Tag Archives: Frank Engel

Situation report on the fight for Central European University

Yesterday Diana Ürge-Vorsatz, director of the Center for Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Policy at Central European University who as a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, wrote a bitter letter on her Facebook page. She said that she and her husband left the United States in 2001 at considerable financial sacrifice in order for her to return to Hungary and join the faculty of CEU as an associate professor. It was a dream come true until April 4, 2017. As of that date, she finds herself part of an institution that “meddles in the internal affairs of Hungary and represents foreign interests.” What she finds most disappointing is that “colleagues, friends, and family don’t stand by her wholeheartedly.” They keep saying “the laws must be observed, and their glances indicate disapproval. Or, ‘I’m sorry; I don’t dare because I may be blacklisted.’”

Honest words, an honest description of what’s going on in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, but one must ask: Dear Diana, how is it possible that you haven’t noticed that something is very wrong with the party you dutifully voted for every four years? How is it that you as a proud Christian who gave birth to seven children and who, as you feel necessary to mention, “all attend parochial schools,” haven’t realized that this government’s alleged Christianity is hollow? Is it only now, when your own job is at stake, that you discover that something is wrong with the government you helped keep in power? Her statement ends with a whimper: “I am grateful for the support of those who dared to speak, dared to demonstrate, dared to share. Many of them are government-honoring [kormánytisztelő] Christian citizens, who for the first time said that this shouldn’t have been done.”

Fortunately most members of CEU’s administration, beginning with its president, Michael Ignatieff, are determined to fight and win. The contrast between the timid Hungarian academics and the international administration and faculty of CEU couldn’t be greater. Although President Ignatieff and Provost Liviu Matei have emphasized the support they have received from Hungarian colleagues and other Hungarian institutions of higher learning, the truth is that few have stood by CEU. Most of them have been quiet, but there was one “chancellor”—a newly appointed government watchdog over and above the university president and the senate—who outright welcomed the move of the government against CEU. The chancellor of the University of Debrecen pointed out that other Hungarian universities are at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting foreign students because of CEU’s ability to grant American degrees. The administration of Corvinus University was not exactly supportive either. President András Lánczi, the man who got the job as president of the university at the express wish of Viktor Orbán, also stressed the need for “a level legal playing field” for all Hungarian universities. It is true that 250 students and members of Corvinus University’s faculty published a supporting statement, but András Lánczi immediately fired off an e-mail reminding them of the university’s “ethical code,” which obliges members of the university community to maintain the good name of the university in their communications with the world.

Meanwhile the government is doing its best to mislead and intimidate. Two days ago an incredible number of policemen surrounded the parliament building on the occasion of the second demonstration in support of CEU. What was most disturbing was that in front of the row of policemen were apparent civilian strongmen who, as a video shows, provoked some members of the crowd. As it turned out, they were plainclothes policemen. While the uniformed police stood by motionless, these characters were belligerent. Almost as if they wanted to create a reason to arrest a few of the demonstrators. After a while they were recalled by a man in civilian clothes standing behind the police lines.

Last night two organizers of the demonstrations, a Hungarian and a foreigner, received unexpected visits from the police. Government papers want the public to believe that the demonstrators were almost exclusively foreigners. Magyar Hírlap­ reported that the government, as a result of the protest against the treatment of CEU, will be able to uncover the whole Soros network, which engages in such activities as “destabilization efforts by CEU graduates in states along the migration route, for example in Macedonia and Albania.”

The “parrot commando” keeps repeating the same false accusations against CEU, which they persist in calling Soros University. Until recently, László Palkovics, who is in charge of higher education, was given the task of explaining how eminently rational the Hungarian government’s position on CEU is. He steadfastly refused to admit that the amendments’ real purpose was to drive CEU out of the country. On the other hand, his boss, Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, at last told the truth in a radio interview. “There is no need to beat around the bush. There is no need to hide. We ought to say straight out that we don’t want Central European University to function in its present form.” He added that if the United States and CEU want to continue in the present legal framework, “they have to invest.” That is, build a brand new campus in the United States.

The outcome envisaged by Balog is unlikely to materialize. President Michael Ignatieff is in the United States at present and, according to the latest news, has already conferred with Thomas A. Shannon, undersecretary of state for political affairs in the State Department, and Hoyt Brian Yee, deputy assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. (Ignatieff was certainly more successful at the State Department than Hungary’s foreign minister, who visited Washington about two weeks ago and couldn’t meet with anyone at the Foggy Bottom.) He also talked with Fiona Hill, a member of the White House’s National Security Council who advises the president on European and Russian affairs. Next, Ignatieff is off to Berlin and, I trust, to Brussels as well. Angela Merkel’s spokesman already articulated the German government’s position on the matter.

Meeting with Thomas A. Shannon, undersecretary for political affairs

The European Parliament is also responding. Five of the eight political formations have condemned the Hungarian government’s attack on CEU. Even within the caucus of the European People’s Party (EPP), to which the 12-member Fidesz delegation belongs, a storm is brewing. It was the leader of the Fidesz group, József Szájer, who provoked the storm by writing an e-mail to the other members of the EPP caucus in which the Fidesz members contended that critics of the law have been “gravely mislead (sic) by the propaganda and private agenda of the American billionaire Soros” and are fighting with a “virtual reality.” They added that “as in the world of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, there are the equals and there are some more equals (sic) than others.” This e-mail apparently prompted an angry reaction. EPP’s leader, Manfred Weber, tweeted that “Freedom of thinking, research and speech are essential for our European identity. EPP group will defend this at any cost.” Frank Engel, a member of the EPP from Luxembourg, was less polite. He replied in an e-mail: “Forget the crap. We know what is happening, and why. Why don’t you leave both the EPP and the EU on your own terms? … You’re practically and factually out anyway. So go. Please go.”

Time and again the European People’s Party caucus has saved Viktor Orbán’s skin in Brussels. It has been reluctant to expel its Fidesz members, who really don’t belong in this group. The Fidesz delegation would feel much more at home in the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists of Europe, joining their Polish and euroskeptic British friends. But the EPP doesn’t want to lose 12 members from its caucus. Although it is the largest in the European Parliament, its lead is not overwhelming. Still, even without Fidesz it would remain the largest caucus, with 205 members. The Socialists and Democrats have 189 members. To shield a dictatorial regime for the sake of a few votes is too high a price to pay.

April 6, 2017

Hungarian nationals’ attacks on the LIBE draft report of Rui Tavares

Let’s hope that I will be able to tear you away from the historical discussion that has developed after my short note on the Hungarian situation in 1918-1919 and move on to the present.

I would like to turn to the draft report of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) on Hungary. It is a 30-page document that shows a thorough understanding of every aspect of Hungarian politics, relating specifically to constitutional issues, and recommends tough sanctions. But it is only a draft proposal to which amendments can be attached. The members of LIBE–fairly equally divided between the right and the left–will have to vote on the amendments one by one.

The proposed amendments were made public the other day: a total of 551 amendments taking up 134 pages. That is 134 pages of amendments to a 30-page document.  About two weeks ago I read somewhere that the Fidesz delegation itself submitted 200 amendments. The members of the Fidesz delegation were assisted by two other Hungarian members of the European People’s Party, Edit Bauer of Slovakia and Csaba Sógor of Romania. These two were almost as busy as Kinga Gál (Fidesz), who submitted at least 75 amendments. Another Fidesz MEP, Lívia Járóka, an ethnic Roma, was also active. László Surján and Ildikó Gáll-Pelcz also submitted minor amendments. I find it interesting that Hungarian nationals like Bauer or Sógor who don’t live in Hungary are so heavily involved with Hungarian domestic policies. I might add that Kinga Gál was born in Cluj/Kolozsvár, Romania.

The two most active EPP members, Kinga Gál and Edit Bauer / www.maszol.ro

The two most active EPP members, Kinga Gál and Edit Bauer / www.maszol.ro

The Hungarian group was greatly aided by Frank Engel, EPP MEP from Luxembourg, who at times was just as radical in his opposition to certain recommendations as were the Hungarian defenders of the Orbán government. Jean-Pierre Audy (France EPP) was also fairly active.

On the other side (the greens, the left front, the socialists, and the liberals) few people seemed to find fault with the draft document. Their amendments were minor and often aimed at clarifying or strengthening Tavares’s arguments. If the committee follows the suggestions of the Gál-Bauer-Sógor-Engel group, however, not much would remain of the original recommendations.

Here are a few examples. Frank Engel would delete recommendation 58 of the Tavares report, which reads:

Considers that the European Council cannot remain inactive in cases where one of the Member States is faced with changes that may negatively affect the rule of law in that country and therefore the rule of law in the European Union at large, in particular when mutual trust in the legal system and judicial cooperation may be put at risk.

Edit Bauer is perhaps the most radical because she would eliminate almost all the recommendations to the Hungarian Authorities. Here is one of the key sets of recommendations (section 61) of the LIBE draft report that the Fidesz supporters find especially odious. It’s long but nonetheless worth quoting in full.

Urges the Hungarian authorities to implement the following recommendations without any further delay, with a view to fully restoring the rule of law and its key requirements on the constitutional setting, the system of checks and balances and the independence of the  judiciary, as well as strong safeguards for fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, media and religion and the right to property:

On the Fundamental Law:

–        to fully restore the supremacy of the Fundamental Law by removing from it those provisions previously declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court;

–        to fully apply the recommendations of the Venice Commission and, in particular, to revise the list of policy areas requiring a qualified majority in line with the recommendations of the Venice Commission and with a view to ensuring future meaningful  elections;

–        to secure a lively parliamentary system which also respects opposition forces by allowing a reasonable time for a genuine debate between the majority and the opposition and for the participation of the wider public in the legislative procedure;

 On checks and balances:

–        to restore the right of the Constitutional Court to review all legislation without exception with a view to counterbalancing parliamentary and executive actions and ensuring, through full judicial review, that the Fundamental Law always remains the supreme law of the land;

–        to fully restore the prerogatives of the Constitutional Court as the supreme body of constitutional protection, and thus the primacy of the Fundamental Law, by removing from its text the limitations on the Constitutional Court’s power to review the constitutionality of any modifications of the Fundamental Law as well as the abolition of two decades of constitutional case-law;

 –        to restore the case-law of the Constitutional Court issued before the entry into force of the Fundamental Law, in particular in the field of fundamental rights;

–        to restore the prerogatives of the parliament in the budgetary field and thus secure the full democratic legitimacy of budgetary decisions by removing the restriction of parliamentary powers by the non-parliamentary Budget Council;

–        to provide clarifications on how the Hungarian authorities intend to remedy the premature termination of the term of office of senior officials with a view to securing the institutional independence of the data protection authority;

On the independence of the judiciary:

–        to fully restore and guarantee the independence of the judiciary by ensuring that the principles of irremovability and guaranteed term of office of judges, the rules governing the structure and composition of the governing bodies of the judiciary, as well as the safeguards on the independence of the Constitutional Court, are enshrined in the Fundamental Law;

–        to promptly and correctly implement the above-mentioned decisions of the Court of Justice of the European Union of 6 November 2012 and of the Hungarian Constitutional Court, by enabling the dismissed judges who so wish to be reinstated in their previous positions, including those presiding judges whose original executive posts are no longer vacant;

–        to establish objective selection criteria, or to mandate the National Judicial Council to establish such criteria, with a view to ensuring that the rules on the transfer of cases respect the right to a fair trial and the principle of a lawful judge;

–        to implement the remaining recommendations laid down in the Venice Commission’s opinion No CDL-AD(2012)020 on the cardinal acts on the judiciary that were amended following the adoption of Opinion CDL-AD(2012)001;

On the media and pluralism:

–        to fulfil the commitment to further discuss cooperation activities at expert level on the more long-term perspective of the freedom of the media, building on the most important remaining recommendations of the 2012 legal expertise of the Council of Europe;

–        to ensure timely and close involvement of all relevant stakeholders, including media professionals, opposition parties and civil society, in any further review of this legislation, which regulates such a fundamental aspect of the functioning of a democratic society, and in the process of implementation;

–        to observe the positive obligation arising from European Court of Human Rights jurisprudence under Article 10 ECHR to protect freedom of expression as one of the preconditions for a functioning democracy;

–        to respect, guarantee, protect and promote the fundamental right to freedom of expression and information, as well as media freedom and pluralism, and to refrain from developing or supporting mechanisms that threaten media freedom and journalistic and editorial independence;

–        to make sure that legally binding procedures and mechanisms are in place for the selection and appointment of heads of public media, management boards, media councils and regulatory bodies, in line with the principles of independence, integrity, experience and professionalism, representation of the entire political and social spectrum, legal certainty and continuity;

–        to provide legal guarantees regarding full protection of the confidentiality of sources principle and to strictly apply European Court of Human Rights-related case-law;

–        to ensure that rules relating to political information throughout the audiovisual media sector guarantee fair access to different political competitors, opinions and viewpoints, in particular on the occasion of elections and referendums, allowing citizens to form their own opinions without undue influence from one dominant opinion-forming power;

On respect for fundamental rights:

–        to take positive action to ensure that the fundamental rights of all persons, including persons belonging to minorities, are respected;

On the freedom of religion and the recognition of churches:

–        to establish clear, neutral and impartial requirements and institutional procedures for the recognition of religious organisations as churches which respect the duty of the State to remain neutral and impartial in its relations with the various religions and beliefs and to provide effective means of redress in cases of non-recognition or lack of a decision in line with the constitutional requirements set out in the above-mentioned Decision 6/2013 of the Constitutional Court;

Very often Edit Bauer, Frank Engel, Csaba Sógor, and Kinga Gál want to delete exactly the same passages from the draft report. Since I suspect that these four worked together, the repetitions are not the results of an oversight. Rather they most likely want to emphasize four times over how unacceptable these recommendations are. Engel, for example, wants to get rid of  “to restore the right of the Constitutional Court to review all legislation without exception with a view to counterbalancing parliamentary and executive actions and ensuring, through full judicial review, that the Fundamental Law always remains the supreme law of the land.” He also wants to get rid of the passage “to restore the case-law of the Constitutional Court issued before the entry into force of the Fundamental Law, in particular in the field of fundamental rights.”  Edith Bauer wants to remove the passage “to implement the remaining recommendations laid down in the Venice Commission’s opinion … on the cardinal acts on the judiciary that were amended following the adoption of Opinion CDL-AD(2012)001.”

These amendments will be discussed in the LIBE Committee on Thursday, after which Tavares will try to come up with a compromise text. Then, most likely on the 19th, the members of the committee will vote. The revised report will come before the plenary session of the full European Parliament, probably in July.

How did the Hungarian government fare in the European Parliament today?

Today I would like to concentrate on two topics: Fidesz’s relation to the European People’s Party, an umbrella organization of right of center parties in Europe, and the Orbán government’s current situation within the European Union. Let me state at the very beginning that I’m more upbeat about today’s hour-long discussion in the European Parliament on the Hungarian situation than some of the people who commented right after the event on Hungarian Spectrum. Let me also add that I consider  Fidesz’s status within “the family” of the European People’s Party less secure than most people are inclined to believe.

Let’s start with the parliamentary debate. György Schöpflin, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament, predicted a couple of days ago that this debate would be “a third-rate affair” and therefore it was wise of Viktor Orbán not to do attend the session. Subsequently we learned that no invitation was extended to either Orbán or any member of his government. Enikő Győry, undersecretary in charge of European affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was present in observer status only.

Schöpflin seemed to know that neither the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, nor any of the leaders of the parliamentary caucuses would be present. Well, Schöpflin was wrong. Martin Schulz  presided over the session, and for the most part the heads of the parliamentary delegations were present and delivered speeches. The notable exception was Joseph Daul of EPP, who only a year ago fiercely defended Viktor Orbán during the last grilling of the Hungarian government in the European Parliament. In his place Frank Engel, a member of  the EPP caucus, spoke; his defense of the Orbán government was muted. He basically asked his fellow parliamentarians to delay their judgment until the legal analysis of the Hungarian constitution is completed by the European Commission.

Viviane Redings delivering her speech in the European Parliament  MTI  / Photo Patrick Seeger

Viviane Redings delivering her speech in the European Parliament
MTI / Photo Patrick Seeger

Viviane Reding gave a brief talk in which she outlined the European Commission’s position on the issue of Hungarian compliance with EU law. At the very beginning she made it clear that she represents President Barroso and the opinion of the European Commission. She emphasized that the Commission has been closely monitoring developments related to the Hungarian Constitution ever since 2011. The Commission “has played a very active role as guardian of the Treaties” and “is currently conducting a detailed legal analysis of the amendments.”

But, continued Reding, the Hungarian constitution, quite aside from not being compatible with European laws, has serious flaws as far as the rule of law in general is concerned. And then she added:  ” Hungary will also need to take due account of the opinion that the Council of Europe/Venice Commission will deliver in June, in full accordance with both European Union and Council of Europe principles, rules and values. The Commission expects a responsible answer from Hungary to this opinion.” In addition, there is the work of Rui Tavares (Portugal), an independent member of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) of the European Parliament who has been preparing a resolution “on the situation of Fundamental Rights in Hungary: standards and practices.” (I might add here that Frank Engel, who delivered the EPP’s message on the Hungarian situation today, is also a member of  LIBE and, like Reding, a Luxembourgian.) Reding said that “the Commission expects the Hungarian authorities to engage in a political dialogue with this House.”

So, this is just the beginning. As things stand now, the legal experts of the European Commission are studying the Hungarian constitution and its amendments, as is the Venice Commission. And the LIBE resolution will be ready by early summer. So, it looks as if by June there will be a concerted effort on the part of organizations of the European Union and the Council of Europe to take up the issue of Hungarian non-compliance with European law and the Orbán government’s transgression of democratic principles and the rule of law in general.

The criticism from the socialists, the liberals, and the greens was naturally hard-hitting, but the general consensus was that ¶7, which could deprive Hungary of its voting rights, shouldn’t be the first step. Lucia Creighton of Ireland, the country currently serving as president of the Union, emphasized that Ireland supports the point of view of the Commission. Moreover, she thought that it might be worthwhile to discuss a possible “new mechanism” that would be entrusted with the enforcement of union law in member states. She suggested putting the topic on the agenda of the meeting of the foreign ministers next Monday.

All in all, I’m satisfied with the results. Since the final analyses of the Commission, the Venice Commission, and LIBE were not ready, nothing more could have been done.

The other topic I would like to cover, however briefly, is Fidesz’s position vis-à-vis the European People’s Party. The Romanian Hungarian-language paper isn’t backing down on its story of a discussion between Joseph Daul and Viviane Reding about the possible removal of Fidesz from the EPP caucus. First, the spokesman of the EPP caucus denied the “rumor,” but a day later Joseph Daul himself wrote a letter to the Új Magyar Szó. He claimed that the “articles in question are both distorted and without foundation.” I would suggest that it would have been wiser to say that they were either distorted or without foundation, not both. And if one wants to deny that the topic of the conversation was Fidesz, one doesn’t claim that “the main topic of the conversation was Croatia and not Hungary” because that doesn’t preclude the possibility that Hungary was discussed. In brief, it looks more and more as if Daul did initiate a talk with Reding in Dubrovnik and that the fate of Fidesz was discussed there. The spokeswoman of Redding didn’t deny the existence of a  private conversation between the two politicians. She only said to Magyar Nemzet that she is not at liberty to reveal the contents of the conversation.

There are signs that Orbán’s appearance before the EPP caucus wasn’t as jolly as Viktor Orbán tried to make out. In his usual fashion he cast it as a huge victory. He claimed that “it was good to be Hungarian tonight.” It turned out, however, that after a fifteen-minute talk he received about twenty questions. Apparently, most of the questions came from German and Polish members of the delegation, which leads me to believe that Új Magyar Szó’s information that it was the Polish delegation that informed EPP about Fidesz’s exploratory talks with another caucus was most likely correct.

As for the exploratory talks, the EPP members of parliament asked Orbán about this rumor, but he refused to answer it directly. Instead, his answer was formulated as a question: “EPP is the best place, so why should [I] leave it?” And the 50-50 split within the EPP caucus also seems to be on target. Even József Szájer admitted that “not everybody supports Hungary” in the body. According to an EPP member, earlier there was a fairly large group of people within the caucus who tried to mediate between supporters and critics of Viktor Orbán. By now the EPP is much more divided on the issue. You are either for or against Orbán and his government. There is no longer a middle ground. I predict that EPP will not vote en bloc against whatever resolution the European Parliament adopts later this year.