A Budapest-Warsaw Axis?

15. 3. 2017

“Putin is hitting at the Union from outside, while Orbán is undermining it from the inside,” said George Soros, a well-known stock market player and philanthropist born in Hungary, in an interview for the German Wirtschaftwoche. He added that the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán already has a partner, in the person of Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the party ruling in Poland after the October 2015 elections. Not surprisingly, in early January the two men held long (six hours) “informal” talks in a private guesthouse in Niedzica, close to the Polish-Slovak border. Then there was Orbán’s radio announcement that “it was out of the question” of Hungary voting for sanctions against Poland in reaction to the alleged violations of democratic rules. A round of bilateral visits started afterwards, proving one thing: an axis of Budapest and Warsaw is being forged.

The situation from the early 1990s is repeated. In that period Hungarian elites coined a phrase which then became a household term: an “express train from Warsaw” [varsói gyors] arrived in Hungary, meaning that many political changes in Poland, like the return of post-Communists to power, occurred in Hungary a few months later. This time the situation is reversed, for an “express train from Budapest” apparently arrived at the Warsaw Central Station. Which means fulfilling a wish of Kaczyński, who already in October 2011 announced at one of his public rallies: “A day will come when we have Budapest in Warsaw.”

And it did come. Orbán advises Kaczyński and shows him how to build an “illiberal democracy,” and now both capitals start talking about a “regional alliance,” which resembles old concepts from the interwar period, called “Intermarium” in Poland. The idea was to build an independent zone or area between Russia and Germany, which would offer sovereignty and security to the countries involved. We all know how it ended.

The matter is wider and deeper, not concerning only bilateral relations. We are witnessing a growing dissatisfaction with the European integration project. The European Union is immersed in numerous crises at the same time, from the refugee crisis through the economic and security crisis to the crisis of the values system as witnessed by the rapidly increasing support (clearly visible in opinion polls) for national and nationalist forces in almost every EU country, not just in Poland or Hungary. Copying the “Orbán system”— regardless of how we understand it—in Poland (for this is what we are really seeing, despite the natural differences in potentials and geographic locations of both countries) is a great test of the leadership abilities of Brussels and also of the strongest (and unfortunately hegemonic after 2008, which many people dislike) EU country, that is Germany.

It is becoming so undeniable that one has to agree with Daniel Kelemen and Mitchell A. Orenstein when in early January, in reaction to the alarming (for liberal democrats) news coming from Warsaw, they wrote in the influential Foreign Affairs magazine: “The European Union is reaping the consequences of its inaction against Hungary’s drift toward authoritarianism over the past five years. By failing to aggressively counter Orbán’s grab for power, the European Union signaled to aspiring autocrats across the continent that they could commit similar attacks on democracy and the rule of law without facing meaningful consequences.”

And this is exactly the stake of the game proposed now to us by Budapest and Warsaw. Will the European integration projects survive and in what condition? Will Germany, in every respect the key player on the continent, constrain its ambitions and start thinking in wider terms than just its own interest? Is there a way for stemming the wave of migrants coming to Europe, which has all the hallmarks of a structural crisis, for the zone of prosperity and security has adjoining areas of poverty and war directly on its borders?

Each of the three issues, and we could name more of them, is much more important than what Budapest and Warsaw will jointly decide or say. The real problem is whether these two capitals will find other supporters and imitators. This question is important on a continent where the “Grexit” has by no means dropped from the agenda, although the situation is less alarming now. For Greece—and not just Greece—is still up to its ears in debt and crisis. But we are now more concerned with the debate on “Brexit,” for the British, just like the Germans, seem to pay more attention to their own interests then the all-European ones. The starting point for Warsaw and Budapest at the moment is nothing other than defending their own interests and sovereignty. Are we to attack the small ones for what the big ones are doing? You can often hear that argument in Budapest and Warsaw, and people are prone to say that in many other places, like Prague or Bratislava.

We entered the year 2016 in a moment when Europe is plagued by an unprecedented crisis triggered by a massive wave of migrants, and the mood on European and global markets is also gloomy (this time the source of unrest is the second-largest economy of the world— China). If we add the inflamed situation at the EU borders (Ukraine, Libya, Syria, ISIS), the picture will become more complete, and also take on the dark colors and contours from the paintings of El Greco.

When 11 years ago the countries of Central and Eastern Europe accessed the European Union, Eurooptimism reigned there, while now Euroscepticism is dominant. This is a wider phenomenon than just the emerging Budapest-Warsaw axis. There is a lot to think about, when we ponder the role and position of Europe and the EU on the global scene. For a divided, disunited, and fragmented Europe—and we seem to be entering the path towards it—will certainly not be a great player on the global scene.

One thing is certain: autocrats from the outside will be happy to see the behavior of autocrats from inside the EU. This should be the subject of a grave concern not only for European and German elites, but also for the American ones, so readily assuming the role of a guardian of liberal democracy and of properly functioning checks-and-balances system. This system was first dismantled in Hungary, and now it is falling apart at an accelerated rate in Poland. Another important thing is clearly proved by Francis Fukuyama in his monumental work Political Order and Political Decay: without the rule of law there will be no effective and efficient governance. Unfortunately, in Budapest and now in Warsaw we are increasingly gravitating towards the rule of an individual, in the case of Poland even controlling the government from a backseat. Is it still democracy? And if so, what kind of democracy? Illiberal? “But what does it really mean?” asked Chancellor Angela Merkel in Budapest last year. She did not know. Do we?

Bogdan Góralczyk

is professor in Centre for Europe, University of Warsaw, since September 2016 also a director of the Center. Former Ambassador of Poland to Thailand, the Philippines, and Republic of the Union of Myanmar (Burma). He was also Chief of the Cabinet of Polish Foreign Minister and long-term diplomat in Hungary; a prolific writer, author of many books and articles in Polish, English, and Hungarian.

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