President Putin’s visit to Budapest on 17 February has raised eyebrows externally and provoked protests within Hungary. Many Hungarians feel that their country is drifting to the East, while its present and future lies with the West. Prime Minister Orban does have some valid points for explaining his association with Mr. Putin. What is more worrisome in the long-run is the authoritarian affinities between the two.
An agreement on the Greek bailout programme was initially supposed to be reached at the Eurogroup meeting of 11 February. As the finance ministers gathered it became clear that arriving at decisions would not be a matter that would be resolved in a day. Greece and its creditors could not even agree to a common press release
The leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine agreed on Sunday, 8 February, to press ahead with the diplomatic initiative by Ms Merkel to ease the tension in Eastern Ukraine. Germany is convinced that even discussions of supplying weapons could escalate the fighting and encourage Ukraine in a war it could never win against a much stronger Russia. The German Chancellor defended her decision to maintain economic sanctions and avoid the use of force by referring to her own experience of waiting patiently for the Cold War to end. “I am surprised at how faint-hearted we are, and how quickly we lose courage,” she remarked.
The streets of Budapest on Sunday, 1 February, were full of people demonstrating against their government. The policies of Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister, are widely seen as pro-Russian. The timing of the demonstration was also chosen to maximize the reach of their message, as Angela Merkel was expected in Hungary in order to address the government’s commitment to EU sanctions against Russia. Angela Merkel did arrive in Budapest on Monday, 2 February, and held a joint press conference after her talks with Orban. It did not look that their meeting had gone well.
Chaos has always been a scenario for Greece, ever since the bailout. The mix was there: a bankrupt country, crippling unemployment, violent riots, weekly strikes, neo-Nazis in parliament, a rapid decline in living standards that turned into a humanitarian emergency. Outside Greece, in public analysis and private conversations, the possibility of the destabilisation of democracy came up every now and then, some kind of coup that would send the country to the extreme left or right. For those who indulged in these cassandric predictions the rise of leftist Syriza was a vindication: surely this is a rogue party, self-positioned on the Radical Left, with communist roots, and a populist rhetoric? Discussion of the Greek problem has always involved a degree of fear-mongering, which is useful in the manipulation of public opinion, but rather redundant in adding any nuance to our understanding of a foreign context. A useful key-phrase, if one truly wishes to understand Greece in crisis, is “structural reforms”.
France and Italy have managed to sidestep an unavoidable collision with the European Commission over their 2015 budgets by pledging additional fiscal measures to cut their deficits. Meanwhile, Britain is forced to pay the additional £1.7bn it has been calculated to owe for the EU budget.