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”

Hungary to Build Russian Pipeline Over EU Objections

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)

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán said on Tuesday his country will go ahead with the construction of its part of Russia’s South Stream gas pipeline, despite objections from other European Union member states and the United States.

Orbán, an Hungarian nationalist, made his statement while visiting Serbia, a country close to Russia that will host part of the same pipeline.

South Stream, due to be completed in 2018, has divided Europe since Russia invaded and annexed the Crimea in March, a territory that was formerly governed by Ukraine. Read more “Hungary to Build Russian Pipeline Over EU Objections”

Hungarians Reelect Nationalist Premier, Boost for Far Right

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)

Hungarians reelected the nationalist prime minister Viktor Orbán in a parliamentary election on Sunday, early results showed, and turned out in greater numbers for the far-right Jobbik party.

While Orbán’s national conservative Fidesz party lost support compared to the last election, down from nearly 53 percent in 2010 to over 48 percent, it will still likely get a majority of the seats in parliament.

Jobbik, which got almost 17 percent support in 2010, stood at nearly 22 percent in a tally that was based on a count of about a quarter of the votes. The opposition socialist bloc also stood at 22 percent.

The result for Jobbik was particularly disconcerting for the left which accuses it of being racist and antisemitic. Read more “Hungarians Reelect Nationalist Premier, Boost for Far Right”

Turning Away from Europe, Hungary Seeks Russian Nuclear Power

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)

Mere weeks after Russia threw Ukraine a $15 billion lifeline to help its former satellite state shore up its finances, the country negotiated a $13.7 billion loan to Hungary to help pay for the construction of a nuclear power plant.

The deal was signed earlier this month by Russian president Vladimir Putin and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and has been heavily criticized by opposition lawmakers since who see it as a step backward in their country’s integration with Europe. Read more “Turning Away from Europe, Hungary Seeks Russian Nuclear Power”

Orbán Unlikely to Revise Nationalist Economic Policies

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

Despite recommendations from the European Commission to improve its business climate, Hungary’s government is unlikely to revise its nationalist economic policies. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said earlier this month, “I think what we are doing is successful.”

Orbán has reason to be optimistic. His country’s economy expanded .7 percent in the first three months of this year, but after it contracted through 2012. At the end of last year, Hungary’s economy was still almost 10 smaller than before the downturn in 2009.

The right-wing government responded to the crisis by shutting out foreign companies and investors and raising taxes on some industries to mend its budget shortfall.

Although Hungary is now likely to keep its deficit under the 3 percent treaty limit, in its policy recommendations (PDF) released on Wednesday, the European Commission said the decision to target individual industries had raised “questions about the sustainability of the consolidation efforts.” Read more “Orbán Unlikely to Revise Nationalist Economic Policies”

Hungary’s Economic Policy “Increasing Erratic”

Budapest Hungary
Skyline of Budapest, Hungary (Unsplash/Tom Bixler)

Two of the three major American credit rating agencies downgraded Hungarian sovereign bonds to junk status this month, citing the “increasingly erratic” and “unorthodox” economic policies of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government as well as concerns over the independence of the country’s central bank.

The constitutional reforms enacted by Orbán’s right-wing administration in April of this year enabled the government to appoint members to the monetary council of the Hungarian National Bank which, in the view of the credit raters, significantly weakens the institution.

Moreover, a bill pending before parliament would allow the president to appoint the central bank’s deputy governors who are currently elected by the bank’s chairman. The bank’s monetary council, moreover, which sets interest rates, would be expanded by two members, presumably economists who share Orbán’s nationalistic economic vision. Read more “Hungary’s Economic Policy “Increasing Erratic””

Bulgarian, Romanian Workers Still Not Welcome

The European Parliament’s civil liberties committee on Monday green lighted the entry of Bulgaria and Romania to the union’s border-free Schengen Area. Yet as many as ten Western European member states will keep their borders closed for Bulgarian and Romanian workers until 2014.

All countries that belong to the European Union are required to implement the Schengen Agreement which eliminated border patrols and custom checks between member states in 1999. Ireland and the United Kingdom are exempt as are the overseas territories of Denmark, France and the Netherlands. Iceland, Norway and Switzerland, although not part of the EU, do belong to the Schengen Area.

Bulgaria and Romania, which both joined the European Union in 2007, have met the necessary conditions for entry. Key to their ascension is their ability to protect Europe’s outer borders. The European Parliament will vote in plenary session on the matter next June after which government leaders are supposed to finalize the agreement unanimously. Read more “Bulgarian, Romanian Workers Still Not Welcome”

Hungary’s New and Dangerous Constitution

In the last few months the Western European press was full of news about Hungary. Not the most flattering news. It slowly dawned on people outside of the country that something was wrong with the new Hungarian government that won a landslide electoral victory almost a year ago.

Signs of trouble, at least for those who live in Hungary or those who follow political events in the country, were evident from the very beginning. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, an acronym of sorts for “young democrats,” is neither young nor democratic anymore. Sometime in 1993 the party under the guidance of Orbán, who was then a thirty year-old liberal, edged slowly but surely toward the right. Whether Orbán was always attracted to right-wing ideology or whether he decided to switch sides for political expediency is a topic of debate among political analysts.

Today Fidesz is a nationalist party with a rightist ideology that eerily resembles that of Gyula Gömbös, Hungary’s prime minister between 1932 and 1936.

Gömbös tried to introduce a political system in Hungary that mimicked Benito Mussolini’s fascism. It was only his early death that prevented him from succeeding.

Western readers often find Orbán’s Fidesz described as “conservative” or “right of center.” I would like to correct that wholly inaccurate label. Fidesz under the leadership of Viktor Orbán is moving far to the right.

This week, Adam Michnik, former Polish dissident and chief editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, warned Orbán, his old comrade in arms: “Viktor, this road leads to dictatorship.”

What has happened since the election last April? A lot, unfortunately. Fidesz won 53 percent of the vote but because of the pecularities of the Hungarian electoral system, the party managed to attain over two-thirds of the parliamentary seats. The Fidesz members of parliament were all hand picked by the new prime minister. Potential opponents were set aside. They became members of the European Parliament or were paid off with some lucrative job. Anyone who has since made what Orbán deemed to be a political mistake has been thrown out of the party or demoted.

Under the current Hungarian constitution a party with a two-thirds majority can do practically anything. So Orbán undertook the complete reworking of the Hungarian political system. He put his own men into important “independent” positions including the Accounting Office that supposedly supervises the government’s finances and the Office of the Chief Prosecutor. Right now he is working on doing the same to the Office of the Chief Justice. If he didn’t like a particular ruling of the Constitutional Court, his two-thirds majority voting bloc simply stripped the court of some of its powers. The President’s Office was filled with a man of limited intelligence who is a servile puppet. One could continue.

About all this the outside world knew little until Orbán made the mistake of drafting a media law that would muzzle the written and electronic press. The attack on the freedom of journalists resonated across the world. What is more, Orbán introduced his legislation at the very end of December of last year, mere weeks before Hungary assumed the rotating presidency of the European Union.

Then came two solid months of wrangling over the media law between the European Commission and the Hungarian government. Orbán initially insisted that the would not allow any changes in the law but eventually had to relent. Under European pressure, some changes were made and voted on only recently, but the European Parliament remained dissatisfied. Once again, Hungary has insisted that it will not change a word in the legislation but it might not be the end of the story.

Since the media law was enacted, Fidesz and its ally the Jobbik party have worked on rewriting their country’s constitution. While other opposition parties originally sent delegates to the committee entrusted with drafting the Constitution, it soon became clear that not one of their suggestions would be included in the final draft. They determined, moreover, that their participation could be injurious to their own interests. Let Fidesz with the assistance of the far-right Jobbik come up with a constitution and it will be very difficult to convince the world that it is anything more than a party document that cannot serve the interests of the entire nation.

Fidesz leaders have in recent weeks tried to convince the green liberal LMP to join them in the effort after all. Although LMP can’t always decide whether they hate the socialists or Fidesz more, their leaders refused to budge.

Before 1949 Hungary had no written constitution. The Hungarian legal system functioned very much like that of Great Britain. In 1949, during the Rákosi period, a Hungarian version of the Stalinist Soviet constitution was adopted. With the change of regime in 1989-1990 something had to be done in a hurry. Thus liberal minded constitutional lawyers began rewriting the 1949 document. Their rewrite was so thorough that only a few sentences remained from the Stalinist version. Yet the 1949 date remained. This “oversight” allowed Orbán to claim that the current charter is in fact a communist one.

If one had asked the leaders of Fidesz whether they favored drafting a new constitution from scratch just several years ago, most would probably have said “no.” Orbán himself only complained about the preamble which he didn’t think was dignified enough. But then came the overwhelming electoral victory and Orbán discovered that there was a “revolution in the voting booths.” A revolution that demanded a new foundation.

There was a lot of confusion about when the work on the new constitution should start and how long it would take to draft a new basic law. Orbán at first talked about two years, then one year and suddenly the nation was told that the new constitution had to be done by Easter Monday. This is very much in line with Orbán’s image of himself and his work. A few years ago he borrowed the words of Jesus Christ sending his disciplines forth to spread the faith.

The text of the Constitution was almost entirely written by a single Fidesz parliamentarian whose only knowledge of constitutional law derives from having attended law school with his friend Viktor Orbán.

The preamble, which Fidesz politicians insist on calling “the national creed,” is a verbose and confused account of Hungarian history and a nationalistic wish list for a glorious future. The body of the Constitution still needs a lot of scrutiny but at first glance it seems that this constitution’s importance lies in making sure that the present government and Fidesz can remain in power for at least twelve more years.

A Hungarian political philosopher who is not known for his optimism said that while the old constitution served the country for some twenty years, the new one is unlikely to be around for long. He may well be right. A year after the stunning Fidesz victory, this week, during Hungary’s national holiday celebrating the revolution of 1848, more people demonstrated against the government than listened to Viktor Orbán’s speech telling the European Union to get lost.

For more, read “The first draft of the new Hungarian constitution, Parts I, II and III” at the author’s blog, Hungarian Spectrum.