Tag Archives: European integration

Hungary at a crossroads? Viktor Orbán will have to choose

Since Viktor Orbán returned home after last week’s summit, more and more people have noticed a change in his communication tactics. Right after the summit I wrote about the difference in his attitude toward the European Union. As opposed to his customary fiery anti-EU rhetoric, he indicated that perhaps, after all, there might be room for cooperation instead of constant opposition to everything Brussels stands for.

Viktor Orbán’s position within the European Union has been considerably weakened by Brexit and the EU politicians’ firm and steadfast insistence on a “hard Brexit.” His hope for some kind of special relationship with Donald Trump has come to naught. Moreover, there are visible cracks in the regional “alliance” of the Visegrád 4 countries. Also, we shouldn’t forget about the disappointment Orbán must have felt when the far-right parties in Austria, the Netherlands, Germany, and France didn’t achieve the kind of electoral victories he was hoping for when he declared 2017 the year of revolt. Instead, as Attila Ara-Kovács put it, 2017 turned out to be “the year of sobering.” Slovakia and the Czech Republic are reluctant to follow in the footsteps of Poland and Hungary because they are convinced that their anti-EU policies and undemocratic regimes will lead them to isolation and to the economic periphery of the European Union. While Emmanuel Macron indicated that he had no intention of visiting Poland any time soon, he already had a meeting with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis in Brussels and accepted an invitation from the president to visit Romania in the near future. Foreign policy analysts, Ara-Kovács for example, believe that the kind of foreign policy Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński have been experimenting with cannot be conducted in this new Europe.

So, soon enough Hungary, and perhaps Poland as well, must choose. Either their current leaders must accept the inevitable and embark on a road that will lead to more limited national sovereignty or they will be left behind. With the exception of the government media, foreign policy analysts predict that Orbán will have no choice and, however reluctantly, will have to accept the lead of Germany and France. The media Viktor Orbán created in the last couple of years, however, still follows the old Orbán doctrine about the declining West and the successful East. Among the many such articles I was especially struck by one that appeared in the Saturday issue of Magyar Idők written by Károly Kiss, an economist who teaches at Corvinus University. The title is: “Is the West still the model?” I guess no one will be surprised to learn that the answer is a definite “no.” The East Asian and Southeast Asian “limited democracies” have been spectacularly successful, and Hungary should follow their lead.

Kiss complains that even conservative Hungarian economists, sociologists, and political scientists still declare their adherence to the century-old “mistaken” belief that Hungary’s future lies with the West. A good example is a collection of essays that appeared only a few days ago, Ascend: Social and Political Challenges in Hungary. Its authors find “all of our problems … in the fact that we are not following the path of European development.” Although Károly Kiss may not like it, those liberal and conservative thinkers whose ideal is still the west are right. The destiny of Hungary as well as that of Poland, Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria lies in the wholehearted acceptance of western values, institutions, and economic and political norms.

A difficult path ahead

Some of the conservative thinkers whose articles appear in this volume were once advisers to Viktor Orbán, but his policies of the last seven years have turned them against him. Orbán’s rebuff of the west is only one of the reasons for their disenchantment. The other is his undemocratic, autocratic system and his totally mistaken economic and social policies. The appearance of this book is a milestone. As the publisher of the volume said at the book launch, “The Bibó memorial volume was the intellectual end, the tombstone of the Kádár regime, this volume … I will not finish this sentence.” (The Bibó memorial volume was the most important document of the Hungarian samizdat literature, which contained articles by 76 writers, sociologists, historians, and philosophers. Work on it was completed in October 1980.)

As far as western orientation and European integration are concerned, optimists believe that “during the fall Orbán and Co. will receive an offer they cannot refuse” from the European Union. Attila Weinhardt, writing in Portfolió, is certain that the German-French duo will figure out a way to entice still reluctant members to join the Eurozone, where integration will begin. The package, according to the article, would be so advantageous that it would be impossible to say no to it. Moreover, Weinhardt points out that countries in the region which do not yet use the euro will opt for it, and therefore it would be difficult for Hungary to remain outside. He specifically mentions the Czech Republic. I assume Romania would also be an eager participant. The Hungarian people are enthusiastic supporters of the currency change, according to Eurobarometer. I was surprised to read that 64% of them believe that countries that adopted the euro benefited from the change, while 57% would welcome the introduction of the euro in Hungary. The author is obviously a great supporter of Hungary making the jump and joining further integration efforts, even if that means limited sovereignty in certain areas, like finance and perhaps even the judiciary.

So, liberal and conservative economists, financial experts, sociologists, and political scientists all think that Hungary’s further integration into a German-French-led European Union would be the only way of catching up with the west. I find it difficult to believe that the Viktor Orbán we know would gratefully accept the irresistible package Brussels might offer during the autumn months, although I must admit that, as he exhibited in the past, Orbán is perfectly capable of completely reversing himself if time or his own interests so dictate. So, perhaps he will shock us. Of course, the authors of Ascend, who are all avid supporters of a western orientation, would rather first see the fall of Viktor Orbán. This would be an event that would allow Hungary to make another attempt at the “westernization” of the country under a liberal-conservative political leadership.

June 26, 2017

Viktor Orbán: “The French president is a new boy” who should learn a thing or two

It is no secret that Emmanuel Macron, France’s newly elected president, is no friend of “illiberal democracies.” In an interview at the beginning of May he was pretty blunt when he said: “You know the friends and allies of Mrs. Le Pen. These are the regimes of Orbán, Kaczynski, and Putin. They are not open and free democracies. Every day, freedoms and rules are violated there along with our principles.” Poland’s Foreign Ministry didn’t wait long to react. The Poles were especially outraged at the suggestion that the current Polish regime shows any similarity to Putin’s Russia. The Hungarian government didn’t officially respond to Macron’s charge at that time, although a week earlier Macron had said that if he becomes president he will press the European Union to impose sanctions on those Central European nations that disregard fundamental European values.

As Macron’s chance of electoral victory solidified, the Hungarian government media took an increasingly antagonistic attitude toward him. Now that Macron is installed as president of France and is ready to promote his “European project,” his views on the “rogue states” of the EU have gained in significance to the countries involved, especially Poland and Hungary. Yesterday Macron gave an exclusive interview to eight European papers: The Guardian, Le Figaro, El País, Gazeta Wyborcza, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Le Temps, Le Soir, and Corriere della Serra. In this interview he repeated, even elaborated on, the theme he had talked about earlier. In his opinion “national egotisms are slow poisons that bring about the weakening of democracies and a collective inability to rise up to our historic challenge.” Although he stressed that he didn’t believe in “a conflict between east and west in Europe,” he nevertheless warned against certain European leaders “abandoning principles, turning their backs on Europe, having a cynical approach to the European Union that only serves as dispensing credit without respecting its values.” He stated that “Europe isn’t a supermarket. Europe is a common destiny. It is weakened when it accepts its principles being rejected. The countries in Europe that don’t respect the rules should have to face the political consequences. And that’s not just an east-west debate.” Finally, he added,“I will speak to everyone with respect but I won’t compromise on European principles—on solidarity or democratic values. If Europe were to accept that, it would mean it’s weak and had already ceased to exist.” These are strong words.

By now the heads of governments of the European Union have gathered in Brussels. The two-day summit, as far as I can see, may be more important than some earlier summits because such issues as a common defense, foreign policy toward Turkey and the United States, the Russian sanctions, and Brexit and its consequences will be on the table. As for a common defense, there is a strong likelihood that there will be unanimity on that issue. Discussion of the divisive compulsory migrant quotas has been postponed for the time being, and therefore Viktor Orbán’s referendum with its “record number of signatures” cannot be submitted this time as a prop for Hungary’s position on the issue. The prime minister must wait for the next opportunity to launch his “biggest fight” with Brussels. Independent Hungarian sources think that, with the election of Macron, Orbán will face his greatest challenge, especially if strong French-German cooperation achieves a deeper integration of Europe. Perhaps it is just wishful thinking, but some Hungarian observers think that Orbán is in a tight spot and that his peacock dance will encounter more difficulties from here on.

Upon his arrival in Brussels, Viktor Orbán gave an impromptu press conference to a small group of Hungarian journalists. On the photo one can see the microphones of M1, ATV, and RTL Klub. Naturally, the non-state television networks wanted to cover Orbán’s reaction to Macron’s interview the day before, in which he made no secret of his opinion of the leaders of those illiberal states that violate the common fundamental values of the European Union and that don’t share the common responsibility while they benefit from the largess of fellow member states. Orbán’s answer was typical of the man’s rough edges, which make some Hungarians uneasy and embarrassed. “The French president is a new boy (új fiú) who comes to the summit for the first time. We will take a look at him; we will come to know him. He surely must have some ideas,” Orbán began. And then he continued: “His entrance is not too promising because yesterday he thought that the best form of friendship is a kick into the Central-European nations. This is not customary around here, but I believe he will find his way around.” Orbán is getting too big for his britches. After all, this “new boy” is the president of France, a  country with a population of more than 65 million.

At the same time, in Warsaw, Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski also had a few words to say on the subject but he, unlike the Hungarian prime minister, remained within the realm of diplomatic decorum. According to Polska Agencja Prasowa, the Polish news agency, he expressed his hope that Macron, who will meet Prime Minister Beatą Szydło at the summit, will explain the meaning of his words about the Poles, Hungarians, and other people of Central Europe. Yes, Macron will have an opportunity to meet Szydło because, as a result of a Polish initiative, Macron will have a separate meeting with the heads of the Visegrád 4 tomorrow morning. I would love to be a fly on the wall at that meeting. I’m certain that Macron will bring up his very serious reservations about the state of democracy, at least in Poland and in Hungary. He has been talking about the very serious problems in these two countries for a long time and has repeated time and again that these illiberal, increasingly autocratic states are a cancer on the body of the European Union which, in his opinion, is just now embarking on a new course that will open the door to a more socially sensitive and economically thriving Europe.

The contrast between Macron’s and Orbán’s world views and ideas on the future of Europe can’t be greater. I am, of course, keeping fingers crossed for Macron and for a thriving, more closely integrated European Union because I agree with him that “national egotisms are slow poisons” that can bring only disaster to the continent.

June 22, 2017

Tibor Navracsics’s political “coming out”

Tibor Navracsics, who is EU commissioner in charge of education, culture, youth and sport, doesn’t appear too often in the Hungarian media, and when he does he is asked mostly about matters relating to Hungary rather than the work he does in Brussels. Thus, the Hungarian public knows very little about Navracsics’s views on and role in the European Union.

Last November Navracsics gave an interview to Mandiner’s András Stumpf in which he said that he has always been committed to the idea of the European Union, adding that “on the Hungarian right I am pretty much all that remains.” This sentence made a big splash as proof that, at least in Navracsics’s opinion, none of his former colleagues in the Orbán government is committed to the idea of European integration.

Navracsics had a rough time being confirmed as an EU commissioner. As I said at the time, “the long shadow of Viktor Orbán” followed Navracsics. After all, Orbán named him deputy prime minister in 2010, and he was also minister of justice between 2010 and 2014 when the European Union had serious reservations about the legality of several Hungarian laws. As a result, Navracsics received a post that came with very little actual power. Education and culture are fields handled exclusively by the individual nation states.

Since the Hungarian media pays mighty little attention to Navracsics’s role as commissioner, I thought I should say something about one of his tasks that, as a result of the refugee crisis, has given him greater freedom of movement and the possibility of making a more substantial impact.

Navracsics’s job description includes, among other things, “empowering young people of all social and cultural backgrounds so that they can participate fully in civic and democratic life.” It is this sentence that allowed Navracsics to expand his role considerably after the January 2016 Paris terror attack. By March Navracsics called together the EU ministers of education and urged them “to use education more effectively in building open, tolerant societies.” He talked to them about social inclusion, about combating prejudice, about encouraging critical thinking. Of course, this sermon made not the slightest dent in the Hungarian government’s policies at home.

Navracsics4

Then there is the refugee crisis. Navracsics proposed a program of “integration of refugees and migrants,” which the Commission acted on. Navracsics received  €1.6 billion “under the Creative Europe program for cultural projects promoting the inclusion of refugees and migrants.” So, what Navracsics is doing in Brussels is the exact opposite of what the Orbán government stands for. While he is working for the integration of refugees and migrants, Orbán is fighting tooth and nail for their exclusion.

In light of this, Navracsics’s most recent interview on June 6 with Péter Zentai on KlubRádió’s “Eurozóna” shouldn’t have been such a revelation. But suddenly the Hungarian media realized that Navracsics doesn’t agree with Viktor Orbán on either the refugee issue or Hungary’s relations with the European Union.

In the interview he expressed his optimism about the future of the EU. Its history has been full of clashes of interests among the member states, but at least until now the result was always deeper integration. He believes that “if common sense prevails in the majority of the member states” the current problems will be solved. This didn’t convince the interviewer, who said that the situation in Europe is “dramatic,” especially in light of a possible Brexit. Navracsics admitted that the European Union is at a turning point, but whatever happens with the British referendum, it is his “conviction that there are far more strategic interests in favor of the continued existence of the Union and its continued integration than against them.”

Perhaps the highlight of the interview was Navracsics’s criticism of the Hungarian opposition, which has been far too timid in standing by a common European policy on the refugee issue. Politicians supporting the European Union should argue as loudly in favor of common action as those do who promulgate a policy based on individual nation states. “We must clearly explain that membership in the Union and the continuation of integration is in Hungary’s national interest…. I regret that on the domestic political stage pro-EU politicians constitute only a soft-spoken tiny minority which doesn’t argue forcefully enough in favor of the point of view that I’m trying to express here.”

Finally, Navracsics, unlike many of the politicians of the democratic opposition, decided to go on record as agreeing with the Commission’s stand on quotas. It is, he said, “an absolutely acceptable solution which only means that if the number of refugees exceeds the regular numbers in a given country—which so far has not occurred anywhere—then the other members would come to its assistance and help in the placement of those affected. Therefore it is not the same as a mechanically enforced compulsory quota.”

Echoing Navracsics, Júlia Mira Lévai in HVG admonished those opposition politicians “who don’t dare to go against the current public mood and who are not brave enough to represent their own values.” In Lévai’s opinion, Navracsics’s “coming out” will play a significant role in the disintegration of Fidesz, which might be near, especially if leaders of the democratic opposition follow Navracsics’s advice.

I agree with Lévai that the timid response of the democratic opposition to Orbán’s refugee policies is mistaken. Always trying to follow a middle ground, as MSZP leaders usually do, will not satisfy the growing number of voters who are turning against the government and Fidesz. But I disagree that it is the refugee issue that will be the catalyst for the inevitable disintegration of Orbán’s power structure. A more likely candidate is the government’s disregard of the Hungarian National Bank’s highly illegal financial dealings, orchestrated by the chairman of the bank, who is exhibiting increasingly erratic behavior. And to the bank scandal one can add the boorish behavior of the newly created Fidesz media, which even some members of the inner circle find distasteful. But more about these developments tomorrow.

June 15, 2016

Viktor Orbán, the politician of European stature, fails as a negotiator

After mulling over the available reports on David Cameron’s short stopover in Budapest, I have come to the conclusion that Viktor Orbán, who is believed to be a maverick politician of mythical powers, failed miserably in his negotiations with the British prime minister. He promised to support three of the four demands Cameron formulated back in November 2015 vis-à-vis the European Union. And Cameron moved not an inch on the most difficult issue of restricting access to welfare payments for migrant workers, mostly from Eastern Europe. If Jarosław Kaczyński hoped to find a good spokesman for the cause of the Visegrád4, he was sadly mistaken. While both men emphasized the need for a strong European Union, in fact both of them have been doing their best to weaken it.

Here are the demands of the British government.

The first demand seeks a special status for Great Britain and others to be free of any obligation to accept the euro as a common currency. In addition, Britain demands that countries outside of the Eurozone should have veto power in the affairs of the Eurozone countries.

The second demand is more reasonable: less bureaucracy and fewer rules and regulations.

The third demand, in my opinion, would be the death knell of the European Union if accepted. It is bad enough that Great Britain doesn’t want to be tied by the EU constitution, which calls on member states to support an ever-closer integration of the Union. It also wants a new provision to be inserted that would allow parliaments of the member states to invalidate any EU law that doesn’t meet the approval of a certain percentage of MPs. For the time being, the details of this demand are not known. The guiding principle would be “a national solution if possible” and a European solution only when necessary.

The fourth demand is the only one that Viktor Orbán found objectionable. Cameron wants to restrict access to benefits for EU migrants both in and out of work. The British government wants to stop those who go to Great Britain from claiming certain benefits until they have been a resident for four years. Moreover, it seems that until now a migrant father or mother could get child support even if the children remained behind. That no longer would be possible. In addition, spouses who are not EU citizens couldn’t enter the country. Despite all the smiles at the press conference, it looks as if Orbán didn’t manage to convince Cameron that the hard-working Hungarians are not economic migrants in Britain.

At a time when united action should be the primary concern of the European Union, attacks on it are coming from three directions. The first is not the doing of the member states: the largely unexpected influx of refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, some by way of camps in Turkey. But the other two attacks come from the inside–from Great Britain and the Orbán-led Visegrád countries. While Viktor Orbán criticizes the European Union for its inability to show a common resolve, he has been doing nothing else for the last year but weakening the little central authority the EU has. At the same time both he and Cameron claim that they want a strong Europe.

The official government communiqué stressed Hungary’s willingness “to fully support” Cameron’s first three demands. The two men have “complete intellectual and strategic agreement” on these points. Orbán greeted “the rethinking of the role of the national parliaments” and welcomed the idea of “equality with the members of the Eurozone.”

David Cameron and Viktor Orbán at the press conference in Budapest

David Cameron and Viktor Orbán at the press conference in Budapest

When it came to the fourth demand he protested meekly. He mostly objected to the word “migrant,” emphasizing the importance of choosing our words. Indeed, he is the one who is a master of linguistic manipulation. His political advisers came up with the word “migráns,” a foreign word not normally used in Hungarian and now applied exclusively to the Middle Eastern refugees. The word by now has acquired a negative connotation in Hungary due to the hard-hitting government propaganda against the migrants. And here is the British prime minister who talks about Hungarians as migrants. Naturally, as far as Orbán is concerned, they are not migrants because they are EU citizens who have the right to settle and work in another member state. But the word “migrant” in English normally means a person who leaves one country to settle either permanently or temporarily in another.

Orbán didn’t really criticize the British plan to restrict benefits for EU migrants. Rather, he appealed to Cameron by emphasizing the hard-working Hungarians who greatly contribute to the British economy and who take very little in social services. He talked about 50,000 Hungarian citizens in Britain, although that sounds like a very low number to me. At the same time he indicated that the real victims of such a move would be the Poles since about 800,000 of them live and work in Great Britain at the moment. I wonder whether this means that Orbán will leave the hard work of fighting the British plan to the Szydło government. In any case, he indicated that negotiations will continue between Great Britain and the Visegrád4 countries.

The parties of the democratic opposition all criticized Orbán for not defending the interests of Hungarians living in Great Britain. Gábor Fodor’s Magyar Liberális Párt accused Orbán of having a double standard when he portrays the migrants from the Middle East as criminals while he demands special treatment for Hungarian migrants living in Great Britain. According to Együtt (Together), Orbán abandoned his own voters. Attila Mesterházy, who spoke for MSZP, accused Orbán of assisting the British prime minister, who is trying to solve his own domestic problems. In his opinion, Cameron makes no distinction between EU citizens, immigrants, and refugees, and therefore all attempts to force him to think otherwise are useless. MSZP expected a stronger stand in defense of Hungarians in the United Kingdom. LMP demanded policies from the government that would bring those Hungarians who live abroad back home. Of course, DK followed suit, but Péter Niedermüller went even further. He accused Orbán of supporting Cameron’s demands although they may lead to the weakening of Hungary’s position within the European Union. Another DK politician, Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy, even made an appeal to David Cameron on Facebook:

David Cameron is a true democrat and a wise politician. He believes in liberal democracy and free market economy and refuses an ever more integrated EU. Mr. Cameron looks for allies on these grounds. And his greatest challenge is that most of his anti-EU allies are xenophobes and extreme populists. Will statesman Cameron be ready to tame or handle the Orbáns and Kaczyńskis of our continent? These are politicians who believe in a state-controlled economy, anti-capitalism and who keep making gestures to right-wing extremists in order to build up their exclusive power. Can a British conservative agenda be legitimate, credible and efficient if it seeks support from representatives of obsolete, pre-WWII ideologies? Can a distinguished leader of one of the oldest democracies in the world afford to embrace politicians and parties that aim at destroying Churchill’s dreams?

Kaczyński, Orbán and the likes have millions of supporters as this type of politics always have and will. But, fortunately, friends of a transparent and liberal democracy are still in the majority in Europe. The notions of human dignity, civil liberties and non-corrupt state of affairs are the real grounds for cooperation; considerations of the future of the European Union only come second. I believe we can work out our differences on the EU because democrats are always ready and able to find compromises even after heated discussions. But compromise can and must not be made with those, e.g. Messrs. Orbán and Kaczyński, whose entire goal is to undermine our basic Western values. That is a warning Mr. Cameron may want to keep in mind when talking to Viktor Orbán today.

I fear David Cameron has no intention of heeding Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy’s advice.

Charles Gati: Hungary before the election–Interview

An Interview with Charles Gati of the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

[The interview, published in the January 2, 2014 issue of the weekly 168 Óra (168 Hours) and conducted by József Barát, was translated by Professor Gati for Hungarian Spectrum.]

József Baráth: Hungary is doing better. This is what we hear every day from Fidesz politicians. Some of them even demand better classification from global rating agencies and the resignation of the European Union’s finance commissioner. Looking at it from the United States: How’s Hungary doing these days?

Charles Gati: The Hungarian economy is at a standstill. It suffers from policies of re-centralization and re-nationalization. The global credit agencies issue their ratings on the basis of available numbers. Some presumably make mistakes – after all, human beings always do – but together they reflect a factual condition: that Hungary has come to occupy the last place among the Visegrad Four. The situation could change for the better only if the government no longer stood in the way of Western investments, recognized the advantages of European integration, and prepared the country for the introduction of the euro.

JB: The Hungarian government is no longer criticized so frequently in the United States as in the past. Does this mean that American officials and observers see positive changes? Or is it only that Washington has lost interest, perhaps accepting the view that Hungary belongs to that part of Europe where the values of democracy and the rule of law don’t matter so much and therefore outsiders can’t make a difference?

CG: As far as I know officials don’t see such “positive changes,” and no one has written off Hungary’s democratic potential. Yet, for now, they don’t expect to convince the current Hungarian government any more than they could convince the current government of Ukraine of the values and advantages of Western-style democracy. Given the ingrained optimism of Washington officials, you won’t hear them state it like this but their deeds reflect considerable skepticism. Far more important, however, is Washington’s preoccupation with the agonizing problems of the Middle East.

JB: Tamás Fellegi, a former member of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s cabinet, is conducting a public relations campaign in Washington to improve Hungary’s image in the United States. He’s reaching out to Hungarian-Americans. Does he have a chance to influence American public opinion?

CG: I’m aware of the campaign run by Mr. Fellegi, but I’m not familiar with the specifics of  his outreach to Hungarian-Americans. I do know that several Washington think-tanks  received contributions from his so-called “Hungarian Initiative Foundation,” which is supported by a $15 million grant from Hungarian taxpayers. In exchange, I presume, Fellegi himself and various pro-Fidesz speakers have been invited to lecture or participate in panel discussions at various forums. I attended one such lecture by György Schöpflin, a Fidesz-member of the European parliament, that was quite successful. Of the twenty or so invited guests, about half were officials of the Hungarian Embassy in Washington. As for substance, these speakers often advance the same view as the one Fidesz promotes: that it’s [the far-right] Jobbik rather than the [right-wing] Fidesz government that opposes Hungarian democracy. They say or suggest that Fidesz, by defending national values against Western “colonialism,” weakens Jobbik’s base, and therefore the West should support rather than criticize Orbán’s Fidesz-led government. This is what one hears from Fellegi, Schöpflin, as well as from Katrina Lantos Swett (daughter of the late Tom Lantos who heads the Lantos Foundation in the US and the Lantos Institute in Budapest, and who sees his father’s legacy differently from me and for that matter from what I think his father’s view would be).  By focusing on Jobbik,  Anne Applebaum, a respected American journalist,  promotes this interpretation, too. To answer your question directly, then, I don’t believe this campaign by officials and fellow-travelers of the Orbán government falls on fertile soil here.

JB: Many are surprised that there isn’t greater resistance in Hungary to the government restricting the rule of law, curtailing the system of checks and balances, and even proceeding with the expansion of funding its clients from the state budget. How do you assess this tendency?

CG: Applebaum’s recent book, Iron Curtain, offers an account of the strategy employed after World War II by Hungarian [and other East-Central European] Communists and their Soviet advisers, a strategy aimed at the immediate capture of the press which at that time meant the Radio, above all. Leaders of Fidesz have learned from Lenin; after gaining power in 2010, they conquered key positions in the press, notably television and radio, so much so that lots of Hungarians didn’t and still don’t realize what’s going on around them. So while internet helps somewhat and there are still independent papers, freedom of the press no longer exists. Those who need information most – people in the countryside who hear and watch one-sided news accounts and one-sided opinions on government-controlled stations – don’t seem to take advantage of what’s available on the internet. Moreover, businessmen as a group appear to be afraid of supporting independent or opposition voices. All in all, the attack against [Western-style pluralist] democracy in 2010 was both sudden and devastating, and much of the public have yet to wake up to the new political environment.

JB: Viktor Orbán claims that European politics should be renewed on the basis of his prescriptions. Could he find followers in Europe? Is the process of European integration endangered by Hungarian government policies?

CG: He has no followers in Europe for now. The British, Lithuanian, and Polish governments — the latter primarily because of domestic circumstances — are somewhat “understanding” of Viktor Orbán, but on a variety of issues they don’t agree with him. As for integration, it isn’t in danger of being reversed. Some countries try to slow down the ongoing processes, partly to protect their sovereign existence, partly to protect their power, but the deepening if not the widening of European integration continues unabated.

JB: There will be election this year in Hungary. Do you think the divided opposition has a chance of winning?

CG: I gave 168 Óra an interview exactly two years ago. Looking back, I note with pleasure that the right-wing press chose one sentence from that interview and attacked me for it thousands of times since. In a long and hysterical editorial,  the government daily Magyar Nemzet went so far as to curse me and members of my family as well. I note this with pleasure because not only friends but people of common sense have responded to these attacks by sending me encouraging emails. The sentence in question was this: “I agree with Palmer [the late US Ambassador to Hungary Mark Palmer who served there from 1986 to 1990]: there are possibilities for the removal of this government by democratic means if possible, by other means if that’s not possible.” The meaning of the sentence is clear: If the government stands in the way of free election, the people have the right to protect their democratic rights, restore the well-tested system of checks and balances, as well as freedom of the press and religion. Two years later I can only repeat what I said in 2012.  But, with a view toward the approaching election, I can add that while the new electoral law that the Fidesz super-majority in parliament passed strongly favors Fidesz, I still hope the election will be free. I can’t tell how the opposition will do, but I note that the number of undecided voters is very high indeed.

JB: We keep hearing that Gordon Bajnai has influential American supporters — though, truth be told, we hear this primarily from Fidesz propagandists. Are there significant American interest groups that are prepared to help one or another side in Hungarian politics?

CG: Such “significant interest groups” exist only in minds suffering both from delusions of grandeur and a persecution complex. There are no conspiracies against Hungary if for no other reason but because America is otherwise preoccupied. The government press has claimed, for example, that I work with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on trying to overthrow the legitimate Hungarian government. Too bad I’ve never even met Mrs. Clinton. Never. As for Gordon Bajnai, he has made a very good impression during his visits to Washington and New York. Over the years I heard three or four of his lectures about European integration. I also know that he had a chance to meet with high officials and respected analysts. I can say the same about Attila Mesterházy’s valuable lectures and conversations as he also visits the US quite regularly. It’s too bad the Hungarian Press Agency and most of the Hungarian press seldom or perhaps never report on Bajnai’s and Mesterházy’s successful encounters in America.

JB: Could Fidesz win again with a two-third majority?

CG: It received 53 percent of the vote in 2010, which resulted in a two-third super-majority in parliament. I expect a tough match this year.

JB: According to some interpretations of the new electoral law, even 30 percent popular support might translate into a two-third parliamentary majority — if the opposition is divided.

CG: This is a possibility, but months before the [Spring 2014] election such pessimism is unwarranted. Don’t forget that I’ve lived in America for 57 years…

JB: What do you expect to happen if Fidesz wins? What’s more likely: will Orbán pursue policies of consolidation, or strengthen his one-man rule?

CG: Fidesz is Viktor Orbán’s party. Some of his colleagues may be grumpy, especially those who expected higher positions or greater influence, but there’s no principled opposition to him. His one-man rule could be influenced by economic trends and by the European Union.

JB: There are those who believe that it could take generations before Hungary returns to European values. Do you agree with them?

Gati-168

CG: I couldn’t disagree more. Permit me to mention only one example from Hungarian history. Who would have thought around, say, 1860 that a Ferenc Deák would soon emerge with the idea that a grand compromise [with Austria] had to be the nation’s primary goal and that the necessary political capital for such a goal was within reach? What followed at the turn of the 19th-20th century was the construction of Budapest’s most lasting, most beautiful buildings and boulevards. And what an extraordinary cultural boom took place at the same time! Deák also understood that the economy needed the talents of Jewish and German-speaking citizens, and he recognized their rights. It’s often said that he was “the nation’s wise man.” He was. And he held up the example of Hungary for all of Europe!

Deák’s wisdom is missing from Hungarian politics today. This is so because the emphasis all too often is on “heroism,” not on prudence. But heroism in 21st century Europe is old hat, an outworn value, since there’s no immediate enemy.  Hungary has never enjoyed such a favorable international environment.

JB: There are critics.

CG: There are critics, of course. Their criticism shouldn’t be met with vindictive, ad hominem attacks, but with serious adjustments in the realms of both domestic and foreign policies. That’s when Hungary’s image would begin to improve.  In this connection, let me recall the memory of Nelson Mandela. Once a most radical, uncompromising  leader, Mandela emerged from 27 years in jail promoting tolerance. He sought coexistence between whites and blacks. Let’s also remember than the political prisoner and his jailer received — together — the Nobel Peace Prize. Hungary will do well when wise leaders appear on the political scene who will not only respect their opponents but are able to lift the country from its last place to Europe’s premier class — even if it means that they must shelve their own political past, even if it means painful compromises.

 

 

“Should Europe intervene in our affairs?”

I would like to return to the draft report of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) on Hungary. It is a 30-page document that shows a thorough understanding of every aspect of Hungarian politics, relating specifically to constitutional issues. Rui Tavares, who was one of the rapporteurs in charge of the document, seems to be fully conversant with the issues under discussion. It is a very thorough document and recommends tough sanctions. The sanctions mentioned in the document are not monetary. It suggests setting up a strict monitoring regime and calls on sanctions based on Article 7 that would take away Hungary’s voting rights.  Therefore, I found it incomprehensible why MSZP immediately announced that its EU parliamentary members would not sign the document in this form. I understand that people in Brussels who have been working very hard at uncovering illegal legislative actions by the Orbán government were stunned. If the Hungarian socialists don’t support the LIBE report, it is hard to imagine that the members of the committee will.

The MSZP leadership happened to be in Brussels when the Tavares report was released. Attila Mesterházy told one of the reporters of Népszabadság that “the socialists are committed adherents of the European Union and European integration. However, we don’t support any measures that would be accompanied by a possible withholding of financial resources that would harm the Hungarian people.” At a press conference Mesterházy announced that the party leadership instructed the MSZP EP members not to vote for the report in its present form.

Why it was necessary to make this declaration is hard to fathom. In the first place, as I said, no financial sanction is mentioned in the Tavares document. Moreover, if I understand it correctly, this announcement was made in response to a question from one of the reporters present. I’m no politician but, if I had been Mesterházy, I would have avoided this trap. He could have said that he hadn’t had an opportunity to study the document or that the steering committee hadn’t had a chance to formulate the party’s official policy on the subject. This is a delicate question that needs thorough analysis, and the less one says about it the better.

The Hungarian opposition has been struggling with this issue for some time. On April 1 Gordon Bajnai gave an interview to Der Standard, an Austrian newspaper, where the reporter asked him the following question: “The European Commission has threatened Hungary with sanctions because of the idiosyncratic course its government follows. For example, with withdrawal of funds. Would you support such a move?” To which Bajnai answered: “No. One should not punish the people because they have a bad government. Hungary needs EU money to develop, and the country is … still a democracy.” He subsequently visited Brussels and approached EU officials with a request to spare the Hungarian people from financial hardship just because of the policies of the Orbán government.

Mesterházy did the same during one of his earlier visits to Brussels. Yes, the government is trampling on Hungarian democracy, but let’s keep financing the government that without support most likely would collapse. Let’s get billions and billions of euros that the Orbán government can pass on to its supporters and friends. Both Együtt 2014 and MSZP seem to be in a hopeless quandary because they are afraid that public opinion will turn against them if they support EU efforts to defend Hungarian democracy.

Ferenc Krémer wrote a couple of articles in Galamus in connection with the opposition’s dilemma, which in his opinion is no dilemma at all. In the first one he called MSZP “the fifth column” of Fidesz and continued: “We, all of us, even those who didn’t vote for Fidesz in 2010 must take responsibility for the current state of the country. Not one of us can avoid responsibility, especially not MSZP, for Viktor Orbán’s ability to begin ‘the country’s renewal,’ meaning the establishment of a dictatorship. We have no moral basis for demanding from the European Union not to defend its most basic values; we have no right to demand its financing the power of the Orbán clan, the enrichment of the Simicska clan and Hungary’s moral depravity.”

www.bappenas.id/blog/

http://radiomuqdisho.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Democracy.jpg

Soon enough came a correction by “nyüzsi” in HVG. (Nyüzsgés means swarming in Hungarian.) Krémer is wrong. MSZP is not a “fifth column” but a bunch of “useful idiots.” This is a term reserved for people perceived as propagandists for a cause whose goals they do not understand and who are used cynically by the leaders of the cause. “The leaders of the liberal-socialist opposition make asses of themselves right in front of our eyes and undermine their own credibility as critics of Fidesz. They fell into the trap of Viktor Orbán who claims that ‘criticism of Orbán = criticism of Hungary.’ They don’t want the average Joe to suffer, but the average Joe and everybody else is suffering because of the constitutional and economic running amuck of the Orbán government and not because of the dictum of the aristocrats in Brussels.”

Ferenc Krémer today continued his analysis of the situation that developed after the publication of the Tavares report. MSZP leaders deep down most likely realize the impasse they find themselves in, and therefore Zita Gurmai, MSZP MEP, in a radio interview on Thursday did her best not to answer the questions of János Dési who was substituting for György Bolgár that day. The MSZP politicians “are unable to bridge the precipice they perceive between the defense of democracy and the defense of their country.  They should realize that there is no precipice between the two. All decisions must be based on that recognition. Therefore all steps the EU takes against the government of Viktor Orbán must be welcome. The responsibility lies with those who are guilty: Viktor Orbán, his government, and the whole of Fidesz.”

The only opposition party that has a clearly formulated policy on possible EU sanctions is the Demokratikus Koalíció. Tamás Bauer wrote on that subject with the title: “Article seven and the Hungarian democrats.” DK is convinced that there is no gap between democracy and the defense of the country. On the contrary, the EU is defending Hungarian democracy and all Hungarian democrats must support Brussels in this effort.

And finally here is a document signed by the leading members of the Democratic Opposition of the late 1980s.

Us and them

Should Europe intervene in our affairs?

Memorandum of the former Anti-communist Opposition 

The nation is the community into which we were born, whereas the European Union is the community which we chose for a democratic Hungary. Both are important and even indispensable for us. In the past decades we have struggled to have our innate community (the nation) and our chosen community (the Union) be imbued with the same set of values. We owe responsibility for both of them.

It is not by mere chance that when as opponents of the communist regime we were not yet a member state of the European community in a political sense and just hoped to join it one day, we claimed as a matter of course that the communist regime be confronted with the values of liberal democracy, so blatantly ignored or breached by that regime.

Nothing has changed since.

We reject the populist view that strives to divide and alienate along the “them” and “us” dimension. The anti-European, xenophobic populism of Fidesz is the ideology of an autocratic regime that under a national disguise labels any kind of external demand for maintaining democratic norms as an attempt of colonization.

At the same time, by publicly announcing that the Hungarian socialist members of the European Parliament refuse in its present form the Tavares report dated on 8th of May, which strongly criticizes the situation concerning the rule of law in Hungary, not only runs in the face of the commonly approved set of European values, but also serves to satisfy, instead of rejecting, a populist demand.

Just as we condemn “dirty solidarity” that turns a blind eye to the violation of democratic values under the pretext of party solidarity, we do not wish to be part of “hypocritical solidarity” either, which implies solidarity with an autocratic government. If the present Hungarian democratic opposition is determined to defeat Fidesz in this populist arena and challenge the ruling party that governs in collusion with Jobbik, then it is doomed to defeat itself as well as its own country.

9th of May 2013, Budapest

Attila Ara-Kovács, former diplomat

Gábor Demszky, former Mayor of Budapest

Miklós Haraszti, former OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media

Róza Hodosán, former MP

Gábor Iványi, pastor

János Kenedi, historian

György Konrád, author

Bálint Magyar, former Minister of Education

Imre Mécs, former MP

Sándor Radnóti, philosopher

László Rajk, architect

Sándor Szilágyi, art writer

Hungary’s rotating presidency and the Franco-German plan of closer cooperation

Let us return briefly to the plan Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy put forth to deepen integration among the seventeen nations that use the euro as their currency. I would especially like to look at this development from the Hungarian point of view.

At the European Union’s summit in Brussels there was a luncheon that lasted eight hours and that Viktor Orbán described the longest meal of his life, which could be compared only to his wedding. However, he added, at the end of that dinner there were days of celebration. Surely, at the end of the luncheon in Brussels there was no cause for joy, especially not for Viktor Orbán.

The Hungarians had worked out a six-point plan doesn’t speak to the current financial problems connected to the euro. It seems that this plan wasn’t radical enough for Sarkozy and Merkel. I am not terribly surprised because we know Orbán’s ambivalent attitude toward the European Union in general and his opinion concerning “states’ rights,” to use a familiar term from American history. Since Fidesz’s whole political future is based on a largely artificially whipped up nationalism, it would be politically unacceptable at home to stand behind a proposal that would take away any substantive amount of economic freedom from the member states.

The Franco-German plan is a radical change in attitude toward sovereignty in economic and financial matters. If it materializes, it might be an important turning point that could lead to the euro nations’ agreeing on more of their key economic policies as a unified bloc. In return, Berlin would strengthen the rescue fund for the Eurozone by lending its full €440 billion ceiling figure and perhaps use its funds more flexibly in the future. The problem currently is that there is a single currency without either economic convergence or political union.

Although some member states currently oppose a common tax and wage policy, most observers think that normally it is France and Germany whose wishes become the laws of the land. For the time being Ireland, Austria, and the Netherlands are complaining, but Ireland’s views, in particular, don’t carry much weight given the incredible financial mess the country is in.

And what about Hungary? Hungary is not in the Eurozone and perhaps many Hungarians at the moment are delighted about the delay in adopting the common currency. Thus, if the Franco-German plan materializes it doesn’t affect Hungary in the short run. However, it has a bearing on Viktor Orbán’s pride and the standing of Hungary that after all currently has the post of the rotating presidency. Hungary’s “ambitious plans,” even before the Franco-German announcement, had suffered some setbacks. It was obvious to me at least that one item on the Hungarian agenda, the inclusion of Croatia in the Union, wasn’t going to materialize given the economic problems of the current members of the EU. The other item, extending the Schengen borders to include Bulgaria and Romania, also seemed to be too much for the European Commission. And now this two-tiered plan.

As Viktor Orbán rather unhappily remarked, the seventeen Eurozone countries’ regular meetings will take place in private, most likely meaning that even the prime minister of Hungary will not be present in the next six months. And adding insult to injury, just yesterday Poland was invited to join the meetings as an observer.

Orbán most likely was mighty upset when he arrived in Brussels for the summit. The agenda was suddenly changed and, instead of presenting the Hungarian proposals, he found himself a witness to a long discussion about a new strategy from which Hungary, rotating presidency or not, was excluded. No wonder that Orbán looked rather unhappy during the discussions.

The importance of the rotating presidency had already been diminished by the appointment of a bona fide president of the union a couple of years ago. That limited role was now further diminished by the announcement of the Franco-German plan that made Hungary’s “ambitious plan” much less relevant.

Viktor Orbán was certainly upset and offended. That’s why he talked about the Franco-German plan as “a nonexistent document.” He tried to mask his disappointment by pointing out that Hungary wouldn’t want to be part of the “elite group” because if the country joined the Eurozone anytime soon it would lose its competitive edge by being tied to a common economic and financial policy. Especially the tax code. Theoretically, he might be right, but the question is whether foreign companies would be eager to establish businesses in Hungary just because of this alleged competitive edge. In my opinion that eventuality at the moment is unlikely because the extra tax levies and other less than business-friendly moves of the Orbán government are not conducive to a large influx of foreign capital.

Of course, Hungary can look for business outside of Europe: Russia and the Far East. As for Russia, Hungarian-Russian relations are not the best. It didn’t matter how often Tamás Fellegi, minister of national economic development, went to Moscow, he always came back empty-handed. János Martonyi is the latest visitor to the Russian capital and since he just returned to Budapest we don’t know yet whether he managed to put Russo-Hungarian relations on a better footing. There have been talks about Russian businesses getting a piece of the action in the Budapest metro construction and the expansion of the Paks Atomic Plant, but I haven’t heard of any large Russian firms planning to set up shop in Hungary. There is no news on Chinese investments.

It’s unlikely that the sidestepping of Viktor Orbán and the Hungarian rotating presidency by the Eurozone heavyweights has anything to do with the less than savory reputation of Orbán and his government in Western Europe. I suspect, however, that he is not the most beloved man in Brussels.

February 8, 2011