In the last few months of 2014, when U.S.-Hungarian relations were seriously strained as a result of the U.S. ban of seven corrupt officials, representatives of the Hungarian government tried to console themselves. In no time, they said, relations will improve due to the arrival of a new U.S. ambassador, Colleen Bell, and the long-awaited acceptance of Réka Szemerkényi as the new Hungarian ambassador to the United States. These two “charming ladies” will do miracles, they announced. And how nice that both of them have four relatively small children, a virtue in the eyes of the current Hungarian government.
The two charming ladies: Colleen Bell and Réka Szemerkényi
Szemerkényi’s predecessor, although Viktor Orbán even changed the law regarding the maximum age of ambassadors for his sake, was anything but effective. So the prime minister decided to send his trusted adviser to Washington. As Index reported at the time of her appointment, Szemerkényi was practically the alter ego of Viktor Orbán. Her presence in the United State would be as if the prime minister himself sat in the Hungarian Embassy in Washington. So, I must assume that she approves of Viktor Orbán’s policies and that, after hearing his speech a week ago, she is all fired up to defend him and the country against unfair, unwarranted criticism.
Yesterday evening Szemerkényi was introduced to the American public via PBS’s NewsHour, which I watch regularly. Thus, I could witness her performance. I must say that it was not successful, although she tried valiantly to deflect all the questions about her government’s treatment of refugees.
Viktor Orbán’s behavior is so appalling that one almost feels sorry for anyone who tries to defend the indefensible. But Szemerkényi has had a long, close association with Fidesz. Surely, if Szemerkényi is as intelligent as her admirers claim, she should have noticed that there is something very wrong with the men she has been serving for years.
I must say that she didn’t try too hard to defend the Orbán government. Instead, on the one hand, she refused to answer questions about Hungary’s opposition to the quota system and, on the other, she misrepresented the role of her government in the distribution of humanitarian aid to refugees. Since she is the representative of the Hungarian government, one would assume that when she says that “we have been providing food, shelter, medication, even schooling for the children of the migrant families entering Hungarian soil,” she is talking about the Hungarian government. But we all know that the Hungarian government provided practically nothing for the new arrivals and that whatever they got came from those admirable Hungarians who have in the last two or three months been spending their days looking after them. And in fact, these were the people she seemed to be referring to when she talked about all the good things that “we” have been doing. We the people have been generous; we the government have focused on security. The distinction between the two we’s was intentionally blurred.
The only time she actually responded to a question about the Orbán government’s refugee policy, she needed the help of a cheat sheet. Indeed, what would happen if she left out a couple of words from the prescribed text?
I’m glad that David Miliband, formerly British foreign secretary and now head of the International Rescue Committee, brought up the 200,000 Hungarian refugees who arrived in Austria within two months. This is the same number of Middle Eastern and African refugees who have passed through Hungary in a year and a half. Austria welcomed us with open arms, and the whole world came to her rescue. It is shameful that the government of the same country whose sons and daughters were so generously treated is now behaving in such a xenophobic way.
What follows is a transcript of the news segment. Here one can see the interview itself:
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GWEN IFILL: So, how much will today’s decisions [at the meeting of the EU interior ministers] in Brussels help ease the migrant crisis and the rest of Europe?
Jeffrey Brown has that.
JEFFREY BROWN: And with us is Hungary’s ambassador to the United States, Reka Szemerkenyi, and from the Greek island of Lesbos, former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, now president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee.
And, Ambassador, let me start with you.
At the meeting today in Brussels, an U.N. official spoke of a heated debate, of the majority of countries wanting to move forward, but some countries, including Hungary, I gather, still against a quota system. Why?
REKA SZEMERKENYI, Ambassador, Hungary: The quota system is one that really doesn’t help in solving the situation.
What we can see in Hungary is an unprecedented wave of migration and that is really a dramatic shock to the world country, and I think it’s a dramatic shock to the whole continent.
What we could see is also a major need of basic humanitarian needs, and what we could see from the Hungarian society — I just got back from Hungary a few days ago — is a massive wave of response for the immediate humanitarian needs of these people coming into the country.
We have been providing food, shelter, medication, even schooling for the children of the migrant families entering Hungarian soil, but, unfortunately, sympathy is not enough. We have to move beyond.
JEFFREY BROWN: But the E.U. as a whole has not moved beyond.
Let me ask David Miliband.
What was your reaction to the seeming stalemate still today?
DAVID MILIBAND, Former Foreign Secretary, United Kingdom: I think that Europe has been very late to get a grip with this crisis, and it’s vital that big and bold decisions are taken by the European Union.
After all, there are 2,000 to 3,000 people arriving every day in Lesbos, the island off of Greece that has borne about half of the refugees entering Europe. I think it’s vital that we both tackle the symptoms of this problem, which are the unprecedented surge that the ambassador speaks out, with proper humanitarian help, coordinated across the European Union with competence, as well as compassion, and that we also tackle the problem at source, because organizations like mine are not just working here in Europe.
We’re also working in Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, whose societies are creaking under the strain of a civil war that seems to be without end.
JEFFREY BROWN: But, Ambassador, you speak of the need for more humanitarian help. At the same time, your government has gone even further, though, in announcing a zero tolerance policy for further allowing refugee — at the border for refugees or migrants.
Why go even further? What happens to those people that come to your border now?
REKA SZEMERKENYI: The Hungarian border is one that has been receiving the most impressive and biggest shock of migration coming into continental Europe on vital land.
And what we could see is that the response to this massive pressure has been, on one hand, the expression of empathy and sympathy towards the migrants, trying to provide them whatever is needed, down to baby strollers for the families and immediate help for the women and children coming into the country.
At the same time, what we also focused on is the establishment of the security for the rest of the continent. We live up to our promises and we live up to the commitments that we made to the rest of the European Union countries in defending the territory and in providing security for all of us.
What we try to do is to make as clear that we follow all the Schengen requirements to provide for the registration of these refugees and migrants. At the same time, what we’re trying to do is to go through the exact procedure that is what we have undertaken.
JEFFREY BROWN: You’re referring to the agreements over the borders.
But, at the same time, your country has been hit by a lot of criticism for an insensitivity to the refugee situation. Your prime minister of course got criticized after he spoke of working to keep Europe Christian.
What is your response to that criticism that has hit Hungary?
REKA SZEMERKENYI: What I have seen is a massive outflow of sympathy and support for the migrants.
What many Hungarian volunteers have shown was giving their free time day and night to work for the migrants, providing them the necessary help, both in food and medication, as well as includes blankets and sleeping bags for the stay — their stay in Hungary.
What we have seen is a very clear experience of sympathy towards these people.
JEFFREY BROWN: David Miliband, you spoke of Europe needing to take faster and bigger action. And yet right now, what we’re seeing is more countries taking action to close their borders. So what is the way forward? What do you see?
DAVID MILIBAND: I think that we have seen extraordinary leadership from Germany, backed up in a way by France, Italy and Belgium.
I think there is progress with Poland. I don’t think anyone doubts that the Hungarian people are full of generosity. No one is saying that the Hungarian people are as misguided and shortsighted as the decision of a government which seems to believe that building a wall is an answer to a refugee crisis.
This is of course especially ironic, given that, in 1956, when Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest, 200,000 Hungarians went into Austria and were welcomed as refugees. I think it’s absolutely vital that Europe is able to show that it can handle what, after all, is a small percentage of the European population.
If there are 500,000 refugees in a continent of 500 million people, your viewers can immediately do the math and see that this is a question of management, not of a continent being overwhelmed. Equally, it’s absolutely vital that we don’t simply bottle up the problem, either in individual European countries like Greece or Italy, which have been buckling under the strain, or in Serbia, which is the next-door neighbor of Hungary.
And the decision simply to build a fence and hope for the best, I’m afraid, is going to create a tinderbox in Serbia.
JEFFREY BROWN: Madam Ambassador, your response to that, the charge that building a wall is not the — not the answer here?
REKA SZEMERKENYI: Our common European space and open internal borders are really predicated on the premise that common external borders are secure. This is the commitment that we undertook and this is the commitment that we’re living up to.
Obviously, it’s all in our — everybody’s interest in the European Union itself to secure our borders. The border control and the border — registration at the border stations is a requirement that helps us to ensure everybody, all our friends within the European Union in the neighboring countries, that they can count on us, that we provide for their security and we take our responsibility very seriously.
We have made that commitment and we live up to that commitment.
JEFFREY BROWN: David Miliband, finally, you’re there in Lesbos. What are you seeing in terms of the continuing flow of refugees and migrants? You expect the numbers to continue?
DAVID MILIBAND: You can probably see behind me shadows. These are people who are sleeping in the port, waiting for ferries tomorrow.
My organization, the International Rescue Committee, has been trying to provide basic water and sanitation and humanitarian help, including some transport for people who, when they land in the north of the island, are expected to make a 40-kilometer walk.
This is women, children, families, as well as able-bodied young men. And I think that the message to Europeans, but also frankly to the United States, is a very simple one. The Syrian crisis is now a global refugee crisis with global responsibilities that need to attend to all nations.
That means that, in Europe, there needs to be some significant shift in policy, but also, frankly, the U.S., which so far has only taken about 1,500 refugees from Syria over the course of four years, need to live up to its historic standard-setting role as a leader of refugee resettlement.
We have got to tackle this at both ends of the problem, the immediate symptoms of crisis, the humanitarian crisis, but also the deeper political causes in the Middle East. That’s the only way to build the kind of security that the ambassador has rightly spoken of.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, David Miliband and Ambassador Reka Szemerkenyi, thank you both very much.