It seems that Viktor Orbán has decided to be an enthusiastic promoter of the European Union. This is somewhat surprising because until now Fidesz was fairly critical of the Union and Magyar Nemzet, a paper very close to the party, was often outright antagonistic. After all, the EU is a supranational organization in which the individual states had to give up certain prerogatives and had to adjust a number of laws in order to meet EU requirements. And because the Hungarian right is deeply nationalistic, any kind "infringement" of national prerogatives cannot be popular in those quarters.
Orbán's critics often mention a rather unfortunate answer to a reporter's question on December 17, 1999–that is, while he was prime minister. The question was what would happen if Hungary was unsuccessful at joining the EU in 2002-2003. Orbán's answer, most likely intended to be whimsical, was: "It won't be a tragedy if our membership doesn't materialize in 2003. We are not a member of the Union now and, as you can see, there is life outside the European Union." It's true that he added that "we try to hasten integration because that would help our economic growth." But, of course, the sentence often repeated is: "there is life outside the European Union." One of those glib answers that often backfire.
But even if we don't take Orbán's 1999 remark at face value, one must emphasize that on the whole Fidesz has been much more critical of or at least less enthusiastic about the European Union than MSZP or SZDSZ. In an apparent about face Orbán now enthusiastically stands for closer cooperation. He is calling for a strong Europe and a strong Hungary. A fairly lengthy article of his appeared in Magyar Nemzet (January 10) entitled "Stronger Hungarian nation, stronger influence." And in case anyone has forgotten: "Written by Viktor Orbán, former prime minister, chairman of Fidesz." Typical Hungarian title mania. An aside: once I wrote a letter to the editor in a Hungarian weekly in which I happened to mention the name of a man who was an associate professor at one of the Hungarian universities. Soon enough there was an answer from the man. He quoted a couple of sentences from me verbatim, or rather, almost verbatim. Where I referred to him without any title, he put Dr. in front of his own name within quotation marks! Pitiful!
Back to the former prime minister. At the beginning of the article he criticized the very paper in which his article appeared because Magyar Nemzet "often cries wolf"and talks about the horrible dangers facing the country from the European Union. After boasting about his "experiences of fifteen years with the European Union" (again a bit of an exaggeration) he claims that these kinds of arguments are dangerous for Hungary and the Hungarians.
I assume that his sudden change of heart toward the European Union is based on two considerations. First, in a few months there will be European parliamentary elections where Orbán very much wants to show a substantial lead at the polls. I, for the time being, assume that neither SZDSZ nor MDF will have enough votes to be able to send delegates to Brussels. Currently, SZDSZ has two members, MDF one. Fidesz was the big winner five years ago. The party sent twelve members to Brussels while MSZP managed only nine. Now Fidesz wants to do even better than that. Orbán reasons that if MSZP does worse than it did in 2004 the party will get rid of Gyurcsány. Orbán also assumes that a strong showing of Fidesz at the European Union elections will further his chances in 2010 at the national elections. Second, Orbán is fairly sure that he will win the next elections and thus will become prime minister again. But his reputation within the European Union is not exactly sterling. Statesmen in Europe remember him as a troublemaker, they think he is a nationalist and a populist whose very presence in politics, domestic or pan-European, doesn't bode well for the future. Orbán with this laudatory article surely wants to calm the nerves of those who are not too enthusiastic about him. He wants to present himself as a responsible, serious politician.
First Orbán lists some of the shortcomings of the EU: too bureaucratic, too far from the average European citizen, discriminative practices among member states, and so on. Orbán especially finds it upsetting that certain Western European countries still don't allow workers from the Eastern European nations to work within their borders and that the new countries receive reduced agricultural subsidies. Orbán as a Hungarian shouldn't worry about the restrictive labor policies of certain countries. Hungarians, on the whole, are not mobile; when a few people accept jobs in Sweden or in England there is an outcry at home.
But after the few complaints Orbán moves on to the positive side. The European Union "often defends the Hungarians from their own government." I'm a bit baffled by this statement but the next sentence helps: "The norms of the Union often serve to keep the MSZP government on the straight and narrow." So, if I understand it correctly, if Hungary were not a member of the EU the MSZP government would trample on the democratic rights of the country's citizens. And he continues with all the pluses the EU brought to Hungary. If Hungary hadn't been a member of the EU "the country would have been bankrupt a long time ago." If Hungary weren't a member of the Union no one would invest a penny in Hungary. The only reason that foreign companies are still coming to Hungary "in spite of Medgyessy's and Gyurcsány amateurism" is that they feel more secure knowing that Hungary is a member of the EU. Finally, one ought to be grateful to the European Union because without it "the Russian economic expansion within the country" would be much greater. Another puzzle to solve in Orbán's rhetoric.
He further praises the European Union for not interfering in the internal affairs of its member countries. For example, people who are happy that Ireland torpedoed the new EU constitution that would have created a stronger Europe are upset over the EU not telling the MSZP government off. You can't have it both ways, says Orbán, and he actually votes for a stronger Europe with a common foreign policy and closer economic cooperation in order to succeed in the global economy. He calms Hungarian nationalistic nerves: don't worry, the nation states are as strong as ever and will remain so into the foreseeable future.
What will this strong Europe and within it a strong Hungary be like according to the Orbánian vision? 1. It should be very, very free and should make sure that all member states are free. For example, "we, Hungarians, expected more from the European Union when on the streets of Budapest the rights of people were mercilessly trampled on…. One needs a Europe that could defend its citizens if necessary even against their own governments." (I guess this is an exception to the principle that the EU should not interfere in the internal affairs of its member states.) 2. There ought to be a common economic policy, and he says a few flattering words about the "French role" in this respect. (Perhaps Sarkozy will forget his unfortunate encounter with Orbán in Budapest.) 3. The Union should get involved in minority questions. Again, a typical Hungarian demand. Somehow the European Union should involve itself with the question of Hungarian minorities in Slovakia and Romania. (I very much doubt that the EU would get entangled in this rather unpromising enterprise.) 4. The EU should develop a common energy policy. 5. Europe should have unitary foreign policy with a foreign minister at the helm. This seems to be necessary because of the fear of Russian aggression. (Common foreign policy is really a must but not just because of Russia.) 6. There is a need for a common agricultural policy. 7. The European Union doesn't seem to be able to save its citizens from bad products coming from outside. Especially worisome are spoiled foodstuffs. (That is interesting because Hungarian farmers even complain about the "junk" that comes to Hungary from other EU countries.) 8. Hungary is not helping its families and therefore there is a decline of its population while in other European countries promising steps have been taken. (As far as I know the whole European situation is pretty dismal in this respect.) 9. For Hungary it is especially important to defend the borders of the European Union against criminals and terrorists. 10. Europe's interest is education, innovation, and learning. Hungary has to rethink its whole philosophy of education. (Again? Once Fidesz completely undid everything the earlier government had done. Another "reform" would be devastating and most likely not a step in the right direction.) Orbán does mention the poor quality of teaching foreign languages. (This is certainly true, but improvement here cannot occur overnight. One needs teachers who actually know the foreign language they teach.)
According to Orbán the major lesson that should be learned is that Hungary needs a strong Europe and Europe needs a strong Hungary. Hungary is at a crossroads. Well, well. What a different tone. However, one has learned to expect such twists and turns in Orbán's political thinking.