A deal to avert a veto of the EU budget is unlikely to be enough to reverse the deterioration in Hungary’s relations with Germany.
By Edit Inotai and Claudia Ciobanu
Hungary and Poland have reportedly accepted a proposal brokered by Germany to lift their veto of the EU budget and recovery package at this week’s summit of European leaders. The preliminary deal now needs to be put before the other member states, but even if there is a final agreement, relations between Budapest and Berlin are at a nadir and unlikely to improve soon.
On Wednesday, Polish Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Gowin told reporters that a compromise had been reached between the two countries and Germany, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency, over a new mechanism the EU is looking to introduce that would make EU funds conditional on upholding the rule of law. Poland and Hungary see the mechanism as an attack on their sovereignty and have been blocking the EU’s1.8-trillion-euro budget and recovery package unless it is removed.
“For now, we have agreement between Warsaw, Budapest and Berlin,” Gowin, a moderate in Poland’s ruling coalition, was reported as saying. “I believe this agreement will also include the 24 remaining European capitals.”
No details of the compromise have been released, but reports mention a special clause will be attached to the mechanism, defining what would be considered a breach of the rule of law and allowing targeted countries to appeal to the Court of Justice of the European Union before any funds are actually suspended.
This would effectively postpone the rule-of-law mechanism entering into force until mid-2022, just after Hungary’s next parliamentary elections are due to be held.
A deal would be a huge relief to the EU and Germany, as it will release much-needed funds to member states. But the fallout from this, and other spats over the past few years, is that relations between Hungary and Germany, both nominally run by fellow Christian democratic governments, are in a deep freeze, with the root cause of the conflict being differing views on the EU’s future development.
Barbed (wire) insults
Even though Hungary was an ally of Germany in both World Wars, Hungarian politicians have not refrained from using Germany’s Nazi past, just like their Polish colleagues, as a bat with which to bash Berlin.
Tamas Deutsch, a Hungarian MEP from the ruling Fidesz party, has compared Manfred Weber, chairman of the European People’s Party Group – Fidesz’s own European Parliamentary faction – to the Gestapo and the Hungarian communist secret police. Weber’s ‘crime’ was to say in an interview that Hungary had no reason to be afraid from the rule-of-law mechanism if the country has a free press and independent courts.
“These are the slogans of the Gestapo and Hungary’s AVH, saying that you needn’t be afraid if you do not have things to hide,” protested Deutsch, earning a barrage of criticism and threats to expel him from the EPP Group.
Hungary’s government spokesman, Zoltan Kovacs, lashed out against a German TV show ridiculing Prime Minister Viktor Orban, reminding Germans “about the dangers of German supremacy, and how badly it all ended.”
The government’s cultural commissioner and director of the Petofi Literary Museum, Szilard Demeter, said in a radio interview that the Germans are always very disciplined. “So, when they have to be Nazis, they are Nazis; when they have to be liberals, or Aryan liberals, they are. They can rarely give birth to an original idea, but if they have the guiding idea, the direction is given, they will follow it in a disciplined manner and keep on repeating the requisite slogans.”
Even the usually calm and measured Gergely Gulyas, who heads the Prime Minister’s Office, accused Germany’s Europe minister, Michael Roth, of making statements that evoked the “German propaganda of the 1930s without any basis in reality”, after Roth criticised antisemitism in Hungary.
“Michael Roth’s impudence, especially during the German Presidency of the EU, is a disgrace to German foreign policy,” Gulyas stated.
The prime minister has also weighed in, claiming Germans have been the real winners of European integration and European funds, raking in massive profits. Orban bluntly stated that the German economic supremacy is not down to “the hard work or the skills of the Germans, but to the fact that they were not under Soviet rule. Whereas Hungary lived under Soviet occupation and we were constantly plundered by the Soviet communists.”
Political experts in Budapest wonder about the gradual estrangement in bilateral relations and cannot conceal their astonishment as the verbal war keeps escalating. “It is increasingly difficult to comment on what’s happening as a political expert. The political discourse with Germany, which used to be rational and based on mutual interest, is becoming highly emotional and even irrational,” Andras Hettyey, assistant professor at the University of Public Service, told BIRN.
Experts recall that when Orban was elected prime minister in 2010, he already displayed some reticence towards Germany.
The German media has never been particularly warm towards him, accusing him of populism and nationalism, and even allegedly flirting with the far-right during his first stint as prime minister between 1998 and 2002.
Although Orban enjoyed excellent personal relations with some German politicians – particularly with the Free Democratic Party former leader Otto Graf Lambsdorff and former chancellor Helmut Kohl – allies say he has always felt unfairly treated by Germany.
Things have not improved much since 2010: the German political elite, which is inherently suspicious of attempts to accumulate power, has watched Orban’s two-thirds majority in parliament and his concentration of power with growing distrust and alarm.
The philosophical and political clash between Merkel and Orban during the 2015 migration crisis marked a watershed in bilateral relations. “The political culture of the decision-makers of the two countries are radically different: they emphasise different values and build their narratives on different identities,” Hettyey said.
Finding common ground is getting harder, but Kai-Olaf Lang, the Central Europe expert at the Berlin-based think tank Wissenschaft aud Politik, stresses that not all channels are blocked. “The conflicts are clearly eroding the bilateral relationship, but despite it all, Hungary has just signed a major defence procurement deal with Germany. This is an important sign and proves that there is room for cooperation in European defence matters.”
“Realpolitik” and areas of mutual interest are still functioning, making German-Hungarian cooperation still more predictable and stable than, for example, Berlin’s problematic relations with Warsaw.
“The good thing is that business relations remain on a solid basis,” said Hettyey, referring to trading volumes amounting to 55 billion euros in 2019 and the large presence of German investors, especially carmakers, in the country.
As one former Hungarian diplomat put it, Hungary’s dependence on Germany is much stronger than it ever was on the Soviet Union. Polls conducted by the German Chamber of Commerce in Hungary show that German investors have no problem with Orban’s authoritarianism; on the contrary, they are rather satisfied due to the tax benefits, non-returnable grants from Hungarian taxpayers, and relatively cheap and well-qualified labour they find in Hungary currently.
Orban’s government has supported multinational companies, mostly German, to the tune of 255 billion euros between 2010-2017, doubling what was given by the previous socialist-liberal government, the business new site G7 calculated.
Following in the footsteps of Audi and Mercedes, BMW recently announced that it would build a new factory in Hungary.
Experts wonder, however, how crisis-resistant German-Hungarian cooperation will be should German car manufacturers follow the continuing technological shifts and one day shut down factories producing mainly internal combustion engines in Hungary.
The government-allied political scientist Zoltan Kiszelly agrees that business connections are the anchor of bilateral relations, and views the current clashes in bilateral relations in a European context. “Germany wants to impose its political model on Europe. They think if something worked in Germany, like the federal structure or the distribution of migrants, then it should function in Europe as well, but that is not always the case,” Kiszelly told BIRN. “Unfortunately, Germany uses Brussels to serve its own interests.”
While the deterioration in relations has happened on Merkel’s watch, in Fidesz circles there remains a certain esteem for the chancellor, who boasts an impressive track record in managing to smooth over crises. But the December 10-11 summit of EU leaders is likely to be one of the last occasions when Merkel is still fully in charge. With federal elections due in September 2021 and Merkel stepping down, a new Christian Democratic Union leader must be chosen soon.
With Orban’s current reputation in Germany as a troublemaker, bilateral relations between the two countries might become even stormier under a new chancellor.