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What’s behind Orban’s newly proclaimed pro-EU strategy?

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Budapest, Hungary – There are times when I have nagging doubts about the conclusions of other respectable, even wise political commentators. Not that they are entirely wrong, but that they are insufficient to explain a given political move.

What do I have in mind? Yesterday, while reviewing the message of Viktor Orbán’s speech in Kötcse, I noted my agreement with Zoltán Lakner, a political scientist of whom I think highly, that the reason for Orbán’s sudden enthusiasm for the European Union could most likely be found in his desire to shut down any talk of a possible Huxit, widely discussed of late by high-level Fidesz politicians.

Viktor Orbán’s speech in Kötcse shows new pro-EU inclination

Elections are on the horizon, and the European Union, despite all the propaganda against the Brussels bureaucrats, is still enormously popular in Hungary. Of course, this enthusiasm is due primarily to the population’s realization of the immense financial benefits the country enjoys as a member of the European Union. So, on that score I have no argument with Lakner. Still, I couldn’t help thinking that this was just part of the answer.

I was also somewhat dissatisfied with Péter Balázs’s dismissal of international developments as a possible source of the changed strategy regarding the Orbán government’s relations with the European Union. I fully agree with him that Orbán’s speech was just the customary “peacock dance” and that Orbán “hates the European Union no less today than he did last week.” But I’m not so sure that the changing political scene in Germany and the difficulties Poland is currently facing because of its blatant disregard of the EU requirements regarding the rule of law conditionality have no bearing on Orbán’s professed strategic turnaround.

My initial doubt was aroused last night after I finished my blog post. I read a short article based on an MTI report from Ljubljana and Brussels titled “EU Commissioner: Rule of law concerns delay adoption of Hungarian and Polish recovery funds.” The commissioner in question was Valdis Dombrovskis, trade commissioner and chair of the Commissioners’ Group on Economy that Works for People. Strangely, in the body of the article, Hungary was barely mentioned; the commissioner’s warning was limited to the Polish case.

And aside from a napi.hu article, the Hungarian media paid no attention to the possible implications of Valdis Dombrovskis’ remarks as far as Hungary is concerned. That was also the case with the Reuters’ report from Warsaw and Brussels, which announced that the European Commission is determined to put heavy pressure on Poland, possibly fines of €100,000 a day for as long as measures imposed by the court’s order are not fully implemented. The Austrian Kurier, however, referenced Hungary in its article. In fact, it directly quoted Dombrovskis as saying that “Of course, we are also looking at rule of law concerns that have been identified in the case of Hungary.”

EU funds and rule of law conditionality

After reading these brief reports, I couldn’t help wondering about the possibility that the Orbán government had advanced knowledge that the European Commission is ready to move on the rule-of-law conditionality issues that are still under discussion between Budapest and the European Union. Thus, at stake may be not only another postponement of the RRF money due to Hungary. Heavy daily fines may also await the Orbán government unless it moves on issues such as the heavily criticized “pedophilia law.”

Věra Jourová, EU vice president for values and transparency, tweeted that “Today, we adopt two decisions related to independence of judges in Poland. First, we ask @EUCourtPress for financial penalties against Poland on the activity of the Disciplinary Chamber that is still scheduling hearings and does not respect the Court order. Secondly, we launched an infringement procedure because we need further details on the reforms of the Disciplinary Chamber.”

The response of the Hungarian government press was muted, but the report of Magyar Nemzet’s Brussels correspondent Tamara Judi reveals a sense of surprise at these developments. In the last weeks of August, she claims, it looked as if “the dispute was resolved,” but “despite reports in the European press of a Polish-EU reconciliation, today’s European Commission’s announcement shows that Warsaw has not taken the necessary steps to implement the court’s decision.” An unusual comment on the pages of Magyar Nemzet. It looks as if the Hungarian government is not ready to stick its neck out and stand by its ally in what the Polish government calls an “illegal aggression” against Poland.

Changes in Berlin

I also suspect that the changing political scene in Germany is giving rise to concern in the Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office. Orbán, after all, spent some time discussing the forthcoming German elections in his speech and indicated that the probable results will mean certain fundamental changes in the affairs of the European Union. These changes, according to the prime minister, will mean more money being spent on social spending and on financial assistance instead of on supporting his ideal of a work-based society.

Since we have only bits and pieces of the content of the speech, we don’t know whether he elaborated on the possible future of a German coalition government where, instead of the CDU, let’s say, the Social Democrats will provide the next chancellor. Such a development would deliver a heavy blow to Orbán’s until recently quite cozy relationship with Berlin, but I doubt that Orbán shared his worries about such a development with the audience at Kötcse. To anyone who’s interested in the changing political landscape in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, I would suggest taking a look at Politico’s “Poll of Polls,” which not only tells the story of the current situation in Germany but reports on the standing of political parties country by country across Europe.

All in all, I have been mulling over this plethora of possible catalysts behind Orbán’s bogus decision to suddenly become the most faithful supporter of the European Union. I have the feeling that all of these considerations played some role in his sudden, self-professed turnabout.

By the Hungarian Spectrum, an official partner of Kafkadesk.