Tibor Navracsics, who is EU commissioner in charge of education, culture, youth and sport, doesn’t appear too often in the Hungarian media, and when he does he is asked mostly about matters relating to Hungary rather than the work he does in Brussels. Thus, the Hungarian public knows very little about Navracsics’s views on and role in the European Union.
Last November Navracsics gave an interview to Mandiner’s András Stumpf in which he said that he has always been committed to the idea of the European Union, adding that “on the Hungarian right I am pretty much all that remains.” This sentence made a big splash as proof that, at least in Navracsics’s opinion, none of his former colleagues in the Orbán government is committed to the idea of European integration.
Navracsics had a rough time being confirmed as an EU commissioner. As I said at the time, “the long shadow of Viktor Orbán” followed Navracsics. After all, Orbán named him deputy prime minister in 2010, and he was also minister of justice between 2010 and 2014 when the European Union had serious reservations about the legality of several Hungarian laws. As a result, Navracsics received a post that came with very little actual power. Education and culture are fields handled exclusively by the individual nation states.
Since the Hungarian media pays mighty little attention to Navracsics’s role as commissioner, I thought I should say something about one of his tasks that, as a result of the refugee crisis, has given him greater freedom of movement and the possibility of making a more substantial impact.
Navracsics’s job description includes, among other things, “empowering young people of all social and cultural backgrounds so that they can participate fully in civic and democratic life.” It is this sentence that allowed Navracsics to expand his role considerably after the January 2016 Paris terror attack. By March Navracsics called together the EU ministers of education and urged them “to use education more effectively in building open, tolerant societies.” He talked to them about social inclusion, about combating prejudice, about encouraging critical thinking. Of course, this sermon made not the slightest dent in the Hungarian government’s policies at home.
Then there is the refugee crisis. Navracsics proposed a program of “integration of refugees and migrants,” which the Commission acted on. Navracsics received €1.6 billion “under the Creative Europe program for cultural projects promoting the inclusion of refugees and migrants.” So, what Navracsics is doing in Brussels is the exact opposite of what the Orbán government stands for. While he is working for the integration of refugees and migrants, Orbán is fighting tooth and nail for their exclusion.
In light of this, Navracsics’s most recent interview on June 6 with Péter Zentai on KlubRádió’s “Eurozóna” shouldn’t have been such a revelation. But suddenly the Hungarian media realized that Navracsics doesn’t agree with Viktor Orbán on either the refugee issue or Hungary’s relations with the European Union.
In the interview he expressed his optimism about the future of the EU. Its history has been full of clashes of interests among the member states, but at least until now the result was always deeper integration. He believes that “if common sense prevails in the majority of the member states” the current problems will be solved. This didn’t convince the interviewer, who said that the situation in Europe is “dramatic,” especially in light of a possible Brexit. Navracsics admitted that the European Union is at a turning point, but whatever happens with the British referendum, it is his “conviction that there are far more strategic interests in favor of the continued existence of the Union and its continued integration than against them.”
Perhaps the highlight of the interview was Navracsics’s criticism of the Hungarian opposition, which has been far too timid in standing by a common European policy on the refugee issue. Politicians supporting the European Union should argue as loudly in favor of common action as those do who promulgate a policy based on individual nation states. “We must clearly explain that membership in the Union and the continuation of integration is in Hungary’s national interest…. I regret that on the domestic political stage pro-EU politicians constitute only a soft-spoken tiny minority which doesn’t argue forcefully enough in favor of the point of view that I’m trying to express here.”
Finally, Navracsics, unlike many of the politicians of the democratic opposition, decided to go on record as agreeing with the Commission’s stand on quotas. It is, he said, “an absolutely acceptable solution which only means that if the number of refugees exceeds the regular numbers in a given country—which so far has not occurred anywhere—then the other members would come to its assistance and help in the placement of those affected. Therefore it is not the same as a mechanically enforced compulsory quota.”
Echoing Navracsics, Júlia Mira Lévai in HVG admonished those opposition politicians “who don’t dare to go against the current public mood and who are not brave enough to represent their own values.” In Lévai’s opinion, Navracsics’s “coming out” will play a significant role in the disintegration of Fidesz, which might be near, especially if leaders of the democratic opposition follow Navracsics’s advice.
I agree with Lévai that the timid response of the democratic opposition to Orbán’s refugee policies is mistaken. Always trying to follow a middle ground, as MSZP leaders usually do, will not satisfy the growing number of voters who are turning against the government and Fidesz. But I disagree that it is the refugee issue that will be the catalyst for the inevitable disintegration of Orbán’s power structure. A more likely candidate is the government’s disregard of the Hungarian National Bank’s highly illegal financial dealings, orchestrated by the chairman of the bank, who is exhibiting increasingly erratic behavior. And to the bank scandal one can add the boorish behavior of the newly created Fidesz media, which even some members of the inner circle find distasteful. But more about these developments tomorrow.