplomacy

Those, who, now, in the middle of September, think that Hungary’s international prestige competes with the butchers of the flight passengers at Donetsk, may have forgotten about the turning point of 2014/2015.  At the beginning of the year, everything was about the Eastern-Ukrainian conflict – to Orban’s despair.  After his “illiberal state” speech last year – which had a huge echo in the international press -, everybody thought that he belonged to the alliance of interests which shot down the Malaysian flight, Vladimir Putin that is.

While the European Union and the Western public opinion unambiguously stood up for Ukraine – especially after the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, the uprising in Donetsk, instigated by Russia, and after shooting the airliner down -, the Hungarian foreign policy was lagging behind and it was stuck in its “opening towards the East” policy at the wrong time. However, the country seemed to be more Russian-friendly from the outside than it actually was,

Hungary was moving fast towards its international isolation.

Putin’s visit to Budapest in February – which was the last thing the Hungarian government wished for by that time – became the symbol of botched foreign policy. Relations with the United States hit rock bottom due to the scandal around the entry bans, and Washington started to be just as concerned with Budapest’s friendliness towards Russia as it was about the corrupt dealings of certain government-friendly public figures – infringing American interests.

In the meantime, even our Polish allies have started to turn away in disgust from Orban – who became stigmatized as Putinist -, especially after he questioned Ukraine’s territorial integrity in one of his statements. The Visegrad cooperation also seemed to have deteriorated, especially after the Czech-Slovakian-Austrian Forum came into existence, which was seen as a threat to the Visegrad cooperation. With the Mol-Ina dispute, a traditionally good relationship has tumbled with Croatia; while in Romania, a traditionally bad relationship returned with Victor Ponta’s government.

When we assess the foreign policy opportunities and the prospects of the Orban government this September, we better not forget where we came from. Almost a year ago, Hungary’s prestige was at its lowest due to misassessment of situations  and drifting foreign policies; thus limiting its room to maneuver, too. Now, the situation is quite different.

From the sobering Western reactions (Berlin would not provide aid for refugees arriving from another EU country; Austria would return refugees to the  Southern Slavic countries), it seems that this time Hungary was the first one to recognize what European policies will be focusing on in the second half of 2015. The often bluntly cruel, anti-refugee attitude of the Hungarian government is not the only reason for our horrible but somewhat improving international perception. It is rather due to the slow-starters or those who misinterpreted the situation: either because they faced the complexity of the issue up close or at all only after the Hungarians; or because they tried to cover up their realization with hypocrisy, making Hungary the ideal scapegoat. (It is enough to mention just the one incident: Pegida in Germany was able to take to the streets a crowd of 10,000 racists against migrants almost a year ago; and ever since, there is hardly a day without an attack on refugee camps.)

Additionally, in case of the Orban government, bad reputation was not coupled with paralysis, but with rare foreign policy opportunities. Not to mention that in the coming months and years a political restructuring may take place in Europe which may put the Hungarian prime minister’s old or potential allies to leading positions.

The Greeks have revealed who Orban really was

The foreign policy’s correction was a decision made by the beginning of January. Orban and his foreign minister kept saying that Hungary would set its foreign policy to align with that of Germany – who, by the way, traditionally plays a double game with Russia, too. They wanted to erase all references to the ‘opening towards the East’ by announcing the clearly frivolous but suitable “opening towards the South’.

By tagging along with Germany, Orban started to play it safe, as there was nothing else to do.

Under normal circumstances, the Hungarian government would have needed to toil long years in diplomacy and a defensive, risk-averse foreign policy in order to get out of such adump. The only chance was to use an extraordinary event that turns the attention of the whole world and the European Union towards them.

However, it would have been difficult to create a Hungarian issue out of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, and from the Spring of 2015 the EU was way too busy with the Greek crisis. EU decision-makers were fighting with the far-left Greek government for months, while Europeans held their breath whether the Eurozone fell apart. While there was no role for Hungary in all this, it was already a good start that at that moment Alexis Tsipras was the bad boy of Europe and not Viktor Orban.

In fact, the Greeks have done a big favour to the Hungarian government. It is worth pondering a bit about the examples of Orban and Tsipras, because they show the difference between villain and villain:

  • Orban revolted against Brussels, that impersonates the formal power, while Tsipras has done the same against the real power, Berlin. Orban has never lost the good-will of Berlin during his revolt called ‘freedom fight’. In fact, due to the majority of the European People’s party in Brussels/Strasbourg, he could not lose. Tsipras never really had any allies, only enemies.
  • You can revolt only against real power, so Viktor Orban, no matter how he inflated his role, or how orotund metaphors he used for his fight, he was never a true rebel. Actually, Orban carries his ‘villain’ image only within the EU’s establishment – or as Gabor G. Fodor would say, even the war of independence is ‘a political product’ only. (Obviously, the casting was not consciously done or based on any agreement, but it evolved over the years through conflicts and cooperation between heads of institutions and Member States.)
  • Tsipras’s true rebellion – which necessarily failed – was useful for Brussels among other things to understand the difference described above and also the true nature of Orban’s threat to the Union. Making Hungary into assembly lines of German car-manufacturers and markets for German chain stores: does not seem like a real challenge of the EU’s status quo.

Although there could have been a common ideological basis, Orban was quiet during the Greek crisis – and only made pro-Tsipras statements at home, e.g. that Hungarians have a romantic sympathy towards Greeks. He did not venture further. The main adversaries of Tsipras were the most important allies of Viktor Orban, without whom the Hungarian government would never have survived the continuous international pressure ever since 2010.

During the European Parliament’s special session on May 20, which was organised to discuss the Hungarian government’s current issues (toying with the idea of re-introducing capital punishment, anti-immigration national consultation), the European People’s party stood by Orban again. Jean-Claude Juncker’s – President of the European Commission and also the member of the People’s Party – infamous “Hello, dictator!” greeting was not a sign of ostracism, in fact the opposite:

even if Orban is regarded in Brussels as an authoritarian leader, he is still just a domesticated, small and harmless dictator of the European Union.

He is who he is, people whisper behind his back, but still, he is a full member of the club. Germany shaking

After 2009, Angela Merkel visited Budapest the second time in February 2015. Although she did make some critical comments, these were far from what the opposition of the PM were hoping for: the visit of the Chancellor was an unequivocal strengthening of the German-Hungarian right-wing alliance. After this visit, the Hungarian foreign policy aligned to the German one with accelerated speed: József Czukor, ex-Ambassador of Hungary in Germany and former intelligence chief with excellent German relations became Orban’s foreign policy advisor. Moreover, according to the rumors, János Lázár and his colleagues made an agreement with the German owners of the anti-government TV station, RTL Klub.

Consequently, when Péter Szijjártó (minister of foreign affairs- the editor) announced on 17th June in an intermission of the government’s session that a 175-km-fence is going to be built on the Serbian border, opposition politicians immediately started to spread the rumor that Merkel and Orban had agreed in advance about their respective roles so that both sides benefited and

Orban did a favour to the seemingly merciful Germans by building a wall in Hungary in front of the refugees marching towards Berlin.

The emergence of such a conspiracy theory itself proves that behind all the speeches, the construction of the fence – although an apparently a brutal measure – was not a rebellion against the European Union, rather something that would defend it. As the ‘villain’ of the European establishment, Orban is allowed to use tools that others would never be, and the ‘good boys’ are supposed to be enraged by this. At the same time, it doesn’t mean their interests and goals would be different. (Footnote: this way, it can be easily understood why the left wing – who are portraying the Orban government as the opposer of the rule of law/Europeanism and are trying to provide an alternative – is doomed.)

While the Hungarian foreign policy was dangerously lagging behind in the issue of the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, in the issue of migration the case was just the opposite. Orban was ahead of the European elite by months, mainly because Europe was tied down with the Greek crisis in June and July. The videos on migrants trying to get on trucks at Calais towards the UK have been circulating all over the world in vain, the German government – among others – was unable to prepare its public opinion for the challenges of the refugee problem.

A good indication of the attitude of the German elite on migration is the story of Angela Merkel and a Palestinian girl. The Chancellor visited a school meeting and explained the refugee girl that Germany could not receive everybody and there would be people who would have to leave. The girl started to cry, and the video that evoked sympathy towards refugees went viral: the refugee issue was linked to the Chancellor’s personal prestige, and due to the pro-refugee sentiment of German voters, it was impossible to ignore it. (There was a certain confusion when the same girl revealed that she was dreaming about the end of the Jewish state.)

Moreover, after the frequent attacks on refugee centers by extreme rightists, the mainstream parties governing the country had to demonstratively stand by the migrants – partly out of their moral obligation, partly in order to preserve their humanitarian image – which is still a sensitive issue in Germany. All this ended up in contradictory statements and total chaos; the refugees who have hardly survived in the refugee camps on the Turkish-Syrian border took this as a simple message that Germans were welcoming them with open arms.

In the meantime, the Orban government squashed similar sentiments among the Hungarian public in time with the anti-immigration national consultation (announced: 6th February), and then the outspokenly inciting poster campaign (print designs leaked: 2nd June). After these actions, the idea of a barbed wire fence was not met by massive opposition – at least not from Hungarian voters.

There was opposition abroad: “Hungary plans new Iron Curtain to stop migrants” – wrote an article of the Times: soon, half the world echoed that a barbed wire fence was being built in the middle of Europe. This was followed by the iconic photos of Keleti train station with thousands of migrants being camped in the underpasses, the police fighting a family on the tracks, a journalist kicking a fleeing migrant and the tear-gas and water cannon attack in Horgos.

Opposing the quota system brings together the Visegrad countries

Even though the Hungarian government’s foreign media coverage became even more catastrophic, their intelligence reports on smugglers in the Balkans proved to be precise and refugees started to arrive en masse. Police reports started to talk about several hundred, then a thousand, then several thousands of refugees having been caught for ‘illegal border-crossing’ over the weekends, and the numbers kept growing.

You could have said that the Orban government did not manage the problem appropriately, and it was indeed true; however, solutions on how the problem should be managed in a way that corresponded to reality, was never mentioned. While the accusations of cruelty, inhumane treatment and the violations of international conventions were fully substantiated, Orban could rub these accusations off saying the country was left alone in the crisis. This was later admitted by Elmar Brok and other German politicians, but Orban and his cronies were not willing to admit the former.

Viktor Orbán does not regret building the fence – which led to the county’s unprecedented international judgement – but regrets not building it early enough.

It was not an by accident that the scapegoat of the refugee crisis was not one of the communication experts of Orban, but the Minister of Defence, Csaba Hende, who was responsible for building the fence . By the sixth year of being in power and surviving a number of international-level conflicts, the PM had enough experience to know that the media would not topple him, but also to assess that his anti-refugee measures could be well sold politically in the Union.

One of his most important steps was to organise an anti-quota alliance with the Visegrad countries. Since then, it has turned out  from his answers to the questions of Index (the online portal publishing this article- the editor) that he was not against quotas as much. Beyond the issue at hand, it was more important to rebuild the alliance of the Visegrad countries again, considering the frozen Hungarian-Polish relations and furthering cooperation after the Slavkov cooperation between leftist Slovaks and Czech governments and the Austrian Fayman. This was important, because without its regional partners – and especially without Poland – Hungary would never be heard in Brussels, no matter how it struggled.

By the Summer of 2015, the otherwise anti-Hungarian, nationalist and leftist Robert Fico (Slovakian Prime Minister – the editor) became the strongest ally of Orban among the neighbouring countries. He had to publicly defend his Hungarian colleague on a weekly basis. The Hungarian Prime Minister was also able to win over the deeply religious Polish public by focusing on the religious aspects of the refugee crisis, and his concerns for Christian Europe, with statements that are regarded as far-right in Western Europe.

The new bad neighbours are our old bad neighbours

At the same time, the strengthening of the Visegrad group is less spectacular than the type of diplomatic clashes he had with other neighbours. Opposition politicians talk about insanity, but it is nothing of the sort.

Peter Szijjarto’s team would only kick someone who had kicked us before, the weak, or those who – according to their hopes -would not be on the political scene for long.

When they clash with the Austrians, they are only fighting with Chancellor Faymann and his Social-Democratic party, not with the Austrian government’s conservatives, members of the ÖVP- who are allies. The central-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) protects Orban despite of the conflict, albeit with less force due to their governmental engagement, whereas Jörg Haider’s late party, the far-right populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) – which leads the opinion polls -, leaded by Heinz-Christian Strache, has become the worshipper of Orban and Hungary in the past weeks.

Strache either posts Orban speeches on his facebook page as a way of support, or uploads video messages in which he says “as Chancellor, I would have offered help to Hungary to secure the external borders of the EU rather than criticizing them”. Similarly, party spokesperson Karl-Heinz Grünsteidl recently tweeted  that opprobrium towards Hungary has become “a form of socially acceptable xenophobia” in Austria. If in October Strache and his party wins the Viennese elections – which is possible – Orban may have to negotiate with a very different partner, and the feebly performing Faymann may be swept away by the political upheaval.

Orban can hope for something similar in Croatia: the centre-left ‘Kukuriku’ alliance, lead by Zoran Milanovic, is head-to-head in popularity with the right-wing HDZ. Next February, there will be parliamentary elections, and after that, a possible change of government can improve the Croatian-Hungarian relations. For now, it seems easier for Orban to gamble for the downfall of Milanovic. The case with Romania and the socialist Victor Ponta is similar in a way, as  our relations were already awful, but in this case, our hope does not lie with the Romanian public opinion, but with the work of the Romanian Anti-Corruption Directorate.

Serbia is a whole different story. When Hungary announced the building of the fence, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said he was shocked and immediately mentioned Nazis: “Serbia does not follow the Hungarian example, and will not build walls and live in Auschwitz.” Later, during his visit to Budapest, their excessive politeness towards each other was conspicuous; however, the friendship between Orban and him seemed to be genuine.

It is probable that behind the curtain the situation is not that awful – even in spite of the fact that after the clashes of the police and the migrants at Horgos, the Serbian Prime Minister was spectacularly outraged and called for the intervention of the EU. It is more likely that Serbia – expecting its accession to the EU – wanted to build the image of being sensitive to human rights, humane and refugee-friendly. In fact, Vucic does have  to compensate, as he is member of the Serbian Radical Party, moreover, he was its secretary general, and lurked out of the shadow of war criminal politicians. In one of his infamous Parliamentary speeches in 1995, he said “If you kill one Serb we will kill a hundred Muslims!”. The attack on him during the 20th anniversary memorial of the Srebrenica massacre – after which he had to be evacuated – was not surprising.

The Serbian Prime Minister’s statements of the past few days are neither an indication of his opinion about Muslims, nor of his long-term relationship with Orban.

The Crusade for the Europe of the Nations is starting

It became the Hungarian pro- government’s – including the political analyst company ‘Szazadveg’ – slogan that the left is pro-immigrant only because they expect to gain political power, regarding immigrants merely as potential future voters, while, in fact, the opposite was true. The prejudice, the fear and the social tension that comes hand in hand with the wave of refugees

have pushed the mainstream politics rightwards, and ideas which used to be considered xenophobic, anti-Islam, racist or far-right , have all become the part of the mainstream.  

The probable victory of the ‘Law and Justice’ party in Poland, the increasing popularity of Strache in Austria, the soaring popularity of Marine Le Pen and the attempts of a more than ever anti-immigrant Sarkozy to return into French politics, all foreshadows that the liberal, multicultural Europe built on solidarity – that Orban was fighting – will give way to a more introverted, more conservative, more nationalistic Europe. Also, the center of the European party family of Fidesz, the People’s Party will move to the right. (And then we have not even mentioned what was going on in the United States Primaries for the Republicans with Donald Trump at the lead.)

In such a Europe, the Hungarian Prime Minister can feel more comfortable; and seeing these trends he can happily say that his government was only living up to its European Union responsibilities, protecting the common borders, Schengen and the Western way of life when he was having a barbed wire fence built in front of the migrants.

One of the most appalling moments of the German Die Presse’s interview with Orban a couple of days ago was when he summoned the spirit of the former gay, liberal and at the same time anti-Islamic Pim Fortuyn, and expressed his concern for the freedom of speech, the equality of sexes and ‘the sexual traditions that Muslims may endanger”. This may not sound credible considering Fidesz politicians’ statements addressed to Hungarians; but the Hungarian government has finally learnt that they need to speak European if they want to succeed in Europe. If he wants to criticize the Western populists, he has to be able to speak like a Western populist.

In his speech on 25th July at Tusnádfürdő, he immediately exercised self-criticism, saying he exaggerated when he mentioned illiberal state last year. (“You shouldn’t make too many Brazilian-type maneuvers because you might end up tripping in your own leg”). And the most important outcome of his speech was that he no longer mentioned China, Russia and Turkey as positive examples, but the Germans, Cameron’s UK and Nicolas Sarkozy, when detailing the dangers of the migrant influx.

The anti-European mantras and the search for an Asian example came to an end. In Orban’s speeches, the East and South are not set as an example anymore, but as a threat to Christian Europe.

Orban is still intent on his opening towards the East and the praise of illiberal democracies; now, he made matters worse by managing the refugee crisis in a way that was considered xenophobic even by European conservatives. In his speech in Kötcse, he even alluded to the fact that he considered the refugee crisis an opportunity to abolish the dominance of liberal values in Europe. This thought, however, can still lead to numerous conflicts as the situation is not as simple as the speech implied. According to the speech, the European right has to face – even as a ruling party – a suppression by the liberal media and by the liberal opinion-leaders. Chancellor Merkel, during her above-mentioned visit in February, clearly and frankly frowned when Orban mentioned – much more softly than last summer – that not every democracy has to be liberal. The idea of freedom has much stronger roots among European conservatives than among the Hungarian right.

The Hungarian government rightly expects that the viewpoints will merge and that Europe will finally admit – pressed by Western European voters – that Orban was right in his evaluation of the refugee problem. So far, the solution of the Hungarian government to the influx of refugees was that they closed the borders and pushed all the migrants to the West, saying if the West likes them, let them live with them. This is, of course, a unique way of problem solving at the expense of other Member States. This also signals a longer term conflict of values: the policy that wishes to build a stronger Europe with a leading role in the world cannot be built on a policy of isolation and cannot sweep the problems under the rug. Orban and his team still expect that the gap between the Hungarian and the European politics will decrease, and the Hungarian Prime Minister has already announced his proposal in case of this:

The borders of Europe – like that of Hungary – need to be closed off from migrants, starting at their main entry Greece.

If the Hungarian Prime Minister and his advisors read the stars correctly, and the initial German ‘‘Welcome All’ policy gives way to something more ambivalent, it may mean a change in roles in Brussels: Orban can grow out of his villain image, since the borderline between good and bad, European and non-European will shift. This may give more room for the Hungarian foreign policy, and also Orban’s admission to upscale European saloons  would oblige him to live up to his new role in internal politics as well.

This post was originally published on Refugee Crisis in Hungary.

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