Geopolitics

How Orban Is Trying To Take Europe Away From Merkel

Viktor Orban is the only leader in the European Union who has benefited from the refugees crisis. But his ambitions know no boundaries.

Viktor Orban and Angela Merkel at a press conference in Berlin
Paul Lendvai

BERLIN â€" For the first time since his momentous victory six years ago, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has tasted a political defeat. The failure of the referendum that aimed to block required European Union allocations of refugees fell short of the necessary 50% turnout at the polls. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to make too much of the political consequences for Orban of this setback.

Lightening fast and powerfully eloquent, he has turned the fiasco into a "tremendous political success," noting that 98% of those who did vote were opposed to the EU refugee policy, and vowing to block any future decisions from Brussels regarding the refugees question.

Orban has repeatedly proven that he is, above all, a determined and tactical fighter, capable of drawing intelligent conclusions even out of his defeats. European upheaval over the refugee crisis opened the door for him to boldly challenge the EU, which a recent poll says has helped pushed 80% of Hungarian citizens to support his course of total bans on asylum seekers.

"Before the refugees crisis he was an outcast in Europe," says János Kis, a Hungarian philosopher and professor of political center at the Central European University "Now he has become the leading figure of the anti-refugee coalition." According to Kis, Orban is the only head of government within the EU who has actually benefited politically from the refugees crisis.

All the way back on Sept. 5, 2015, Orban had already made it very clear about his attitude concerning the situation: "The crisis is a chance for the national-Christian ideology to regain dominance, in Hungary, but also in the rest of Europe. This situation will result in the definitive end of liberal empty talk. This is the end of an era."

Comparing his words to German Chancellor Angela Merkel is particularly revealing. Orban has proven over the last 18 months in Hungary â€" a critical country in the heart of the EU â€" that he knows perfectly how to work with political tools that are both nationalistic and yet very personal.

Orban is the “most dangerous man in the EU," says Gerald Knaus, head of the think tank European Stability Initiative. Kraus believes the the Hungarian prime minister is plotting against Angela Merkel behind the scenes, without ever mentioning her name. After the Brexit vote and the rejection of Merkel’s refugees policy by governments in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, Orban now sees victory at hand.

Facing the liberal critics in Germany and the U.S., he rightly pleads that even center-left politicians from countries like Slovakia and the Czech Republic see him as pioneer and role model. Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev had said that the Bulgarians "entirely identify with Orban’s perception of the refugees crisis."

In the numerous explanations, speeches and interviews, the Hungarian prime minister, at the age of 53, gives a healthy hint of his irrepressible ambition and his â€" secret â€" pursuit of replacing Angela Merkel as Europe’s leader.

"The left-wing parties have held the monopoly over how Europe gets interpreted. If we’re discussing values, we need a strong rear cover," he said. "Not many politicians have electoral support like I do. It has never been my childhood dream to become Europe’s enfant terrible."

Angela Merkel with Viktor Orban in Berlin â€" Photo: Hannibal Hanschke/DPA/ZUMA

The Hungarian government take in major EU subsidies even as they pursue their campaign against the supposed "terrorist threat" posed by refugees and declare the "Christian and national identity." They even took down the European Union flag from above the Hungarian parliament in Budapest.

Mária Schmid, an Orban advisor and director of the House of Terror museum that recounts the horrors of fascism and communism, has recently addressed a frontal assault against Merkel, accusing her of "sacrificing Christianity and the German national interests."

Further afield, who else is close to Orban? Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been a "personal friend" for a long time, the relationship with Turkey "close and deserving," he calls Azerbaijan strongman Ilham Heydar Aliyev a "role model." In the U.S., he has backed Donald Trump, citing his hardline stance against immigration.

Inside of Hungary, Orban's power seems to be increasingly unchallenged. Reports this week accused the state of forcing the closure of leading opposition newspaper, Nepszabadsag.

András Bozóki, a former Hungarian culture minister and a political science professor at the Central European University, says the prime minister has a competitive advantage. "Orban has always been driven by an astonishing will to win. He's not a statesman, but he's a good politician in terms of techniques and the capacity to stay in power for a long time."

But Bozóki says Orban's grip on power requires him to "break the rules and disrespect the democratic order. In reality there were only three things Viktor Orban has always been interested in: power, money and soccer. In that order. There is not substance. The goal is to remain in power, and he’s doing pretty well for himself."

In the face of the man many consider the most clever authoritarian politician in Europe, the opposition has been split. Meanwhile, in economic terms, Hungary has slipped on the World Economic Forum's competitiveness ratings from 29th in 2001 to 69th today.

Tamás Mellár, an economist and president of the Central Statistical Office during Orban’s first term, says the country is sliding into a semi-feudal regime, with an unequaled concentrated land ownership in Europe.

Poverty and hopelessness among the lower third of society are reaching new extremes, as corruption expands. Another political researcher, András Kürüsénvi, sees "no Orban system, but an Orban regime," because a system is measurable, stable and durable.

"The Orban-regime’s most important move is the unprecedented concentration of power. The enforcement of his political will and interests takes priority over the constitutional state," Kürüsénvi says. "The new regime that has existed since 2010 is trying to legitimate its power with Orban. And that’s why he is portrayed as a leader with extraordinary capacities."

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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