Tag Archives: Viktor Orbán

Snippets from Viktor Orbán’s recent speeches–turning eastward and inward

Viktor Orbán’s stamina is remarkable. He left for China on May 11, where he had a busy schedule of meetings, and returned to Budapest on May 17. Yet the next day he gave a very long speech at the annual meeting of Daimler AG, held in Budapest. On Friday, May 19, he gave a 30-minute interview to Kossuth Rádió in the morning, and by the afternoon he was in Zalaegerszeg, an almost three-hour trip by car, where again he spoke. The following day he attended the congress of the Slovenian Democratic Party in Maribor, another one and a half hours by car from Zalaegerszeg.

I have carefully read all of Orbán’s spoken words since his return from China. Did I learn anything new from them? Yes and no. On the one hand, Orbán, like everybody else, has certain topics, ideas, and notions about the world that keep recurring in all his speeches. Those passages are of no interest to anyone who’s familiar with the main thrust of Orbán’s thinking about the world. On the other hand, here and there new ideas appear, which allow us to look at the Hungarian prime minister in a slightly different light.

My general sense is that the Chinese trip and the Chinese leadership’s vision of the “Belt and Road Initiative” made a great impression on Orbán and that he feels privileged to have an agreement with the Chinese to construct a railroad between Budapest and Belgrade as part of that modern version of the Silk Road, connecting the East and the West. As he put it in his interview on Kossuth Rádió, the Chinese invited only those countries that “will have a role to play in the growth of the world economy in the next two or three decades,” which is an excellent piece of news for Hungary.

Orbán is impressed with the Chinese in general. In his eyes, “the Chinese are serene people with a philosophical bent and a goal of achieving harmony.” In contrast, it is “the pursuit of freedom which is at the core of Western political thought.” One would think that giving freedom center stage would be positive, but for Orbán freedom “leads to conflicts.” Westerners are “constantly alarmed about dangers to freedom.” The Chinese, on the other hand, “are concerned with problem solving, trying to find a balanced result, which they call harmony,” and therefore “it is good to negotiate with them.” For example, the Chinese would never say what the leader of the European People’s Party said: “The ball is in your court, if you react the proper way you are a team player, if not there will be consequences.” In Orbán’s opinion, EPP’s reaction “shows how deformed European politics is.” Of course, many other topics were covered in this interview, but these words struck me as intriguing and perhaps even significant.

Orbán’s lengthy speech at the general meeting of Daimler AG also had a few noteworthy parts. One was a strange sentence at the very beginning of his speech. It reads: “When you chose Budapest [to hold the meeting], you made the right decision. It is a fashionable place in addition to being a place of a certain excitement. When one opens foreign newspapers and reads about Hungary, one is not sure whether they are talking about a black sheep or about an outstanding economic success. That creates a kind of intellectual excitement around Hungary. So, we are happy that you came here to see with your own eyes what’s happening in Hungary.” These sentences lead me to believe that the European Parliament’s resolution is a genuine embarrassment for Orbán. The arrangements for this meeting had to have been made months before, when no one could have foreseen the Orbán government’s being reprimanded by the majority of the European Parliament.

It always amuses me when Viktor Orbán, who knows mighty little about economics, shares his high-flown ideas about the future of the world economy. Again, he couldn’t refrain from offering his golden thoughts. The starting point of his assessment of the economic situation in the European Union began with China. “I just came back from China. If one sees the future and looks at Europe from that vantage point, it is especially urgent to reform Europe so it can regain its competitiveness.” That’s a strong beginning, but it is not entirely new in Orbán’s repertoire of stock thoughts.

It’s possible that I missed it before, but this was the first time I heard him “reinterpreting” the causes of the 2008-2009 world financial crisis in economic terms. He said that

It must be accepted in Europe that the 2008-2009 financial crisis was not cyclical but structural. Some European leaders believe that economic crises are part and parcel of a modern market economy. There had been trouble in the European Union before, economic indicators dropped, the economy corrected itself, and the indicators improved. No structural changes were necessary because the system could repair itself. This was true in the last 40 years, but it is no longer so. What we suffer from now is not a cyclical crisis. The simple truth is that other emerging economies are more competitive than we are, and therefore this is a structural crisis of competitiveness. So, our response should be formulated accordingly. I’m convinced that because this paradigm shift is now taking place in the world economy, we should give a European response to it instead of thinking in terms of a cyclical crisis.

I have no idea what kind of structural corrections Orbán is thinking of or what paradigm shift he has in mind. Traditionally a paradigm shift means a fundamental change in basic concepts, which leads me to believe that Orbán is simply mouthing his “right-hand” György Matolcsy’s unorthodox economic ideas, which most responsible Hungarian and foreign economists reject. The Chinese economy, as is the case with all emerging economies, can produce an incredible rate of growth initially, just as East-Central Europe is at the moment ahead of the West as far as economic growth is concerned, but as time goes by these countries’ growth will inevitably slow. It is a mistake to claim that China’s impressive economic growth is due solely to the different structure of its economy and that if the developed West simply adopted its largely state structure, the EU or the United States would produce a 6-8% yearly economic growth.

I found two more short passages worth noting. The first is from the speech delivered in Zalaegerszeg at the opening of a large complex for testing self-driving cars. This is the only recent major construction project that was financed exclusively by the Hungarian government. Orbán said: “This test ground is living proof that we are not on [economic] crutches; we have our own resources; we have our talents; and we are capable of achieving world-class performance. I would like to remind everyone that under the leadership of [Finance Minister] Mr. Mihály Varga during our first government between 1998 and 2002, when we were not yet a member of the European Union, we achieved an economic growth rate of over 4% due to our sound economic policies. In fact, there was one quarter when it was over 5%.” These words were interpreted by the independent media and commentators who are critical of the government as a reformulation of Orbán’s earlier quip: “There is life outside the European Union.” A bad sign, they said. Perhaps he is thinking of eventually leaving the EU.

The proud crew behind the Zalaegerszeg test ground

And finally, in Maribor at the Slovenian Democratic Party’s conference, Orbán said: “As you have heard from your chairman, there is a lot of talk about European values nowadays. They talk about them as if they were guarded in a safe somewhere in Brussels whose key is in the breast-pockets of a very few privileged people. The truth is, however, that there are indeed safes in which European values are stored. These safes, however, are not in Brussels but in the hearts of European citizens, Slovenians, Hungarians, Poles, Germans, French, Slovaks, because European values are not carved into lifeless stones but are written in living hearts.” These words cannot be interpreted in any other way but as a rejection of the fundamental values of the European Union: “Respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law. These values unite all the member states—no country that does not recognize these values can belong to the Union.” This is the first paragraph of the description of EU “values and objectives” published by the European Parliament. If these values can be reinterpreted on a national or individual level, we no longer have a union.

Taken together, these last two quotations may be an indication of Viktor Orbán’s thinking about the future. In the short run, it means that the tug-of-war between the European Union and Hungary will continued unabated.

May 22, 2017

Miklós Horthy will not have a statue in Perkáta after all

In December 2015 Viktor Orbán, under American pressure, declared that no Hungarian politician who remained in office after Hungary’s occupation by German troops on March 19, 1944 could have a memorial. Prompting this declaration was the controversy over the decision of the City of Székesfehérvár to erect a statue of Bálint Homan, the anti-Semitic minister of education in the 1930s. The idea to honor Hóman with a statue ostensibly began as a local initiative, but Viktor Orbán was the real promoter of the project. The government provided a sizable amount of money to fashion a life-size statue of the corpulent education minister. The statue became a flash point in the already strained relations between Hungary and the United States, and Orbán retreated. As he explained in parliament, the reason the City of Székesfehérvár couldn’t erect a statue of Hóman was that Hóman remained a member of the Hungarian Parliament after German troops occupied Hungary. As Orbán put it, “the constitution forbids honoring anyone who collaborated with the oppressors.” He added that “for that reason, he wouldn’t support a statue for Governor Miklós Horthy either.”

One would have thought that the issue had been put to rest once and for all. So I was surprised to hear that a Horthy bust will be unveiled in Perkáta, a village situated between Székesfehérvár and Dunaújváros. There are already three Horthy busts or statues in existence: in Csókakő (2012), in Hencida (2013), and in Budapest (2013). Despite Orbán’s claim that the Hungarian constitution forbids the existence of such statues, they have not been removed. At the very least one would have hoped that no other municipality would embark on erecting an “unconstitutional” monument. But this is exactly what happened.

As opposed to the Hóman case, which turned out to be a clandestine government project, I suspect that the Perkáta affair is a genuine local blunder. Balázs Somogyi (Fidesz) has been mayor of Perkáta, a town of 4,000 inhabitants, for the last eleven years. The citizens of Perkáta are not enthralled with his performance because on the question “How satisfied are you with the work of the mayor?” he received a D+. It’s hard to fathom why they keep reelecting him. One thing is sure: he is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. He accepted the offer of a free bust of Horthy from three citizens of Perkáta, who turned out to be members of the New Hungarian Guard, a far-right organization that came into being after the original Hungarian Guard was declared to be illegal. The three men assured Somogyi that the erection and unveiling of the bust would not cost the village a penny. The mayor jumped at the offer and at the earliest opportunity presented the project for approval to the town council. On April 20 the town council, without ever informing the local citizens of their decision, approved the project. The unveiling was scheduled to take place on May 20, with leaders of far-right groups in attendance.

All set and ready

After the opposition media got hold of the story, several organizations and parties raised objections, but the mayor confidently announced that “the erection of a memorial is a completely local issue. It is up to the people who live there.” The problem was that the people of Perkáta were never asked or even informed about the arrival of a Horthy statue. And Somogyi either was or pretended to be ignorant of Viktor Orbán’s verdict on Horthy’s veneration as an unconstitutional act.

This time, unlike in the Hóman case, a reversal took place in record time. A few hours after this confident announcement, the town council of Perkáta suddenly withdrew its permission for the erection of the bust. So, what happened? The locals learned about the unveiling of the bust from TV reports. Some of the more enterprising citizens began an anti-bust drive, which gathered several hundred signatures in no time. They didn’t want Perkáta to become like the nearby Csókakő, which is a common destination for far-right pilgrimages as a result of the statue of Horthy placed there 15 years ago.

One could say all this was nothing more than a storm in a tea pot. But the Hungarian right—and I include Fidesz here—is outraged. An incredible editorial appeared in Magyar Hírlap by Pál Dippold, a writer and journalist who is not considered to be extremist by Hungarian standards. He is just a good old Fidesz supporter whose articles appear at regular intervals. As far as he is concerned, Perkáta’s rights were violated by journalists who descended on the village and talked about Horthy’s controversial historical role. Dippold describes them as “green sharks tattooed with five-pointed stars that attacked a Hungarian carp.” The shark is of course a “liberal shark” which can easily move from a salt- to a fresh-water environment. The carp is helpless against it. If the shark metaphor weren’t graphic enough, at one point he calls independent journalists “imported pigs” who consider themselves members of the fourth estate. These imported liberal pigs/sharks attacked true democracy by going against a local decision. They managed to force their will on Perkáta. The poor Fidesz mayor’s statement about the reasons for his retreat is “poignant” when he talks about defending his people from “these strangers bent on creating a scandal.” What follows is a defense of Miklós Horthy, who was “a decent Hungarian politician who did everything he could to preserve the remnants of the country that remained after Trianon.” He was a good Hungarian, like “the inhabitants of Perkáta and its well-meaning mayor.”

As we know, at least since December 2015 erecting a statue of anyone who collaborated with the Germans, as Horthy certainly did, is not a local affair. What would Dippold say if, as a friend of mine suggested, György Moldova, a prodigious writer known for his detailed sociological nonfiction, were to offer a bust of János Kádár to be erected on a public square anywhere in the country? (Moldova is known to be a great admirer of János Kádár, whom he considers a genius and the greatest statesman of modern Hungarian history.) If some town or village took Moldova up on his offer, I would wager to say that local opinion, which Dippold finds such an important part of democracy, would no longer be the deciding factor. The locals would need to be “educated” by right-wing–well, pick your favorite cuddly animal.

May 19, 2017

Is it time for Viktor Orbán to choose sides?

Not surprisingly the Hungarian media is focused on the consequences of the resolution adopted by the European Parliament that calls for launching Article 7(1). Yesterday I could report on the reactions of Foreign Minister Szijjártó and Fidesz spokesman Balázs Hidvéghi who laid the blame for the fiasco on, who else, George Soros. Viktor Orbán, who had just returned from China, carefully avoided the topic with the exception of one sentence in a speech he delivered today at Daimler AG’s meeting. In his opinion, “it is foolish to vilify Hungary when it is first or second in the European Union in terms of economic growth; it is here that unemployment diminishes fastest; it is a country where all European fiscal rules are adhered to and the sovereign debt is decreasing.”

One can quibble about the accuracy of Orbán’s claim about Hungary’s economic growth, although it is true that the projection for this year, due to an unusually large infusion of EU convergence money, is very good. But what Orbán conveniently ignores is that the EP resolution to invoke Article 7(1) has nothing to do with Hungary’s economic performance. It is the “serious deterioration of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights over the past few years” that prompted the European Parliament to act.

It is hard to tell whether the Orbán government was prepared for the blow or not. A few days ago I read an interview with András Gyürk, the leader of the EP Fidesz delegation, who admitted that, despite the Fidesz members’ best efforts, “the most important actors” in the European Parliament still don’t understand the Fidesz version of the situation in Hungary. Hungarian opposition MEPs have been saying in radio and television interviews that from their conversations with members of the European People’s Party they gained the impression that as many as half of the EPP members have serious reservations about defending Viktor Orbán and his regime. At first I thought that number was wishful thinking on their part, but the vote pretty well confirmed their claim: 67 of the EPP members voted for the resolution and 40 abstained, so about half of the EPP caucus refused to come to the aid of the Orbán government.

Those few government officials who spoke about the debacle emphasized the size of the EPP contingent that stood fast behind Viktor Orbán. Pro-government commentators keep repeating the optimistic predictions of “political scientists” of Fidesz-sponsored think tanks like the Center for Fundamental Rights (Alapjogokért Központ) and Századvég that “there is no chance” of the procedure getting to the second stage because, given the present political makeup of the European Parliament, the necessary two-thirds majority is unachievable. But I wouldn’t be so sure, especially if it becomes evident that the Orbán government has no intention of following the recommendations of the European Parliament to, for example, “repeal the act amending certain acts related to increasing the strictness of procedures carried out in the areas of border management and asylum and the act amending the National Higher Education Act, and to withdraw the proposed Act on the Transparency of Organizations Receiving Support from Abroad.” Because the way it looks, the Orbán government has no intention of changing anything in the law on border security, as Szijjártó and others made clear already yesterday. Today we learned that the government will not give an inch on the issue of Central European University either.

László Palkovics, undersecretary in charge of education, was giving a press conference in Debrecen on another subject when, in answer to a question on the fate of CEU, he made it clear that the law on higher education will not be changed. It is a law that is applicable to all universities, not just CEU. It stands the test of constitutionality, and it conforms to the values of the European Union. The decision by the majority of the European Union was a “political act.” I should add that constitutional scholars have a very different opinion on the matter.

A couple of weeks ago the government indicated that it would form a working group to start negotiations with the administration of CEU. Today a large group of middle-level bureaucrats arrived, representing practically all the ministries, but after an hour and a half it became obvious that they had no decision-making powers. In fact, they were totally ignorant of the government’s position and plans. Neither Palkovics nor Kristóf Altusz, undersecretary in the Foreign Ministry, was present. Zsolt Enyedi, vice-rector, got the impression that Altusz, who was supposed to “negotiate” with the U.S. government, did no more than ascertain that the federal government has no jurisdiction in this case. And so he was told to negotiate directly with the university instead. The present “negotiations,” Enyedi believes, are the government’s answer to an American suggestion. No one knows whether the government has any intention of seriously negotiating with the university in the future. My guess is that it doesn’t.

János Lázár’s usual Thursday press conference gave journalists an opportunity to hear more about the government’s reaction to yesterday’s vote. He concentrated on the migration issue and said that “the Hungarian government will not meet the European Parliament’s request to terminate either the legal or the physical closure in place. The security of the Hungarian government is much more important than the political dogmas set by the European Parliament.”

This reference to the “political dogmas” of the European Union brings me to a brief press conference Viktor Orbán gave in the middle of his trip to China which, according to 24.hu, was, despite its brevity, a fuller explanation of his thinking on democracy and related matters than at any other time since his illiberal speech three years ago. The prime minister was obviously impressed by what transpired in Beijing and praised Chinese plans for the Belt and Road project. In this connection he insisted that the East has by now caught up with the West and therefore “the old model of globalization” is over. From here on money and technology will flow from East to West and not the other way around. But here comes the interesting part. According to Orbán, “most of the world has had enough of globalization because it divided the world into teachers and pupils. It was increasingly offensive that some developed countries kept lecturing the other, greater part of the world about human rights, democracy, development, and market economy.” Orbán, according to the journalist commenting on this short interview, thinks that “the time has come for Hungary to choose sides.”

Orbán’s complaints about developed nations lecturing to less developed ones about human rights and democracy provide a window into his psyche and the motivating forces of his actions. Unfortunately, Orbán’s human failings have serious, adverse consequences for the people he allegedly wants to save.

May 18, 2017

A European Union first: Article 7(1) on the table

Headlines like “MEPs slam Hungary, call on EU to explore sanctions,” “EU Parliament demands action on Hungary’s rule of law,” and “MEPs vote to start democracy probe on Hungary” have appeared today in the western media. The novelty of today’s vote is that this is the first time that members of the European Parliament deemed the situation in a member country serious enough to justify “the triggering of the procedure which may result in sanctions for Hungary.” The resolution adopted calls for launching Article 7(1), which instructs the Committee of Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) to draw up a formal resolution for a plenary vote. At the same time, it calls on “the Hungarian government to repeal laws tightening rules against asylum-seekers and non-governmental organizations, and to reach an agreement with the US authorities, making it possible for Central European University to remain in Budapest as a free institution.” It instructs the European Commission to strictly monitor the use of EU funds by the Hungarian government. At the end of this post you can read the complete text of the resolution.

In order to understand the mechanism that this EP vote has triggered, here is the text of Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union.

  1. On a reasoned proposal by one third of the Member States, by the European Parliament or by the European Commission, the Council, acting by a majority of four fifths of its members after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, may determine that there is a clear risk of a serious breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2. Before making such a determination, the Council shall hear the Member State in question and may address recommendations to it, acting in accordance with the same procedure. The Council shall regularly verify that the grounds on which such a determination was made continue to apply.
  2. The European Council, acting by unanimity on a proposal by one third of the Member States or by the European Commission and after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, may determine the existence of a serious and persistent breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2 after inviting the Member State in question to submit its observations.
  3. Where a determination under paragraph 2 has been made, the Council, acting by a qualified majority, may decide to suspend certain of the rights deriving from the application of the Treaties to the Member State in question, including the voting rights of the representative of the government of that Member State in the Council. In doing so, the Council shall take into account the possible consequences of such a suspension on the rights and obligations of natural and legal persons. The obligations of the Member State in question under the Treaties shall in any case continue to be binding on that State.
  4. The Council, acting by a qualified majority, may decide subsequently to vary or revoke measures taken under paragraph 3 in response to changes in the situation which led to their being imposed.
  5. The voting arrangements applying to the European Parliament, the European Council and the Council for the purposes of this Article are laid down in Article 354 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

Thus, as you can see, it is unlikely that the Hungarian case will ever reach the European Council of member states. Even if it did, a unanimous vote against Hungary is most unlikely. If no one else, the current Polish government would prevent such an outcome.

The first reactions of the Hungarian government have tried to minimize the importance of what happened today in the European Parliament. But it doesn’t matter how we slice it, Hungary has achieved the dubious distinction of being the first object of an EP resolution that evokes Article 7 as a possibility. The pro-government media is upbeat. The government’s official news service–Híradó, for example–is absolutely certain that the proposal, even if it reaches the second stage of the process, which in their opinion is unlikely, will fail right there because it will not be able to garner a two-thirds majority.

Híradó may be right, but the symbolic value of the resolution shouldn’t be underestimated. Even though the few official statements try to make light of the adoption of the resolution, there will be consequences. For example, it is unlikely that the Hungarian government will flatly refuse the EP resolution’s demands. At least the press release from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade makes no mention of the Orbán government’s steadfast adherence to its current policies concerning Central European University and the still pending discriminatory piece of legislation against the NGOs. It only states that “despite the application of international pressure, the Government of Hungary is continuing to practice a migration policy that is exclusively aimed at ensuring the security of Hungary and the Hungarian people.” Or, as Szijjártó put it, “no matter what pressure they wish to apply on us” and no matter what reports the EP is asked to adopt, the Government of Hungary will continue to concentrate on the security of Hungary and the safety of the Hungarian people. Everyone can be certain that “not a single illegal immigrant will be allowed to set foot in Hungary.” But note that the Hungarian government has not so far commented on the other two demands.

Otherwise, I came to the conclusion that the government hasn’t decided yet on the next steps to take in its battle with the European Union. At least György/George Schöpflin, a member of the EP Fidesz delegation, in an interview with Ildikó Csuhaj of ATV, said that “they are waiting for what the government will tell them about the strategy to follow.” On the other hand, the government seems to have decided how to package the EP resolution for domestic consumption. As Szijjártó and later Balázs Hidvéghi, spokesman for Fidesz, said, “We’ve had the Tavares Report, now comes the Soros Report.” This resolution is “a new attack on Hungary by George Soros’s network.” Hidvéghi tried to make Soros responsible for this humiliating defeat by calling attention to his “personal lobbying against Hungary” and labeling those MEPs who voted for the resolution as being in the pay of Soros. But, of course, most sane people know that the real reason for the resolution is Viktor Orbán’s behavior, which more and more EU politicians believe is a danger to the integrity of the European Union. Perhaps the last straw was Orbán’s ill-conceived decision to launch an openly anti-EU campaign, plastering “Stop Brussels!” posters all over the country and issuing his latest anti-EU “national consultation,” whose six points were all brazen lies. An article that appeared a few hours ago in Magyar Nemzet outlines how Orbán’s policies eventually created a situation in which 31% of the members of the European People’s Party, to which Fidesz belongs, voted for the resolution. A few years ago only the Swedes and the Luxembourgians wanted to have sanctions against the Orbán government, but by now the Dutch, the Belgians, the Irish, the Poles, and many others have joined their ranks.

The resolution was adopted with 393 votes in favor, 221 opposed, and 64 abstentions. The left, liberal, green and radical left delegations, which wrote the resolution, have only 360 members, so they needed support from the European People’s Party. Of the 200 EPP members who were present, 67 of them voted for the resolution and 40 abstained. The largest EPP contingent voting for the resolution was the Polish Civic Platform, the party of Donald Tusk, with 18 ‘yes’ votes. From the large German contingent only two voted in favor. A list of all EPP members who supported the resolution appears in an article published by 24.hu.

Viktor Orbán a year ago or so envisaged a European-wide revolt similar to the one he has engineered in Hungary over the last seven years. But so far voters in the rest of Europe, with the notable exception of Great Britain, don’t think that an Orbán-type return to the old Europe of nation states is a viable alternative. In fact, in the Netherlands and in France there was a liberal upsurge. No populist revolt has succeeded thus far, and, as Miklós Merényi said on k.blog.hu, what happened in the European Parliament in Strasbourg was “the price of [Viktor Orbán’s] revolt.”

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European Parliament

2014-2019

Provisional edition

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Situation in Hungary

European Parliament resolution of 17 May 2017 on the situation in Hungary (2017/2656(RSP))

 The European Parliament,

  • having regard to the Treaty on European Union (TEU), in particular Articles 2, 6 and 7 thereof,
  • having regard to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, in particular Articles 4, 12, 13, 14, 16, 18 and 21 thereof,
  • having regard to the European Convention on Human Rights and the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights, in particular cases Szabó and Vissy Hungary, Karácsony and Others v. Hungary, Magyar Keresztény Mennonita Egyház and Others  v. Hungary, Baka v. Hungary, and Ilias and Ahmed v. Hungary,
  • having regard to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to the numerous United Nations human rights treaties which are binding on all the Member States,
  • having regard to the Commission communication of 11 March 2014 entitled ‘A new EU Framework to strengthen the Rule of Law’ (COM(2014)0158),
  • having regard to its resolutions of 16 December and 10 June 2015 on the situation in Hungary, of 3 July 2013 on the situation of fundamental rights: standards and practices in Hungary, of 16 February 2012 on the recent political developments in Hungary and of 10 March 2011 on media law in Hungary,
  • having regard to the hearing on the situation in Hungary held on 27 February 2017 by its Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs,
  • having regard to the plenary debate on the situation in Hungary of 26 April 2017
  • having regard to the Rome Declaration of the leaders of 27 Member States and of the European Council, the European Parliament and the European Commission of 25 March 2017;
  • having regard to Act CLXVIII of 2007 on the promulgation of the Lisbon Treaty amending the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty establishing the European Community adopted by the Hungarian National Assembly on 17 December 2007;
  • having regard to Resolution 2162 (2017) of 27 April 2017 of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe entitled ‘Alarming developments in Hungary: draft NGO law restricting civil society and possible closure of the European Central University’
  • having regard to the statement by the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights of 8 March 2017 on Hungary’s new law allowing automatic detention of asylum seekers, and his letter to the Speaker of the National Assembly of Hungary of 27 April 2017 with a call to reject the proposed draft law on foreign-funded NGOs
  • having regard to the Commission’s decision to open infringement proceedings against Hungary concerning the act amending the National Higher Education Act, as well as other pending and forthcoming infringement procedures against Hungary;
  • having regard to the Commission response to the Hungarian National Consultation ‘Stop Brussels’;
  • having regard to the visit of Commissioner Avramopoulos to Hungary on 28 March 2017,
  • having regard to the letter of the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs to Vice-President Timmermans requesting the Commission’s opinion on the compliance of the act amending certain acts related to strengthening the procedure conducted in the guarded border area with the provisions of the Union asylum acquis, and as regards the Charter of Fundamental Rights when implementing the measures mentioned in this act,
  • having regard to Rule 123(2) of its Rules of Procedure,
  • whereas the European Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of people belonging to minorities, and whereas these values are universal and common to the Member States (Article 2 of the TEU);
  • whereas the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union is part of EU primary law that prohibits discrimination based on any grounds such as sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age or sexual orientation
  • whereas Hungary has been a Member State of the European Union since 2004, and whereas, according to opinion polls, a large majority of Hungarian citizens are in favour of the country’s EU membership;
  • whereas the Charter provides that the arts and scientific research shall be free of constraint and that academic freedom shall be respected; whereas it also guarantees the freedom to found educational establishments with due respect for democratic principles;
  • whereas the freedom of association should be protected, and whereas a vibrant civil society sector plays a vital role in promoting public participation in the democratic process and the accountability of governments towards their legal obligations, including the protection of fundamental rights, the environment and anti-corruption;
  • whereas the right to asylum is guaranteed, with due respect for the rules of the Geneva Convention of 28 July 1951 and the Protocol thereto of 31 January 1967 relating to the status of refugees, and in accordance with the TEU and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU);
  • whereas 91,54 % of asylum applications in 2016 were rejected; whereas since 2015 new laws and procedures adopted in Hungary in the field of asylum have forced all asylum seekers to enter Hungary through a transit zone on Hungarian territory that allows access to a limited number of people per day, e.g. 10 at the moment; whereas NGOs have repeatedly reported that migrants at Hungary’s borders are being summarily forced back to Serbia, in some cases with cruel and violent treatment, without consideration of their claims for protection; whereas the Hungarian Government has failed to fulfil its obligations to relocate asylum seekers in accordance with EU law;
  • whereas the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe has declared that ‘due to sweeping changes introduced in Hungary in asylum law and practice over recent months, asylum seekers returned there run a considerable risk of being subject to human rights violations’ in relation to the written observations he submitted on 17 December 2016 to the European Court of Human Rights regarding two complaints against Austria concerning the transfer of applicants from Austria to Hungary under the Dublin III Regulation;
  • whereas 11 refugees, referred to as the ‘Röszke 11’, present on 16 September 2016, the day after Hungary closed its border with Serbia, have been charged with committing an act of terror and sentenced to prison, including Ahmed H., a Syrian resident in Cyprus sentenced to 10 years in prison in an unfair trial in November 2016 on the sole grounds of using a megaphone to ease tensions and of throwing three objects at the border police;
  • whereas since the adoption of its resolution of 16 December 2015, concerns have been raised about a number of issues, namely the use of public spending, attacks against civil society organisations and human rights defenders, the rights of asylum seekers, mass surveillance of citizens, freedom of association, freedom of expression, media pluralism and the closure of the newspaper Népszabadság, Roma rights, including the eviction of Roma in Miskolc and segregation of Roma children in education, LGBTI rights, women’s rights, the judiciary system, including the possibility to hand down a sentence of life imprisonment without parole, the forced eviction of Hungarian NGOs Roma Parliament and Phralipe Independent Gypsy Organisation from their headquarters, and the risk of closure of the Lukács Archives;
  • whereas the content and the language used in the national consultation ‘Stop Brussels’ – a national consultation on immigration and terrorism and the accompanying  advertisingcampaigns by the government – are highly misleading and biased;
  • whereas in the case of Szabó and Vissy Hungary the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Hungarian legislation on secret anti-terrorist surveillance introduced in 2011 had been a violation of the right to respect for private and family life, the home and correspondence; whereas in the case of Ilias and Ahmed v. Hungary the Court found a violation of the right to liberty and security, the right to have an effective remedy concerning the conditions in the Röszke transit zone and the right to be protected from inhuman or degrading treatment as regards the applicants’ expulsion to Serbia; whereas in the case of Baka v. Hungary the Court ruled that Hungary had violated the right to a fair trial and the freedom of expression of András Baka, the former President of the Hungarian Supreme Court;
  • whereas the most recent developments in Hungary, namely the act amending certain acts related to increasing the strictness of procedures carried out in the areas of border management and asylum, the act amending the National Higher Education Act, which poses a direct threat to the Central European University and which has triggered large public disapproval, and the proposed Act on the Transparency of Organisations Receiving Support from Abroad (Hungarian Parliament Bill T/14967) have given rise to concerns regarding their compatibility with EU law and the Charter of Fundamental Rights;
  1. Recalls that the values enshrined in Article 2 TEU must be upheld by all EU Member States;
  2. Regrets that the developments in Hungary have led to a serious deterioration of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights over the past few years, inter alia, freedom of expression, academic freedom, the human rights of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, freedom of assembly and association, restrictions and obstructions to the activities of civil society organisations, the right to equal treatment, the rights of people belonging to minorities, including Roma, Jews and LGBTI people, social rights, the functioning of the constitutional system, the independence of the judiciary and of other institutions and many worrying allegations of corruption and conflicts of interest, which, taken together, could represent an emerging systemic threat to the rule of law in this Member State; believes that Hungary is a test for the EU to prove its capacity and willingness to react to threats and breaches of its own founding values by a Member State; notes with concern that developments in some other Member States show worrying signs of similar undermining of the rule of law as in Hungary;
  3. Calls on the Hungarian Government to engage in a dialogue with the Commission on all issues mentioned in this resolution, in particular the human rights of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, freedom of association, freedom of education and academic research, segregation of Roma in education, and protection of pregnant women in work; reiterates that both sides should engage in such a dialogue in an impartial, evidence- based and cooperative way; calls on the Commission to keep Parliament informed of its assessments;
  4. Expresses its concerns at the latest declarations and initiatives by the Hungarian Government, in particular as regards maintaining the ‘Stop Brussels’ consultation campaign and the investigative measures targeting foreign employees of the Central European University, as well as the statements by the leaders of the ruling party opposing any legislative change addressing the recommendations made by EU institutions and international organisations; regrets that such signals do not demonstrate a clear commitment by the Hungarian authorities to fully ensuring that its actions comply with EU primary and secondary law;
  5. Calls on the Commission to strictly monitor the use of EU funds by the Hungarian Government, in particular in the fields of asylum and migration, public communication, education, social inclusion, and economic development, so as to ensure that any co- financed project is fully compliant with both EU primary and secondary law;
  6. Calls on the Hungarian Government in the meantime to repeal the act amending certain acts related to increasing the strictness of procedures carried out in the areas of border management and asylum and the act amending the National Higher Education Act, and to withdraw the proposed Act on the Transparency of Organisations Receiving Support from Abroad (Hungarian Parliament Bill T/14967);
  7. Urges the Hungarian Government to immediately suspend all deadlines in the act amending the National Higher Education Act, to start immediate dialogue with the relevant US authorities in order to guarantee the future operations of the Central European University issuing US-accredited degrees, and to make a public commitment that the university can remain in Budapest as a free institution;
  8. Regrets that the Commission did not respond to Parliament’s call to activate its EU framework to strengthen the rule of law, as contained in its resolutions of 10 June 2015 and 16 December 2015 on the situation in Hungary, in order to prevent, through a dialogue with the Member State concerned, an emerging systemic threat to the rule of law from escalating further; takes the view that the current approach taken by the Commission focuses mainly on marginal, technical aspects of the legislation while ignoring the trends, patterns and combined effect of measures on the rule of law and fundamental rights; believes that infringement proceedings, in particular, have failed in most cases to lead to real changes and to address the situation more broadly;
  9. Believes that the current situation in Hungary represents a clear risk of a serious breach of the values referred to in Article 2 of the TEU and warrants the launch of the Article 7(1) TEU procedure;
  10. Instructs its Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs therefore to initiate the proceedings and draw up a specific report with a view to holding a plenary vote on a reasoned proposal calling on the Council to act pursuant to Article 7(1) of the TEU, in accordance with Rule 83 of its Rules of Procedure;
  11. Reiterates the need for a regular process of monitoring and dialogue involving all Member States in order to safeguard the EU’s fundamental values of democracy, fundamental rights and the rule of law, involving the Council, the Commission and Parliament, as put forward in its resolution of 25 October 2016 on the establishment of an EU mechanism on democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights (DRF Pact) and also to avoid double standards;
  12. Instructs its President to forward this resolution to the Commission and the Council, to the President, Government and Parliament of Hungary, and to the governments and parliaments of the Member States and the Council of Europe.
May 17, 2017

Today’s extra: Who is a “financial speculator?”–János Lázár explains

Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans, in an interview with Die Zeit, agreed with the interviewer that Viktor Orbán’s description of George Soros as an American financial speculator “clearly had anti-Semitic undertones.” Members of the Hungarian government were indignant. Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó demanded Timmermans’ resignation.

Last week János Lázár was asked about Timmermans’ allegedly unfounded accusation. A friend of mine extracted two telling sentences from his answer to a question pertaining to the topic. Of technical necessity, I posted the two videos as links, so those who would like to hear Lázár in the original (over and over) will have to click on the two links below. For those who don’t know the language I’ve translated these two sentences.

(1) Historical experience. “It is historical experience that financial speculators usually ward off criticism of their financial activities by saying that it is anti-Semitism.”

(2) Speculators steal other people’s money. “Every financial speculator, if you look over the last 100 years, usually defends himself by [charging his critics with anti-Semitism]. He steals other people’s money, after which he calls those who demand their money back anti-Semites.”

So, did Orbán’s remarks have anti-Semitic undertones or not? What do you think?

The European Union and Chinese plans for the reorganization of the global economy

Over the years I have somewhat neglected Chinese-Hungarian relations, although Viktor Orbán made clear his intense interest in China very early in his tenure. In the fall of 2010 he sent his then minister of national development Tamás Fellegi to China. After five days of negotiations Fellegi returned with little to show for his efforts to expand trade relations between the two countries. On the diplomatic front the situation hasn’t been much better. Although Xi Jinping visited Poland, the Czech Republic, and Serbia last year, he hasn’t yet paid a visit to Hungary.

Finally, after years of lobbying, the Orbán government signed a comprehensive strategic partnership with China two days ago. As Magyar Nemzet discovered, however, the agreement includes the following important sentence: “The two countries jointly promote the construction of the Hungarian-Serbian railroad in Hungary.” According to diplomats consulted by Magyar Nemzet, this means that China expects the Budapest-Belgrade railroad line to be built in exchange for a strategic partnership, something that at this point cannot be taken for granted.

In order to understand what this insertion means, we have to go back to December 2014 when Hungary, Serbia, Macedonia, and China signed an agreement on the modernization of the Budapest-Belgrade-Skopje-Athens railroad, “which will allow the fastest transportation of Chinese goods from Greek harbors to Europe.” Under the agreement, a Chinese consortium, led by the China Railway Group, was awarded a $1.57 billion contract to build the 160 km Hungarian section. The European Union has many concerns about the project. Once again, the project’s profitability is in question. The cost to Hungary would be 550 billion forints, but currently only 4,000 people travel on that line daily. If China uses the tracks to transport its goods, I assume it would compensate Hungary. Whether the compensation would be sufficient to make the line profitable I have no idea. Negotiations with the European Union about the fate of the railroad are still underway. A year ago the whole project was put on hold when infringement procedures were launched against Hungary. It is hard to predict what the EU’s final decision will be. The Chinese government has shown signs of impatience with the difficulties the Hungarian government is encountering with the European Union.

The Orbán government’s enthusiasm for this project is baffling. As far as I can see, the deal is good only for China. According to the agreement, Hungary must take out a large Chinese loan at an interest rate of 2.5% for 20 years, bringing the interest charges alone to close to 100 billion forints on the 550 billion forint cost of building a railroad line Hungary doesn’t need. Most of the work would be done by Chinese firms for a project that serves only Chinese economic interests.

Viktor Orbán among friends

Whether Hungary will again manage to convince the commissioners of the College, as it did in the case of the Paks nuclear power plant, is hard to tell. Over the last few months contradictory bits of information have reached the Hungarian media regarding the possible outcome of the case. In September Magyar Nemzet claimed that the European Commission, thanks to the good offices of Berlin, would give a green light to the project if Orbán toned down his anti-refugee rhetoric. As we know, nothing of the sort happened. In fact, the anti-Brussels, anti-migrant rant has intensified since, and Orbán’s support in the European People’s Party has been dwindling. Yet Magyar Nemzet announced just today that it got hold of a report on the communication between the European Commission and the Hungarian government, which claims that the dialogue between them is coming to a favorable end. The report also states that by the end of January the Commission was no longer having serious reservations about the project. Of course, anything is possible when it comes to the “bureaucrats in Brussels,” but I’m a bit dubious on this score given the latest developments at the Beijing Summit on China’s ambitious “Belt and Road,” a gigantic infrastructure project that would connect Asia, Europe, and Africa. There are potential roadblocks to this project. India didn’t even attend the summit, and “the EU dealt a blow to Chinese president Xi Jinping’s bid to lead a global infrastructure revolution after its members refused to endorse part of the multibillion-dollar plan because it did not include commitments to social and environmental sustainability and transparency.”

I’m sure that European leaders are serious about both the environment and transparency, but I suspect that these were not the only reasons for their refusal to partner with the Chinese leaders. Economic considerations most likely weigh heavily against the project. As The Guardian put it, “some sceptics see the plan as largely a ruse to boost China’s own economy by shifting excess industrial capacity to less developed nations and draw poorer countries tighter into Beijing’s economic grip.” Or, to quote an Indian newspaper, there is a fear that the project is no more than “a colonial enterprise.”

So, let’s return to Hungary’s attitude to the “Belt and Road” project. We know that Viktor Orbán has courted China for years to achieve a strategic agreement with China. Therefore, I was surprised to read in The Guardian’s report that “the EU’s 28 member states decided not to support a statement about trade prepared by Beijing to mark the end of the summit.” According to a high-level EU diplomat, “apparently to Chinese surprise, the EU was united on this.” AFP’s account, however, tells a different story. It reports that “several European countries—France, Germany, Estonia, Greece, Portugal, and Britain—indicated they would not sign one of the summit documents on trade.” If AFP is correct, the EU countries were not united in their opposition to Chinese plans as they were formulated in the closing document. Because of the discrepancies between the two sources, I’m unable to determine which countries, in addition to Hungary, signed the document.

The Carnegie Europe Research Center published a study titled “China’s Belt and Road: Destination Europe.” It is a sophisticated assessment of the economic and political impact of the Belt and Road project which is not easy to summarize in a couple of sentences, but I’ll try anyway. If the initiative were seen by Europeans “through the misguided lens of pure transportation and communications infrastructure, it would be appropriate for the EU to embrace it with few or no reservations.” But, the study continues, “the initiative attempts to change the rules organizing the global economy, primarily by granting China a set of tools with which it can reorder global value chains.” Such an outcome might have an adverse effect on the whole western economy. Belt and Road is often called the New Silk Road, “a name which in many respects is misleading, but it does have the advantage of reminding China watchers that the Belt and Road is above all a challenge to Europe—a challenge to which Europeans have yet to respond.”

The European Union, it seems, hadn’t given much thought until now to this particular Chinese attempt to reorganize the world economy. Viktor Orbán in this respect is ahead of his colleagues. The only trouble is that he is most likely again on the wrong side of the issue.

May 15, 2017

Hate campaigns and their consequences

President János Áder, who had been reelected for another five-year term already in March, delivered his inaugural address on May 8. If we can believe him, his original intent was to talk about all the work that still lies ahead for the nation. “Looking at the political discourse of the past months,” however, he came to the conclusion that “if things go on like this, we will destroy everything we have managed to build together since 1990. We question everything. We completely disregard every—even tacit—agreement we have made. We go beyond all limits.” So, what is the remedy? According to Áder, the simple answer is “reconciliation.”

In his speech I found only two sentences that deserve closer scrutiny. One was a Ferenc Deák quotation, the third in the short speech, which can be construed as a criticism of the governance of the Orbán government. Deák, the architect of the 1867 Compromise with the Crown, warned that “Hungary should not be loved with inciting thoughts unsettling it, but with a series of everyday, useful deeds that promote prosperity.” The second sentence came from the section on the quality of public discourse, which has deteriorated dramatically over the years. “I don’t want to dwell on responsibilities and on who is to blame. However, political numbers and majority status dictate that the responsibility of government parties is greater,” Áder admitted.

Skeptics are certain that Áder’s words were approved by Viktor Orbán himself, who needs to cool the overheated political atmosphere. Others, like György Csepeli, a social psychologist, consider the speech a perfect example of hypocrisy. After all, Áder signed the bill that threatens the very existence of Central European University, which added fuel to the fire, but the same man now wants a world in which people of different political persuasions live in harmony. If I may add another observation. Áder admits that the larger share of the responsibility falls on Fidesz, but simply because it is the governing party with a large majority. He is wrong. The reason for this state of affairs is not political arithmetic but the militaristic style of Fidesz, which leads to both verbal and physical violence. There was a time when Áder himself, as the leader of Fidesz’s parliamentary delegation, practiced the same kind of verbal coercion he now decries.

Zsolt Bayer, about whom I have written 13 posts since the beginning of 2011, is certainly not helping to tone down Hungarian political discourse. Bayer, one of the founding members of Fidesz who still has the full support of Viktor Orbán and his party, is notorious for his anti-Semitism and his vile writing. This time he ranted about the handful of NGO leaders who appeared at a parliamentary hearing to silently protest a pending bill that would discriminate against those NGOs that receive financial aid from abroad. When asked his opinion of their silent demonstration, Bayer said: “If people like this show up in the parliament building again and disrupt their work, then they need to be thrown out like shitting cats. If they need to be pulled out through their snot and blood, then they should be pulled out through their snot and blood….Their faces should be beaten to smithereens, if need be.”

The objects of Zsolt Bayer’s ire

As György Balavány, a conservative journalist, pointed out, Bayer is not a lone overly active pitbull. “He is the voice of the party” which, despite all pro-government opinion polls, is afraid. Facing widespread opposition, the Orbán government has “no other strategy than the intimidation of the public and the incitement of its own followers. Both of them can serve as preliminaries to physical force.” Meanwhile, Fidesz acts as if the increasingly frequent physical encounters simply didn’t exist. Orbán, for example, said that “it is not his job” to comment on claims of that sort. Among those Fidesz members who had an opinion on Bayer’s latest, some found his remarks perfectly acceptable. For example, according to Fidesz spokesman Balázs Hidvéghi, Bayer didn’t cross the line between free speech and incitement. The spokesman of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation said that Bayer is like that, “and this is how many of us like him.”

At this point TASZ’s two lawyers, who took part in the silent demonstration at the hearing, decided to offer Bayer an opportunity to discuss their differences over a cup of coffee. Bernadett Szél, co-chair of LMP, said she would join them. The naïve souls. First of all, any rational exchange with Bayer is a hopeless task. Worse, TASZ’s invitation was a tactical mistake because Bayer countered, saying he wants to extend the invitation to individuals on the anti-government side who, in his opinion, were either violent or who incited others to violence. Bayer suggested that the following individuals should be invited: Márton Gulyás and Gergő Varga, the two activists who were stopped from throwing washable orange paint on the president’s office, and two journalists from 24.hu who, according to Bayer, wanted him to hang on the first lamp post. He also thinks a pro-government female journalist should be present, who could tell how frightened she was among the “liberal” and “European” crowd at one of the demonstrations. Perhaps the editor-in-chief of a regional paper could also attend, who said that he is afraid that Orbán can be disposed of only in the way the Romanians managed to get rid of Ceaușescu. “If you think that I will take responsibility for the current state of public discourse alone, then you are mistaken.” Since then, others have indicated that they will attend and suggested more people who have been verbally abused by Bayer. One of these people was András Hont of HVG, who responded on Facebook: “Thank you, but I don’t want any coffee.”

Meanwhile fear and hatred have reached dangerous proportions in the country. The following incident in the heart of Budapest tells a lot about the impact of the government’s hate campaign against the European Union and the migrants. An employee of a pizza parlor on Kálvin tér, a bona fide Hungarian, thinking that one of his customers was a tourist, addressed the man in English. In turn, the customer called him a “filthy migrant.” And he kept yelling that Hungary belongs to the Hungarians and that he is not a tourist in his own country. He called the waiter “a cockroach.” When a young woman asked him to stop insulting the waiter who mistook him for a tourist, he hit the woman on the head, knocked her glasses off, and called her a stupid woman whose brain is filled with urine. Her bitter reaction after the incident was: “Long live the politics of hate, the brainwashing, and the incitement.”

Szilárd Németh, the embodiment of Fidesz primitiveness who is a deputy to Viktor Orbán, when asked about the incident, expressed his belief that the whole thing was nothing more than a “damned provocation” because anything can happen here “since George Soros set foot in this country and his provocateurs do what he tells them to do.” He added that this kind of incident has absolutely nothing to do with the Orbán government’s communication tactics because the government has never attacked the migrants. It has only defended Hungary and Europe. Poor Hungary, poor Europe.

May 14, 2017