This is the Thursday edition of our Brussels Briefing. To receive it every morning in your email in-box, sign up here.
Mr Orban announcing Hungary's migration referendum in Budapest on Wednesday
Now it’s Hungary’s turn. Viktor Orban, the polarising Hungarian premier, announced yesterday that his country would be holding a referendum on whether it should be forced to take in refugees as part of EU policies to relieve Greece and other overwhelmed frontier countries suffering the biggest influxes of migrants from the war-torn Middle East. By our count, that would make five countries holding referenda on EU policies in the course of about a year: Greece’s “oxi” on a the terms of a third eurozone bailout; Denmark’s “no” on opting-in to EU policing and judicial policies; an upcoming April Dutch referendum on the EU integration deal with Ukraine; Britain’s June plebiscite on EU membership; and now Mr Orban’s migration poll.
Throw in two more referenda – an Italian one in October on a non-EU domestic reform issue, and the always referendum-happy (but non-EU member) Switzerland – and you have a continent that seems to have gone delirious for direct democracy. As Tom Nuttall, the Economist’s Brussels-based Charlemagne columnist, pointed out in January, it’s not as if referenda are a new phenomenon. But when political leaders begin applying it to EU policies – which are always the product of multilateral horse-trading in Brussels – it could grind the already slow-moving European legislative machine-work to a halt.
In some ways, the rash of referenda is a bit of birds coming home to roost. Founders of the European project were overtly elitist about how they went about integration. “I thought it wrong to consult the peoples of Europe about the structure of a community of which they had no practical experience,” Jean Monnet, the intellectual godfather of the EU, once famously said. In more recent times, referenda results were either worked around – after France and the Netherlands rejected the EU’s “constitutional treaty” in 2005 it was largely rebranded the “Lisbon treaty” with tweaks that made plebiscites unnecessary – or re-run. Ireland voted twice on both the Nice and Lisbon treaties after rejecting them the first time around. Read more
Viktor Orban, Hungary's prime minister, during a visit to Brussels to discuss the crisis this month
When the European Commission this month unveiled its scheme to share out 120,000 refugees, on top of the 40,000 agreed in July, it added a new beneficiary country to the programme: Hungary. But unlike the other two targeted in the scheme as EU front-line countries, Greece and Italy, Hungary didn’t want to be included, despite being subject to a massive influx from its border with Serbia.
The dispute has become one of the primary reasons agreeing the scheme has taken so long. Originally, the plan said that 54,000 refugees would be sent from Hungary to other member states. The remaining 66,000 would come from Italy (16,000) and Greece (50,000).
Commission officials admitted Hungary’s inclusion was a bit of political jujitsu. For months, Hungary’s combative prime minister, Viktor Orban, argued his country was being overrun with people trying to enter Germany. The relocation scheme provided the opportunity for Budapest to offload 54,000, quiet Brussels’ loudest critic, and peel off Hungary from the hardening anti-relocation alliance of Visegrad countries.
The publicly-stated reason Orban doesn’t want to participate is a matter of principle: Budapest does not see itself as a front-line state. Nearly everyone arriving in Hungary has come through Greece first and Budapest argues that, if Greece was doing its job, Hungary would not be facing a problem. “The elephant in the room is Greece,” insists one top Hungarian official.
Reding, far left, and Orbán, second from right, during a 2011 Commission meeting in Budapest.
For Viviane Reding, it appears that any opportunity to step into a hornet’s nest is a good one. This time around, the media-savvy EU justice commissioner has seriously upset the Hungarian government after she questioned the independence of the judiciary in the EU member state.
In an interview in the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Reding said the recent moves by the government of prime minister Victor Orbán to amend the Hungarian constitution in ways Brussels finds questionable made it understandable that Ireland had refused to extradite an Irish citizen convicted of killing two Hungarian children in a 2000 car accident.
Budapest didn’t appreciate Reding’s remarks, prompting a tart letter from Tibor Navracsics, Hungary’s deputy prime minister in charge of justice affairs, which called her assertions “outrageous and absolutely unacceptable” and requesting she “kindly refrain from making public statements that lack sufficient grounds as well as general benevolence”.
Both Reding’s remarks and the full text of Navracsics’ letter after the jump… Read more
Orban walks on stage in front of Hungary's parliament for Thursday's national day address.
[UPDATE] We’ve obtained the English-language version of Orban’s March 13 letter to Barroso requesting assistance on reopening talks with the IMF for a line of credit. The letter can be read here.
The war of words between Brussels and Budapest continued on Friday, with José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, hitting back at Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, who a day earlier compared Barroso’s Commission to Soviet apparatchiks and Hapsburg imperialists.
Orban’s tongue lashing, made at a national day rally in front of thousands in central Budapest, came after a series of recent moves by the Commission, the European Union’s executive branch, to sanction the Hungarian government for violating EU rules on deficits and democratic institutions.
Through his spokesperson, Barroso questioned Orban’s grasp of democratic principles, a rebuke sure to rankle the Hungarian prime minister, who as a young anti-Communist activist became famous for publicly calling for the withdrawal of the Red Army in 1989.
“Those who compare the European Union with the USSR show a complete lack of understanding of what democracy is, in his view,” said the spokesperson, adding she was relating Barroso’s personal comments. “They also fail to understand the important contribution of all those who have defended and fought for freedom and democracy.” Read more
EU commissioner Neelie Kroes
Viktor Orban is in Brussels today on the second part of a charm offensive designed to cool tensions between Budapest and the European Union.
Last week he flattered the European parliament by dropping in on its second home in Strasbourg to reassure MEPs that the sweeping reforms his government are currently undertaking are in line with fundamental European values.
But one commissioner at least is standing firm against the Orban’s overtures, and in a very public way. Just hours before Orban was to meet Jose Manuel Barroso, the Commission president, Neelie Kroes, the commissioner who oversees media issues, held talks in Brussels with the management at Klubradio, a talk and news station which is no fan of the Fidesz government. Since Orban came to power in 2010, it has had a knack of losing out in radio frequency allocation rounds, which it says is an attempt to muzzle dissident voices.
After the meeting, Kroes tweeted to her 33,876 followers:
[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/#!/NeelieKroesEU/status/161762486524198913"] Read more
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban listens to MEPs during Wednesday's debate in Strasbourg
The buzz around Brussels since Viktor Orban’s appearance before the European parliament Wednesday has been that the Hungarian prime minister got the better of the parliamentarians, coming across as conciliatory and reasonable in the face of occasionally hectoring MEPs.
But Hungary’s troubles in Brussels are far from over. In addition to continued European Commission resistance to giving Budapest much-needed financial aid until it overhauls a new law critics believe threatens the independence of the central bank – a topic of discussion today when Hungary’s lead negotiator meets in Brussels with Olli Rehn, the Commission’s economic chief – next week is going to be a rough one for Orban’s government.
Most unexpectedly, the three Benelux countries – Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg – have asked that Hungary be discussed at Friday’s meeting in Brussels of all 27 national Europe ministers. Although no decisions will be taken, the move for the first time takes the Hungarian issue from the realm of EU technocrats to that of national politicians, where things could get more heated. Read more
Viktor Orban, Hungarian prime minister. AFP/Getty Images
Welcome to our live coverage of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban’s appearance before the European parliament, where he intends to defend his government’s recent actions against accusations they are anti-democratic. All times are GMT.
The Brussels Blog’s Peter Spiegel in Brussels and Stanley Pignal in the parliament’s second home in Strasbourg will be anchoring coverage, with contributions from other FT reporters who write about central and eastern Europe. Read more
Hungary's Viktor Orban during his address in Strasbourg last year. Brussels Blog will be live blogging his appearance on Wednesday .
Viktor Orban, Hungary’s combative prime minister, already had a lengthy list of Brussels’ critiques to rebut during an address today at the European parliament in Strasbourg, which the Brussels Blog is planning to live blog when it begins at 3pm local time.
Expectations are high after last year’s rowdy appearance, and the list of particulars has only grown in the last 24 hours: the European commission, the European Union’s executive arm, on Tuesday declared three new Hungarian laws in violation of the EU treaties, and warned that one may threaten the independence of the country’s central bank.
Just this morning, however, the commission added to the list again, hitting out at Orban – who prides himself on ridding his country from Soviet communism – for failing to respect “media freedom and media pluralism”, the same criticism he faced in Strasbourg a year ago. Read more
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban during an address last week.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, will meet tomorrow in Copenhagen amidst their ongoing investigation of new laws just passed by the Hungarian government of Viktor Orban, which have drawn accusations his ruling Fidesz party is using its overwhelming parliamentary majority to trample the independence of the judiciary and central bank.
Officials say the Commission is unlikely to come to a conclusion tomorrow, but the Hungarian government appears to be taking no chances. In a letter by Orban’s foreign minister, Janos Martonyi, sent to other EU countries and obtained by Brussels Blog, Budapest tries to insist the new laws are within European norms.
“Some of the critics are going as far to question the democratic commitment of the Hungarian government,” writes Martonyi. “I admit…that the sheer magnitude of the changes my government is carrying out or has initiated does not make the job of those who want to understand easy.” Read more
Hungary's Viktor Orban, left, with José Manuel Barroso during an EU summit earlier this year.
Perhaps because it is not in the eurozone, the recent turbulence in Hungary has not gotten a huge amount of attention internationally. But Budapest and Brussels are currently on a collision course that could have significant consequences for the region’s economic stability.
At issue is whether the European Union and the International Monetary Fund will provide financial assistance to Hungary at a time the florint is in free-fall and the government’s borrowing costs are skyrocketing, with 10-year bond yields now above 9 per cent, well above levels where Ireland, Greece and Portugal were forced into bail-outs. Standard & Poor’s downgraded Hungarian bonds Wednesday evening, citing the unpredictability of prime minister Viktor Orban’s economic policies – including his attempt to assert more control over Hungary’s central bank.
In a letter to Orban sent this week by José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, and obtained by the FT, Barroso drives a hard bargain. Not only does he “strongly advise” Orban to withdraw the proposed laws governing the central bank, but he makes clear that any assistance will come with tough conditions.
Excerpts after the jump. Read more
As we reported last week following an interview with Hungary’s foreign minister, the government in Budapest appears to be willing to diffuse the dust-up over its controversial media law, which critics charge is intended to stifle press opposition.
In a letter sent to the European Commission Monday, and posted by our colleagues at the Hungarian daily Nepszabadsag, Hungary’s deputy prime minister and justice minister Tibor Navracsics said his government was willing to amend the law, if the Commission deemed it necessary. (English translation of letter here.)
My half-hour interview with Janos Martonyi wasn’t all about the media law, however. We talked about his desire to see Friday’s summit of EU heads of government focus on energy issues – as originally planned – and not get overshadowed by the ongoing eurozone debt crisis.
And we also talked about The Carpet. Read more
Monday’s meeting of EU energy ministers marked the last such ministerial conclave of the six-month Belgian presidency, a period that diplomats seem to agree will be remembered as extremely effective – even without a Belgian government in place for the entire span.
As we reported in today’s paper, there is a good amount of trepidation heading into the Hungarian presidency, particularly amid moves by Viktor Orban, the populist prime minister, to consolidate power in the hands of his government, most recently through a much-criticized media law.
Mr Orban himself has been a bit unpredictable. When I spoke with him during the October summit of EU heads of government here, he was his usual colourful self, saying his fellow European leaders were frequently too focused on EU institution-building in response to the economic crisis: Read more