On February 8, a day before the scheduled hearing on the state of Hungarian democracy in the European Parliament’s committee on rights of citizens, Eszter Zalán, Népszabadság‘s correspondent reporting on European Union affairs, believed that interest in the Hungarian question had lost its momentum. It’s true, she wrote, that there will be a four-hour session devoted to Hungary, but the journalist was sure that very few people would be present because, after all, February 9 is a Thursday and most likely many members of parliament will be on their way home for the weekend. All in all, “Orbán will survive the attack from Brussels with relatively few scratches.”
Although earlier, in mid-January, it was reported from Strasbourg that the European parliament was considering a move to strip Hungary of some its European Union rights, a month later this seemed unlikely. But that was before Tibor Navracsics, deputy prime minister of Hungary, showed up at the hearing held yesterday afternoon. By last night it was reported by Euobserver that “the European Commission has indicated it is ready to use its nuclear option–Article 7 on political sanctions–against Hungary if it continues to flout EU law.” This announcement came after a testy exchange between Commissioner Neelie Kroes and Tibor Navracsics.
Presumably Tibor Navracsics was chosen to represent Hungary at the hearing because there is a general perception in Hungary that Navracsics cuts a better figure than Viktor Orbán, especially abroad. He is a less confrontational than Orbán and altogether looks and acts more civilized than the Hungarian prime minister. Well, that might be the case looking at Navracsics from Budapest. A few hundred kilometers west of the Hungarian capital, he looked anything but moderate, civilized, or polite. It didn’t matter how hard Navracsics tried to hold himself back, he didn’t succeed. When I watched the video of the exchange between Navracsics and Neelie Kroes I cringed. Some of the Hungarian sentences I managed to catch before the English translation cut in actually sounded worse than the English version.
Eszter Zalán was wrong, the chamber was quite full. It seems that interest in the state of Hungarian democracy hasn’t waned. The session devoted to Hungary lasted longer than the scheduled four hours. The Hungarian government was represented by five Fidesz EU parliamentary members: József Szájer, János Ádler, Lívia Járóka, King Gál, and Ádám Kósa, and from Romania, Csaba Sógor. Járóka is Roma and Kósa is a deaf mute. Járóka was there to praise the government’s Roma policies and Kósa to call attention to the excellent treatment of the disabled. Too bad that neither was particularly convincing. In fact, they were squarely contradicted by the other side who cited specific instances of discrimination.Let me also add that by now the Hungarian government’s reputation in Brussels or in Strasbourg cannot sink much lower. When Navracsics explained that he has to obey the Hungarian constitution, the audience broke out in laughter. After all, the problem is with the new Hungarian constitution. So appealing to it can solicit only laughter in this particular setting.
MSZP was represented by Kinga Göncz, who concentrated on the letter as opposed to the spirit of the law. She wanted to know whether the Hungarian government will reinstate András Baka as the chief justice of the Kúria and András Jóri as ombudsman for data security. Of course, Göncz is not naive; she knows full well that the Orbán government has no intention of reinstating either man.
In addition to these politicians Balázs Dénes, a young lawyer working for the Hungarian equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, talked about discrimination against the Roma and the disabled, the new constitution that was thrown together in nine days, and the general disregard of the law. Dénes announced that “the only sober voice is that of the European Commission. Absolute power is like a drug, that’s why we need you.”
Lajos Makai, president of the Association of Hungarian Judges, told the committee that members of the legal profession didn’t take part in drafting the constitution. Only after it was enacted could they express their observations. The judges were surprised about the decision to lower the retirement age for practicing judges. Zoltán Fleck, a legal scholar, stressed the necessity to look at the whole network of institutions and not merely the small deformities of individual institutions.
András Arató, CEO of Klubrádió, talked about the situation of the public TV and radio stations where a central supplier of news has been falsifying the facts. Then he turned to the specific problems of Klubrádió, the only opposition radio in all of Hungary. Until the fall of 2010 Klubrádió could be heard in 10 different cities but since then the Media Council has taken away the frequency of Klubrádió in seven of these towns. Now they are trying to silence the Budapest 95.3 frequency.
A civil activist, Attila Kopjás (Steve), talked about the plight of the homeless. A new law forbids homeless people from “living on the streets.” If caught, they have to pay a heavy fine (500 euros) or, if they don’t happen to have 500 euros ready to hand, the culprits might be jailed. Last year he lay down on a park bench in clothing typical of a homeless man and was immediately arrested. Three days later he lay down on the same bench elegantly dressed and nothing happened to him. He even reported himself to the police for vagrancy, but they were not interested in his crime.
And finally, the Hungarian government let loose on Brussels Tamás Fricz, who is supposedly a political scientist. He works for the Institute of Political Science of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Unfortunately for the Hungarian government, he is poor even as a propagandist.
By today, I think that Tibor Navracsics knows that he lost this particular battle. He announced late last night that “it will not be a tragedy if a negative decision is reached on Hungary at the next plenary session of the European Parliament.” It is true that there are no legal consequences of such a decision, but it surely won’t help Hungary’s case.
And this is not the end. Soon enough Rózsa Hoffmann will have a heart-to-heart with Androulla Vassiliou, commissioner for education, culture, multilingualism, and youth. At the moment the European Commission is studying the new laws that have an impact on education. The European Commission has serious reservations about decreasing the age of compulsory education from eighteen to sixteen years. The commissioner is also not thrilled that the Orbán government reduced the length of study for vocational schools from four to three years. Moreover, according to the new law vocational students will take fewer academic subjects: languages, literature, history. After all, the intellectual giants who run the country at the moment consider such subjects useless. In a recent interview Viktor Orbán talked disdainfully of “himi-humi” subjects which, I assume, means the humanities.
And then there is the government intent to tie down Hungarian university graduates like indentured servants if they receive tuition-free education. Four tuition-free years, eight years of compulsory work in Hungary. This is surely a losing proposition in a country that belongs to the European Union.