Yesterday an editorial appeared in Magyar Hírlap, a government-sponsored daily paper. The author reassured the paper’s readers that “yesterday nothing new happened; nothing was decided; the political, financial, legal, and communication war [between the EU and Hungary] will continue.” And in any case, next week there will be an important EU summit where “the power relations between Brusselites and the camp of those countries that defend sovereignty can shift further toward the latter.”
Admittedly, it is important for a government publication to spread optimistic messages, but the fact is that official statements belie these hopeful predictions. Viktor Orbán rarely gives “extraordinary” television interviews, but after the barrage of bad news coming from Brussels he felt it necessary to explain his version of the events.
What is the Hungarian government facing at the moment? Two different proceedings against the country are underway. The first is a triad of infringement procedures. The second, the beginning of the Article 7(1) process.
Infringement procedures are legal actions against a member country that fails to implement EU laws. There are stages to these procedures, which basically involve an exchange of legal opinions. After the second such unsatisfactory exchange the Commission sends the case to the European Court of Justice. In the event the judgment goes against the country and that country doesn’t rectify the situation, the Commission will propose that the Court impose financial penalties which, depending on the seriousness of the infringement, may be quite high, especially if the penalty is imposed for each day the country is not in compliance.
Hungary at the moment has three serious infringement cases under consideration at the European Court of Justice: the country’s refusal to accept a small quota of refugees, its modification of the laws regarding foreign-financed civic groups, and the amendments to the education law that placed Central European University in a precarious position. Its continued existence is still very much in question.
The other “drama” is being played out in the European Parliament, where a resolution was adopted earlier that calls for launching Article 7(1). It instructs the Committee of Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) to draw up a formal resolution for a plenary vote. On December 7 there was a hearing on the issue, where Péter Szijjártó represented the Hungarian government. The adoption of a resolution calling for the initiation of Article 7(1) proceedings, which could result in the suspension of voting rights for the targeted country, is a first in the history of the European Parliament.
These are significant matters, so I wasn’t surprised that Viktor Orbán, who rarely initiates television appearances, decided to grace the newly appointed Echo TV with his presence. Of course, Orbán’s interviews are so obviously staged that one can easily pick out all the “key words” that were supplied to the anchors ahead of time. And naturally the interviewers never ask “difficult questions.” One of the messages of government communication from here on will be that none of these “attacks” on Hungary has anything to do with the Orbán government’s transgression of European laws and values. They are inflicted on Hungary either because the Orbán government’s actions have had an adverse effect on the economic interests of foreign multinational companies or because they interfere in some mysterious way with the goals of the bureaucrats in Brussels.
In this interview Orbán renewed his claim that economic interests triggered the Tavares Report of 2013, which was a sharply worded, hard hitting report on the state of democracy in Hungary. After the European Parliament accepted Rui Tavares’s report, the Hungarian government wrote a resolution of its own which was then submitted to parliament. It was a verbose, clichéd piece of writing which included a sentence that struck me as odd at the time. It claimed that the Tavares Report was an answer to Hungary’s “reducing the cost of energy paid by families. This may hurt the interests of many European companies that for years have had windfall profits from their monopoly in Hungary.” That claim was ridiculous in 2013, if for no other reason than that the Tavares Report, which had nothing to do with economics, had been in the making for a year and a half while the Orbán government’s lowering of energy prices took place about two months before the release of the report. I really wonder whether by now Viktor Orbán actually believes this lie since he used the same kind of rationalization to explain away the report that is currently being drafted in the European Parliament.
Viktor Orbán claimed in 2013 that the very thorough analysis of the Orbán government’s transgression of democratic norms was nothing but a series of political attacks. Today he claims the same. As far as he is concerned, all disputes about democratic norms were closed before 2013. The Hungarian government has “the paper” to show that the European Commission and the Venice Commission were totally satisfied with all the changes that had been made to the media law and the constitution. It is not a lack of democracy that the Commission and the Parliament are really worried about today. EU politicians are concerned that Hungary’s stance on migration will hurt “their interests.” As if it was in the interest of the European Union to be faced with a million and a half refugees and immigrants. It is hard to fathom that anyone believes such nonsense or, for that matter, that any self-respecting politician can utter such an absurdity. And yet Orbán, with a straight face and in all seriousness, discussed the European Union’s plans to create a “continent of mixed population.” I assume I don’t have to add that George Soros and his network are behind this diabolical plan.
The key word, by the way, in this interview was sovereignty, which was kindly supplied by Orbán’s old friend Zsolt Bayer, one of the two anchors. Often, when Orbán encounters a word that is borrowed from abroad, like sovereignty (szuverenitás), used in Hungarian since 1786, he feels compelled to explain what the word actually means. This time he came up with “freedom” (szabadság) as a good equivalent. “At stake is the question of Hungarian freedom,” he claimed. The debate in the Union “touches on the question of freedom.”
With this switch from sovereignty to freedom, Orbán moved the discussion to an entirely different plane. Sovereignty means complete independence and self-government. Freedom, on the other hand, has many meanings, including “the condition of not being subject to a despotic or oppressive power,” and that can conjure up all sorts of xenophobic reactions in Hungarians. “Brussels is after us.” And indeed, some of the comments I read today in right-wing papers were revealing. One genius announced that the reason for the five-times higher living standards in Austria is Vienna’s exploitation and oppression of Hungary for five hundred years. The same can also be heard about the European Union’s plutocrats. Hungarian nationalism can easily be awakened by an appeal to “freedom,” a ploy Orbán loves to use. And it always does the trick.