Category Archives: Hungarian politics

A first: Nine opposition parties agree on long-range healthcare priorities

Today was an extraordinary day, one that few people believed would ever come to pass. All nine opposition parties, including Jobbik, signed onto a “national healthcare minimum,” a document that outlines the basic steps that must be taken to salvage the sinking ship of Hungarian healthcare. Fidesz was also invited to the discussions that preceded the final act of approval, but the government party refused to participate.

How did this project come into being? The description of the process might be educational for crafting future agreements in fields that shouldn’t fall victim to party politics.

First, I should say a few words about the man, Gyula Kincses, without whom this healthcare minimum project couldn’t have taken place. Kincses was an ear-nose-throat specialist who eventually moved over to healthcare management and politics. He began his political career as an MDF member of parliament (1990-1994), but he was always more interested in healthcare management. It didn’t matter which party was in power, they all relied on his advice and expertise–from Viktor Orbán (1998-2002) through all subsequent governments–that is, up until 2010. He reached the pinnacle of his career during the Gyurcsány administration when he served as undersecretary of health.

By now Kincses is retired, but he is still extremely active. In the last five years he has been writing a blog called Asztalfiók (Desk drawer) in which he analyzes various aspects of healthcare. He is regularly asked to comment on health issues by Hír TV and ATV. As far as I know, he has not been asked for advice by this government.

Gyula Kincses

On June 14, 2017, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and Political Capital held a conference titled “Can Healthcare be cured?” where, in addition to healthcare professionals, representatives of several opposition parties were invited to participate. Tímea Szabó (Párbeszéd), László György Lukács (Jobbik), Ákos Hadházy (LMP), Imre László (DK), and László Szakács (MSZP) were among the speakers. Naturally, Fidesz was also invited, but they ignored the event. At this conference Jobbik’s Lukács was the only person to stress the “necessity of a consensus among the representatives of political life, which would elevate the issue of healthcare over and above the usual political skirmishes.” This suggestion moved Gyula Kincses, who was in the audience, to ask Lukács whether he would sponsor such a resolution.

The Hungarian media didn’t waste much time on this conference. The only article I found appeared on Jobbik’s internet news site Alfahír, which makes sense since it was a Jobbik politician who accepted the challenge of getting all the parties involved in working out a national minimum. A month later, on July 28, Népszava reported that the representatives of nine parties with measurable support (DK, Együtt, Jobbik, LMP, Kétfarkú Kutya, MSZP, MoMa, Momentum, and Párbeszéd) had gathered to try to identify the most basic elements necessary for a coherent healthcare policy that could be sustained over time. One of the problems Hungary, like most countries, faces is that when a new administration comes into power it brings with it politicians with new ideas who immediately dismantle everything the previous administration had accomplished. An agreement on healthcare—or, for that matter, on education—over the long run would eliminate this extremely destructive practice. Surprisingly, it turned out that the parties actually agreed on many of the elements Kincses found important. By the end of July Kincses was greatly encouraged by the level of cooperation he had received. Kincses gave an interview to Egyenes beszéd (ATV) in which he stressed that Fidesz would be a welcome member of the team, but the government party was steadfastly refusing to participate. However, he said, they are still waiting.

Although Kincses didn’t brag about it, by that time the document was more or less ready. By early August the final text was sent to the participating parties for discussion and for a final word of acceptance or rejection. At that time Alfahír still expressed its doubts whether all the parties would accept the final text. Well, today we at last found out that Kincses accomplished the close-to-impossible task. All nine parties decided to support the nine basic elements of the document.

The Hungarian media can occasionally be more than irritating. None of the articles covering this story lists all nine points, but I managed to find that the parties committed themselves to spending at least 9.4% of the Hungarian GDP (EU average) on healthcare. Currently the figure is only 7.1%. Of this, the state pays 4.8%, while the rest is paid by individuals. Out of every 100 forints spent on healthcare, 40 forints are paid by Hungarian citizens, which is much higher than in other EU countries. The plan would lower that figure to 30%. Everyone who is insured would receive the same quality care, though private insurers could offer additional services. The document includes a promise of graduated, substantial salary raises for healthcare workers over the next five years and the restoration of the old “social security system,” which was abolished by the Orbán government and replaced with a system financed by taxation.

The first party to sign was Jobbik, followed by DK. By now only a few haven’t yet gotten around to signing the document.

Magyar Idők has been silent about this whole project. In the past few months the government media has reported nothing about the discussions concerning long-term healthcare plans. It was only Pesti Srácok which today sarcastically announced that “the great opposition cuddling materialized; of course, Jobbik is among them.” Otherwise, the paper summarized the document accurately.

This is a first step but, I think, an important one. I hope there will be others to follow. They might inspire the electorate to realize that, after all, these parties can agree on issues which are important to them.

September 20, 2017

Viktor Orbán: Christian Europe in danger

Once a year the Keresztény Értelmiségiek Szövetsége/KÉSZ (Association of Christian Professionals), an alleged NGO, holds its congress. The fact that since 2011 the event has been held in the chamber of the former Upper House (Főrendiház) says a lot about the independence of the organization.

Until very recently KÉSZ was a purely Catholic affair. It was established in 1989 by a Catholic priest and professor of theology who served as its president until his death in 1996. In that year another Catholic priest and a great admirer of Viktor Orbán, Zoltán Osztie, took over. He served until 2016. At that point the presidency was assumed by a Greek Catholic priest and canonist, I guess in an attempt to appear a bit more ecumenical.

The close connection between KÉSZ and Fidesz was obvious even from the few references Viktor Orbán brought up about the organization’s past. He specifically noted KÉSZ’s assistance in setting up thousands of “civic cells” that Fidesz used to widen the base of the party after the 2002 defeat. Then, in 2009, KÉSZ joined the notorious Civil Összefogás Fórum (CÖF), a phony NGO financed in all sorts of devious ways by the Orbán government. KÉSZ also gives assistance to the government when it comes to its nationality policy outside the country’s borders. For example, KÉSZ has signed joint declarations of intent with the Keresztény Értelmiségi Kör (Christian Professional Club) in Serbia where the Hungarian political elite is an important supporter of the current government. KÉSZ’s website provides no details about its financial resources, but it has a publication called “Jel” (Sign) which looks quite professional, it finances books, and it organizes conferences.

At the KÉSZ congress held on September 16 Viktor Orbán delivered a lengthy lecture on the state of the world. His two most important statements, both made at the end of the speech, were that (1) “the Germans, the Austrians, and the arrogant western media” began a “smear campaign” against his country which was “centrally ordered, centrally controlled, centrally engineered against Hungary—out of vengeance because [Hungary] closed the Balkan route used by the migrants” and (2) if the European leaders are unable to find a path to coexistence between immigrant and non-immigrant countries “the tension that exists between them now will be even more intensified, which may lead to a greater chasm or even a fatal break in the history of the European continent.” Both of these claims are rather frightening.

The attentive audience / Source: Index / Photo János Bődey

Although these are the two statements I chose as the weightiest, there were some other noteworthy claims. One was that “the goal of today’s anti-Christian program” is the importation of non-Christian elements, which in turn will weaken Christianity in Europe to such an extent that it will actually die out. Before Orbán spoke, Cardinal Péter Erdő had delivered a speech in which he talked about the strong roots of Christianity in Europe. Picking up on this theme, Orbán accused “the anti-Christian European program” of planning “to change the subsoil” so that “the roots of Christianity, no matter how thick and strong they are, cannot take hold, and thus the giant tree simply falls over.” Again, Orbán sees a malicious design or at least tries to convince his audience that there is such a design–that European politicians are contemplating the Islamization of Europe and the death of Christianity on the continent.

Orbán also set forth a religious elaboration of his theme that “We want a Hungarian Hungary and a European Europe.” He added: “But this is possible only if we take upon ourselves the task of creating a Christian Hungary within a Christian Europe.” This qualifying sentence is a new motif in Orbán’s political vocabulary. He is certain that under his leadership Hungary will remain a Christian country, but he is not so sure about Europe. “The ideology of the immigrant countries is international liberalism,” while in the case of the non-immigrant countries “the guiding principle is … sovereignty and Christian social teaching. The adoption of Western European liberalism by the people of Central Europe would simply mean suicide. Or to be more precise it would be a suicidal ideology for the countries of Central Europe” because it would result in their becoming immigrant countries. Obviously, liberalism in any shape or form should be banished from Central Europe. I wonder what the Czechs and the Slovaks would think of this demand.

Finally, here is something that Orbán uttered elsewhere, but I think it belongs here. In his speech to the members of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation he apparently noted with great satisfaction that “in the last six years, on the left-right scale, a thoroughgoing shift has occurred toward the right.” I’m afraid he is correct.

September 19, 2017

A new strategy or a new man is needed to lead the anti-Orbán forces

It’s time to take stock of the state of the democratic opposition after an MSZP gathering over the weekend where László Botka, the candidate to lead MSZP’s election campaign, introduced his team, what he calls the “new alliance.” Before anyone gets too excited, this “new alliance” doesn’t mean an agreement with the other left-of-center parties. Between January and now Botka has not managed to convince one party, with the possible exception of Gábor Fodor’s Magyar Liberális Párt (MPL), to support his strategy, which consists of a common party list and a division of the 106 electoral districts among the participating parties. One of these parties could be the Demokratikus Koalíció (DK), but only if its chairman, Ferenc Gyurcsány, is not included on the party list. Not surprisingly, DK is not ready to accept outside interference in its internal affairs and refuses to accept the arrangement. While DK, according to all the opinion polls, could garner enough votes to become a parliamentary party on its own, the other three small parties– Együtt (Together), Párbeszéd (Dialogue), and MLP–couldn’t. Neither Párbeszéd nor Együtt is inclined to accept the kind of MSZP leadership Botka is offering. So, as it stands, MSZP is still alone, with dismal polling numbers.

So, what is this new alliance? As far as I can tell, it is a poor substitute for a joint electoral campaign. As Magyar Nemzet observed, Botka has given up looking for political allies and is satisfied with individuals who until now had been helping the smaller parties. One man who has switched to Botka’s side is Zoltán Komáromi, a family doctor who worked with Együtt on the party’s healthcare program. Another is István Szent-Iványi, a former SZDSZ member of parliament who was named ambassador to Ljubljana on January 25, 2010, i.e. a few months before the 2010 national election. To everybody’s surprise, Szent-Iványi wasn’t removed from his post by the new administration. In fact, the Orbán government left him in Slovenia until the end of his term five years later. He then disappeared from the political scene for a while, only to show up as the foreign policy expert of  Gábor Fodor’s liberal party. A third person who is ready to join Botka’s team is Ferenc Büttl, an economist and a member of Párbeszéd. Another supporter is László Andor, an economist who was EU commissioner for employment, social affairs, and inclusion between 2010 and 2014. I would call him a socialist although he might not be a party member. A somewhat surprising addition is the former CEO of the internationally known organic demonstration farm that was sold to Fidesz oligarchs, who has been battling the action in court ever since. The newest supporter is the president of the National Association of Pensioners. Botka also named three people to stand as candidates in individual districts without consulting anyone.

Apparently, Botka’s great hope is Gergely Karácsony, chairman of Párbeszéd, who is currently vying for the same post as Botka. A couple of weeks ago he joined the MSZP hopeful in Szeged where he made some ambiguous remarks about his relationship to Botka. At the time, I wrote: “This gathering had one bright side…. Gergely Karácsony, chairman of Párbeszéd (Dialogue) and his party’s candidate for the premiership, promised his cooperation with László Botka. I chose the word ‘cooperation’ carefully because I don’t think that ‘support’ would properly describe Karácsony’s message. In his speech he said that those who would attempt to remove Botka cannot count on him because he is ‘willing to struggle alongside László Botka for a just and fair Hungary.’”

In that post I expressed my hope that Karácsony’s words might give a psychological lift to Botka’s flailing campaign. Well, I’m afraid that that hope has been quashed by László Botka himself, who in his eagerness to show results misread or misrepresented Karácsony’s remarks. Karácsony, who was invited to join the MSZP bigwigs to hear Botka’s ideas on the “new alliance,” learned only from Népszava that he was supposed to be responsible for the cultural aspects of Botka’s program. Karácsony decided not to attend the MSZP gathering, and this morning on ATV’s Start he explained why not.

The media is full of stories about a very serious division within MSZP over the efficacy of Botka’s strategy. Magyar Nemzet, which is normally well informed, seems to know that the majority of the party’s leading lights are skeptical about Botka and his new alliance and are urging him to change tactics. But so far Botka is unmovable. According to leaked information, some of the most senior MSZP leaders asked Gyula Molnár, the party chairman, to start negotiations with the leaders of the other parties. Vasárnapi Hírek, a socialist weekly owned by former party treasurer László Puch, suggested getting rid of Botka altogether if he is unable to produce tangible results.

I’m sure that most observers consider the present situation quite hopeless, but I’m a bit more optimistic. Enthusiasm for László Botka and his solution has completely evaporated, and liberal and socialist papers increasingly find his treatment of the other parties unacceptable. So, I assume that soon enough there will be so much pressure on Botka that he will have to move in another direction. If not, Gergely Karácsony could always be a compromise candidate. He is a great deal more popular than Botka–a soft-spoken, compromise-ready politician. He is the kind of man whom Hungarians, who are longing for some peace and quiet, might find to be just what the doctor ordered.

September 18, 2017

Hungarians’ changing priorities; shifts in the left-of-center media

Changing opinions on political issues 

Yesterday I saw a Hír TV news segment that I found intriguing. A woman reporter with a cameraman behind her stopped passersby wanting to know what the “man in the street” thinks about current affairs. This is the umpteenth time that I have encountered such an exercise. The result was always disappointing. Eight or nine people out of ten simply refused to answer any of the questions while the other(s) proclaimed their loyalty to Viktor Orbán, who has created a wonderful, prosperous country. To my great surprise this encounter turned out differently. Everybody was willing to speak, and there was only one woman out of about ten who was enthusiastic about Viktor Orbán on account of his defense of the country against the “migrants.”

The reporter wanted to know what people think are the most urgent tasks and problems Hungarians face today. The answers were practically uniform: healthcare and education. A couple of people mentioned low wages and inflation, especially food prices. When people didn’t cite migration as a problem, the journalist asked them about the topic. With the exception of one person, they all claimed that the danger of migration is not in the forefront of their concerns. There are no migrants in Hungary, and migrants show little inclination to settle there anyway.

One of those dissatisfied citizens

At first I thought I may simply have seen an atypical, or skewed, news segment. But then, a few hours later, I found an article in 24.hu reporting that “Hungarians worry more about poverty and healthcare than migration.” It summarized the findings of two international organizations, Eurobarometer and the conservative International Republican Institute. Both indicated that migration is not uppermost in Hungarians’ minds. The International Republican Institute’s findings are especially interesting because the respondents were not faced with a set of prepared options. Here poverty and the lack of social equality (28%) were people’s main concerns, followed by corruption (15%), unemployment (13%), healthcare (12%), and “migration” (4%).

But in that case, why did the Orbán government launch a new campaign against the “Soros Plan”? Knowing the careful political calculations of Fidesz, we must assume that the questions in the new “national consultation” will be slanted in such a way that it will speak to the concerns of the majority of Hungarians. There are signs that in the present Fidesz vocabulary the “Soros Plan” is actually just another name for the European Union. In this case, the main thrust of this new campaign will again be anti-EU. But it has to be structured so that it doesn’t cause the kind of adverse reaction that the “Stop Brussels” campaign did.

Changes in the left-of center media

Those of you who are able to watch Hungarian-language television must be aware of the slow transformation of ATV, which until about two years ago was the only independent TV station. At that time Lajos Simicska, Viktor Orbán’s old high school friend and the financial brain behind Fidesz, turned against Orbán, allegedly because of his pro-Russian orientation. This put an end to the pro-government stance of Simicska’s Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV. At about the same time, major changes began to be introduced at ATV, which is owned by the fundamentalist Assembly of Faith. It is hard to tell whether these changes were made in order to boost viewership or for political reasons, but there are fewer programs for people who are interested in political news. Reporters were hired from TV2, a commercial station that caters to a different audience from the one that ATV had attracted earlier. Also, two important reporters, Olga Kálmán and Antónia Mészáros, left the station. Kálmán joined Hír TV and Mészáros left the profession altogether. In addition, several reporters simply disappeared from the screen. The new crew was, at least in my opinion, not worth watching.

The final straw was the replacement of Kálmán and Mészáros with Zsuzsa Demcsák, who began her career as a fashion model but later spent years at TV2, a commercial station recently bought by Andy Vajna, most likely as a proxy for the Hungarian government. After the change of ownership, reporters started leaving TV2, including Demcsák in April. ATV jumped at what the management considered to be an opportunity and hired her. The arrangement was that Demcsák and Egon Rónai would rotate being anchor of “Egyenes beszéd” on a weekly basis. Demcsák’s first week on the job was dreadful. The woman was simply out of her depth. The following week she showed off her incompetence on ATV Start, an early morning political program. Then came Friday morning when she was, I’m afraid, quite drunk while interviewing Tibor Szanyi, MSZP’s European parliamentary member. She was suspended, awaiting the results of an internal investigation, but I’m almost certain that we are not going to see her on ATV again.

On the other hand, Hír TV came out with several new programs. This morning I watched two of them. The first was “Elmúlt 8 év” (The past eight years) with Györgyi Szöllősi, who is a good reporter. The other was “180 fok” (180 degrees) with Sándor Csintalan, a somewhat controversial character who started off as an MSZP politician and at one point was in the Fidesz camp. He is now a committed foe of Orbán. The program is in part a call-in show and and in part a series of interviews. The first guests were Miklós Haraszti, who is no stranger to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum, and the head of Iránytű (Compass), a polling company allegedly close to Jobbik. I encountered Iránytű’s director before and found his views moderate and balanced. And I loved the screen behind Csintalan, showing an idyllic countryside with a charming peasant house when suddenly Orbán’s infamous choo-choo train goes across. The train appears every five minutes or so. I laughed every time. I think I will also check out another new program called “Magyar Exodus,” which will be mostly filmed abroad, with Hungarian emigrants.

Unfortunately, these two cable channels reach very few people, but their existence is still vitally important. One can only hope that ATV will find its bearings soon because otherwise it can close up shop.

September 17, 2017

Immigrants in Hungary: The Dutch colony in Csemő

Today’s post was inspired by a fascinating report on Dutch families who in the last 10-15 years have settled in Hungary. To provide some context for this report, I did a little research on foreigners who settled on a more or less permanent basis in Hungary. The statistical literature distinguishes between people who arrived in Hungary from countries outside the European Union and those, like the Dutch immigrants in Csemő, a village on the Great Plains, who came from the EU.

Let’s look first at some data on those immigrants who came from so-called “third countries,” i.e. countries outside the European Union. In 2015 their number was estimated to be 60,000. Their arrival, according to the research conducted by the Central Statistical Office, “was beneficial for Hungary because these immigrants were younger, better educated, and economically more active than the Hungarian natives.” The largest group is the Chinese, but a lot of people came from Ukraine, Vietnam, and Russia. They can be counted as permanent residents since 60% of them have been living in the country for more than ten years. Two-thirds of them came either to work or to join other family members. Twenty-five percent came to study. In 2013 employment statistics for foreigners were higher than those of the local population:  67.9% as opposed to 58.2%. The educational attainment of the newcomers is also higher than that of the Hungarian-born population (48% v. 20%), most likely because many of the immigrants originally came to study in Hungary and then opted to stay. These statistics make Viktor Orbán’s hysterical anti-immigrant views even more ridiculous.

By the way, a few days ago someone asked about the size of the Chinese immigrant population in Hungary. If I recall properly, no one responded to the inquiry. I can now offer some information. The official, somewhat dated figure is 6,800, but, according to estimates, their number is closer to 20,000.  These people settled in Hungary on a more or less permanent basis and their children attend Hungarian schools. Very few of them, however, have become citizens so far.

Immigrants to Hungary quickly become part of the social fabric of the country. Two years ago an article appeared on napi.hu about a “surprising statistic” that proves that Hungary is in the forefront of countries where the integration of immigrants is rapid and rather painless. I must admit that I wasn’t as surprised by the findings of the Központi Statisztikai Hivatal/KSH (Central Statistical Office) as the journalist of napi.hu was. Historically speaking, immigrants who settled in Hungary, within a generation or two, especially in larger towns and cities, became completely integrated. Budapest and Pécs were excellent examples of that phenomenon during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Of course, there are quite a few immigrants who come from member states of the European Union, many of them still young and working, mostly in Budapest and larger cities, but others retired or semi-retired who come for various reasons, including cheaper accommodations, more living space, and a quieter life.

It is a subset of this second group that Magyar Nemzet’s report “Dutch ‘refugees’ on the Great Plains” describes. About 100-150 Dutch people settled in and around the village of Csemő, a place that didn’t exist until 1952. Unlike most Hungarian villages, which boast histories going back to the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries, Csemő’s Wikipedia entry lists under “Places of Interest” two town squares and a hunting lodge. To my great surprise I found an elementary school named after one of my classmates from ELTE, Mihály Ladányi, a poet who spent his last years in the village.

The way these ethnic mini-enclaves come into being is through word of mouth. One family discovers a picturesque village somewhere, and they then tell their friends about the place. This is how Jeroen and Jacqueline Bastiaensen found a run-down homestead (tanya) in Csemő, which they bought “for a tenth or twentieth the price of something comparable in the Netherlands.” This was five years ago, and they claim they do not regret their decision. Since then they have fixed up the place. The couple also operates two guesthouses that they rent out to Dutch and Belgian visitors. In addition, for some extra income they take care of the properties of those Dutch families who spend only a few weeks in Csemő. The reporter also talked to Lammi Luten, another Dutch settler whose family arrived in Hungary eight years ago. Her children attend the local elementary school and are naturally fluent in Hungarian.

The Lutens in front of their house / Source: Magyar Nemzet / Photo: László Végh

Of course, the Hungarian reporter was eager to find out what these people think of Hungary and the Hungarians. Jacqueline explained that certain things are very different in Hungary. As an example, she brought up the case of “Holnap Zsolti” (Tomorrow Zsolti), the local plumber. They call him “Holnap Zsolti” because every time he is phoned for a job he promises he will be there tomorrow, but he doesn’t show up. Jacqueline is surprisingly good-natured about Holnap Zsolti, but she admits that there are times when his attitude seriously interferes with her business. She also complained about someone she hired as a cleaning lady who often doesn’t come to work because “her grandmother is sick, or she overslept, or she simply had other things to attend to.” Obviously, Jacqueline has already learned enough Hungarian to explain to her that this is not the way to be a responsible employee.

Lammi Luten’s criticism of her Hungarian neighbors points to something that might be a more deep-seated and serious problem. As she sees it, Hungarians are not as hard-working as the Dutch. If a Dutchman has the opportunity, with a little extra work, to earn 200 euros a week instead of 100, he will jump at the opportunity. She believes that “Hungarians are satisfied with less; they work only as much as they have to.” She also complained about the unreliability of her fellow villagers. But she feels compensated by what she considers to be a stress-free living situation. Finally, by way of comparison between the Dutch and the Hungarians, she talked about the differences between their bicycling habits. “A Hungarian bicyclist pedals slowly and keeps looking around. It is a miracle that the bicycle remains upright. A Dutchman will pedal hard, having little goals in mind. For example, to pass the bicyclist ahead of him.” These are of course generalizations, but this kind of attitude must be prevalent enough to strike outsiders as typical.

As we can see, the newcomers manage to interact with the local folks. But, according to the mayor, the local inhabitants “don’t learn much from the practical, well-disciplined, correct Dutch.” He claims that the language barrier prevents closer interaction. Still, the mayor of the village, Dr. Roland Lakos, who in addition to Hungarian speaks only Russian and therefore doesn’t have much interaction with the Dutch inhabitants of the village, included a Dutch translation of the description of Csemő on its website. It claims to be “one of the most flowery villages” of Hungary. From the video I must say it looks like a very pleasant place.

September 16, 2017

George Soros, the omnipotent bogeyman: the focus of Fidesz’s electoral campaign

Fidesz’s framework for its electoral strategy is slowly taking shape. There seem to be two interconnected strands. One propaganda offensive suggests that outside forces are fomenting a revolutionary uprising against the Orbán government. The second concentrates on the “Soros Plan” that is being executed by the European Union. Fidesz’s task in the next few months is to uncover the conspiracy which is brewing against the government and at the same time to save the country from the dreadful fate that awaits it as a result of the European Union’s evil plans. Of course, George Soros is behind both the attempt to physically remove Viktor Orbán’s government and the potential flood of illegal migrants forced upon the country by the European Union. If Fidesz doesn’t win, disaster awaits the Hungarian people. The stakes are as high as they were in 1990. It is a matter of life or death. Everything that was achieved will be lost if Hungarians make the wrong choice.

As far as I can see, this electoral strategy has been in the making for some time. A couple of months ago I wrote a post titled “What’s the new Fidesz game plan?” in which I outlined the first strand of this strategy, pointing out that starting in the early summer Fidesz politicians were talking about a coalition that will be forged by the Hungarian opposition and the Soros NGOs. They will organize disturbances on the streets of Budapest. “They will try to create an atmosphere filled with civil-war psychosis,” as László Kövér, president of parliament, put it in one of his speeches.

At this point, government politicians were unable to point the finger at specific “members of the Soros network” who will be responsible for these disturbances, but now they have begun to identify its members. Szilárd Németh named three civil activists: Márton Gulyás, who started the Közös Ország Mozgalom to change the current unfair electoral system; Árpád Schilling, a theater director and the founder of Krétakör Színház (Chalk Circle Theater); and Gábor Vágó, a former LMP member of parliament between 2010 and 2014. How did these three names surface?

Source: Index.hu

It all started with claims put forth by Antal Rogán, the propaganda minister, who at Fidesz’s Kötcse picnic in early September brought up the possibility of violence on the streets of Budapest organized by “foreign forces.” The opposition parties, usually slow on the uptake, were urged by analysts to call on Rogán. Charging that foreign forces are behind an attempt to overthrow the government is a serious matter. Surely, Rogán as a responsible member of the government must have proof of such interference. Zsolt Molnár, chairman of the parliamentary committee on national security, saw the light and called the committee together, asking Rogán to attend. The meeting took place two days ago. As could have been predicted, Rogán didn’t show up.

As we learned later, officials of the national security forces knew nothing about any mysterious forces behind the alleged revolutionary leaders who are contemplating the overthrow of the Orbán government. At least this is what the socialist chairman and the LMP and Jobbik members of the committee said.

On the other hand, the Fidesz vice chairman, Szilárd Németh, reported that “according to the Hungarian national security services, organizations and individuals financed from abroad pose a very serious risk” to the security of the country. He specifically mentioned Árpád Schilling and Márton Gulyás, who “openly talk about marching on the streets and organizing sit-down strikes if they cannot have their way.” Ádám Mirkóczki, a Jobbik member of the committee, said that “it seems that Szilárd Németh was attending a different meeting.”

This would not be the first time that Németh makes up stories to further Fidesz’s program. The next day government papers were full of Németh’s bogus story about “the serious risk subversive civilians pose.” On the same day Lajos Kósa, who was the leader of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation until today, gave an interview in which he specifically mentioned Gábor Vágó, “an opposition activist,” who allegedly called for illegal and aggressive acts against the government. While he was at it, he described certain opposition members of parliament as “the men of Soros.”

A day after Németh’s press conference Bernadett Szél, the LMP member of the committee, pressed charges against the Fidesz politician on the grounds that he revealed the identity of people whose names were mentioned in a closed session of the committee.

Since Németh’s falsification of what transpired at the committee meeting didn’t get much traction, the Fidesz propaganda machine came up with a new angle. Magyar Idők learned that the Független Diákparlament (Independent Student Parliament) is organizing a demonstration in support of Central European University. What follows is rather fuzzy. Apparently, Árpád Schilling, one of the people Németh referred to, is a supporter of this student movement. Therefore, concludes the paper, “it seems that the Soros network will start its fall disturbances on the backs of the students.”

As for the “Soros Plan,” the new name is a way of personifying the evil scheme of the European Union, which would threaten the future of Europe. The most important task is to fight against this plan by all possible means. The struggle against it will be the most important ingredient of the election campaign. Therefore, “the Fidesz parliamentary delegation is asking the government to hold a national consultation about the Soros Plan.” Holding such a national consultation is especially important since the European Court of Justice’s verdict “opened the door to the execution of the Soros Plan,” which includes the arrival of one million migrants every year from here on.

The anti-Soros campaign must have been deemed a resounding success, and therefore the decision was made to continue it. A lot of observers, including me, think that the Orbán government has gone too far already with its Soros-bashing, but obviously we are mistaken because I can’t imagine that Orbán would embark on another anti-Soros campaign without proper research on the effectiveness of his past efforts in that direction. In fact, it looks as if Orbán decided that fighting against George Soros’s alleged agenda will be his party’s key campaign theme, which he apparently outlined in a speech to the members of the parliamentary caucus in a three-day pow wow of the Fidesz MEPs and important party leaders. Hard to fathom and it sounds crazy, but unfortunately that’s Hungarian reality.

September 14, 2017

Juncker’s vision for the future of Europe

In 2014 I was rooting for the election of Jean-Claude Juncker, considering him to be the best candidate to succeed the less than dynamic and imaginative José Manuel Barroso. He was known as a strong supporter of a more integrated Europe, which I consider a must if the European Union wants to survive and play a political role commensurate with its size and economic importance. Twenty-six of the 28 prime ministers and heads of states voted for him. There were only two prime ministers who didn’t: David Cameron of the United Kingdom and Viktor Orbán of Hungary.

I guess I was hoping for some quick policy changes that would indicate a tighter European ship, but what followed was crisis after crisis: 2015 saw another Greek bailout and the refugee crisis, and in 2016 the British voted to leave the European Union. Juncker’s tenure didn’t look like a success.

It seems, however, that quietly, in the background, the commission president managed to achieve 80% of what he and his team proposed for the 2014-2019 period. A senior commission official told Politico that on areas outside the commission’s tradition purview, like security and defense, “We’ve done more in six months than in the last 60 years, that’s all him.” Brexit last summer was the low point for the European Union, but since then some of the EU’s woes have subsided. A lot fewer migrants are arriving on the continent, Greece’s bailout seems to be working, and populist voices have quieted after a number of national elections. The Eurozone’s economy has been steadily growing, and unemployment, although still high, is back to its 2009 level.

Photo: Patrick Hertzog / AFP

Unless one is a keen observer of the European Union, these accomplishments are often swamped by the petty quarrels initiated by the Visegrád 4 countries. As Zsolt Kerner of 24.hu put it, “From Hungary the exact state of the European Union is distorted because of the government propaganda,” but the Juncker administration’s accomplishments are considerable.

Until now Juncker hasn’t made any effort to outline his vision for a more closely integrated Europe. But today he put forth some startlingly innovative proposals that could, if adopted, fundamentally change the very nature of the European Union. Leonid Bershidsky, a Russian journalist who works in Ukraine nowadays, wrote an opinion piece in Bloomberg in which he sympathizes with Juncker’s plans but notes that there are quite a few important European politicians, for example Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, who will most likely oppose a structure which, although “the word wasn’t uttered, … would be a federation.”

A summary of Juncker’s speech can be found on Euronews.com, and therefore there is no need to cover the whole speech here. Instead, I will concentrate on those items that speak directly to Juncker’s vision of a United States of Europe. First, as opposed to Merkel and Macron who would like to see a two-speed Europe or a core-Europe of countries using the euro as their currency and the periphery of countries mostly found in the eastern half of the continent, Juncker wants all countries, with the exception of Denmark which is exempt, to adopt the euro as they promised at the time of their adherence to the Union. He would entice the countries whose leaders are hesitant to take the step with generous financial incentives for the transitional period. Once there is a common currency, the Union should have its own common minister of finance in charge of the economy. That person could be one of the commissioners, who would also be one of the vice presidents of the commission. One reason for the Hungarian government’s hesitancy to join the Eurozone is Viktor Orbán’s reluctance to lose the independent Hungarian central bank, which has been the source of all sorts of questionable financial moves benefiting his government. Once in the Eurozone, the head of the Hungarian National Bank would just be one of the members of the European Central Bank.

In order to achieve “a Union of states and a Union of citizens,” he proposed merging the functions of the presidents of the European Commission and the European Council. This is an excellent idea not only because, as he put it, “Europe would be easier to understand if one captain was steering the ship” but because it would also make for less friction between the nation states and the center. Apparently, the idea is not new. In fact, the Lisbon Treaty’s wording intentionally allowed for such a merger in the future. This single president would be elected in a pan-European campaign with transnational lists. Juncker didn’t elaborate on how this would work, and it is not at all clear whether even his own party, EPP, would support such pan-EU lists. Optimistically, he believes that he will be able “to convince the leaders of [his] parliamentary group to try to follow this idea.” Juncker’s powers of persuasion are said to be extraordinary because he is able to change even Angela Merkel’s mind.

He also proposed that the new office of the EU chief prosecutor, which until now was supposed to have jurisdiction only over EU financial matters, would from here on get involved in the fight against terrorism. Hungary was one of the countries which for obvious reasons refused to accept the idea of an EU prosecutor’s office, but perhaps if the office is also involved with terrorism it would be more difficult to turn against the proposal.

Finally, Juncker suggested getting away from the need for unanimity in the decision-making process. Again, this is a complicated affair, but there would be a way via the so-called “passarelle clauses” in the current treaties, which would allow the process to move from unanimity to qualified majority voting in certain areas, provided all heads of state and government agree to do so. Juncker insists on using this tool in decisions on taxation and foreign policy.

There are practically no Hungarian opinion pieces on the Juncker speech yet, but Magyar Idők published an MTI report under the headline “Juncker promises a more united and more democratic union.” MTI reports are not supposed to add comments to its press releases, and therefore I was quite surprised to read that “this 70-minute speech by Jean-Claude Juncker has been so far his most considered and most measured state of the union speech, which was welcomed by the majority of the members of the EP delegations.” I really wonder who is responsible for this sentence.

Some of Juncker’s suggestions would remedy problems the European Union has been battling for many years. If a common currency, common army, and common financial policy were to become a reality, the EU would be on its way to being considered a sovereign entity. Of course, there would still be the question of a common foreign policy, but one cannot expect such giant steps. I’m sure there will be many who will find even that much hard to swallow.

September 13, 2017