Tag Archives: Ferenc Deák

Conservative economists on Hungary’s prospects

It was exactly a year ago that I wrote about the “József Eötvös Group,” organized by a number of conservative economists and legal scholars. In the choice of its name, the group honors József Eötvös (1813-1871), who was minister of education in 1848 and again between 1867 and 1871. Eötvös, along with Ferenc Deák and István Széchenyi, is one of the few admirable nineteenth-century Hungarian politicians whose moderating influence was eventually overshadowed by nationalist politicians with little wisdom.

Eötvös was a writer of some renown who joined the turbulent political life of the 1840s. One of his political aims was the reform of the inhuman conditions of Hungarian prisons. He also worked on the theoretical foundations of a future Hungarian parliamentary system and made sure that it became part of the program of the opposition. He served briefly as minister of education in the Batthyány government (March-October 1848). When, after the Compromise of 1867, he became minister of education again, he was at last able to put his ideas into practice. In the first few months parliament passed his bill for the emancipation of the Jews. A short while later, he completed a reform of the Hungarian school system. Finally, the Nationality Law of 1868 became the law of the land, which was a liberal document at the time.

Robert A. Kann in his monumental book A History of the Habsburg Empire, 1526-1918, called Eötvös an enlightened man and added that “had Eötvös’s and Deák’s spirit prevailed, the Hungarian treatment of national groups might not have been inferior to that administered by the Austrian authorities.” Today we would call him a liberal conservative. He is a perfect fit for those liberal-conservative intellectuals who want to offer an alternative to Viktor Orbán’s populism. Interestingly, liberal members of MSZP turned to Ferenc Deák as their idol and established the Ferenc Deák Circle. The two groups are not that far apart ideologically.

The Eötvös Group holds regular open meetings on defined topics. A year ago, when I reported on one of the group’s meetings, the theme was the nature of Viktor Orbán’s system. The key speaker was András Körösényi, a political scientist, who described Fidesz’s world as a political system based on Viktor Orbán’s “oligarchic interests.” It doesn’t really matter where Orbán’s critics come from: their ideas are quite similar. For instance, the liberal Bálint Magyar describes the same phenomenon as a mafia state.

Source: index.hu

This time the topic was the sorry state of the Hungarian economy. While the government is in the midst of a campaign to sell the idea that the economy is booming, the two economists who delivered lectures at the meeting, Tamás Mellár and László Csaba, painted a different, quite grim picture.

It is perhaps telling that while a year ago only a handful of people were interested in the group’s lectures and discussions, this time the place was packed. In fact, extra chairs had to be added, and even then some people had to stand.

Tamás Mellár told his audience that ever since the 1970s for every 1% in economic growth 2.5% of funding has been needed. Thus, between 2001 and 2010, a 17% economic growth required 34% in additional funding. The situation became worse between 2010 and 2015 when, to achieve 10% economic growth, the country needed 35% in additional resources. Most of this came from the European Union, but some of the money came from the nationalization of the private pension plans, loans, and depletion of some of the foreign currency reserves of the Hungarian National Bank. That cannot go on, Mellár declared.

What does Mellár suggest after the removal of the Orbán government? As far as economic measures are concerned, a new government will have to abolish the flat tax introduced by the Orbán government and replace it with a progressive income tax. He would also introduce a wealth or equity tax on the total value of personal assets over a certain limit, which would be one possible way of recapturing some of the public wealth stolen by Orbán’s oligarchs. Instead of forced industrialization, the government should pay attention to new technologies, new business solutions, education, and research. But in order to see any change, Hungarians must break out of the apathy that currently exists in the country. “Now there is no Russian pressure anymore. This time we ourselves caused all this trouble, and we must be the ones who get us out of it.”

Although the government’s predictions for next year are optimistic, László Csaba sees little hope for the expected great economic growth. Interest rates in the United States will most likely rise, and who knows what Donald Trump will be up to. Meanwhile, there is the refugee crisis, populism, low economic growth in Europe, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, slowing emerging markets, and unpredictable oil prices. One cannot count on European Union subsidies forever. Hungary must rely on itself.

He is convinced that “without comprehensive reform of the education system there is no hope.” The government should leave higher education alone. Instead of constantly reorganizing colleges and universities, the government should concentrate on kindergartens and elementary schools because these are the crucial years where students’ futures are decided. As far as the government’s economic predictions promising high growth are concerned, “they are completely unfounded.” Hungarian GDP at the moment, calculated in U.S. dollars, still hasn’t reached its 2008 level. This is worrisome even if it includes the fact that the forint is now weaker against the dollar. “We don’t have enough capital, we don’t have enough manpower, we spend too little on research and development, and the external environment is not favorable. In fact, the only increase we can expect is an increase in debt.” As for the government propaganda regarding recent tax reductions, it is a sham because for each tax cut there are many new increases elsewhere. “There is a feeling of hopelessness in the country.” He concluded his talk with a Seneca quotation: “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.”

Still, there are some hopeful signs. The Momentum Movement’s introductory meeting was filled with interested people. The young organizers urged the audience to ask them questions about their political plans. On the very first day the activists gathered 10,000 signatures of the mandatory 138,000 and by now they reached almost 40,000. People have been standing in line to add their names to the list. The government seems to be taken aback; they didn’t expect such an enthusiastic reception to an anti-Olympics drive. Therefore, attacks on the group began in earnest in the many government-financed newspapers and internet news sites. Since the topic of the Eötvös Group’s next gathering will be “Do we need an Olympics?” pestisrácok naturally discovered a close connection between the learned economists and the young political hopefuls, which apparently does exist. All in all, one can see some early signs of a societal awakening.

January 22, 2017

Viktor Orbán’s first day in Brussels without his British prop

Today, after a meeting of the European Council sans David Cameron, several European leaders gave press conferences, starting with President Jean-Claude Juncker. From his brief summary of the meeting, we learned that there had been unanimity on two important issues.

First, there will be no internal à la carte market. “Those who have access have to implement all four freedoms without exceptions and nuances”: the free movement of goods, the free movement of services and freedom of establishment, the free movement of persons (and citizenship), including free movement of workers, and the free movement of capital.

The second point was that while the European Union does need reforms, they can be neither additional nor contrary to what has already been decided. What he has in mind is the strategic agenda of the European Council and the ten priorities the European Commission declared earlier. Here I will mention only four of these priorities that are not at all to the liking of the Visegrád 4 or countries that sympathize with the group: (1) a deeper and fairer internal market, (2) a deeper and fairer economic and monetary union, (3) an energy union, and (4) a common European agenda on migration. From the Hungarian point of view, perhaps the most significant announcement by Juncker was that “it is about speeding up reforms, not about adding reforms to already existing reforms.”

Viktor Orbán also gave an “international press conference,” as the Hungarian media reported the event. Normally, after an ordinary summit, there are only a couple of Hungarian media outlets that are interested in Orbán’s reactions, but this time the prime minister’s press conference was conducted in English and with a larger group of journalists.

The Associated Press’s short summary concentrated on “personnel changes,” which without additional background information didn’t make much sense. In order to have a better understanding of what Orbán was talking about, we must interpret his words in light of Jarosław Kaczyński’s demand for the resignation of Jean-Claude Juncker and other EU officials a few days ago. Orbán, who talks so much about the unity of the Visegrád 4 countries, doesn’t seem to be ready to support the Polish leader’s attack on Juncker and the Commission, at least at this time. The Hungarian prime minister thinks that “time, analysis, thought and proposals are needed” before such changes are discussed. In his opinion, “it would be cheap and not at all gallant in these circumstances to suddenly attack any leader of the Commission or any EU institution.” In addition, Orbán doesn’t stand by Kaczyński on at least two other issues. Kaczyński severely criticized Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, while Orbán praised him. Orbán also rejected, for the time being, the Polish politician’s call for a rewriting of the EU constitution.

Viktor Orbán at his press conference / AP Photo

Viktor Orbán at his press conference / AP Photo

Hungarian summaries of the same press conference are naturally a great deal more detailed and therefore more enlightening when it comes to an analysis of Viktor Orbán’s current thinking on the situation in which he finds himself. Here I will concentrate on two of Orbán’s priorities.

The first is his hope that future negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom will be conducted not by the European Commission but by the European Council. Even if the European Parliament and the Commission were willing to agree to such an arrangement, which I very much doubt, the complexity of these negotiations precludes such an arrangement.

Orbán’s second priority is the introduction of an entirely new set of what he calls “reforms.” He, as opposed to most European politicians, has a different notion of what constitutes “reform.” Instead of the European agenda that aims at deepening integration, he would like to see a loosening of ties among member states. During the press conference, Orbán repeated several times a Hungarian saying, allegedly first uttered by Ferenc Deák, the architect of the 1867 Compromise with the Crown who was famous for his figures of speech. Deák, after the 1848-1849 revolution, likened the absolutist administration to a hussar’s dolman which was buttoned incorrectly and which could be fixed only if the hussar unbuttoned all the buttons and started anew. In plain language, the whole structure of the European Union is wrong and it is time to undo everything and begin again from scratch. But, as we learned from Juncker, this is not what the majority of the European Council has in mind. In sum, I don’t believe that either of Orbán’s two important goals has the slightest chance of being accepted.

There is one issue, however, on which he fully supports Juncker’s position. As far as he is concerned, there can be no question of Great Britain limiting the immigration of citizens of the European Union. In his opinion, the East European countries went beyond what would have been a reasonable compromise when in February they accepted Cameron’s very tough demands on European citizens working in the United Kingdom. But now there can be no concession on this issue. If Great Britain wants to enjoy certain trading privileges with the European Union, its government must allow EU citizens to live and work there.

Restricting immigration from Europe, especially from its eastern part, has been a topic of long-standing political debate in the United Kingdom. Theresa May, the home secretary who has a chance of becoming David Cameron’s successor, has been talking about limitations for a number of years. Both Boris Johnson and Theresa May want to close the door on unskilled labor from Europe without Britain’s losing access to the single market. They interpret the EU’s free-movement principle as the freedom to move to a specific job rather than to cross borders to look for work. And there is no question, the pro-exit Conservatives are not talking about Middle Eastern refugees here. They decry the fact that “a third of Portugal’s qualified nurses had migrated, 20% of Czech medical graduates were leaving once qualified, and nearly 500 doctors were leaving Bulgaria every year.” The Brexit leaders could talk about Hungary as well, which saw about 500,000 people leave for Great Britain, Germany, Sweden, and other countries in the West.

Viktor Orbán did touch on immigration to the British Isles as one of the causes of the anti-European sentiment that has spread across England and Wales, but he maintained that “in British thinking migrants coming from outside of Europe and the employees arriving from the European Union are conflated, the result of which the voters felt that they didn’t get satisfactory answers from the European Union for their questions.” British Conservative politicians’ opinions on the subject, going back at least a year if not longer, leave no doubt that they were not been concerned with the refugees but with those EU citizens already in the country. The person who does conflate the two is Viktor Orbán. Last Friday he, who only a few days earlier had campaigned for David Cameron, manifested a certain glee in blaming EU’s refugee crisis for Brexit. I wonder how he will feel when one of the key sticking points in the U.K.-EU negotiations turns out to be East European immigration to Great Britain.

Meanwhile, I understand that the number of Hungarians planning to make the journey to the United Kingdom has grown enormously since the British exit vote. The hope is that anybody who arrives in Great Britain while the country is still part of the EU will be safe, but who knows what will happen later.

June 29, 2016

The opening session of the new Hungarian parliament

Today was the opening session of the new parliament. Before the session began the new MPs were treated in the “Red Room” to music by the so-called folk musician András Jánosi and his orchestra. Actually, András Jánosi’s genre is what used to be called Gypsy music; it seems to be experiencing a revival with the assistance of the Orbán government. In fact, Magyar Rádió established a separate channel devoted to Gypsy music and songs created in the manner of folk music (műdalok). The channel is named after a famous Gypsy band leader, Pista Dankó (1858-1903).

But why Gypsy music at the opening session of Parliament? According to Népszabadság, “they revived the tradition that the Gypsy band of János Bihari (1764-1827) played music for the arriving members of the Diet.” It’s too bad that historians are such sticklers for the truth, but this so-called tradition couldn’t have been exactly long-lived. Between 1811 and 1825 no Diet was convened at all; the “reform era” spanned the period between 1825 and 1848. Bihari, to repeat, died in 1827. So much for a great Hungarian tradition.

Outside the parliament building Tamás Gaudi-Nagy, a Jobbik member of the European parliament, organized a demonstration protesting the new law concerning agricultural lands. When a guest to the opening of parliament, István Pásztor, a Hungarian politician from the Voivodina, appeared, a scuffle ensued. The police stood by passively. Demonstrators, mostly women, surrounded Pásztor, calling him a traitor and a Bolshevik. Several women spat in his face. Why did Gaudi-Nagy’s group decide to attack Pásztor? According to ATV’s website, last year Gaudi-Nagy tried to “defend” the Hungarians in Serbia in the European Council, which Pásztor deemed “harmful” to the Hungarian minority. Whatever the reason, Jobbik distanced itself from Gaudi-Nagy, emphasizing that he is not a member of the party’s parliamentary caucus. Gaudi-Nagy, you may recall, is the man who a few months ago threw the flag of the European Union out of one of the bathroom windows of the parliament building.

Of course, there were also the usual opening speeches. Especially interesting was the speech of President János Áder, who drew on the writings and speeches of Ferenc Deák (1803-1876), known as the wise man of the nation because he was the architect of the Compromise of 1867. As is often the case, Áder used Deák as a springboard to make a political point. He quoted Deák saying that “we should not cast our glances at the past, but instead we must look forward to the future.” I don’t think one needs much imagination to grasp Áder’s intent. In my opinion, at least, he is telling all those people who are upset over the alleged falsification of history to leave the past alone and stop being pests.

Áder also invoked Ferenc Deák’s words about the necessity of differences of opinion in politics. “The truth gets extracted from differences of opinion,” Deák said. “I don’t mind, in fact I desire differences of opinion even in very important matters. I love all those citizens who oppose us. Let God grant us opponents and not enemies.” To hear these lofty words coming from the mouth of  János Áder was jarring. His party and the government he supports never listen to their political opponents, whom they treat as enemies.

Otherwise, according to Áder, no one can question the results of the election and the legitimacy of the electoral system. As for the new constitution, the election results also legitimized its legality.  Moreover, the results of the April 6 election in Áder’s view mean that “the Hungarian nation considers the long process of regime change final.” That is, the second Orbán government has brought to fruition what began in 1989-1990. Hungary has arrived at the pinnacle of democracy thanks to Viktor Orbán.

It seems, however, that some MPs openly and loudly disagreed with János Áder. When it came to the swearing-in ceremony, when the new members have to swear to the new constitution, the four Demokratikus Koalíció MPs, Ferenc Gyurcsány, Csaba Molnár, Lajos Oláh, and Ágnes Vadai, added the following two sentences: “I solemnly swear that I will do everything in my power for the reestablishment of the republic. I will try with all my strength to achieve the adoption of a new constitution confirmed by popular referendum.” Otherwise, Heti Válasz noted with some satisfaction that whoever was responsible for the parliamentary seating arrangement put the independent members of DK and Együtt2014-PM right behind the rather large Jobbik delegation.

Members of the Demokratikus Kolíció add their pledge to the official text of the swearing-in From left to right, Lajos Oláh, Csaba Molnár, Ferenc Gyurcsány, and Ágnes Vadai / Stop.hu

Members of the Demokratikus Kolíció at the swearing-in ceremony
Lajos Oláh, Csaba Molnár, Ferenc Gyurcsány, and Ágnes Vadai / Stop.hu

It was at this point that the new members had to vote for the deputies to the president of the House. The only interesting vote was for former skinhead Tamás Sneider (Jobbik). He received 150 yeas and 35 nays, while 5 MPs abstained. They were members of the LMP delegation. Fidesz, KDNP, and Jobbik have altogether 156 members, and therefore a number of MPs did not vote at all. Among them were Zoltán Balog, Zoltán Kovács, János Lázár, and Tibor Navracsics. On the other hand, Viktor Orbán voted for Sneider. As for the nays, they must have come from the democratic opposition parties: MSZP, DK, Együtt2014-PM, and the sole liberal member, Gábor Fodor. Péter Kiss (MSZP) and Ferenc Gyurcsány did not vote on Sneider.

In the secret ballot vote for president of the House, László Kövér received 171 yeas and 19 nays, with 3 abstentions. This is a first. In the past, votes for the president of the House were always unanimous. Fidesz and KDNP together have 133 members, and therefore 38 yea votes had to come from somewhere else. DK announced ahead of time that they, all four of them, will say no to Kövér’s nomination. If I calculate correctly, six people simply refrained from voting. Népszabadság announced the 19 nays as “Nineteen people dared to say no!”  Unfortunately it does seem to take a certain amount of courage to vote against Kövér and even greater courage to announce it publicly. He’s not the kind of guy who understands fair play and the democratic rules of politics.