Tag Archives: European Union

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

Changing opinions on political issues 

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

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

One of those dissatisfied citizens

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

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

Changes in the left-of center media

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

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

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

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

September 17, 2017

Juncker’s vision for the future of Europe

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

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

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

Photo: Patrick Hertzog / AFP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 13, 2017

Viktor Orbán on solidarity and financial assistance

In happier times Hungary wasn’t a prolific source of sensational news items for the international press. With the appearance of Viktor Orbán on the political scene in 2010, however, hardly a day goes by without some juicy story about what the Hungarian prime minister is up to. The avalanche of news items on Hungary at the moment is more impressive than usual. There are two reasons for this sudden interest in the country, and both are related to the “migrant issue.”

First, Viktor Orbán surprised Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, with a letter in which he demanded a hefty contribution to the fence he unilaterally decided to build along the Serbian-Hungarian border in order to prevent refugees and migrants from using Hungary as a transit route toward Western Europe. Second, the European Court of Justice just dismissed complaints by Slovakia and Hungary about EU migration policy. This is considered to be an important victory for the European Union and a blow to Viktor Orbán and his allies in Eastern Europe.

Today let’s tackle the controversy that has developed since August 31 over the issue of the cost of the fence and Orbán’s monetary demands. I will stick closely to the texts of the letters exchanged between Juncker and Orbán. All three letters are available in their entirety.

“I am contacting you regarding the protection of the external borders of the European Union and European solidarity,” begins Viktor Orbán’s initial letter to Juncker. As far as he is concerned, “Hungary followed the Schengen rules requiring the protection of the external borders” all along, and by that act Hungary “is protecting not only itself, but the whole of Europe against the flood of illegal migrants.” Orbán claims that the cost and maintenance of the fence is 270 billion forints or €883,000,000, half of which should be paid by the European Union. He closed his letter by saying that “we agree that solidarity is an important principle of the European community. When Hungary had to protect the common external borders, we started with immediate action and not a request for help. I hope that, in the spirit of European solidarity, we can rightly expect that the European Commission, acting on behalf of Member States, will reimburse half of our extraordinary border protection expenses in the foreseeable future.”

It was unlikely that Orbán seriously expected a positive answer from the European Commission. In a sense, he gave himself away in that last paragraph when he admitted that Hungary “started with immediate action and not [with] a request for help.” It was the sovereign decision of the Hungarian government to go ahead and build a fence along the country’s southern border. As for the cost, both opposition politicians and journalists in Hungary are in total darkness when it comes to the real cost of the fence. Most suspect that the figures are greatly inflated.

Hungarian media commentators were certain from the very first moments after the announcement of the demand that the European Commission would not be impressed by Orbán’s arguments. It took only a few hours after the Hungarian government made the content of the letter public for the Commission’s spokesman to announce that the European Union is not “financing the construction of fences or barriers at the external borders.” As for Orbán’s appeal to European solidarity, the spokesman noted that “solidarity is a two-way street, and all member states should be ready to contribute. This is not some sort of à la carte menu where you pick one dish.” The spokesman then summarized all the benefits Hungary received, for example “over €93 million in funding for Hungary, both from the EU’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund and the Internal Security Fund. It also awarded Hungary an additional €6 million in emergency funds.” He reminded his audience that in 2015 Hungary refused to be labeled a front-line state and rejected becoming a beneficiary country, like Greece and Italy. Instead, it opted to build a fence.

After this announcement on September 1, there could be little doubt that Jean-Claude Juncker’s reply to Viktor Orbán would be a firm rejection of the Hungarian prime minister’s specious reasoning. The tone of the letter, however, was polite and expressed an openness for cooperation if there is a willingness on the other side. First, he reminded Orbán of the events of 2015 when Hungary was greatly affected by the refugee crisis and the European Union proposed that an emergency relocation scheme would apply to Hungary, similarly to Italy and Greece. Hungary rejected this offer of “concrete solidarity, declining the possibility to benefit from relocation of up to 54,000 persons and decided to return nearly 4 million euros of EU funds pre-paid by the Commission.” Shortly after that, Hungary “challenged the validity of the Council decisions on relocation before the Court of Justice.”

Then came a list of all sorts of benefits Hungary received from the European Union in connection with the refugee crisis. The last item on the list was “another form of European solidarity [which is] represented by the EU’s regional funds. Hungary is the 8th largest beneficiary of the European Structural and Investment Funds in the period 2014-2020 with an allocation of 25 billion euros. This represents more than 3% of Hungary’s GDP annually, the highest of any Member State.”

Finally, Juncker “welcome[d] the call in [Orbán’s] letter for more Europe in the area of migration and border management.” He also assured him that he is “committed to working together with Hungary towards a more efficient and fairer European migration and asylum policy based on responsibility and solidarity.”

Yes, it was a polite letter, although it contained a fair description of the European Union’s objections to Viktor Orbán’s interpretation of solidarity. And there was one sentence in this fairly lengthy letter that must have sent Orbán into a rage, as we will see from his answer. That was Juncker’s reference to Hungary’s being the eighth largest beneficiary of the European Structural and Investment Funds. So, let’s turn to that crucial part of Viktor Orbán’s answer to Jean-Claude Juncker.

I would like to inform you that we are confounded by the part of your letter that creates a link between the question of immigration and cohesion funds. Such a relationship does not exist and is not permitted by the current EU acquis. According to the view of the Hungarian government, a significant part of the resources provided by Cohesion Funds landed at the companies of net contributor countries. The economies of major EU member states have thus greatly benefited from the use of cohesion funds, as they have benefited from opening the markets of new member states.

Viktor Orbán delivered a speech this morning in which he rejected the widely-held view that Hungary’s economic growth derives largely from the funds received from the European Union. I don’t have the complete text and therefore have to rely on MTI’s summary, but his argument was that Hungary’s yearly budget is 18,000 billion forints while the EU subsidies amount to only 1,000-1,500 forints. What Hungary has achieved in the last few years is “our success.” However, according to Péter Mihályi, a professor of economics, Orbán’s figures are wrong. Between 2006 and 2015, Hungary received 2,400 billion euros. During the same period the Hungarian economy grew by only 4.6%. Without the EU funds that figure would have been -1.8%.

Another topic that irritates Orbán is the European Union’s interpretation of solidarity. He didn’t elaborate on it, but he claims that Juncker’s “interpretation of solidarity is not in accordance with European Union legislation.” More critically, “it is not in accordance with Hungarian historic traditions either.” This difference in interpretation is explained by the fact that “in contrast some of the major member states of the EU, Hungary has no colonial past.” These countries, because of their colonial past, have become immigrant countries, but Hungary is not an immigrant country and does not want to become one. “The interpretation of the principle of solidarity described in your letter is in essence the transformation of Hungary into an immigrant country, against the will of the Hungarian citizens. In my view, this is not solidarity, this is violence.” Finally, Orbán said that he is “stunned and puzzled” that the European Commission refuses to provide funds for the fence. At the end he repeated his demand for half of the €883 million euros which, according to him, is the cost of the building and maintaining the 175 km fence.

Just a footnote to Viktor Orbán’s interpretation of solidarity. Last night, Zsolt Bayer, the anti-Semitic journalist of extreme political views, wrote an opinion piece for Magyar Idők that appeared in the early morning edition of the paper. He also argues that Hungary cannot be compared to countries that are situated in the West. Half of Western Europe countries, for certain periods of time, were colonial powers. These countries occupied large parts of the world where “they destroyed the culture and civilization they found. They killed the inhabitants; they carried away their treasures and raw materials. Those who survived were made slaves. This is the glorious history of the West. That’s how it became rich. That is how it became strong. It is from these treasures that they built their democracy. It is from this position that they began to look down on the people of Eastern and Central Europe who have never had any colonies. The people of those colonial empires are now going to their former slave owners and submitting a bill.”

So, the West is responsible in a way for the migration of the former slaves. They deserve what they get. And as for the financial assistance coming from the West, it is no sign of generosity because in the end all that money ends up in the pockets of western multinational companies. So, politicians of Western European countries have nothing to complain about. At least this is what Viktor Orbán thinks.

September 7, 2017

Legal grounds for the suspension of EU funding to Hungary now

As always, Hungarian Spectrum welcomes democratic voices from and about Hungary. Today we are publishing an article by Hungarian experts on EU affairs. They asked not to publish their names. The reason for this should be obvious if you have read the study Political discrimination in Hungary.

♦ ♦ ♦

More and more high-level politicians are calling for cutting EU funding to Hungary because it does not respect the fundamental values and, in certain cases, even the legislation of the European Union. For example, such statements have been made by Emmanuel Macron, President of the France, Christian Kern, Chancellor of Austria, and Günther Oettinger, Commissioner of the European Commission responsible for the budget. Vivian Reding, member of the European Parliament and former EU commissioner for justice and fundamental rights recently declared: “This would be the most effective way to influence the behavior of a government like the Polish one – making a link with the money. It’s the only thing they understand.” Gajus Scheltema, the ambassador of the Netherlands to Hungary, referring to the Hungarian government in an interview a few days ago, declared: “The argument over what happens with our money is indeed growing ever fiercer. We can’t finance corruption, and we can’t keep a corrupt regime alive.”

However, when speaking about the violations of the principles of democracy and the rule of law in EU member states, it is often said that at present there is no legal ground to suspend EU funding to the countries concerned. The German government started to investigate the possibilities to enable the European Commission to freeze funding for EU member countries that don’t comply with the EU’s standards regarding the rule of law – during the next budget period, i.e. 2021-2027. A recent editorial in The Economist (Stop spoiling Hungary’s prime minister – What to do when Viktor Orban erodes democracy) proposes that “the EU should use upcoming budget negotiations to apply fiscal pressure.” Michael Meyer-Resende, executive director of Democracy Reporting International, proposes in his article in Politico (How to fix Europe’s ‘rule of law’ blindspot – Freezing funding to misbehaving members will arm the bloc to withstand authoritarian assaults on democracy) that after 2020 the multi-year agreements which regulate the paying out of EU funds to member states should stipulate that “funds can be stopped following serious breaches of obligations on democracy, human rights or the rule of law.” All this means that not much would happen until 2021, which is certainly very worrying in view of the tendencies in the countries concerned.

In our opinion, there is no need to wait until 2021, as existing EU legislation provides sufficient legal ground for suspending EU funding to Hungary. Moreover, we are convinced that if the European Commission had acted in accordance with EU legislation, it would have suspended EU funding to Hungary a long time ago.

Article 30 of the EU’s Financial Regulation (966/2012) states, among other things, that EU “funds shall be used in accordance with the principle of sound financial management, namely in accordance with the principles of economy, efficiency and effectiveness.” Also, according to this regulation, “The principle of efficiency concerns the best relationship between resources employed and results achieved.” Let us look at one of the countless concrete examples which prove that the Hungarian government uses EU funds in a way that contradicts this principle. (The readers of Hungarian Spectrum are certainly familiar with the details of this example; however, it seems expedient to summarize it here.)

Lőrinc Mészáros is a simple gas-fitter and mayor of the small village of Felcsút where Hungary’s present prime minister, Viktor Orbán, grew up. After Orbán came to power in 2010, the minor company of Mészáros and his wife suddenly started to get enormous orders from the government to implement investments in a wide variety of fields, almost exclusively funded by EU money. By now Mészáros is one of the richest people in Hungary. Last year the most-read political daily newspaper in Hungary was bought and closed by Lőrinc Mészáros. This move came just after the newspaper published investigative articles about the corruption affairs of two close associates of Viktor Orbán. Lőrinc Mészáros also bought the overwhelming majority of the regional newspapers, which now echo only government propaganda. We are certain that all this contradicts the provision of the Financial Regulation on “the best relationship between resources employed and results achieved.”

Furthermore, according to the Financial Regulation, “The principle of effectiveness concerns the attainment of the specific objectives set and the achievement of the intended results.” Let’s see another striking example of the violation of this principle.

The Hungarian government announced that it will allocate in 2017 and 2018 most of the EU money available for the funding period 2014-2020, and in fact, it has already started to implement this measure. It is clear that the only purpose of this government decision is to help the victory of Orbán and his party, Fidesz, at the national elections in the spring of 2018, without any consideration of what will happen after 2018 when EU funding will be mostly exhausted. Such jerking of the economy is also extremely detrimental to business in general. Furthermore, the rapid disbursement leads to inefficient use of EU money, and greatly increases the risks of corruption. These are just the opposite of the “intended results” of EU funding. Moreover, the use of EU money for party political purposes is not included at all in the “objectives set” by the EU.

According to Article 59 (2) of the Financial Regulation, “When executing tasks relating to the implementation of the budget, Member States shall take all the necessary measures, including legislative, regulatory and administrative measures, to protect the Union’s financial interests…”

It would fill many pages just to list all those documents that prove that, since 2010, the Hungarian government and Parliament have transformed the whole legislative and institutional system in a way which makes it much easier for certain political and business groups to steal/misuse EU funds. Here we would just like to refer to the five resolutions of the European Parliament between 2011 and 2017 on the situation in Hungary. The smothering of civil society organisations, repressions against independent media, and the wide-spread political discrimination also means much less control over the use of public money, including EU funds. We are convinced that to suspend EU funding it is sufficient to know that a member state has taken many “legislative, regulatory and administrative measures” to eliminate the means for protecting the Union’s financial interests.

According to the EU’s Regulation on the European Structural and Investment (ESI) Funds (1303/2013), these funds “provide support, through multi-annual programmes, which complements national, regional and local intervention, to deliver the Union strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.” Accordingly, money from ESI Funds and other European funds has been used, among other things, to improve education and strengthen civil society organisations. However, by now, the EU funding for these purposes does not complement national support but only counterbalances to a minor extent the destruction caused by the Hungarian government.

It is also clear that many other interventions by the Hungarian government also contradicted the aim of “smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.” For instance, as mentioned above, the legislative and the institutional system has been continuously tailored in a way to make it possible to steal enormous sums of taxpayers’ money. Thus, what the EU funding complemented to a certain extent was the money missing due to these thefts. (Such thefts are well known to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum. Just as examples of the numerous cases, we mention the changing of the regulation governing the trading of gas via pipeline in order to fill the pockets of Viktor Orbán’s friend, the colossal swindle about residency bonds, and the transferring of an incredible amount of public money from the Hungarian Central Bank to private foundations.)

According to the EU’s Regulation on the European code of conduct on partnership in the framework of the European Structural and Investment Funds (240/2014), the governments of the member states must closely cooperate with “bodies representing civil society at national, regional and local levels throughout the whole programme cycle consisting of preparation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.” They should also “examine the need to make use of technical assistance in order to support the strengthening of the institutional capacity of partners, in particular as regards small local authorities, economic and social partners and non-governmental organisations, in order to help them so that they can effectively participate in the preparation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the programmes.” The difficult and ever worsening conditions in which civil society organisations work make it almost impossible for them to be meaningfully involved in these processes, and this further contributes to the improper and inefficient use of EU funds in Hungary.

In the Treaty of Accession to the EU, Hungary declared the following: “Our common wish is to make Europe a continent of democracy, freedom, peace and progress. The Union will remain determined to avoid new dividing lines in Europe and to promote stability and prosperity within and beyond the new borders of the Union. We are looking forward to working together in our joint endeavor to accomplish these goals.” In our understanding, this means that after the accession to the EU, Hungary should have improved its legislative and institutional systems as much as possible in order to achieve these goals; at the very least Hungary should refrain from any backward measures. It should be convincing enough for the European Commission to suspend funding to Hungary that during the last seven years the Hungarian government took a direction which is just the opposite to what it legally committed itself.

There is already widespread discontent in Hungary with the way EU money has been used. This is a further reason for applying the related provisions of EU legislation and suspending EU funding to Hungary until the necessary steps are taken by the Hungarian government to ensure the use of EU funds in accordance with the EU acquis. This is all the more necessary because such funding, in our opinion, is indispensable for the future of the European Union. We fully agree with the author of the article One of the first steps after Brexit must be the reform of the EU budget that “it is absolutely necessary to provide EU funds to the less developed member states with the goal of improving their economic well-being as well as their political stability in order to strengthen the EU as a whole and to make it more competitive globally. But EU taxpayers’ money must be used for this purpose, not against it.”

September 3, 2017

“Orbán or Europe? Choose!”

Today will be all about speeches. After a very hot summer, politics has arrived in full force. After all, it is the beginning of the 2018 election campaign. Of course, according to the electoral law, the official campaign season is very short, the last two or three months before the actual day of the election, but no one is pretending anymore. People are openly talking about the beginning of the campaign season. In fact, Fidesz has learned a lot from the United States where one campaign ends and the next begins. On the day of his inauguration President Trump filed the paperwork to be an official candidate for reelection.

Before the “unofficial” opening of the campaign season, Viktor Orbán had the unpleasant task of visiting Pécs to attend the 650th anniversary of the founding of Hungary’s first and only medieval university. The Fidesz-led city’s financial collapse and the removal of the city’s mayor from his position of authority must have been an irritant. Moreover, the enthusiasm for his visit was more than muted. About 50 elderly admirers showed up to greet him, while a bunch of university students displayed banners indicating that he was not welcome in town. Orbán entered the Kodály Center via a back entrance, to find very few young faces in the audience.

It seems that Orbán is unable to tear himself away from the topic of a decaying Europe. In this speech he went so far as to envisage its disappearance. In that case, “the students of today will live in an as yet unknown world.” But they shouldn’t worry because there will always be courageous young people in Hungary who will go against these trends and will choose the family, the community, and the nation as opposed to multiculturalism and mass culture. Predictably, the university’s King Louis the Great Prize was given to the Pécs bishopric for its role in the foundation of the university in 1367.

Today Orbán had another occasion to deliver a speech, this time at the so-called Kötcse Picnic, which is a Fidesz tradition. For the last 16 years, the party has invited hundreds of public figures, writers, actors, artists, etc., who in one way or another support the party. This group of people is called in Hungarian the “moonbow” (holdudvar) of the party. László Botka tried to gather the ever decreasing members of MSZP’s moonbow the other day in Szeged, but, as I reported earlier, few accepted. The right-wing literary and artistic elite has never been as large or as internationally well known as its liberal counterpart, and year after year the same faces appear at the picnic. Mária Schmidt, for example, is always there.

The main attraction at the picnic is Viktor Orbán’s speech. This speech is not covered by the press, and it is not published on the prime minister’s website. This is how it happened that it was only months later that the Hungarian media recognized the importance of his 2009 Kötcse speech, which outlined Orbán’s brilliant political strategy of the “central power.” In that speech he set forth his intention to rule the country in an autocratic manner.

It is unlikely that Orbán delivered anything of such gravity this year. In fact, if I understand it correctly, Orbán’s speech was on the defensive side in the sense that he is portraying the next election as a defense of the results of the last seven years. What are the most important results? According to Bertalan Havasi, the prime minister’s press secretary, they are the building of the fence on the Serbian-Hungarian border which defended the country from migrants, the protection of jobs, and the maintenance of public safety. Apparently, Orbán stressed that, according to NATO’s calculation, 60 million migrants will start their journeys to Europe from Africa between now and 2020. He apparently also spent a great deal of time on Emmanuel Macron’s Le Point interview. From the short description of the press secretary it is hard to know exactly what was in the interview that Orbán agrees with, but apparently he appreciates the French president’s “realism” in foreign affairs and “his description of the signs of a serious crisis in Europe.” The press secretary didn’t say what Orbán found objectionable in the interview.

The Fidesz picnic is held in the courtyard of a somewhat neglected country estate situated at the end of a modest football field. Ironically, at the other end of the field Ferenc Gyurcsány and his family have their country retreat, but only his wife and smallest child watched the game, which was being played while the picnic was going on. Ferenc Gyurcsány himself was not at home. He was giving a speech in Budapest in front of the Western Station. The gathering kicked off the Demokratikus Koalíció’s election campaign.

Zsolt Gréczy, the party’s spokesman, announced on August 13 that their campaign slogan will be “Orbán or Europe? Choose!” Shortly afterward, the party began a telephone campaign, asking people to indicate their preference: Orbán or Europe.

At the time of the diplomatic ruckus between Hungary and the Netherlands, László Botka was on Klub Rádió talking about the coming election as a choice between Orbán and Europe. He expressed his firm belief that Viktor Orbán, by creating an unpleasant situation over the Dutch ambassador’s interview, was actually testing how the Hungarian people would react to Hungary’s exit from the European Union. I must say that I thought that Botka overstated the importance of this incident. I was also stunned by his description of the coming election as a choice between Orbán and Europe. Obviously, the DK leadership was not at all happy with Botka’s choice of words. A few days later, in a TV interview, Attila Ara-Kovács, the DK politician in charge of foreign affairs, charged that MSZP stole DK’s campaign slogan.

For a number of weeks György Bolgár has been asking politicians and public figures in general for their thoughts on a slogan or call that would move the lethargic Hungarian electorate. I always thought that, given the overwhelming support for the European Union among Hungarian voters, there can be no better slogan than something that would bring home the possibility of a rash move by Orbán once the financial benefits of the EU come to an end. And by that time, there would be no one to stop him.

Gyurcsány had barely finished his speech when Balázs Hidvéghi, the communication director of Fidesz, retorted. Hungarians must choose, he said, “between the Soros plan or Europe, and Ferenc Gyurcsány is working on the execution of that plan. He also wants to dismantle the fence and wants to let in the migrants.” That in addition to all sorts of other sins, including the party’s endorsement of a common EU defense and common immigration policies. It is hard to fathom this Fidesz fear of a party that currently has only an 8% share of support among active voters. Maybe Gyurcsány is right and in seven months a lot can happen, but at the moment apathy rules. Momentum’s anti-Russian demonstration was a flop, and the DK gathering was small. DK’s slogan, however, is a good one. We will see whether it can move the crowd.

September 2, 2017

Are George Soros and Pope Francis part of a global conspiracy? Ask Zsolt Bayer

A few months ago Zsolt Bayer, the foul-mouthed journalist who was one of the founding members of Fidesz, publicly announced his intention to watch his language and to remain within the bounds of acceptable journalism. Well, it didn’t take long before he was back in his usual form. His latest is an incredible attack on Pope Francis, which went so far that even the editor of Magyar Kurír, the official newspaper of the Conference of Hungarian Bishops, wrote an editorial about it, which is a sharp turn from the Church’s past practice of ignoring Bayer.

The independent Hungarian media has the bad habit of forcefully reacting to every objectionable word Bayer writes or utters. Critical journalists and politicians on such occasions announce that “we thought that one cannot sink lower,” after which they sadly note that “one obviously can.” It seems that even journalists’ memories are short because there is absolutely nothing new in Bayer’s preoccupation with and denigration of Pope Francis. He has been preoccupied with the pope for at least two years.

Before we condemn, as we should, Bayer for his intemperate attack on the pope, we must keep in mind that the leaders of the Hungarian Catholic Church share some of Bayer’s views. Of course, they don’t call the pope “an ass” because he calls on European Christians to support the refugees, but they share Bayer’s belief that Francis, by virtue of coming from Argentina, is unfit to handle the European crisis and that he is naïve in the extreme. Some of the more outspoken right-wing bishops like Gyula Márfi, archbishop of Veszprém, and László Kiss-Rigó, bishop of Szeged-Csanád, spoke quite openly about the pope’s ignorance of European reality.

The first example of Bayer’s writings on Pope Francis is from June 2015, in which we already find the kernels of his fully developed opinion on the pope–that his ideas were shaped by the fact that he was the son of “migrants,” his family was poor, and he is from “far-away Argentina.” Europeans wait in vain for Pope Francis to come to their rescue in these hard times; he ignores them and moves on to “the army of ferocious, screaming, murderous strangers.”

A couple of months later he went further and called Francis “either a senile old fool who is totally unsuitable to be the pope or a scoundrel.” When the leader of the Christian Democratic Party’s parliamentary delegation was asked to comment on Bayer’s description of Pope Francis as “a senile old fool,” he pretty much stood by Bayer, pointing out that the pope’s solidarity with the downtrodden is stronger than his feeling of responsibility for the safety of Europeans. Zoltán Balog in an interview brushed aside Bayer’s choice of words by saying that after all Zsolt Bayer is a Lutheran, and “one should read what Martin Luther had to say about the pope. In comparison [Bayer’s] words are outright tame.”

A few months later, at the end of 2015, he wrote his most comprehensive assessment of Francis and his unfitness for his job. It is not enough that he favors the migrants because his own family were immigrants and that he doesn’t understand Europe because he came from another continent. He is also an enemy of nations and thus must be a foe of Orbán’s Hungary. How do we know that? Francis abolished the papal “tradition” of incanting Easter and Christmas greetings in 60-odd languages after delivering the Urbi et Orbi Message. Bayer describes the moving scenes of people raising their national flags on St. Peter’s Square after they heard the greeting in their own language. This pope is like the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, who turned his countries upside-down because of his mad, zealous reforms. As a result, he almost ruined his empire. “Today’s pope is not a believer in the ancient traditions of the Catholic Church.” He is moving away from what he considers to be antiquated and old-fashioned and is establishing new traditions alien to the Catholic Church. But he should have noticed that the reformation of the church is normally demanded by non-Catholics. By removing the multilingual greetings, the pope “removed the nation, the homeland, and the national language from the stage of the world.” In fact, “Francis is working on the creation of a United States of Europe instead of a Europe of nations.” Indeed, George Soros, Pope Francis, and Ferenc Gyurcsány, the only Hungarian politician who dares to suggest such a heresy, are comrades-in-arms.

This is an imaginative theory that has little to do with reality. There are at least two problems with Bayer’s argument. The first is that this “ancient” tradition is only 50 years old. Pope Paul VI introduced it in 1965 when the decision was made to conduct mass in the local tongue instead of Latin. The second problem is that if Pope Francis is such a universalist, why did he decide only recently to abandon Latin as the official language of the synod of bishops? Yes, from here on the language of the synod will be Italian, the lingua franca of the Vatican. That doesn’t mesh with Bayer’s ideas on Francis’s alleged hatred of nation states and national cultures.

And now comes the latest upheaval over Bayer and Pope Francis. This time it was an interview with Bayer at a local television station in the town of Miskolc that caused the Hungarian non-governmental media outlets to raise their voices against the extremist Fidesz journalist. During the interview he repeated his earlier objections. The pope has a non-European past, when it would be of the utmost importance to have a European pope who represents “European interests.” In his opinion, the pope is no different from the politicians of the European Union because he goes against the will and goals of European citizens. “Do not imagine that what [the pope] says is divine revelation. It is only stupid, moronic political opinion,” Bayer said.

It looks as if Bayer’s notions about the pope have evolved over time because by now he is convinced that “it is no accident that a non-European man became the pope.” I guess it was part of an international conspiracy. Knowing something about how these guys’ minds work, I can easily conjure up a scenario by which George Soros and other Jewish financiers with business designs on a Europe with a mixed population conspire with the top hierarchy of the Catholic Church to pick a man who would serve their interests. One could call this, as does Christopher Adam of Hungarian Free Press, typical double talk, but since Bayer a couple of days after the interview insisted that he had listened again to the interview and would not take a word back from it, I think he actually believes this foolish idea which, let’s face it, is not very far from the thinking of the top Fidesz leadership, including that of Viktor Orbán. I would like to remind everyone that Orbán, especially during 2015, kept repeating that the move of so many refugees at once “cannot be a coincidence.” And if it is not a coincidence, then it is the result of design. But design on the part of whom?

I guess by now it is clear to readers that I see no serious differences between the thinking of the mainstream Fidesz and Catholic leaderships and the ideas of Zsolt Bayer, expressed in crude prose. The message is more or less the same. I suspect that the reason for Viktor Orbán’s lenient attitude toward Bayer’s “artistic endeavors” is his satisfaction with his old friend’s way of expressing his and his government’s position in down-to-earth, direct language that can reach audiences on the far right. Two years ago I reported on a far-right journalist who claimed that Pope Francis is not a bad man, just not a European and not a Catholic. He is not only manipulated by Jews but is a Jew himself, a son of Jewish refugees from Italy. It is these people Bayer is supposed to reach, most likely with Orbán’s blessing.

Admittedly, this kind of talk comes only from what I call the lunatic fringe, but even Magyar Idők and subsequently Válasz in August 2016 reported the discovery that in countries with a sizable Catholic population George Soros targets the Catholic church with the goal of influencing public opinion on issues he cares about.  He spent a great deal of money, for instance, to convince Catholic priests in the United States to emphasize issues that would help the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. When the right-wing internet site Flag Polgári Magazin republished the article, its title was changed to “Shocking! A leaked e-mail reveals why Pope Francis supports migration at any cost.”

Linking George Soros and Pope Francis is perhaps the quintessential conspiracy theory. Zsolt Bayer is helping the far right develop its conspiratorial imagination.

July 24, 2017

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