An article in Hírszerző depicted the reactions of the Hungarian media to yesterday’s major event: the discussion on Hungary in the European Parliament and Viktor Orbán’s appearance before that body. The author of the short note copied out some seemingly conflicting headlines describing the same event: “Viktor Orbán gave a lesson to vindictive MPs,” “Superficial accusations and emotions–According to Viktor Orbán we can be proud of our constitution,” “Viktor Orbán became broadminded,” “Orbán won,” “Dialogue among the deaf,” “Orbán’s war against Europe: Napoleon in Russia,” “Accommodating government, sharp exchanges, willing prime minister.”
These very headlines reveal a lot about the political philosophy of the paper in which they appeared. The one exception is Zsófia Mihancsik’s “Orbán won” that appeared on the liberal Galamus. She is convinced that Viktor Orbán managed to fool the whole world and that “we are again alone,” as she put it at the end of the article. According to her “the Union is helpless, the interest of the western media will die, nobody is trying to look behind the nice words.” This article seemed to have moved a lot of hearts in Hungarian liberal circles, but I find Népszabadság‘s headline on the subject more convincing: “This was only the first round.” Especially since Martin Schulz, the new speaker of the European Parliament, halfway through the debate told the newspapermen waiting for him that “it is not enough to listen to Viktor Orbán. The members of the opposition and the civic society must also be heard.” And indeed, this would be the only fair way of dealing with the Hungarian situation.
The right-wing politicians and the media complain bitterly about some of the mistakes made by the critics of Viktor Orbán, and indeed there were some who were not too well prepared. On the other hand, I was struck by the uniformity in the content of those MPs who supported the Hungarian government. It was clear to me that the Fidesz delegation to the European Parliament did a good job of preparing their sympathizers before they rose to the defense of the Hungarian government. It was equally clear to me that the MSZP delegation was not so diligent. They were supposed to send a summary of the political events that had taken place in Hungary in the last year and a half. They may have done this, but it seems that they neglected to do the necessary lobbying and prep work. Or, it is possible that the MSZP delegates consulted only with the keynote speakers of the delegations sympathetic to their cause.
So, for example, the new leader of the socialist caucus, Hannes Swoboda, was very well prepared. But then again Swoboda is an Austrian and thus he might be more familiar with Hungarian politics than the average European delegate. Swoboda pointed out that changing the legal language is not the answer to the problems Hungarian democracy faces; the problem lies with the spirit embedded in the new Hungarian laws.
Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the liberals, was very specific. He talked about thirty worrisome laws that might not be in conformity with fundamental democratic values. Verhofstadt also mentioned the letter signed by the members of the Democratic Opposition which was also published on this blog. Viktor Orbán in his concluding remarks returned to this letter and claimed that Verhofstadt “forgot to mention that those who signed that letter used to be liberal politicians who in 2010 couldn’t even get into parliament.” This, as with so many other Orbán statements yesterday, is not entirely accurate. Not all of them were politicians, although admittedly they are all of the liberal persuasion. Verhofstadt shot back: “To be a liberal is not a sickness. You were a liberal once, before you became a nationalist.”
The bête noire of the Hungarian right is Daniel Cohn-Bendit who again was in great form. Reacting to Viktor Orbán’s claim that Hungary was the last country to adopt a new constitution and that it had used the 1949 constitution, Cohn-Bendit said to him: “So, all of us were raving mad because we accepted a country into the Union which had a Stalinist constitution?”
Daniel Cohn-Bendit in his element
Cohn-Bendit knew about the Budapest theater that was handed over to two men known for their anti-semitism. Some of the people knew about the fate of Klubrádió and the appointment of József Szájer’s wife to head the National Judicial Office, which raised the ire of József Szájer who rushed to his wife’s defense.
Although one of the Hungarian papers claimed that Viktor Orbán “sat without any facial expression,” this wasn’t exactly the case. He often expressed his displeasure or shook his head in disbelief. A few times one could see his well known sarcastic smile.
Viktor Orbán looking solemn
The question is whether Viktor Orbán won or lost yesterday. He certainly had to retreat, but on the whole he cut a better figure than he did the last time he was in Strasbourg. But whether this retreat is genuine or not only time will tell. I have the feeling that the European Union’s dissatisfaction with Viktor Orbán’s behavior hasn’t come to an end. Yesterday morning he gave an interview to Bild, the German paper with the largest circulation. In it he made the following remark: “We are a country of freedom fighters. I also demand that heritage for myself.” So, the war continues. Perhaps that’s why 168 Óra talked about Napoleon in Russia and added the following caricature to the article about Orbán in Strasbourg:
Viktor Orbán as Napoleon in 168 Óra
So, if I were José Manuel Barroso, Olli Rehn, Vivian Reding, and Neelie Kroes I would prepare for an extended fight.
And while we are on the subject of Napoleon. Orbán occasionally reveals his true self and his dictatorial tendencies. In the same interview in Bild when the fate of Klubrádió came up, Orbán claimed that the only reason the radio station lost its frequency was that “it offered less money” than its competitor. Now the owner of the radio is trying to put political pressure on the Media Authority “but I will not allow anyone to gain financial advantage this way.” Please note the first person singular. The Media Authority is clearly not independent even by Orbán’s own admission. So much for the much touted Hungarian democracy.
I suspect that this is not the end of “dialogue” between the “meek” Viktor Orbán who “retreated” and the helpless European Union. There will be other rounds. But Zsófia Mihancsik is right in one respect. The Hungarian people are the only ones who could remove Viktor Orbán, and this is not an easy task. The prime minister is a very clever and cunning fellow.
P.S. Viktor Orbán’s press conference with English simultaneous translation can be seen here: