Central Europeans Urge EU to Get Back to Basics

Bohuslav Sobotka, Robert Fico, Beata Szydło and Viktor Orbán, the prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary, meet in Prague, June 8
Bohuslav Sobotka, Robert Fico, Beata Szydło and Viktor Orbán, the prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary, meet in Prague, June 8 (PiS)

Central European countries have endorsed the call for a more modest European Union in the wake of Britain’s referendum vote to leave the bloc on Thursday.

“The work of the union should get back to basics,” argue the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia in a statement that was released on Tuesday: “upholding the fundamental principles upon which the European projects has been founded, using the full and genuine potential of the four freedoms, achieving the still incomplete single market.”

They also emphasize the need to listen to European citizens and the national parliaments. Read more “Central Europeans Urge EU to Get Back to Basics”

Satellite Geopolitics in Eastern Europe

President Barack Obama speaks with Bob Carr, Australia's foreign minister, as Russian president Vladimir Putin opens an afternoon plenary session of the G20 summit in Saint Petersburg, September 6, 2013
President Barack Obama speaks with Bob Carr, Australia’s foreign minister, as Russian president Vladimir Putin opens an afternoon plenary session of the G20 summit in Saint Petersburg, September 6, 2013 (White House/Pete Souza)

During the past year, the primary focus of the American-Russian rivalry has centred around Iran. The United States put an end to Western sanctions against Iran and also chose to keep American troops in Afghanistan, who support, among others, many of the tens of millions of Afghans who are Shiite Muslims or who can speak Farsi (as opposed to the Taliban, who are Sunni and typically Pashto-speaking). Russia, meanwhile, intervened to aid Bashar al-Assad in Syria, whose survival diverts Sunni attention away from Iran’s Shiite allies in Iraq.

With Russia now withdrawing most of its forces from Syria and the United States hoping to do so from Afghanistan, the focus of the American-Russian rivalry could revert, perhaps, to Ukraine. By comparison to the Middle East, Ukraine has appeared to be quite quiet of late.

Russia may have dialed back the conflict there partly in order to shift the West’s focus to the Middle East. This of course has not been very difficult to accomplish, given Europe’s influx of Syrian migrants and America’s election-season rhetoric on issues like ISIS, the conflict in Libya and Donald Trump’s proposal to ban, for an unspecified amount of time, all Muslims from traveling to the United States.

If the American-Russian focus does move back toward Eastern Europe, one can perhaps guess the rough outlines of any geopolitical contest that may occur there. Read more “Satellite Geopolitics in Eastern Europe”

Comrades in Arms

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and Russian president Vladimir Putin answer questions from reporters in Moscow, February 17
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and Russian president Vladimir Putin answer questions from reporters in Moscow, February 17 (Facebook/Viktor Orbán)

Sometimes in politics everything is exactly what it looks like.

This was the case when the prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, visited Moscow last week, extended a gas contract with Russia and told the Russian president that the period when the EU automatically extended sanctions against Russia was “behind us.”

The moment of honesty came when Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán got to compliment each other on their Syria and refugee-related policies. “We value greatly the efforts made to resolve this problem [of Middle Eastern refugees],” said Orbán, adding, “We wish you great success in your international initiatives.” Putin then said, “Our people has sympathy for the position taken by the Hungarian government” on the refugee crisis.

And yes, in a perverse way, the two policies do indeed work very well together — that is, to suit the needs of the two leaders: Russia’s intervention in Syria aggravated the war and the refugee crisis. Which, in turn, strengthened Orbán’s position in Hungary and in Europe. Which, in turn, helped far-right parties and Putin allies and weakened the EU.

This unspoken but existing alliance, ultimately, against the EU and against the solution of a refugee crisis that benefits them both, was behind the chumminess that the Hungarian prime minister and the Russian president showed in Moscow.

The Russian pro-government press could hardly hide its joy over the visit. Izvestia wrote about a meeting of “not only partners, but friends on principles,” noting that Orbán was the first foreign leader whom Putin met in the new working building at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence. But calling Orbán and Putin friends is an exaggeration. Just as Orbán himself declared last year, Putin “is not a man who has a known personality,” which largely rules out making friends with fellow leaders. Even on principles. Read more “Comrades in Arms”

Cameron Wins Hungary’s Qualified Support for Reform

Prime Ministers David Cameron of the United Kingdom and Viktor Orbán of Hungary speak in Budapest, January 7
Prime Ministers David Cameron of the United Kingdom and Viktor Orbán of Hungary speak in Budapest, January 7 (Facebook/Viktor Orbán)

British prime minister David Cameron won the qualified support of his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orbán, on Thursday for a key part of his EU renegotiation: a proposal to limit migrant workers’ access to welfare benefits.

“Hungarians that work well and contribute to the British economy should not suffer or experience discrimination,” Orbán told reporters alongside Cameron in Budapest. “But we are open to solutions that tackle abuses of the system.” Read more “Cameron Wins Hungary’s Qualified Support for Reform”

Central Europeans Resist Merkel’s Immigration Policy

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán arrives for a meeting with other European People's Party leaders, December 13, 2012
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán arrives for a meeting with other European People’s Party leaders, December 13, 2012 (EPP)

Germany is supposed to have huge influence in Central Europe where countries depend on it — Europe’s largest economy — for investment and manufacturing jobs. Yet Chancellor Angela Merkel has failed to translate this influence into support for her generous immigration policy. Read more “Central Europeans Resist Merkel’s Immigration Policy”

Germany’s Schengen Threat to Central Europe Backfires

German chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with Czech prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka in Berlin, March 25, 2014
German chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with Czech prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka in Berlin, March 25, 2014 (Bundesregierung)

When Germany temporarily shut its border with Austria this weekend and warned that the Schengen visa-free travel agreement would be at risk if Central European nations didn’t admit more immigrants, it seemed an ill-veiled threat to those states that have benefited the most from unimpeded access to the West.

But so far, it isn’t working.

On Tuesday, Hungary closed its border with Serbia altogether and said it would turn back asylum seekers who had crossed through a country it now considers safe.

In the early hours of Wednesday, Austria — which earlier likened Hungary’s policy to Nazi deportations — followed suit.

Serbia said the Hungarian measure was “unacceptable” and responded by bussing migrants to the border with Croatia instead, another European Union member state.

The moves come after European interior ministers failed to agree on a quota system at a Monday summit in Brussels.

The European Commission has proposed distributing asylum seekers proportionately across the countries that are in the European Union. Germany and Sweden now take in far more immigrants relative to their size than most. Germany’s Thomas de Maizière suggested that nations that don’t comply with the scheme — which could be forced through by a majority — should be penalized.

“I think we must talk about ways of exerting pressure,” the German minister told ZDF television before pointing out that some of the countries that oppose quotas are net beneficiaries of European Union funds.

Millions of workers from the former East Bloc nations that joined the union in 2004 have also benefited from Europe’s free-movement policy and its internal market to find jobs in richer Western countries.

But the Central Europeans won’t budge. Tomáš Prouza, the Czech state secretary for European affairs, said De Maizière’s threat was “empty but very damaging.” Slovakia’s prime minister, Robert Fico, insisted that his government would never agree to quotas and that threats of financial retaliation could lead to “the end of the EU.”

Slovakia earlier said it would prefer to only take in Christian refugees while Hungary’s Viktor Orbán argued that the migrant crisis was Germany’s to deal with. “Nobody would like to stay in Hungary so we don’t have difficulties with those who would like to stay in Hungary,” he said.

His German counterpart, Angela Merkel, backpedaled on Tuesday, saying, “I don’t think threats are the right way to achieve agreement.”

She expects Germany to take in as many as one million asylum seekers this year from the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa. The cost of processing and sheltering the record number of migrants could be as high as €10 billion.

For weeks, Germany has warned that it may not be able to bear the strain. Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said that now-welcoming attitudes toward newcomers could change if local governments are forced to choose “between caring for refugees and renovating a school or financing a swimming pool.”

Conservative German politicians have argued that Western Balkan nations, such as Serbia, should be declared “safe” so asylum seekers from the region can be returned.

Many applicants from the Balkans, numbering in the tens of thousands, are sent back already but they each need to be assessed anyway, delaying the process for refugees from countries like Syria.

Germany absorbed millions of refugees from the East in the aftermath of World War II and now has around 1.5 million citizens of Turkish descent and another two million from countries that used to be in the Soviet bloc.

Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, by contrast, are ethnically more homogenous than their Western neighbors and had far more traumatic experiences with population transfers during and immediately after the war.

Yet they are not the only ones wary of admitting more immigrants from especially Muslim states.

Denmark, where the nationalist Danish People’s Party got 21 percent of the votes in June’s election, closed a motorway and rail links with Germany last week in an attempt to stop migrants heading north to Sweden.

In the Netherlands, the Freedom Party is the largest in the polls and advocates leaving the European Union altogether to stop what it describes as the “Islamization” of the country.

In France, former president and conservative party leader Nicolas Sarkozy has said that Europe’s second largest nation may need to pull out of Schengen. He also argues that quotas will only make the crisis worse if they attract more asylum seekers.

The Socialist administration of François Hollande is ambivalent.

Germany’s only real allies on the issue are the very countries that resist its austerity program of fiscal consolidation and liberalization in the eurozone: Italy and Greece. They are bearing the brunt of the crisis on the Mediterranean. More than 400,000 people have made the dangerous boat crossing this year alone. The majority came through Turkey to European problem child Greece.

Hungary Cites Migrant Crisis for Draconian Measures

Viktor Orbán
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán arrives for a meeting with other European People’s Party leaders, December 13, 2012 (EPP)

Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party introduced legislation this week that, if enacted, would further weaken the Central European nation’s democracy.

From making it easier for soldiers to use force and enabling police to conduct searches without warrants to enlisting telecom companies in the collection of bulk phone data, the new laws seem more becoming of a police state than a European republic.

Given that Fidesz has an absolute majority in parliament, the bills are almost certain to pass, possibly as early as Friday.

The government claims the measures are needed to cope with a swelling migrant crisis that is seeing tens of thousands of asylum seekers pass through the country this year on their way to Germany and Scandinavia.

Some of the policies, such as making it easier to imprison migrants without papers and prosecuting those who help them, clearly are linked to the record high influx of people from the Balkans and the Middle East. Read more “Hungary Cites Migrant Crisis for Draconian Measures”

Mass Migration Seen Dividing Europe, Attitudes Harden

Stockholm Sweden
View of Södermalm from the island of Riddarholmen in Stockholm, Sweden (iStock/Goncharova Julia)

Mass immigration into the European Union is threatening to overwhelm governments and calling into question member states’ commitment to free travel within the bloc.

The German interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, warned on Wednesday that unless other European countries agreed to take in more refugees, the lack of border controls within the Schengen Area would be unsustainable.

“In the long run, there won’t be any Schengen without Dublin,” he said, referring to the agreement signed in the Irish capital that requires refugees to claim asylum in the country they first arrive in. Some border states, including Greece and Italy, have been lax in enforcing the rule, allowing refugees to travel north and claim asylum there.

De Maizière reported that Germany expects 800,000 refugees will arrive in the country this year. “Germany cannot bear the strain if, as has been the case, around 40 percent of all asylum seekers to Europe come here,” he said.

107,500 migrants arrived in Europe in July alone, a record number. 37,500 of them applied for asylum in Germany. Read more “Mass Migration Seen Dividing Europe, Attitudes Harden”

Hungary Denies Europe Blocks Nuclear Deal with Russia

Vladimir Putin
Russian president Vladimir Putin looks out a window in Budapest, Hungary, February 17 (Facebook/Viktor Orbán)

Hungary on Friday denied reports that European regulators were blocking its nuclear deal with Russia. “These intergovernmental agreements were presented to the relevant EU authorities who, after due and careful survey of the material provided, put forward no objections,” Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s office said in a statement.

Earlier in the day, Bloomberg reported that the Euratom Supply Agency had turned down Hungary’s plans to import nuclear fuel exclusively from Russia, a possible violation of the bloc’s competition rules.

The European Atomic Energy Community must approve all nuclear supply contracts European Union member states enter into. Read more “Hungary Denies Europe Blocks Nuclear Deal with Russia”

Hungary’s Nationalist Premier Shows Putin Not Isolated

Viktor Orbán Vladimir Putin
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and Russian president Vladimir Putin answer questions from reporters in Moscow, February 17 (Facebook/Viktor Orbán)

Russian president Vladimir Putin visited Budapest on Tuesday. The visit was largely devoid of substance but made clear the Russian leader was not as isolated in Europe as most Western governments would have liked.

Hungary’s nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orbán, said his ambitions for the summit with Putin were modest. He assured European ambassadors that he would not try to mediate between Russia and the West over the standoff in Ukraine where the former supports a separatist uprising against the Western-backed administration in Kiev.

Rather, Orbán said he planned to negotiate a new long-term gas supply contract that would allow him to reduce energy bills. Read more “Hungary’s Nationalist Premier Shows Putin Not Isolated”