I have to interrupt my summary of Gordon Bajnai’s assessment of and remedies for the current state of the Hungarian economy and political system because too many things happened today. However, I will return to his lengthy analysis as soon as there is a lull in the current onslaught of events.
Let’s start with the most important piece of news coming from Brussels. Although a lot of commentators were skeptical about the effectiveness of the European Commission as a serious factor when it comes to a “rogue” nation like Orbán’s Hungary, it seems that the executive branch of the European Union is taking the Hungarian case quite seriously.
Nonetheless, there are a couple of reasons to doubt that the “punishment” for noncompliance will be substantial. One is the bad experience the European Union had with Austria’s coalition government of Wolfgang Schüssel in 2000 which included Jörg Haider’s far-right Freedom Party. The European Union’s other member states, fourteen in number in those days, decided to cease cooperation with the Austrian government. However, their measures were counterproductive: the Austrian coalition remained in power and the EU had to retreat.
Many today are worried that if the European Union is too tough on the Orbán government the Hungarian population will blame not Viktor Orbán but the European Union for unfairly punishing the country and the Hungarian people. Apparently, Angela Merkel is especially worried about such an outcome while Nicolas Sarkozy would like to take a tougher position.
On the other hand, the structure of the European Union has changed a lot since 2000. By now the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the European Central Bank have much greater powers to demand compliance from member states. One also must keep in mind that Austria in 2000 wasn’t in a precarious economic position as Hungary is today; it didn’t need money from the IMF and EU. You may recall the Hungarian president’s rather uncouth remark about “the dog barks while the caravan proceeds” in connection with the American criticism of the Orbán government. Well, there is another saying in Hungarian: “Dog barks, money talks.”
In any case the European Union stepped up the pressure today by threatening legal action over the constitution that according to the EU legal experts is not compatible with European Union laws. The European Commission announced today that the new constitution doesn’t guarantee the independence of judges, the central bank, and the data protection agency. Moreover, the media law is being scrutinized again and it is likely that it will be found wanting. In connection with the constitution, the judiciary and the media, the spokeswoman for the Commission announced that “a legally stable environment, based on the rule of law, including respect for media freedom, democratic principles and fundamental rights, is also the best guarantee for citizens’ trust and confidence of partners and investors.”
In addition, Olli Rehn, European Union Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner, had some harsh words for Hungary’s fiscal policies, which he considers unsustainable. Moreover, although the Hungarian deficit in 2011 was under 3% it was achieved only by the “nationalization” of private pension funds and therefore cannot be considered to be a “sustainable correction.” In fact, according to calculations, without this injection of ill-gotten money the Hungarian deficit would be over 6%. “Therefore the European Commission proposes to move to the next stage of the Excessive Deficit Procedure and recommends that the Council of Ministers decides that no effective action has been taken to bring the deficit below 3% of the GDP in a sustainable manner” as Reuters reported. Moreover, as Olli Rehn said, Hungary “could … face a suspension of commitments from the cohesion funds from next year, from January 2013 onwards.” That would mean 1.7% of the Hungarian GDP, or 480 billion forints yearly.
This is just today’s news, but anybody who has been following foreign comments on Hungary knows that the criticism of the Orbán government has been incessant and exceedingly harsh. So, the Hungarian government decided to counterattack.
Naturally, they didn’t put out János Lázár or Lajos Kósa, two of the hard liners, to defend Hungary’s honor but those who have somewhat better reputations abroad. First, János Martonyi, who seems to be willing to defend the indefensible. He gave an interview to Le Figaro and later to The Guardian. In both interviews he staunchly defended Hungary’s democratic commitments. In the latter interview he confidently announced that “we can put to the streets 10 times more people than they [the opposition] can.” Up to now Viktor Orbán hasn’t tried to organize a pro-government demonstration because apparently the administration fears that the crowd might not be as big as they would like. Martonyi also wrote a fairly long letter to his fellow foreign ministers of all European Union countries in which he tried to explain the “real” situation in Hungary. So, it is clear that Viktor Orbán is counting on Martonyi’s good reputation abroad.
Zoltán Kovács, undersecretary in charge of communication, was dispatched to Paris to have “background conversations” with French newspapermen at the Hungarian Embassy. During the conversation he naturally denied all criticism as unfounded and tried to convince the French newsmen that Hungary under the Orbán government is a thoroughly democratic country. I have the feeling that he wasn’t terribly successful.
Tibor Navracsics wrote an article for the Conservative Home where he defended both the constitution and the cardinal laws.
President Pál Schmitt was also instructed to defend the the Orbán government. During the usual New Year’s reception for foreign diplomats he gave a speech and complained about “the international attacks and criticisms.” According to him the new constitution conforms “to European norms.” Any attempt to force Hungary to change any of the cardinal laws means “questioning the sovereignty of the country.”
Unfortunately for the Orbán government it’s a bit late for damage control.