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.
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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?
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.
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.