I watched the full debate on Hungary in the European Parliament and took copious notes throughout, but here I will offer only some overall impressions. I found Frans Timmermans, first vice president of the European Commission, most impressive, especially since he kept his message to Viktor Orbán brief but to the point. He emphasized the difference between “opinions” and “facts,” intimating that while the Commission’s objections to the Hungarian government’s actions and policies are based on facts, Hungarian answers to their objections are not.
I can’t stress enough the duplicity of members of the Orbán government and its servile media. Every sentence they utter must be scrutinized because it usually turns out that the claims they make to bolster their arguments are unfounded. The EU commissioners have been lied to for at least seven years, if not longer. But it seems that not until this latest “national consultation” did they realize the extent of the lies. Six statements, six falsehoods. Although Frans Timmermans talked about several problems, he spent most of his time on those six statements, refuting them one by one. The false claims, along with the refutations, can be read on the European Commission’s website as well as in the Budapest Business Journal.
The European Commission naturally had several other major objections to the Orbán government’s policies–among them, discrimination against women, treatment of the Roma, the criminal code, the attack on NGOs, and of course the crude attempt at shuttering Central European University.
The answer Timmermans received from Orbán was, as usual, full of inaccurate statements. Orbán proudly pointed out how unsuccessful the European Commission and Parliament have been in enforcing their will on Hungary, starting with the Tavares Report, which he described as “an embarrassing failure.” (For those of you who no longer remember what the Tavares Report was all about, I recommend reading my post on the acceptance of the report by the European Parliament and Professor Kim Scheppele’s “In praise of the Tavares Report,” which also appeared in Hungarian Spectrum.) And if that weren’t enough, Orbán decided to make clear what he thinks of those who “warmly receive a ruthless speculator who ruined many lives and who is an open enemy of the European Union.” Otherwise, he didn’t accept any of the objections to the “Stop Brussels!” campaign or to his country’s treatment of the NGOs. He accused the EU leaders of anti-Hungarian prejudice. In brief, since he couldn’t really counter the objections, he had to rely on ad hominem attacks.
Orbán’s so-called rebuttal was followed by short speeches from the leaders of the EP parties, all of whom, with the exception of the far-right groups, were critical of Viktor Orbán and the Hungarian government. If you visit the website of Hungarian Free Press, you will find a good summary of some of these speeches. HFP’s review of the events spends some time on the comments of Esther de Lange, a Dutch Christian Democratic politician and member of the European People’s Party, who said: “I feel pain in my heart because I recall the other Fidesz, which wanted to be part of a united Europe. It is not the first time that it appears that developments in Hungary are going against European values…. Are you really the type of man who must paint an inaccurate and exaggerated picture of ‘Brussels’ as an enemy, in order to appear stronger at home?” To this I would add a comment made in a similar vein by the Austrian Ulrike Lunacek (Green Party) who recalled that this is the third time that Orbán appears before the European Parliament. Unlike before, he no longer wants any dialogue. “You must be weak because you want to scrap CEU. You must be scared of freedom and criticism. You are scared of democracy.” Finally, she noted that not even EPP members encouraged him with their applause. Only far-right groups are behind him.
Orbán’s final speech was a great deal less bellicose then his introductory remarks. In fact, I would describe it as subdued. He assured his audience that his government is ready to engage with the EU on all the issues, some of which will be settled easily. It looked as if he was truly worried about Fidesz’s possible expulsion from EPP which, given the present mood of the majority, is unlikely. He was also upset by references to his opposition to Brussels , all the while eagerly accepting EU funds. “What we receive is not a gift,” he said. Statements about his lack of democratic convictions also bothered him. Judging from his facial expression, the accusation that he is “a copy of Putin and Erdoğan” especially pained him. But it wasn’t enough to prevent him from uttering yet another lie. He tried to explain away the “illiberal” label he himself attached to his political system. His new take is that Hungary’s “illiberal democracy” is simply “a democracy led by non-liberals.” I can’t imagine anyone in the European Parliament believing that linguistic invention.
Finally, here is a tidbit that no one has yet called attention to. Zoltán Balczó of Jobbik also delivered a short speech. Although he declared his party’s opposition to Soros’s Open Society, he added that “Jobbik doesn’t accept the government’s attack on Central European University. We are waiting for the final word from the Constitutional Court.” What surprised me most was the way he closed his speech: “We are against this corrupt regime.” I never thought I would hear a Jobbik MEP utter those words.
I’m sure that in the next days and weeks the Hungarian media will be full of predictions about the outcome of this latest “war” between Orbán and the European Commission. In fact, the debate has already begun. But I would counsel against hasty calls. Orbán may not be as sure of himself and his success against Brussels as his public posturing would indicate. According to Magyar Nemzet, several Fidesz heavyweights have been cautioning him against using inflammatory rhetoric and assuming a combative attitude. Meanwhile, Népszava got hold of an e-mail sent to all the other members of the European People’s Party by the 12 Fidesz members. Their tone is in stark contrast to Orbán’s bellicosity. “We are not perfect, not all of our experiments are successful, but we are flexible and we are ready for serious discussions about the future of our country and of Europe.” They said they stand “very far from those who work for the destruction of Europe.” Finally, they wrote that they “are members of the club and accept both the benefits and the burdens” that go with membership. Their final words were: “We do make mistakes; we are not perfect; and we are ready to correct them.”
And, of course, as I said the other day, the Hungarian constitutional court may step in to lift the uncomfortable burden of the CEU law from the shoulders of the Orbán government.