Democracy Digest: More Talk of an Axis of Rightists in the European Parliament

Orban hasn’t given up on his plans for an all-encompassing far-right grouping in the European Parliament, though obstacles remain.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, his Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki and leader of Italy’s Lega party Matteo Salvini held a videoconference on Wednesday to reinvigorate plans for creating a new alliance of Eurosceptic, nationalist, right-wing parties in the European Parliament.

The plans for such a grouping of European far-right parties were first hatched earlier in the spring, but one major obstacle has reportedly been the Poles’ reluctance to leave the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) grouping that they control. But it seems that Orban hasn’t given up on the idea.

“Prime Minister Viktor Orban discussed the creation of a new European political grouping in a video conference with Matteo Salvini, leader of the Italian Lega party, and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, vice-president of the Law and Justice party (PiS),” Bertalan Havasi, the prime minister’s press chief, announced on Wednesday.

The politicians underlined that the declaration signed by 16 right-wing parties in July to protect nation states and traditional values in the EU was a clear success and, as Havasi emphasised, “has aroused great interest across the continent and several parties indicated their intention to join it.”

He added that the European party families of Lega and PiS – Identity and Democracy (ID) and the ECR, respectively – are continuing negotiations this week about concrete forms of future cooperation.

Orban, whose Fidesz party sits currently with the independents in the European Parliament after having flounced out of the centre-right European People’s Party before being kicked out, has long planned to bring the different groupings of conservative, right-wing and far-right, nationalistic political parties under one umbrella.

Despite clear disagreements between PiS and some ID parties, especially on future relations with Russia, Orban is continuing to try to bridge the gap between the two sides. The visit of Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Rally, to Budapest last week fits into this picture.

Surprisingly, the news about the videoconference with Salvini and Morawieczki did not get much traction in the Hungarian media, not even in the government-friendly outlets. Little is known about the parties that, according to Havasi, have indicated their intention to join the declaration vying for a “European renaissance,” besides the 16 which already signed the document in July.

Experts, however, doubt that Eurosceptic forces could be merged into one party family anytime soon, given both the ideological differences and the inherent rivalry among them, but a looser cooperation in areas like migration, climate change and “fighting off” Brussels’ influence is possible.

While more details of the talks are expected over the coming weeks, the prospect of such an alliance sounds less ominous than a few months ago: Salvini’s Lega is battling in the polls with a similar far-right party, Brothers of Italy; Viktor Orban, for the first time in years, actually fears losing the general election next year; and Morawiecki’s position as premier has been shaky for months as has PiS’s grip on the parliamentary majority it needs to govern.

Race against time in Czechia; how to spend it (episode 11 million)

Czech President Milos Zeman is in a race against time to secure his constitutional powers, which include appointing a new government. The head of state has been in Prague’s Central Military Hospital since October 10, a day after his ally, Prime Minister Andrej Babis, lost the election to the five-party alliance calling itself the “Democratic Bloc”.

After doctors declared Zeman incapacitated on October 18, the opposition said it would start the process of stripping his presidential powers. With the Democratic Bloc now in control of both houses of parliament, voting on the issue looks likely to start on November 9. That would open the way for the new government to be appointed without Zeman’s involvement.

However, doctors said this week that the president’s health has improved a little and he was released from intensive care on Thursday. Yet there have still been no details about Zeman’s illness made public either by the hospital or the presidential office, whose senior members are suspected of trying to cover up the seriousness of his condition in a bid to usurp his powers.

Even should Zeman recover, however, he would have little chance of stopping the Democratic Bloc from forming the next government given that they won 108 of the 200 seats in the lower chamber house in the October 8-9 election.

Indeed, the five centre-right and centrist parties announced this week that they have now sealed a coalition agreement. The prime minister-in-waiting, Petr Fiala of the conservative Civic Democrats (ODS), said the parties have agreed on the distribution of government posts. Unsurprisingly, ODS will run the finance ministry, and there is some concern already that its push to rein in the budget deficit as a fourth wave of the pandemic arrives could cause some conflict among the coalition should ODS press for austerity.

Still, the new government should be able to offer the state budget a boost soon enough, if it can draw up a new set of control measures for the distribution of EU funds.

The European Commission has told Prague that it won’t be getting any of the €7 billion in grants it’s marked down to receive from the EU coronavirus recovery facility until it implements a better system to check that EU funds are spent properly. In particular, it wants the Czechs to vet the distribution of funds to avoid conflicts of interest – a problem, says Brussels, exemplified by the billionaire prime minister himself, who was found by a Commission audit to have breached conflict of interest rules over his control of trust funds linked to his Agrofert business empire. The auditors said the Czech Republic should return EU subsidies Agrofert received after February 2017, which involve around 11 million euros.

Like its peers in Hungary and Poland, the Czech government has tried in the past to claim that the EU should keep its nose out and that any attempt to attach conditions to funding is political. But this week the Czech state’s own economic watchdog called on the incoming government for an even stronger response than that demanded by the European Commission.

The Czech Supreme Audit Office says it has detected severe shortcomings in the management and distribution of EU funds, ranking the situation a “serious risk” for the implementation of the National Recovery Plan. It complains of a weak supervision system, lack of clear targets, and failure to evaluate programme performance. The shortcomings mean that authorities often don’t understand the real needs of sectors that are being supported and that the money often fails to produce the planned results, the office said.

“We are issuing this report in turbulent times shortly after the elections,” said Miloslav Kala, president of the Supreme Audit Office. “The country is changing its political leadership, it is facing an unprecedented high state budget deficit, and in the pace of indebtedness, it hardly finds a competitor in Europe. The alleged conflict of interest of the outgoing prime minister is not solved. And all these issues are happening in a situation when the money flows from Brussels are enormous.”

Slovakia’s Sulik Expo-sed; anti-maskers paralyse shops and police; Caputova hits home at COP26

Despite his best efforts on social media to convince people otherwise, Economy Minister Richard Sulik’s visit to Dubai to represent Slovakia at the delayed Expo 2020 Dubai has not all been smiles. A photograph of Sulik’s diplomatic passport containing personal data was leaked online and stayed accessible on a public domain for about 40 minutes, along with the travel documentation of his daughter and several prominent members of the official Slovak delegation, the Pravda daily reported.

Sulik, busy with cooking traditional Slovak dishes for the Expo’s international audience, did not immediately react to the leak. The timing of the incident raised eyebrows, however, as the outspoken politician had made headlines just hours before the splash for failing to declare his ownership of an Australian ranch he reportedly bought in late 2019. Questions about the property emerged after its existence was brought to light by Finance Minister Igor Matovic, a coalition partner but fierce political rival of Sulik’s.

While Matovic himself refuses to declare his own finances and property, Sulik’s silence on the matter came under intense public scrutiny. “He financed the property by mortgaging two declared apartments and taking a loan of half a million euros,” Sulik’s spokesperson told the SME daily. The minister’s camp declined to provide further details.

Meanwhile, well-organised groups of people who refuse to wear mandatory face masks have been disrupting shoppers going about their business across Slovakia, leaving authorities helpless due to the lack of appropriate statutes to deal with the infractions. On several occasions, groups of individuals numbering in the dozens have entered grocery stores wearing face coverings, only to remove them before starting loud arguments with shop assistants and rule-obeying customers.

Spurred on by social media followers and extremist politicians such as far-right leader Marian Kotleba, the anti-mask groups forced several shops to either let them finish their grocery shopping without a face covering or close down for hours on end and rack up losses in the thousands of euros. According to reports by the Dennik N daily, police called to the disturbances have complained of not having the lawful means to intervene and instead advised shop employees to serve the disobeying customers as quickly as possible.

Such an outcome has been taken as a small victory by the anti-maskers and encouraged similar incidents across a country already grappling with a deteriorating pandemic situation. With the seven-day average of hospitalisations up by more than 50 per cent and the average daily number of coronavirus-related deaths rising by close to 200 per cent versus the previous week, Slovakia finds itself in the thick of the pandemic yet again.

“This is probably the worst thing we’re experiencing,” Health Minister Vladimir Lengvarsky was quoted by the Slovak Spectator as saying.

Only 44 per cent of Slovaks are fully vaccinated, marking the third worst rate in the EU. The much-criticised vaccination lottery, the brainchild of Finance Minister Matovic that cost 27 million euros, has had little effect in getting people to take a vaccine and failed to reach the most vulnerable sections of the population, an analysis by SME highlighted. Instead of financing the treatment of infected people in hospitals, many of whom were senior citizens requiring larger expenses, the lottery paid out prize money to individuals who had already had a jab while failing to garner data about its alleged effect on people’s motivation to get vaccinated, the journalists wrote.

Elsewhere, President Zuzana Caputova grabbed the spotlight at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow when she delivered an impactful and witty speech that underlined her criticism of those state leaders who appear to lack the dedication needed to reach commonly agreed climate goals. “We all have to contribute with our own just cause – including the countries whose highest officials did not come to Glasgow,” Caputova said, in clear reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, who both did not attend the UN event.

Notwithstanding universal pledges to phase out coal, deforestation and slash the financing of fossil fuels, Caputova went on to issue a warning that “we have not even approached” previously set-out climate goals. “The carbon footprint of airplanes that we flew to Glasgow cannot be the only outcome of this conference,” Caputova concluded.

South Korean university campus planned in Hungary; COVID numbers surge

Besides pushing the formation of a “Eurosceptic alliance”, Viktor Orban also had a busy diplomatic agenda this week, welcoming President Moon Jae-in, who is the first South Korean president to visit Hungary in the last 20 years. Orban also hosted a V4-Korea Business Forum in Budapest, where Moon met with the outgoing Czech prime minister, Andrej Babis, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawieczki and Slovakian Prime Minister Eduard Heger.

Central Europe is a key economic partner for South Korea, a rare success story for the region’s “Eastern opening”. Out of the 152 South Korean production subsidiaries in Europe, 136 are in the Visegrad Four region. Major companies like Samsung, LG and battery manufacturer SK Innovations have set up production sites in the region and continue to expand. South Korea’s flagship battery company announced earlier this year that it would open its third battery facility in Hungary, in return receiving the highest ever non-returnable subsidy from the Hungarian government worth 89 million euros.

“The V4 is growing the most dynamically in Europe based on its excellent workforce and geographical advantages, connecting Eastern and Western Europe. South Korea, with strengths in high-tech manufacturing, hopes to grow with the V4,” President Moon said.

Orban added that he would like to upgrade the already excellent bilateral relationship and announced that talks are under way to establish a “serious, big South Korean university campus” in Hungary. Details are not known, but previously Hungary has also committed itself to building and financing a campus for the Chinese-based Fudan University, causing quite a bit of a controversy in the process.

On the domestic front, COVID-19 infections are on the rise again, with the daily death toll reaching a hundred and hospitals already filling up with those infected. Despite being the early starter in the spring, Hungary now lags behind the European average in vaccination rates, and the government is refraining from making it mandatory for certain sectors. “Hungarians would not stomach mandatory jabs,” Orban said in one of his weekly radio addresses.

Instead, the government is now shifting responsibility to the private sector to make vaccination mandatory, if they wish to do so. Some municipalities have already announced that vaccination will be mandatory for their employees, but major companies are reluctant to follow suit. With the labour shortage that many sectors are facing, it is questionable whether employers would risk going this far. Should a company decide to make vaccination mandatory, employees not willing to accede would have to be sent on unpaid leave.

The largest employers – car manufacturers Audi, Mercedes and Suzuki, oil giant MOL and regional bank OTP – appear to be still monitoring the situation. The only company that immediately reacted to the government’s announcement was the business empire of Orban crony Lorinc Meszaros, employer of over 25 000 people, which refused point blank to order mandatory vaccination.

Woman’s death blamed on Polish anti-abortion act; a commitment to end coal in 2030s – really?

The family of a 30-year-old Polish woman who died last month after complications with her pregnancy released texts in which she blames last year’s anti-abortion Constitutional Tribunal ruling for not getting the appropriate treatment.

“The child weighs 485 grams. For the moment, thanks to the anti-abortion law, I must lie here and they can’t do anything for me,” the 30-year-old Izabela from Pszczyna, a small town in southern Poland, wrote to her mother from the hospital bed, according to the texts that the family made public this week.

The woman was 22 weeks pregnant when she was admitted to the hospital in late September after problems linked to low amniotic fluid. As is clear from the messages she sent her mother, the doctors in the hospital chose to wait until the heart of the foetus stopped beating rather than perform an abortion to save the woman’s life, despite signs the pregnancy was endangering her health.

“They’re waiting until the foetus dies,” the woman wrote in another text. “Or until something is starting. Well, extra: I can expect sepsis.” The woman’s messages turned out to be prophetic, as septic shock in the end was listed as the cause of her death.

Last year, the politically controlled Constitutional Tribunal ruled that abortions even in the case of serious foetal defects were illegal. On October 22, the one-year anniversary of the ruling, women held vigils across Poland.

Meanwhile, at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, the Polish government joined a group of 190 countries that, as part of an initiative of the UK government, committed to phasing out existing coal in the next two decades and not investing in any new coal generation capacity.

The declaration says that signatory countries will “phase out coal power in their economies in the 2030s for major economies and 2040s for the rest of the world”.

While the UK government highlighted the fact that Poland was among the countries to join this commitment in its public communication and green NGOs are celebrating the announcement, it’s still unclear how committed the Polish government is to actually exit coal in the 2030s.

Speaking at COP26, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki made no mention of any coal phaseout plans. Previously, the Polish government had negotiated with miners in Silesia a deal that implied a continuation of coal mining into the 2040s, and the Polish executive is still engaged in a conflict with the Czech Republic over the Turow mine in southern Poland, which is planned to operate up to 2044. The Polish energy system is still 70 per cent dependent on coal.

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