Brexit is just a sideshow. A bigger danger for the European Union looms from the east

Brexit may be garnering a lot of attention, but the spectacle surrounding Britian’s chaotic bid to leave the European Union is increasingly becoming a sideshow in Brussels, where the bigger worry comes from countries to the east, including Hungary, Don Murray writes.

Visegrad countries — Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia — threaten body politic of EU

A billboard truck showing a picture of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban sits outside the European Parliament in Brussels earlier this month. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

Ah Brexit. We watch the follies and fatuousness of the British ruling class as it tries to pry the country from the clutches of the "Brussels bureaucrats." The spectacle offers a hideous fascination.

But increasingly in Brussels, Brexit is a bore, a sideshow. The mounting danger for the European Union is in the east. It's called "Orbanism."

Viktor Orban is the prime minister of Hungary. He's an enormous thorn in the body politic of the EU. He practises what his followers like to call "illiberal democracy." He also practises a policy of systematic provocation of the EU.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivers a speech during the celebrations of the 62nd anniversary of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 in Budapest on Oct. 23, 2018. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

And he's not alone. Poland is another major "enemy from within," followed at a distance by the Czech Republic and Slovakia. These are the so-called Visegrad countries. One of their leaders' goals is to weaken the power of Brussels while still collecting the rich subsidies the EU offers.

The EU, facing the loss of one of its biggest members, does not want to be seen as weak or, in the worst-case scenario, to watch other member countries leave the union.

Orban's latest low blow is his decision to offer political asylum to an old friend, Nikola Gruevski. Gruevski is the former prime minister of the small Balkan country of Macedonia, once a part of Yugoslavia. He's also a convicted criminal, found guilty of corruption while prime minister and given a two-year prison sentence.

Macedonia's former prime minister Nikola Gruevski enters a court in Skopje, Macedonia, on Oct. 5, 2018. (Ognen Teofilovski/Reuters)

Rather than serve it, Gruevski fled through Albania to Hungary in early November.

Gruevski, in a Facebook post, sought to portray himself as a victim, not a perpetrator. He said he might be "eliminated" if he was sent to prison.

What were you thinking?

It was on that basis, a Hungarian government newspaper said, that he met the conditions for political asylum.

A European commissioner, Johannes Hahn, quickly tweeted, "If confirmed, I expect a sound explanation" from Orban.  That's Eurospeak for "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

The decision undermines the EU's common police and security policy, particularly since EU countries, including Hungary, have approved Macedonia as a candidate for membership.

Orban has offered nothing but disdainful silence. (On Friday, he did say Hungary will evaluate Macedonia's request to extradite Gruevski.)

It's all part of a multi-pronged strategy. For instance, Orban's government has been trying for years to hobble the Central European University in Budapest, founded by the Hungarian-born Jewish philanthopist George Soros.

Soros has campaigned in favour of democracy and open borders in the countries of the former Soviet bloc. Orban has held power with a menu of nationalism and fear of migrants. Despite EU pressure, his government has refused for 17 months to give the university legal status under a restrictive new law governing foreign institutions. The CEU is accredited in the U.S.

Soros was a major target of Orban's party in its winning election campaign in the spring of 2018. It ran billboards saying "Stop Soros" and accused him of funding a "Soros plan" to erase national identities and increase migration flows to Europe.

'Enough is enough'

Now the CEU rector, former Canadian Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff has said his university will have to start a move to Vienna if it isn't recognized officially by Dec. 1.

"Everything — a barrage of misinformation — is simply falsehoods," Ignatieff said in an interview with the Globe and Mail. "So, we've said enough is enough, I've got a university to run."

It was Orban, along with the leaders of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, who torpedoed the EU policy on settling refugees after hundreds of thousands reached Europe in 2015. The Visegrad countries simply vetoed their quotas of refugees.

This November, the Czech Republic went further, refusing to sign a non-binding UN pact supporting orderly migration as a basic human right. The Czech prime minister, Andrej Babis, said the pact was a threat to his country's security and sovereignty.

On Nov. 11, in Poland, the country's president, Andrzej Duda, led a Polish independence day march along with government leaders. Just behind them marched far-right nationalist groups with banners calling for "White Poland" and "Death to Enemies of the Country." 

Polish President Andrzej Duda delivers a speech before the official start of a march marking the 100th anniversary of Polish independence in Warsaw on Nov. 11, 2018. (Agencja Gazeta/Agata Grzybowska via Reuters)

This, too, was seen by many as a provocation aimed at Brussels.

Poland's right-wing Law and Justice party came to power in 2015 and immediately began bringing the national broadcaster under party control, parachuting party loyalists into leadership positions.

Then it took aim at Poland's judges. The government rewrote the rules to give it control over the naming of senior judges. 

Cynical populism

Brussels reacted by invoking Article 7 of the EU treaty, citing a "clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law" in Poland.

For Brussels, all this is cynical populism. Unfortunately for the EU, it's very successful populism. 

The Law and Justice party has a majority in parliament. Orban's party won a two-thirds majority this year. And Babis's new party ANO swept to power last year.

But even cynical populists run into problems.

Orban's granting of asylum to a criminal friend has become the object of sardonic jokes in Hungary. After years of refusing asylum to all refugees from Syria, his opponents say, he's finally found one refugee he will help.

In the Czech Republic, Babis is having bigger problems. He's a billionaire who controls much of the agricultural sector. But in October 2017, 11 people, including Babis and his wife, were charged by Czech prosecutors with defrauding the EU of $3 million in subsidies in connection with his business dealings.

Ten years earlier, it's alleged that he transferred a spa resort he owned to his son and daughter so their shell company could qualify for small-enterprise subsidies from Brussels. Once the money was pocketed, the resort was transferred back to him. For now, Babis denies all fraud allegations and is protected by parliamentary immunity.

But just a few days ago, on Nov. 14, Babis's son made a sensational charge.

All but kidnapped

He said he had been all but kidnapped by one of his father's lieutenants and taken to Crimea to stop him telling Czech police of his role in the subsidy deal. The prime minister said his son was mentally ill.

Thousands demonstrated in Prague. The opposition called a vote of no-confidence. Babis narrowly survived. But he is now severely weakened.

A demonstrator holds a placard during a protest rally demanding the resignation of Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis in Prague on Nov. 7, 2018. (David W. Cerny/Reuters)

And even Brexit can be put to use by Brussels. Britain this year was the third biggest net contributor to the EU, turning over more than $15 billion.

Anticipating Britain's exit, the EU has rewritten its subsidy projections for 2021 to 2027. And the big losers are, you guessed it, the Visegrad four. They stand to lose up to 25 per cent of their EU subsidies. 

The official reason is that their economies have improved so much.

Unofficially, let's call it Brussels payback. And the pressure works. On Nov. 21, Poland said it would drop its plan to lower the retirement age for Supreme Court judges to 65, which would have swept half the senior judges away.

This is a war of attrition, and far from over.


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.


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