Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had a busy few days. While preparing for his state of the nation speech this weekend, he popped over to Russia for a meeting with President Vladimir Putin then made his way to the EU summit in Brussels, where migration issues and the UK’s reform plans for the EU were on the agenda.
‘Deal of the century’
Co-operation with Russia on the upgrade of Hungary’s Paks nuclear power plant is the “deal of the century”, Orbán said after meeting Putin in Moscow. Speaking at a joint press conference, the prime minister said Hungary sees no reason for the ongoing international disputes regarding the project, because the two countries have been working together on it since the 1960s and all they have done was extend their agreement. “We owe Russia gratitude for its willingness to continue co-operating on the project”, he said.
Concerning bilateral ties with Russia overall, Orbán noted that they have developed in all fields, except for trade, but this was “neither party’s fault”. Russia offers “great opportunities” to Hungarian pharmaceutical companies, while vehicle makers and engineering companies could also develop partnerships in Russia, he said.
The EU and Russia should start working together as soon as possible, as a lack of economic co-operation would mean falling behind in competitiveness. It is not possible to automatically extend the EU’s sanctions against Russia in the middle of the year, Orbán said. The EU’s growth rate was slow and “it cannot allow itself the luxury of not co-operating with everyone that could boost its economy”.
At the same press conference Putin announced that long-term Russia-Hungary gas supply contracts have been extended to the end of 2019. Energy co-operation remains a priority in bilateral relations between the two countries, he said. Ties between Russia and Hungary were “constructive” and Hungary was an old and trusted partner for Russia.
Concerning the Paks agreement, Putin said the project’s costs total 12 billion euros, 80 percent of which is financed by Hungary’s loan from Russia. He said he had reassured Orbán at their meeting that Russia is prepared to fulfil all its commitments pertaining to the deal.
Putin said Moscow welcomes Hungarian companies’ participation in infrastructure development projects in preparation for the 2018 soccer World Cup to be held in Russia. He said that originally two Hungarian companies offered their services to participate in such projects, one of which has since withdrawn its offer. The president said he expects that eventually more Hungarian companies will offer to take part.
According to Putin, it is important to strengthen bilateral cultural, humanitarian and education ties with Hungary. Russia would ensure 120 scholarships for Hungarian students at Russian universities. Concerning regional co-operation between the two countries, Putin said representatives of several Russian regions are planning visits to Hungary. Regional co-operation would be supported by an inter-governmental committee.
Opposition parties expressed disappointment over the meeting, saying it “appeared to be quite meaningless”.
The Együtt party said the announcements by Orbán and Putin did not warrant such a high-level meeting, and Hungary’s interests would be to reduce energy dependency on Russia, which means Hungary should be more reserved in its relations with that country.
The Democratic Coalition (DK) called the Orbán-Putin encounter reminiscent of old communist leaders’ meetings. Attila Ara-Kovács, a foreign affairs speaker for the party, said Orbán spoke against the future of the European Union, while also jeopardising Hungary’s energy independence. “Orbán signed a nuclear contract which it had kept secret from his own people while putting them into debt with a giant Russian loan,” Ara-Kovács said. “He could not have served Moscow’s interests more.”
LMP said the meeting should have aimed at cancelling the Paks upgrade contract. Spokesman József Gál said the extended long-term gas contracts bring “neither energy security nor energy independence” for Hungarians. Instead, Hungarians should be spending on insulation because without it “we will be heating the streets with Russian gas”.
The radical nationalist Jobbik party said it “welcomed” the affirmation of long-term gas contracts and the fact that Orbán had expressed opposition to sanctions against Russia. Márton Gyöngyösi, a lawmaker of the party, said it was reassuring that Russia stood behind the Paks upgrade while it was attacked by the EU. Jobbik supports the project except for the fact that the contracts have been classified, he said.
The Socialists said not much was made public about the “real” content of the Orbán-Putin talks, which were behind closed doors. Tamás Harangozó, deputy leader of the party’s parliamentary group, said the timing of Orbán’s visit was “not coincidental” and the Socialists hoped he was not in Moscow to receive “instructions” before the EU summit.
After the European Union summit – which ended up lasting until the early hours of Saturday – Orbán said Britain’s reform deal with the EU meets the primary goal of the Visegrad Four (V4) countries, because it retains EU citizens’ right to free movement. Orbán noted that EU leaders acknowledged Europe’s borders must be protected and the migrant inflow stopped. EU leaders had also agreed on the need for all member states to observe the Schengen rules. “This marked the first time that the EU accepted Hungary’s proposals on the matter,” Orbán said.
On Monday he briefed parties in Parliament about the summit, saying that blocking the EU mandatory quota plans for distributing migrants will be a number one priority for the government. The cabinet would meet this week to discuss how to fend off this “attempt by Brussels to … relocate people to Hungary regularly and in large numbers that Hungarians don’t want to live with”.
Orbán said the next EU summit planned for early March will focus on this issue, whether member states are willing to sanction a clause to be built into EU legislation requiring countries such as Hungary to automatically receive migrants. The new clause would work as a “standard mechanism for refugees, it would continuously send migrants that Hungary does not want to accept and that it currently stops at its southern borders”.
He said the situation in the west is “getting more and more strained” and the pressure is increasing on the Visegrad countries of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia.
An important milestone at the summit had been that for the first time the community accepted Hungary’s approach for the whole of Europe and agreed that it was a priority to stop the migrant inflow. Orbán told Parliament it was made clear that external borders must be protected, a goal that used to come second to refugee and humanitarian considerations.
It had also been made clear that everyone must keep fully to the rules of Schengen, and the EU is now “where it should have been a year ago”. The countries of the “Balkan route”, including Austria had “started to walk the path of commonsense”. This meant that “protecting our southern borders has become a possibility” and if Austrians and other countries kept their word it would be easier for Hungary to do so, too. The physical barriers must be reinforced, however, and “possibly extended”, though the government had not made any decisions in this respect yet.
Orbán said free movement rules had been protected with the help of the V4 so that they should continue to apply to the entire bloc and all its citizens. They had also managed to protect the idea that social services for people already paying contributions into the UK system should not be affected by changes, Orbán said, adding that the real dispute is about services to non-paying citizens of third countries.
Even this latter group will not lose its benefits, these will only be suspended and only in justified cases, he said. As a result of the deal brokered, even those benefits would stay in place for which workers are not paying any contributions. Further, it was an important achievement that new rules would not apply to workers commuting from another country.
He said benefits after children will also be kept, but in cases where the children reside in the home country and not in the UK these benefits will be indexed according to the country of their residence. This problem affected about 220 Hungarian cases.
Orbán said all changes to the EU that are possible without modification of its treaties have been made and it is now up to the British to decide whether they remain members. For Hungary it is an honour to be in the same community as Britain and it would be happy to see the UK remain a member.
Opposition disappointed again
The opposition parties criticised Orbán’s parliamentary briefing. Jobbik leader Gábor Vona told Parliament it is not enough that Orbán says he refuses the EU migrant quota system but a constitutional amendment is needed to give way to a referendum about the scheme. Vona asked Orbán to make reference to Jobbik at the next European Union summit in March and say that if the EU forces the quota system onto Hungary then Jobbik will “take people to the streets”.
The Socialists said Hungarians “became downgraded” at the summit and Orbán assisted this. Party leader József Tóbiás told Parliament that despite Orbán’s claims of victory, Hungarians today have fewer rights and receive less money in Europe than before. The decision means there is danger that a two-speed Europe is approaching and this is against Hungary’s interests, he added.
The Democratic Coalition said that by signing the summit’s closing declaration, Orbán gave his approval to distributing migrants across the EU as quickly as possible. Quoting a resolution adopted by the European Parliament on migrant quotas that was included in last week’s declaration, MEP Csaba Molnár said that by signing, Orbán agreed to allow refugees to be relocated to Hungary.
Molnár said this “U-turn” from the prime minister proved that he lied to those who had signed Fidesz’s anti-migrant petition and to all Hungarians whom he had assured that not a single refugee would be admitted. Molnár said a report by Politico, which cited European People’s Party sources as saying that Orbán agreed before the summit to change his migrant policy and take in refugees, was further proof that the prime minister’s earlier anti-migrant policy was dishonest.
LMP said Britain’s reform demands go against the need for a “Europe of the people”. Party co-leader András Schiffer said the EU does not function properly when it comes to security, welfare and social services, but its institutions are effective when banks’ interests are at stake. Commenting on migration, he said the issue is being mishandled the same way as it was in the past one year and all heads of state and government bear responsibility for this.
The Dialogue for Hungary party said Orbán suffered three separate losses at last week’s summit. Spokesman Bence Tordai said the first loss was that by signing the closing declaration it was revealed Orbán was being dishonest about the way he said he would handle migration. The second loss was that the EU-UK deal meant “Britain’s blackmailing” of the EU succeeded, which Tordai said would have a negative impact on eastern European member states. Third, the Europe which the prime minister saw as “a Europe of strong nation states” was revealed to be “a Europe of national selfishness”, which could now be clearly seen as harmful for Hungary.
Fidesz group leader Lajos Kósa said the policy suggested by the opposition would result in Hungarian workers being “locked out of the British labour market within two years”. He said the opposition’s demands that Hungary should not give in to Britain’s demands on restructuring its welfare system when it comes to EU migrants would have prevented the EU and the UK from reaching a deal, which would have raised anti-EU sentiment in Britain.
Britain pulling out from the EU would mean that it would become very hard for EU citizens, including Hungarians, to work in that country, Kósa said. With the compromise that came out of the talks, Hungarians remained free to take up jobs all across the EU.
Regarding migration, Kosa said the summit’s closing declaration, which makes reference to migrant quotas, simply states that EU rules, including the ones pertaining to mandatory quotas, must be observed by member states. This is almost the exact same statement that appeared in the declaration released after the December summit, over which Hungary and Slovakia both took legal steps, the group leader said.