Talking about Viktor Orbán’s stamina. After the grueling five-day trip to Beijing and a busy last week and weekend, today Orbán went to the city of Szeged to open the ELI Laser Center.
What is ELI? It stands for Extreme Light Infrastructure, which is a new research infrastructure of pan-European interest. It is a laser project that aims to host the most intense beamline system in the world. The ELI project will be located in four sites. One will be in Dolní Břežany, near Prague. It will focus on the development of short-pulse secondary sources of radiation and particles. ELI-ALPS (Attosecond Light Pulse Source) will be in Szeged, which will be “a unique facility which provides light sources within an extremely broad frequency range in the form of ultrashort pulses with high repetition rate.” In Măgurele, Romania, the ELI-NP (Nuclear Physics) facility will focus on laser-based nuclear physics. The fourth facility’s location is still undecided.
It was on October 1, 2009 that the EU decided to give these three former communist countries a mandate to proceed with the construction of ELI facilities. Being a pan-European project, 85% of all costs would be covered from the European Regional Development Fund. There was only one caveat: these governments didn’t receive extra resources from the European Union for these facilities. They had to use a small portion of their seven-year budget that came from the European Union. It was Gordon Bajnai’s government that signed the agreement, but the whole project, including the decision to construct the center in Szeged, began in 2006 during the second Gyurcsány government.
With this timetable in mind, let’s turn to Viktor Orbán’s speech at the ribbon cutting. First, he made sure that his audience understands that “this facility is not a gift” from the European Union. It was paid partly from the country’s own resources and partly from monies Hungary received from the European Union. And since, in his opinion, Hungary is entitled to the money it receives from the European Union, Orbán considers the money coming from Brussels to be part of the country’s own resources, which could be used in any way he wants. It was a hard decision, he said, because 70-80 billion forints for a single project is a lot. Yet “in 2011 we decided, I believe correctly, to build the largest scientific institution in Hungary’s modern history.” (The Ferenc Puskás Stadium will cost Hungarian taxpayers 200 billion forints, and the cost of the World Aquatic Games has reached 100 billion and counting.)
What happened between October 1, 2009, when the Bajnai government gave its blessing to the project, and 2012, when the Orbán government decided to build the facility? Well, one obvious event was the May 2010 national election when Viktor Orbán again became prime minister of Hungary. Without dwelling on this three-year gap, Orbán said that “today at the time of success, it is unnecessary to recall disputes at the time, but it was seriously debated whether to concentrate on one large investment or not.” The truth is that the Orbán government refused to honor the Bajnai government’s offer of 200 million euros for its construction. Shortly after the election, it withheld one billion forints promised earlier for the planning stage of the project.
Before the municipal elections in October 2010, Lajos Kósa, vice chairman of Fidesz, and the Fidesz candidate for the mayoralty in Szeged held a joint press conference during which they accused the socialist mayor, László Botka, of misleading the people of Szeged. They claimed that no money whatsoever will be coming from the European Union. But, they added, the Orbán government is all in favor of the project and is trying to find the necessary funds, which is not easy under the present financial circumstances.
Of course, all this was just a charade to mislead the people of Szeged, who were naturally keen to have this prestigious project built in their city. The government wanted to use the EU monies for something else, and behind the scenes they were trying to convince the European Union to allow them to abandon the project. As late as August 2012 there was still no decision. László Botka, in an interview at the time, expressed his fear that the project would be cancelled. “Some people are convinced that Orbán is reluctant to spend 10 billion forints on Szeged. Apparently he is thinking of spending this amount of money on Fidesz-led cities. For example, he could divide the amount among 3,000 bakers,” he said sarcastically, since apparently the government was thinking of subsidizing small- and medium-size businesses from the money.
But canceling the undertaking in Szeged would have endangered the ELI enterprise in the Czech Republic and in Romania as well. The decision in 2006 to place the ELI facilities in former Soviet-bloc countries which had joined the Union only two years earlier was a sign of trust in these countries’ ability to create and run first-rate research facilities that were important for the European Union as a whole. So, finally in December 2012—not in 2011 as Orbán claims—the government came to the conclusion that forcing through their original plan and abandoning the project would cast Hungary in a very bad light. It would prove that the former communist countries cannot, after all, be trusted with an important pan-European project of extreme scientific importance. So, they reluctantly gave their blessing.
Orbán now talks about the Laser Center as being of “tremendous value” and proudly claimed in his speech that the very existence of the ELI center is proof of Fidesz’s even-handedness. Too bad that some people have a good memory.