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V4 countries seem satisfied with EU summit

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his colleagues from around the region were willing to accept U.K. conditions on EU reform. 

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán speaks following the February 19 summit in Brussels (MTI/Balázs Szecsődi)

Hungary and its neighbors received the promises they were hoping for on protection of their own immigrants in the United Kingdom, while also apparently softening their stance on immigrants from outside of the European Union, during a February 19 summit in Brussels.

Immediately after the EU summit, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said that “we achieved the aims we set before the summit”, and defended the “most important European principle: No EU citizen can be discriminated against on grounds of nationality”, Hungarian news agency MTI reported. He said at a press conference after the summit that the results achieved in connection with the British demands were prepared together with the Visegrad Group countries, MTI reported. He tagged it as a success that the freedom to work inside the EU is still possible in the United Kingdom. He added that with the EU declaring that the outer borders need to be protected, the European Union had for the first time accepted a Hungarian solution, MTI reported.

The summit was called to discuss reforms proposed by British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is seeking to dissuade his citizens from voting to leave the EU in a referendum. That referendum is now set for June 23.

One major sticking point for Hungary and its Visegrad Four neighbors – Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia – was the social benefits the U.K. offers to workers coming from EU member states. In a gathering days before the Brussels summit, the V4 leaders said that they would oppose restrictive measures in this area. But the deal worked out in Brussels seemed adequate to their needs: The U.K. can freeze social benefits for workers of other EU members for four years in every seven year period – provided the U.K. can prove that their social security system is under huge pressure due to issuing the benefits.

When it came to agreement on how to handle the refugee crisis, apparently even Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has been virulently opposed to any quotas for the number of migrants that EU countries must accept, was ready to compromise on the matter.

“On the migration issue, it was clear that the V4 group has softened its approach since it did not push the ‘second defense in line’ alternative plan and gave a second chance to Greece instead of trying to isolate Athens on the Macedonian border,” Edit Zgut, foreign policy analyst at the Political Capital Institute, told the Budapest Business Journal. At the February 15 V4 meeting, Orbán had advocated isolating Greece, which has heavy refugee traffic, by putting up tough border controls that cut that country off from the Schengen zone.

Orbán was reported to have supported the formal conclusions adopted at the summit, including a call for sharing refugees among EU members. While opposition politicians in Hungary accused Orbán of flip-flopping on his opposition to refugee quotas, government spokesperson Zoltán Kovács said the agreement referred to an earlier plan.

Zgut agreed with this assessment. “This referred to the EU summit last December which declared that member states must implement decisions relating to the relocation of migrants within the EU,” Zgut said, noting that Hungary sued against the idea of quotas in the European Court.

Zgut said it was not clear why Hungary did not append separate opinions to that court decision. “They could have considered that this relocation plan is dead already since most of the member states were reluctant to implement it so far,” she added.

In connection with a discussion between Germany and Turkey to let as many as 500,000 refugees come from Turkey to Europe, Orbán earlier said he does not support the measure.

“This is not on the table yet officially, but the Merkel-Sansom plan is about considering Turkey as a safe third country and resettling migrants directly from there into the EU legally,” Zgut said.

According to the analyst, based on opinion polls, people in the region “still show very little support for accepting migrants across the region and politicians like Orbán have seen their popularity surge thanks to his opposition to migrants”.