Tag Archives: European Parliament

George Soros before the European Parliament and the Hungarian government’s reaction

Every time George Soros makes a public statement, which he does frequently, the Hungarian political right launches a frenzied attack against him. Interestingly, the Hungarian media didn’t spend much time on an article that appeared in The New York Review of Books (April 9, 2016). In it he explained that European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans had invited an open debate on the refugee crisis, to which he was responding in his article. The solution, according to Soros, is “at least €30 billion ($34 billion) a year [which] will be needed for the EU to carry out a comprehensive plan.” He suggested that “Europe has the financial and economic capacity to raise €30 billion a year, [which] is less than one-quarter of one percent of the EU’s combined annual GDP of €14.9 trillion, and less than one-half of one percent of total spending by its twenty-eight member governments.”

Soros, however, realized that some members would vehemently object, especially Germany. So, instead, he offered all sorts of financial arrangements that would yield the necessary money without triggering the opposition of Germany and others. The task is urgent because “the refugee crisis poses an existential threat to Europe.”

On June 30 Soros delivered a speech to the European Parliament in Brussels, which was a revised version of the ideas he had spelled out in his New York Review of Books article. The result of the British referendum had a shocking effect on Soros who, upon hearing of the calamitous vote for Brexit, was certain that the disintegration of the European Union was “practically inevitable.” And since, in his opinion, “the refugee crisis … played a crucial role” in the British decision, the EU must act in one way or the other to raise money to solve the crisis and at the same time save the European Union.

I believe he is wrong in thinking that the refugee crisis per se had a substantial influence on the outcome of the referendum. In fact, a quick poll conducted after June 23 showed that “the question of sovereignty was the determining factor for the majority that voted for exit from the European Union.” Unlimited immigration from EU countries was also an important consideration.

George Soros in the European Parliament. Left of him Péter Niedermüller, DK EP MP

George Soros in the European Parliament. To his left, Péter Niedermüller, DK EP MP / Photo: European Parliament

But Soros’s linkage of the refugee crisis and Brexit strengthened his argument that the refugee crisis must be solved as soon as possible. In his fairly lengthy speech he talked about the necessity of “profound restructuring” and “fundamental reform of the EU.” He lashed out at “the orthodoxy of the German policymakers,” specifically Angela Merkel, who “ignored the pull factor” created by her initial acceptance of the refugees. Soros also severely criticized her for “her ill-fated deal with Erdoğan” and for her “imposed quotas that many member states opposed and [that] required refugees to take up residence in countries where they were not welcome.”

One would think that Viktor Orbán would have been happy to find an ally in George Soros, but it seems that there is nothing Soros can say or do that would please the Hungarian governing coalition. In fact, they launched a new campaign against him after he addressed the European Parliament. The reason for the government outcry was three sentences he uttered in the course of outlining ways in which the EU could raise the requisite €30 billion yearly. He said,“Finally, I come to the legacy expenditures that have crippled the EU budget. Two items stand out: cohesion policy, with 32% of expenditures, and agriculture with 38%. These will need to be sharply reduced in the next budget cycle starting in 2021.”

The first Hungarian politician to respond to Soros’s suggestion was György Hölvényi, KDNP member of the European People’s Party, followed by György Schöpflin, Fidesz EP member, who accused Soros of trying to make money on his financial advice to the European Union. Magyar Hírlap announced the news of Soros’s speech with this headline: “There are already signs of Soros’s latest speculations.” Naturally, János Lázár also had a few words to say about Soros’s speech in Brussels. He described him as someone who “presents himself as the voluntary savior of Europe” and who “wants to implement wholesale immigration.” Soros has no mandate from the European voters to offer any kinds of proposals, and it is not at all clear who invited him to the European Parliament. An editorial in Magyar Idők portrayed Soros as an emissary of the Clintons: “the face of Washington shows a striking similarity to that of George Soros.” The author added that if Hillary Clinton wins the election, this unfortunate situation will remain in place. Soros’s disapproval of compulsory quotas was dismissed as nothing more than a queen’s gambit.

The spokesman of Fidesz-KDNP on the issue was István Hollik, a member of parliament who was practically unknown until recently. He expressed the governing party’s strong objections to all of Soros’s suggestions, especially cutting back the cohesion funds and the agricultural subsidies “in the interest of the immigrants.” Fidesz-KDNP “expressly calls on the European Union to reject the proposals of the financial Forex speculator.” Naturally, Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó also commented on Soros’s “totally astonishing ideas.”

None of the Hungarian politicians, or for that matter commentators, spent any time on Soros’s other suggestions, some of which merit consideration. They were fixated on the two items–cohesion funds and agricultural subsidies–that would really hurt the Hungarian government and its coterie of oligarchs. Can you imagine the plight of those who are the beneficiaries of the money pouring in from the European Union? And what will happen to the new landed gentry who purchased agricultural property for the express purpose of getting free money for every hectare from Brussels? Indeed, that would be a calamity.

And then there was the reaction of László Csizmadia, president of Civil Összefogás Fórum (CÖF), a phony NGO most likely financed by the government. In his scenario Hillary Clinton sent her number one scout to the European Union to test her future policies and their reception. Behind global capitalism there is “the financial hidden power,” without which no one can overthrow a political system. Soros has been banned in many countries, and Csizmadia knows that “some kind of Hungarian measure is under consideration that would be similar to a ban.” I do hope that Csizmadia’s information is only a figment of his imagination.

July 5, 2016

Bálint Magyar’s latest book: Post-Communist Mafia State: The Case of Hungary

At last Bálint Magyar’s groundbreaking book, A magyar maffiaállam anatómiája, published last year by Noran Libro, has been translated into English with the title Post-Communist Mafia State: The Case of Hungary. The publisher is the Central European University Press, and the book is available for pre-order through Amazon. The official release date is March 31. (Clicking on the thumbnail image of the book cover to the left will take you directly to Amazon.)

Bálint Magyar developed the concept of the post-communist mafia state 15 years ago when in an article he first called attention to the “organized over-world” as opposed to the “underworld” we are familiar with. The article appeared on February 22, 2001, during the last year of the first Orbán government, in Magyar Hírlap, then still a liberal daily. It elicited considerable interest, and Magyar followed it up with several lectures that further elucidated his theory.

Memories often fade with the passage of time, and many Hungarians who are interested in politics are convinced that the 1998-2002 period “wasn’t really all that bad,” especially in comparison to the situation today. But the sad truth is that the contours of the mafia state were already visible then, except very few people noticed it at the time. Admittedly, there was a fantastic HVG cover from December 1999 that portrayed the top Fidesz leaders in fedoras (sometimes called gangster hats) with the caption “team spirit.”

Meanwhile a lot has happened. Among other things, Magyar served as minister of education between 2002 and 2006 and was a member of parliament from 1990 until 2010. Since then he has had plenty of time to further develop his theory of the post-communist mafia state.

Magyar Balint2In the past I devoted several posts to Magyar’s theory. The first occasion was the appearance of a volume of essays edited by Bálint Magyar and Júlia Vásárhelyi titled Magyar Polip: A posztkommunista állam (Budapest: Noran Libro, 2013). The book became an instant bestseller. It had to be reprinted shortly after its appearance. Professor Charles Gati wrote in his review of the first volume that “after reading this book the West no longer can look at East-Central Europe the same as before.”

The following year a second edited volume appeared with new authors. Finally, last year a third volume was published. All books deal with the same general theme but analyze the impact of the mafia state on different aspects of society: the law, the economy, social policy, culture, banking, etc.

Bálint Magyar’s latest volume, Post-Communist Mafia State, of which he is the sole author, encapsulates his latest thoughts on the subject. The foreword to the book was written by Kim Lane Scheppele, who is well known to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum. She called Magyar’s volume “a very brave book” which is “an outreach to the audience beyond the borders and thus beyond the immediate control of the Orbán government. … The failure of a democratic state should be a cause for concern in the international community, especially when anti-liberalism is spreading and new autocrats are looking for models.”

Although the English edition has not yet reached bookstores, it looks as if in places where it counts the book has already created quite a stir. Bálint Magyar and Tamás Lattmann, a constitutional legal scholar, gave a summary of the book in Brussels. From an interview with Jozef Weidenholzer, deputy president of the Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, it seems that the book’s last chapter titled “Pyramid Schemes—the limits of the mafia state” made the greatest impact. In this chapter Magyar argues that the whole pyramid scheme can work only because the European Union is financing it. Weidenholzer, who being an Austrian most likely knows the Hungarian situation better than most of the other MEPs, was surprised after hearing the details of the Orbán system. He found Magyar’s theory of the mafia state convincing. He added that “it is time to say goodbye to emotional debates and instead we should look at the whole problem with a clear head…. We can’t accept the existence of a mafia state in Europe.”

The European Commission and Parliament have concentrated until now on the Charter of Basic Laws and the Copenhagen criteria. But this is the wrong approach, Weidenholzer said. One ought to concentrate on the economic side of the problem. States aspiring for membership promised the introduction of full-fledged capitalism, “but this corrupt system has nothing to do with the market economy.”

We will see whether Magyar’s compelling book will enlighten minds in Brussels and Washington. We can only hope so.

February 19, 2016

Poland at a crossroads?

After spending three days on domestic affairs, today I will concentrate on the Polish-Hungarian-European Union triangle, with a quick look at Putin’s Russia.

There is no question that Jarosław Kaczyński has been an excellent student of Viktor Orbán. The new Szydło government is copying the Orbán model step by step, just at an accelerated pace. While it took the slower-moving Orbán machinery two or three years to achieve its desired results, the eager Poles thought that a few months would suffice. It didn’t take long for Polish foreign minister Witold Waczczykowski to announce a change in the country’s foreign policy. The Szydło government will not follow its predecessor’s policy of acquiescence toward the European Union, he said. As a result of Polish belligerence, most commentators were certain that Brussels would act quickly and without hesitation. If the European Union opts to avoid a confrontation, the same thing will happen in Poland as happened in Hungary, where Orbán’s political system has solidified to the point that it may last for decades. Poland is too important a country to allow this to occur.

Cass Mudde of the University of Georgia wrote an article in the Huffington Post in which he suggested that “the success of PiS in Poland could turn out to be a poisoned chalice for Orbán” because of the possibility of EU sanctions not just against Poland but against Hungary as well.” As we know, however, Orbán made it clear on January 8 that “it’s not worth it for the European Union to rack its brains over any sanction against Poland because that would require full agreement. Never will Hungary support any sanction against Poland.”

A few days later Kim Lane Scheppele pointed out that a veto by Hungary could easily be neutralized. In an article that appeared on January 11 in politico.eu she sketched out a possible legal action that would take care of Viktor Orbán’s threat of a veto. Here is her scheme:

Sanctions require a unanimous vote of the European Council, minus the offending state, meaning Hungary does have a veto.

But Article 7 includes two separate parts: a warning system outlined in Article 7(1) and the sanctions mechanism of Article 7(2)-(3). The only way to keep the threat of sanctions on the table under Article 7(2) is for European institutions to act against both Poland and Hungary at the same time by invoking Article 7(1) first.

Those who were certain that this time the European Commission would not choose the road of appeasement as it did in the case of Hungary were correct. On January 13 the Commission launched a probe into policy changes in Poland that may clash with EU law. This is an unprecedented move with serious implications. For example, it could lead to the application of Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union.

In the wake of the announcement of the probe, the Poles even copied Orbán, who took up the challenge and faced a very angry European Parliament in 2012. Prime Minister Beata Szydło announced that she would attend the debate on Poland in the European Parliament and defend her government’s right to make changes in the structure of the constitutional court and the media. Her speech was very East European in flavor. In addition to repeating several times that Poland is as much a part of the EU as the other 27 countries, she said that Brussels, instead of “rounding on Poland, ought to be looking to engage with a country with a troubled history and which had fought at great cost for its freedom.” These words could easily have been uttered by Viktor Orbán himself. It is still too early to know what the reaction to Szydło’s speech will be, but people in the know in Brussels are certain that “the stage is set for a ‘carnage’ in the European Parliament.”

Szydlo

Beata Szydło in the European Parliament, January 19, 2016

There have, however, been voices in the western media that have cautioned the European Commission in its handling of Poland. As early as January 13, the day the European Commission decided on a monitoring procedure against Warsaw, The New York Times came out with an editorial which claimed that “punishing Poland through sanctions would be counterproductive and even hypocritical, given the proliferation of like-minded parties across Europe,” the logic of which escapes me, I’m afraid.

What the editors of The New York Times think about Polish-EU relations is neither here nor there, but what Donald Tusk thinks is something else. After all, he is the president of the European Council who is supposed to represent the interests of the Union and not the country of his birth. But although Tusk is a political adversary of Kaczyński, he felt compelled to come to Poland’s rescue. His move was interpreted by The Financial Times as a break “with the rest of the EU’s leadership … by questioning Brussels’ decision to launch a formal review into whether Poland’s new media and judicial legislation violate the rule of law.” He declared that the EU can clarify the situation in Poland “by other methods, not necessarily triggering this procedure.” He didn’t elaborate what these other methods might be.

Meanwhile, in Hungary Viktor Orbán is most likely eagerly watching what’s going on in Brussels. Will the Poles be persuaded to abandon their revolutionary zeal under domestic and foreign pressure? There are signs that President Andrzej Duda (PiS) and other PiS officials began a campaign a few days ago to ease tensions between Poland and the European Commission. If they succeed, Viktor Orbán will not be a happy man because he is counting on the formation of a large eastern bloc of 90 million people as something of an alliance against the core countries in Western Europe. Naturally, such a bloc without Poland is worth nothing.

This kind of fear is reflected in one of Zsolt Bayer’s articles titled “Lengyelek” (The Poles). After recalling all the humiliation and treachery Poland has suffered through her history at the hands of the western powers, especially the United States, Bayer doesn’t understand “Polish devotion to the United States.” Poland must choose. Either they follow Hungary’s example or they will end up with the same “base, unjust, unbearable and unacceptable harassment that Hungary had to suffer.” Poland must be careful, Bayer warns, because it is clear that the United States has been hard at work trying to persuade Poland to loosen its ties with the alliance system Viktor Orbán managed to create from the formerly ineffectual Visegrád4 group. If a 90-million strong Eastern Bloc materializes, it will be the center of a “normal” Europe as opposed to the “mentally deranged West.” So, a lot depends on Poland, a country that should be grateful to Hungary because of Hungary’s generosity toward her in her times of peril. “There is no war yet but the situation is very serious. We should not let them drive a wedge between us.”

After reading Bayer’s lines about the possibility of a war in Europe, one wonders about the psychological state of some of the Fidesz leaders who lately have been discussing ways of strengthening the military capabilities of the country. László Kövér went so far as to talk about “the catastrophe of abolishing compulsory military service” in 2004. Do they really think that war is going to break out in Europe sometime in the near future? Possibly.

Finally, a friendly warning to Poland. Putin is delighted with the growth of right-wing radicalism and the recent emphasis on the sovereignty of nation states within the European Union, as Vladislav Inozemtsev of The Moscow Times, points out. “The events in Europe are being seen with undisguised joy” in Russia. “The Kremlin supports and will support the ultra-right and ultra-left parties who seek to put Europeans back to their ‘private apartments.’” So, going along with Viktor Orbán will be useful to Poland’s archenemy, Russia. The leaders of PiS should think very seriously whether they want to play into the hands of Vladimir Putin or not. Yes, they do have a choice.

September 19, 2016

Viktor Orbán’s meeting with Jarosław Kaczyński

Yesterday afternoon vs.hu learned from several sources that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán will travel to Poland at the invitation of PiS, the country’s governing party. In terms of protocol it will be a private visit. At this point the word was that he will meet several “very important politicians.” From the scant information that has reached us since, however, it looks as if Orbán met only Jarosław Kaczyński, the party chairman. The meeting took place in Niedzica at the Polish-Slovak border, a town that belonged to Hungary prior to 1918. The meeting was long–six hours, including a lunch of the famous Polish delicacy zurek soup and trout.

Unfortunately, we know practically nothing about what transpired between the two men. The Polish opposition media’s guess is that Orbán was giving Kaczyński tips on how to make the constitutional court and the media serve the government’s interest. I, however, doubt that much time was spent on Polish domestic affairs since there are far too many international issues that demand the attention of the Polish and the Hungarian leadership.

Jarosław Kaczynski and Viktor Orbán in 2010

Jarosław Kaczyski and Viktor Orbán in 201

First and foremost, the two probably formulated a common policy response to David Cameron’s “new curbs on welfare payments for migrant workers.” Cameron is currently on the campaign trail to win support for his plan to limit in-work benefits for migrants. In his quest he seems to have the support of Germany, whose interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, thinks that Cameron’s “suggestions are not a matter of regulating migration but a matter of regulating welfare legislation.” Poland and Hungary, however, have an entirely different view of the matter. First of all, Hungarian officials greatly object to the word “migrant” in connection with their own nationals, who should be called either EU citizens or guest workers. “To consider Hungarians in Britain as migrants is painful to our ears,” Orbán complained in Brussels on December 18, 2015. I suspect that these two East European countries will eventually have to swallow Cameron’s bitter pill.

In addition to hammering out a common policy regarding Polish and Hungarian immigrants in Great Britain, which Viktor Orbán can relate to David Cameron, who will arrive in Budapest for a short visit tomorrow, there might have been a second item: Hungary’s relations with Putin’s Russia. You may recall my post of February 19, 2015 titled “Polak, węgier—dwa bratanki / lengyel, magyar–két jó barát—not at the moment” in which I described how Hungarian diplomats tried to convince Kaczyński to meet Orbán, who visited Poland shortly after Putin’s visit to Budapest, but the chairman of PiS refused. The answer was that such a meeting was out of the question after Hungary’s flirtation with Russia, Poland’s archenemy. Kaczyński, who hasn’t met Orbán since, most likely wanted to clear the air and to hear directly from Orbán himself about his relationship with Putin.

The third topic may well have been Poland’s unexpected decision to honor the promise of the former government and take 4,500 refugees as part of the quota system. That decision seriously weakens the position of the other three Visegrád4 countries. Viktor Orbán looks upon the joint action of these four countries, standing together against Brussels, as one of his major achievements of late. Surely, he was counting on the new PiS government to abrogate the former government’s offer, especially since in November Beata Szydło, Poland’s new prime minister, made it clear that her government was not prepared to accept the quota system because of the changed circumstances that followed the Paris terrorist attacks. Well, it seems that the situation changed again. Yesterday it was announced that, after all, Poland will take the promised number of refugees. Mind you, only during the next two years and allowing only 150 of them at a time at certain intervals. However cautiously, Poland abandoned Viktor Orbán’s rigid stance on the issue of quotas. The change of heart most likely follows the harsh criticism coming from Brussels on the arch-conservative PiS government’s moves concerning the Constitutional Court and the media.

What moves of the Polish government do EU politicians find unacceptable? I’m relying here on the assessment of Dalibor Rohac of the American Enterprise Institute, not exactly a liberal stronghold in the United States. According to Rohac, “the law changes the status of Poland’s public broadcasters to ‘national cultural institutions’—like the National  Museum or the National Ballet—placing them under direct control of the government.” As for the Constitutional Court, shortly before the October election the Sejm elected five new constitutional court judges, but after the election PiS and President Andrzej Duda sought to reverse these appointments, notwithstanding a ruling by the Constitutional Court that confirmed that the election of the new judges was valid. Both the European Commission and the European Parliament reacted, calling these moves a clear violation of the EU constitution.

Vice-President Frans Timmermans sent two letters to the Polish government asking for clarification of the bill. At the same time Günther Oettinger, EU commissioner for digital economy, told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung that “many reasons exist for us to activate the ‘Rule of Law mechanism’ and to place Warsaw under monitoring.” Although Witold Waszczykowski, the new foreign minister, immediately summoned EU ambassadors to demand an explanation, perhaps cooler heads prevailed and the decision was made to retreat, at least partially.

Waszczykowsk’s introduction to the German media hasn’t been exactly a success. In an interview with Bild he accused the former right-of-center Polish government of following a Marxist model, which is “a new mix of cultures and races, introducing a world of cyclists and vegetarians who focus only on renewable energies and fight against any form of religion. This has nothing to do with traditional Polish values, which are awareness of history, patriotism, faith in God, and a normal family life between husband and wife.”

I should add that only yesterday Waszczykowski announced an entirely new Polish foreign policy, which sounds as if it will be built on confrontation with Brussels. “Our foreign policy cannot be part of the mainstream, we cannot simply abide by Brussels’ decisions,” he announced on Polish public radio. Polish foreign policy seems to be in flux. As long as Waszczykowski’s ideas prevail, one cannot be sure that Poland will be a cooperating member state of the European Union.

Commentators are trying to find an explanation for the drastically different reaction of the European Commission and Parliament to the Polish government’s attempts to imitate Orbán’s illiberal state. How fast the EU reacted in the Polish case and how sluggish it was when Orbán was dismantling Hungarian democracy bit by bit. Professor Kim Scheppele pointed out a fundamental difference between the two cases just yesterday. The two-thirds parliamentary majority enabled Fidesz to change the constitution, so it never violated its own fundamental law. Therefore “the EU was totally at a loss in figuring out how to handle a perfectly legal coup,” she told The Financial Times. The Polish case is different. The PiS government, not having a two-thirds majority, cannot attain the kind of absolute power Orbán managed to acquire. The combination of constitutional limitations as well as internal and external pressures will most likely have a restraining effect on the Szydło-Kaczyński government.

Jan-Werner Mueller: An Interview with Kriszta Bombera

Jan-Werner Mueller is a professor of political science at Princeton University and the author of several books. He began his university studies at the Free University, Berlin, followed by University College, London, St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and Princeton University. To fully appreciate the depth of his scholarly works I recommend taking a look at his official biography. In addition to his strictly scholarly work Professor Mueller writes commentaries on current affairs, which can be found in The Guardian, London Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Die Zeit, and Südeutsche Zeitung.

His interest in Hungary has been reinforced by family connections. Through marriage he has relatives in Hungary, and he visits the country at least once a year. He spent a longer period of time in Budapest when he was a visiting fellow at the Collegium Budapest Institute of Advanced Study. Unfortunately, the building the institute occupied was taken away from them by the Orbán government. They found shelter at the University of Central Europe.

Kriszta Bombera is currently a producer, anchor, and correspondent at ATV. In the last twelve months she has served as the foreign correspondent of the station in the United States. Prior to her job at ATV she worked for MTV (2007-2011), Hungary’s state television.

* * *

BK: Last Wednesday the European Parliament accepted a resolution condemning the Hungarian consultation on immigration. The resolution also asks the Commission to assess the situation of democracy and rule of law and to report back in September. Does this mean that maybe even the new rule of law mechanism of 2014 will be applied?

JWM: It is now up to the Commission to decide whether they want to take this anywhere. It’s not the first time the Parliament called on the Commission, you may recall the Tavares report in 2013, and there is always some leeway of what the Commission will do with a proposal. The big difference between 2013 and now is that we have a new Commission with two central players, Juncker and Timmermans who have, to put it mildly, a “record” with the Hungarian Prime Minister and who have also made it clear in the past that they are willing to do whatever they think it takes to protect democracy and the rule of law in Europe. But the Commission is not the only player on the scene. Last December the European Council – namely the member states’ governments – made it clear that they are very sceptical about the new framework which the Commission had put in place in March 2014. They believe the framework exceeds the powers of the Commission currently has according to the Treaties. This is still debated between the Council and the Commission. It is a deep-seated problem that we don’t have one central actor who is tasked with carrying out the protection of democracy and the rule of law. So it is not guaranteed that the conduct of the Parliament will necessarily result in something very strong but it is more likely with the Commission we have in place now than in 2013.

BK: What do you think the outcome may be of the struggle between the several EU institutions?

Jan-Werner Mueller

Jan-Werner Mueller

JWM: I think it will very much depend on whether at least some of the member states are more willing to be seen as openly criticizing the Hungarian government. Not only the Commission but another thing has also changed since 2013. Viktor Orbán has at least on two occasions employed a language that even people on the outside can clearly understand. Today there is no need to get into complicated stories about the Constitutional Court, the National Judiciary Office, the ombudsman or data protection to describe the intentions of the Hungarian government. For at least some observers, it will always seem plausible to say that these things are relative and that there are always two sides to the story. But the Hungarian Prime Minister’s talk of illiberal democracy last summer and his reckless talk now on the death penalty is the kind of language that people on the outside can clearly understand. Now it is more likely that at least some members of a foreign policy establishment or some political parties in other European countries might find it easier to put more pressure on their own governments sitting in the European Council to investigate how this can happen in the European Union: a Union that is committed to values of diversity, human rights or pluralism, which are codified in Article Two of the European Treaty. So from the point of view of the Hungarian government I think these have been strategic mistakes. They have made themselves more vulnerable to be attacked now that they have made it clear to the outside world that the government of Hungary is committed to values clearly in conflict with what the EU stands for.

Kriszta Bombera

Kriszta Bombera

BK: One might say they have not made themselves that vulnerable. The EPP, after all, is not going to expel Fidesz. The Christian Democrats did not even vote for the final, very strongly worded resolution. Do you think it might have been better to embrace the EPP’s version of the resolution instead of that of the Liberals and the Social Democrats? Wouldn’t it have meant more politically if criticism comes from the party family that Fidesz belongs to? Even if the criticism is somewhat softer than, for example, that of the Liberals. After all, not even the Christian Democrats were beating around the bush about the consultation on migration or about death penalty. But since the EPP’s version of the resolution did not pass the Hungarian government can say, again, that it is a victim of party politics as usual, of the attacks of the liberal left. They said the same about the Tavares report.

JWM: The EPP is a large and fairly dysfunctional political family. It partly became so large in the course of the 1990’s because people like Helmuth Kohl decided that – as he put it back then – they did not create Europe to leave it to the Socialists. So they expanded the EPP, essentially went around Europe and convinced anyone who said they hate Communists that they belong to the Christian Democrats then. So the EPP is a diverse party. There are, of course, lots of people in it who have some sympathy Viktor Orbán’s politics. They see it as a genuinely conservative, genuinely Christian voice. But there are many others who react very badly to the kind of nationalism that Orbán exhibits or to his argument for a debate on the death penalty in Hungary.

They remember what Europe was initially built for, that initially it was meant to be a project that keeps strong nationalism and strong nation states in check on the basis of the experience of the Second World War. A number of EPP members retain that sensibility, and they are committed to a common European morality. We, of course, do not know exactly who voted for what last Wednesday but I think lots of people in the EPPP are fed up with Orbán whose actions and words are, if nothing else, morally dangerous and it is also a huge distraction from Europe’s real problems. They are no longer quite willing to believe the story that Orbán always used to tell his fellow Christian Democrats, namely that he was the last bastion that kept Jobbik at check. They now realize that Jobbik and Fidesz are much closer in terms of rhetoric than they initially thought. So we should not simply say that the EPP clearly stands behind Orbán. Certain individuals like Manfred Weber have not really changed much but many others within the party would actually be willing to go along with harsher sanctions if it came to them.

BK: Hungarian opposition politicians have started stating that Fidesz lost its last ally within the European Parliament. Others who dismiss this argue that there will be always need for such a large fraction as the one Fidesz has within the EPP. Do you think this consideration will indeed always override other concerns about Hungary?

JWM: It is certainly a serious concern, you might say it is a tragic structural problem in Europe today. What can look like more democracy on the European level – when the European Parliament gets more powers – might lead to less democracy within the member states. The European parties, in this case the EPP, might indeed be willing to close its eyes to what is happening in an undemocratic way at the national level so it can retain the loyalty of a relatively big group like Fidesz. This is what happened in 2014 when Joseph Daul the then leader of the EPP in the European Parliament went to Hero’s Square in Budapest to campaign for Viktor Orbán, whom he called a good friend. This was in a sense a tragic outcome, since a very problematic development on the national level was tolerated only to make sure that the EPP remained the largest fraction in the European Parliament. But that was 2014. Now, in 2015, the EPP can be more confident that it will remain the largest fraction for a number of years to come. So, again, I would not be so sure that the entire fraction will stand behind Orbán indefinitely.

BK: The draft resolution of the European People’s Party also included that the Hungarian Prime Minister should set an example in popularizing EU values.” But why should he? There are numerous other heads of government who are doing everything but popularizing the EU. What are the significant differences between voices of dissent? For example between Orbán, Cameron or Tsipras?

JWM: I think one of the most serious problems in the EU today is that far too many politicians, parties but also social movements are lumped together under the category of being anti-European. This is a failure of political judgement (though some politicians do this quite intentionally to discredit certain political actors.) This could have very severe costs in the long run. Let us first take the paradigmatic example of the UK’s so-called euroskeptics who just want to get out of the EU. They are clearly anti-European in the sense that they don’t like the EU as it currently is. But the EU allows countries to leave the Union. I label these people a “disloyal but legitimate” opposition. There is a clause in the Lisbon Treaty that says if a country wants to get out – that is fine. Those who want to leave may leave, without causing damage to the values of the union and of those who stay within.

Let us examine those who criticize some specific current EU policies, for example those meant to rescue the eurozone. Those critics should be called a “legitimate and loyal” opposition because the EU is not about one particular policy. It should be perfectly possible to speak up against austerity or other policies without being labeled an “anti-European.” So Tsipras, for instance, or the Podemos movement in Spain are not anti-European. Chancellor Merkel very easily puts this label on very diverse groups or individuals, she famously has said ” if the euro fails, Europe fails,” as if criticism of her policies meant becoming an anti-European. IN any democracy, a legitimate opposition has an important role to play.

In the last category one may find those who are trying to undermine the EU in terms of its values both from the inside and from the outside. This is the “illegitimate and disloyal” opposition. In this category one can find , at least on certain occasions, the Hungarian government on the inside and Russia on the outside. Of course, Hungary does not want to officially leave the EU but it is undermining the moral core of the EU. This is truly anti-European, unlike what people like Tsipras are doing but similar to what Putin often tries to do. Putin would be much happier in a world without the European Union.

BK: Hungary, Greece and Great Britain: those are the very same three countries that the German and the French Ministers of Economy mentioned in an article in which they argued for a new regime in the European Union. There would be an inner circle for members of the eurozone and for those who believe in the values and policies of the EU and there should be another, looser circle for those who are presently struggling for more national sovereignty. Do you think it may be feasible? How should we imagine such a “layered” Union?

JWM: It is perfectly imaginable, differentiated integration is already a reality. Some countries already have opt-outs, they don’t have to go along with everything, in particular with the euro. We are already faced with a somewhat fragmented European Union and it is possible that this trend continues. But it may be more difficult to manage and could become dysfunctional. All the existing problems with democracy in the EU would be getting even more difficult. Who decides what for whom? How to identify who is responsible for what? There might have to be two parliaments but it is already very difficult to manage even one. The hopes of those who wanted Europe to use its weight, including its moral weight on the global stage will have to be buried, too, because Europe will not speak with a unified voice. It is not a very attractive vision, I think.

BK: Let me come back a bit to Hungary and to the EU rule of law mechanism of the Commission from last year. The resolution of the Liberals last Wednesday suggested that there is a “possibility of an already existing systemic threat to the rule of law in Hungary” and they argued for the first steps of the mechanism to be put into effect. But, as you previously pointed out, the mechanism has not been accepted by various member states, including Hungary. You had proposed the European Union another system before, the so-called Copenhagen Commission, which would be a brand new institution to guard democracy and the rule of law within the EU. But why would that be better than the existing tools? And, after all, do you agree that there may be a systemic threat to the rule of law in Hungary?

JWM: Let me start with the second question. The possibility of a threat has been there for years in Hungary. Democracy does not have to be already undermined or demolished in a country to be able to diagnose that there is a threat. There has to be a clear pattern, though, which we saw, for instance, in 2013 in Hungary. The Fourth Amendment to the Fundamental Law, the back and forth with the EU about it, then the Fifth Amendment, all were essentially attempts by the Hungarian government to see how far they can push certain ideas and then in response to criticism pull back to some degree. I think already at that point it was entirely legitimate to speak of a threat. One did not have to prove that “illiberal democracy” had already become entrenched..

Partly based on the experience with Austria in 2000 the EU was careful to have a two-stage process, when it comes to dealing with threats to fundamental EU values. In the first stage they only state there may be a threat. It does not mean that anything terrible has happened yet, it should be a relatively low threshold to cross. But in the second step, an actual breach of fundamental values has to be proven and then a Member State should lose its voting rights in the European Council.

Today Orbán’s talk of putting the death penalty back on the agenda – whatever that means – is also a threat. Of course, even to say this much is stigmatizing one country, since a member state is singled out as having a problem. But that is inevitable and the European Treaty allows for this. The objection that a member state was “singled out” by this process is not valid. This has nothing to do with prejudice or discrimination; if there is clear evidence, then a guilty party has to be singled out..

How could this be done in a more impartial way? The European Commission is officially the guardian of the treaties, and is officially an impartial actor on the European scene. So, in the eyes of many observers, it remains the best contender for taking on this task. But the European Commission may become more politicized. There are many proposals to make it more political, for example last year the election process for the President of the European Commission was an instance of this. This might result one day in people recognizing that the Commission has become a Christian Democrat or a Socialist Commission, that is, a partisan, political body – not in secret, but on purpose, to allow citizens to see their choices reflected in what a kind of EU government undertakes. In that case, the Commission will no longer appear as an impartial, non-partisan actor. For the case of that scenario I propose that we should create a new institution which could be called Copenhagen Commission in memory of the Copenhagen criteria for accession to the EU, which famously included democracy and the rule of law. This Commission would be tasked to monitor the member states and raise the alarm when something is going seriously wrong. A major condition would be the authority to act independently, without the member states effectively having an immediate veto.

There is another thing that should be contemplated in the EU, the possible expulsion of a member state, for which the European Treaty does not allow now. A country can leave voluntarily, its voting rights can be taken away in the European Council but if we imagine an absolute horror scenario, let us say one day a military dictatorship arises in a member state, the Union could not really take the ultimate step of expelling that country.

So quite apart from any particular discussion that we have been having about Hungary or Romania in the last couple of years I think it is a structural deficit that the Treaty now only allows us to isolate ourselves from a particular member state, to put it in a kind of quarantine. But there is no effective mechanism for intervening in that member state.

From the point of view of a member state’s population this is a real disappointment. If, for example in Hungary, people thought they entered the EU to have a safety mechanism, a kind of insurance scheme to be helped in the case of illiberal, undemocratic politics, they were wrong. If they hoped they locked themselves into a number of supranational guarantees that their country could not go back to even authoritarian measures, that sort of assurance isn’t really in place.

It is worth at least to have a discussion about the possibility of expelling a member state entirely instead of spending all this time on a Grexit or a Brexit or expelling Greece from the eurozone. These are serious matters but again, ultimately just questions of policy, not questions of values and how we want to live together in Europe as a whole. I think that discussion has been sorely missing from our deliberations so far.

BK: You are widely known not only for your proposal of the Copenhagen Commission but also as a scholar of populism. Prime Minister Orbán seems to be taking very sharp ideological turns recently. One might think his turns are even hard for his supporters to take. For example, recently he said he will defend Christian Hungary from multiculturalism. Some days later, welcoming Arab bankers to the country he said Hungary is an open country, a friend of Islam.. How can one do this without serious risks? And what should the Hungarian Prime Minister learn from the recent failures of Turkish President Erdoğan?

JWM: A populist is not somebody who simply repeats what people are supposedly saying. There is a distinction between a populist and a demagogue. It is the latter who says what he or she thinks is the popular opinion. Conversely, what a populist says is that he or his party are the only ones that morally represent the real, the pure people. As Orbán said most famously in 2002 after losing the election, “the nation cannot be in opposition,” from which it follows that Fidesz is the nation, or rather, the only legitimate representative of the nation. Similarly, Erdoğan said last year, “we are the people.” And to his critics he said, “who are you?” The exclusive claim to represent is decicive for populism and it may have little to do with what people think or believe. So I think Orbán’s double talk is more an example of a cynical double game. On the one hand he employs a popular rhetoric domestically but internationally or in negotiations with others he says something quite different.

To answer your question about Erdoğan, I think that Orbán had a better – but therefore also more dangerous – populist strategy. Unlike Erdoğan, he quickly put populism into the Constitution. From his point of view he did it “the right way around.” He first changed the constitution, he codified his understanding of the Hungarian nation, of Hungarian history and now, were he to lose power, the constitution would still be there. It’s a very big question what will happen to this partisan “Fundamental Law” in the future, and how a more democratic, inclusive constitutional settlement could be achieved.

Erdoğan, however, made himself president first and only his next step would have been a new constitution, had he been more successful in the recent election. That constitution would have been in line with his political beliefs but also more importantly with his particular vision of what a proper Turk and what a proper Turkish nation is. Today his position is much more difficult because he does not have the backup of an “Erdoğan constitution” which would mirror his views on what a proper Turk is like, his views of Islam morality, his vision of Turkish history. So Orbán had a proper strategy in entrenching populism institutionally.

Still, Orbán has a structural dilemma now. He faces a contender, Jobbik, that will always have the advantage of being the one big party that have never been in government, thus, has never shown to be corrupt in certain ways. But Orbán, the longer he stays in power the more scandals and problems he will face. Populists will always blame former elites or foreign actors for all problems. But the longer they are in office, the less credible this blame-game becomes.

The European Parliament condemns Hungary’s Orbán government

At last there seems to be real action on the part of the European Parliament. What happened today may mean a new chapter in the relations between the European Union and the far-right nationalist government of Viktor Orbán. This time, over and above the normal verbal condemnation, the European Parliament called on the Commission to “immediately initiate an in-depth monitoring process on the situation of democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights in Hungary and to report back on this matter to the European Parliament and Council before September 2015.” We may have complained in the past about the snail-like pace of the EU bureaucracy, but today we cannot reproach them for being slow. The deadline is tight, but some of the work has already been done.

Almost two years ago Rui Tavares, a member of the European Parliament from Portugal, compiled an admirable report on Hungary’s violations of human rights and the basic values of the European Union. Anyone who’s interested in the details of this report should read Prof. Kim Lane Scheppele’s article, which appeared on this blog. Although the report was endorsed by the European Union and although it contained several recommendations, there was no follow-up. Now the European Commission has to dredge up the Tavares Report and add to it all the subsequent sins of the Orbán government. I trust that this time, finally, the Hungarian government’s flagrant violation of EU principles will have serious consequences.

Today’s condemnation is the final outcome of a discussion of the Hungarian situation initiated by the socialist (S&D), liberal (ALDE), and green (Greens-EFA) members of the European Parliament that took place on May 19th, with Viktor Orbán present. Today the objections to Hungarian government policies came to a vote. The differences of opinion on the Hungarian situation between the left and the right can be seen in my post of June 4, where I quoted the texts of the prepared points of the two sides.

The results of today’s vote are revealing. The European Parliament has 751 members. The vote for the resolution of the socialists, liberals, and greens was 362, with 247 against it. Eighty-eight members abstained, while 54 were either absent or didn’t vote. So, where did the yes votes come from? The S&D caucus has 191 members, ALDE 69, and the Greens 50. Thus the three parties that proposed the finally accepted resolution had a combined 310 votes if all their members were present and if they all voted for the resolution, not enough to pass it. GUE-NGL, a far-left group (as Fidesz calls them, communists), with 52 members was the most likely candidate to have made up the difference. We don’t know how many Christian Democrats (EPP) with 219 members, conservatives (ECR) with 72, or the euroskeptic EFDD with 47 voted for the resolution, but I suspect that a few did. One ought also to keep in mind that, in addition to the above parties, there are 51 independent members, including the three Jobbik delegates.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

The really telling number is the 88 abstentions, which most likely came from ambivalent EPP MEPs. There is a good possibility that between 35% and 40% of EPP members can no longer wholeheartedly support Fidesz. And that is bad news for the Orbán government, although the high-level Fidesz members who in the last few hours commented on the results tried to convince their supporters and most likely themselves as well that the vote confirmed that “the European People’s Party didn’t abandon the Hungarian government party.” Calling the resolution a “second Tavares report,” as Gergely Gulyás described today’s vote, is like comparing apples and oranges. What he most likely meant was that both are full of “distortions of facts.” The resolution may come as an unpleasant surprise, but Fidesz still feels confident enough to state, as Gulyás did at his press conference, that the position of the Hungarian government is clear: “we are against immigration.”

The Fidesz members of the EPP also expressed their views on the resolution. According to their official statement, in fairly poor English, “double standards have never been more apparent” than in this case. They attack the left and the liberals “for generating hysteria over Hungary.” The resolution, in their opinion, “resorts to labeling, bending the truth and factually false statements.” Moreover,

The leftist and liberal political groups discredit themselves once more: while they are ready to abuse their majority in the EP to hold plenary debates and pass resolutions on Hungary – even when there is in fact no Hungarian legislation to scrutinize – they remain silent on recent events in Romania. The double standards applied not only discredit the political groups but unfortunately also the European Parliament itself. This must stop! Hungarian citizens voted resolutely last year for a second term for Fidesz and KDNP. The respect of the democratic choice of the voters is the most basic democratic principle and should never be contested in the European Parliament.

In brief, once a government is elected, it can do anything it wants.

Jobbik has three members in the European Parliament who sit with the independents because no parliamentary delegation wanted to have anything to do with them. Their leader, Zoltán Balczó, naturally defended the government party because, after all, ideologically they are not very far apart. In his opinion, the resolution “will not have any consequences” and “the whole thing is simply a show.”

The two-member MSZP EP delegation published a short statement, unfortunately only in Hungarian, which praised the resolution as “a principled and at the same time unambiguous answer to Viktor Orbán’s provocation.”

The most sanguine statements came from Csaba Molnár and Péter Niedermüller, the two DK EP members. They most likely overstated the case when they claimed that “a significant portion of the European People’s Party supported the resolution.” But I agree that EPP support for Fidesz by EPP has been eroding.

I think it is a wishful thinking on the part of Jobbik’s Balczó that the resolution will have no consequences. The European Commission is no longer the commission of José Manuel Barroso. Jean-Claude Juncker and Frans Timmermans, his right-hand man, are a great deal less accommodating than Barroso was when it comes to the increasingly unacceptable behavior of the Hungarian prime minister.

 

The leader of the Hungarian Roma community under scrutiny

In the last few days several investigative articles have appeared about the growing scandal at the Országos Roma Önkormányzat (ORÖ), the representative of the Hungarian Roma minority. Although Ákos Hadházy of LMP called attention to corruption in one of the programs under the supervision of ORÖ in early February, the prosecutors didn’t find sufficient cause to investigate. After a while, however, it was impossible to ignore the case because the evidence of wrongdoing was overwhelming. At last an investigation began in early May. NAV, the tax authority, appeared at the headquarters of ORÖ and began collecting documents and computers.

Back in February I wrote about the case and wondered whether the former head of ORÖ, Flórián Farkas, would be investigated this time and whether, if found guilty, he would finally be punished. Until now he has always managed to avoid prosecution. In that post I very briefly outlined Farkas’s run-ins with the law. Here I would like to concentrate on his shady political career.

Flórián Farkas has had assistance from both the left and the right. Currently, he is one of the signatories of the Fidesz-Lungo Drom Alliance; the other signatory is Viktor Orbán. But he also had excellent relations with MSZP during the 1994-1998 period when an MSZP-SZDSZ coalition was in power. It seems that both Gyula Horn of MSZP and Viktor Orbán of Fidesz overlooked Farkas’s misdeeds since, for some strange reason, both thought that he could deliver the Roma vote. Whether he did or not nobody knows.

In every regime, under all governments, Farkas managed not only to survive but to ascend the political hierarchy. According to an article that appeared recently in Népszabadság, he was already active in Roma organizations during the Kádár period, but it was only in the early 1990s that he established Lungo Drom, which eventually became the favorite Roma organization of the Antall government as opposed to the Roma Parliament, which József Antall considered to be too radical. By 1993, among the various Roma organizations, Lungo Drom received the most financial assistance from the government.

Although there had been questions even at that stage about the finances of Lungo Drom, it received the support of the Horn government after 1994. Over the next four years Farkas got into all sorts of scrapes, which an ambitious investigative journalist, Attila B. Hidvégi, tried to learn more about. When Hidvégi was working on a 1995 case involving Farkas, two associates of the Hungarian secret service visited him and told him to stop digging around. He gave up. Farkas obviously had important friends in high places. Another time, when it looked as if his case would end up in the courts, President Árpád Göncz got a phone call from the ministry of justice more or less instructing him to grant Farkas clemency, which meant that the case never went to trial. Moreover, documents pertaining to the affair were declared to be top secret for 30 years.

Before the 1998 election Farkas managed to convince Gyula Horn that he would be able to deliver the Gypsy vote at the forthcoming election. Horn was certainly courting Lungo Drom. He attended its congress in January 1998 where he delivered a speech, which he included in his book Azok a kilencvenes évek… (Those 1990s). In it Horn told his audience that the Roma community has to shape up and do its share in changing the situation of the Gypsy community. Some other Roma communities criticized the prime minister but, as Horn put it in 1999 when the book was written, “Flórián Farkas and I continued to work to realize the programs that had been started.” (p. 472)

Great was the surprise within MSZP when at the end of 2001 Fidesz and Lungo Drom signed an agreement to cooperate politically. This time Farkas misjudged the situation, which was not at all surprising because almost all the opinion polls predicted an overwhelming Fidesz victory. Fidesz lost but Viktor Orbán made sure that Farkas’s name was placed high enough on the party list that he would easily become a member of parliament, where he served for two terms as a member of the Fidesz caucus.

Since 2010 Farkas’s influence has grown considerably, especially after he signed a formal alliance with the government to craft the country’s Roma strategy.

Signing the alliance between the government and Lungo Drom, May 2011

Signing the alliance between the government and Lungo Drom, May 2011

A few days ago, Magyar Nemzet suggested that perhaps the greatest task Hungary has to undertake in the coming years is to find a solution to the problems of the Hungarian Roma community. The author of the article estimated that 20% of all Hungarian children under the age of five are Roma. If this new generation cannot be rescued from the kind of poverty and low educational attainment the Roma community currently experiences, the future of the Hungarian economy will be in serious jeopardy. The article accused the so-called Roma elite of betraying their own people. But in the final analysis, I believe, Hungarian politicians, past and present, are perhaps even more responsible for the prevailing situation. They were the ones who handed over billions and billions of forints coming from the European Union to corrupt Roma leaders.

The Roma politicians around Fidesz have their own enablers in the Orbán government. Index learned that Tamás Köpeczi-Bócz, an assistant undersecretary in the ministry of human resources, is a suspect in the case involving the financial manipulations of ORÖ. He is in charge of the coordination of EU funds, including a sizable amount of money for Roma affairs. Apparently, it is thanks to him that no investigation of the affairs of ORÖ took place until now because he informed the prosecutors that all expenses were absolutely legitimate. In brief, it seems he is part and parcel of the fraud that has been perpetrated for years.

Magyar Nemzet learned that Farkas has the exclusive right to choose Roma politicians to fill certain government positions. That’s why, claims the paper, Lívia Járóka, a former member of the EU Parliament, was dropped by Viktor Orbán. Indeed, take a look at her biography in Wikipedia. One has to wonder why she was shipped off to Brussels in the first place. And why, after two terms, did she disappear into nothingness? The Wikipedia article ends with this sentence: “As of September 2014 she is no longer listed on the European Parliament site as an MEP.” Can Hungary afford to dispense with a Roma politician of this caliber? Viktor Orbán obviously believes that it can.

Commentators think that Flórián Farkas has never been closer to being indicted, especially since there are signs that the Orbán government might stop shielding him. János Lázár announced that if Farkas cannot clear his name, the prime minister will withdraw confidence in him. Népszabadság noted that Lungo Drom is no longer mentioned as an ally on Fidesz’s website. But who will come after  him? Offhand, I don’t see any serious, reliable candidate for the job.