Tag Archives: Viviane Reding

Regrouping on the left: MSZP on the brink

In the wake of the EU parliamentary election the non-Hungarian media will undoubtedly be preoccupied with the fact that the second largest party in Hungary is an extreme-right, racist, anti-Semitic party. But in the domestic press the “demise” of the Hungarian Socialist Party and the surprisingly good showing of Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció is the chief topic. After all, Fidesz’s large victory was a foregone conclusion, and the Hungarian media had speculated for some time that Jobbik would surpass MSZP. But no one predicted that DK would almost catch up with MSZP.

DK’s performance was especially unexpected because most opinion polls predicted that DK had no chance of sending delegates to the European Parliament. Medián, normally a very reliable polling firm, forecast a large Fidesz victory, Jobbik as the second-place winner, and MSZP in third place. As far as E14-PM and LMP were concerned, their chances were slim, teetering around the 5% mark. The party that, in Medián’s opinion, had no chance whatsoever was the Demokratikus Koalíció.

As it turned out, the predictions were off rather badly in the case of the smaller parties. As it stands now, all three–E14-PM, LMP, and DK–will be able to take part in the work of the European Parliament. The largest discrepancy between the predictions and the actual results was in the case of DK, which with its 9.76% will have two MEPs in Strasbourg.

The talking heads were stunned, especially those who have been absolutely certain that Ferenc Gyurcsány’s name is so tainted that there was no way he could ever again be a major player in Hungarian politics. Even those who sympathized with him felt that he returned to politics too early and by this impatience jeopardized his own political future.

The very poor showing of MSZP had a shocking effect on the Hungarian public as well as on commentators. No one was expecting a large win, but Medián, for example, predicted at least 14%. Instead, the final result was 10.92%.  A devastating blow. On her Facebook page Ildikó Lendvai, former whip and chairman of the party, described MSZP as being asleep or perhaps even dead. Slapping around a dead man, she wrote, is a waste of time. The governing body (elnökség) of the party has already resigned en bloc, and Saturday we will find out whether Attila Mesterházy will have to step down. Some well-known blog writers suggested that he should leave politics altogether and find a nice civilian job.

Let’s take a closer look at what happened to the three parties that constituted the United Alliance in the April 5 national election. The supposition that MSZP did all the heavy lifting for the combined ticket turned out to be false, at least based on the new returns. DK and E14-PM together garnered 18% of the votes as opposed to MSZP’s 10.92%. A rather substantial difference. EP-valasztas 2014-2It is also clear that the relatively good showing of the United Alliance in Budapest was due to the two smaller parties. This time around DK and E14-PM received 26% of the votes as opposed to MSZP’s 11.5%. DK ran second behind Fidesz in the capital (13.1o%), very closely followed by E14-PM (13.07%). Which party won in which district? It seems that Gordon Bajnai’s party was strong in the more elegant districts of Pest and Buda: the Castle district, Rózsadomb, downtown Pest, and Óbuda. Gyurcsány’s party won in less affluent districts: Köbánya, Újpalota, Csepel. Altogether DK won in nine outlying districts.

DK also did better than MSZP in several larger cities: Debrecen, Győr, Nagykanizsa, Kaposvár, Érd, Kecskemét, Pécs, and Székesfehérvár. In addition, there were two counties, Fejér and Pest, where DK beat the socialists. I should add that Fidesz lost only one city, Nyírbátor, where MSZP received 41.12% of the votes to Fidesz’s 32.35%.

As I predicted, very few Hungarians voted. In 2004 the figure was 38.50%, in 2009 36.31%, and this year only 28.92%. There might be several reasons for the low participation. For starters, people took a large Fidesz victory for granted. They did not think their votes could make a difference. Moreover, it was less than two months since the last election, and only the very committed took the trouble to make another trip to the polling station.

As far as the composition of the European Parliament is concerned, it looks as if EPP will have 212 members and S&D 186. So, the candidate for the post of the president of the European Commission will most likely be Jean-Claude Juncker, the man Viktor Orbán would not vote for in the European Council. What is wrong with Juncker? One very big problem is his country of origin: Luxembourg. Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding is also a Luxembourger, and she was very tough on the Orbán government. As Orbán put it: “the commissioner from Luxembourg has only hurt Hungary in the past. So, Hungarians cannot support a Luxembourger.” And Redding was not alone. There was another Luxembourger, Jean Asselborn, foreign minister in Juncker’s government, who criticized Hungary’s media law. It seems that Orbán developed a general dislike of Luxembourgers.

Orbán might not be alone in the European Council in his opposition to Juncker because it looks as if  David Cameron will also oppose him. Mind you, he also has problems with Martin Schulz. I doubt that the anti-Juncker forces will succeed, however, because Angela Merkel has thrown her weight behind him.

As for Juncker, naturally he was asked about his reaction to Orbán’s opposition to his nomination at his press conference today. Juncker started off by keeping the topic away from his own person, saying that “this is a problem that exists between Fidesz and EPP,” but then he told the journalists what was on his mind. “I cannot accept that just because a former minister from Luxembourg got into an argument with the Hungarian government it is en0ugh reason to exclude another Luxembourger from the post of president of the European Council. This is not elegant reasoning.”

Elegant reasoning and Orbán? In his fairly lengthy and exuberant victory speech, the prime minister called the Hungarian MEPs the “advanced garrison of Hungarians who defend the homeland abroad.” He sent them off with these words: “Greetings to the soldiers entering the battlefield!”

 

Kim Lane Scheppele: In praise of the Tavares Report

Today Europe acted to hold the Hungarian government to the constitutional values that it eagerly endorsed when it joined the European Union nearly a decade ago.

The action came in the form of the Tavares Report which sailed through the European Parliament with many votes to spare.  The report provides a bill of particulars against the Fidesz government and lays out a strong program to guide European Union institutions in bringing Hungary back into the European fold.   With the passage of this report, Europe has finally said no to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his constitutional revolution.

The Tavares Report is by far the strongest and most consequential official condemnation of the Fidesz consolidation of power over the last three years.  And it creates a strong set of tools for European institutions to use in defending the long-term prospects for Hungarian democracy.

The report passed with a surprisingly strong vote:   370 in favor, 248 against and 82 abstentions.   In a Parliament split almost evenly between left and right, this tally gave the lie to the Hungarian government’s claim that the report was merely a conspiracy of the left.  With about 50 of the 754 MEPs absent, the total number of yes votes was still larger than the total number of MEPs of all of the left parties combined.   In short, even if all MEPs had been present, the left alone still couldn’t account for all of those votes.   And since the 82 abstentions had the effect of allowing the report to go forward, they should be read as soft “yeses” rather than undecided or negative votes.

Most of the abstentions no doubt came from Fidesz’s own party in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party (EPP).  Many EPP members signaled ahead of time that they could not back Orbán but also would not vote overtly against the position of their party, which officially supported him without whipping the votes.    FIdesz had been counting on party discipline to save it.  But now it is clear that Fidesz is terribly isolated within the EPP.

The tally on the final report was not a roll-call vote, so we do not know for sure just who voted for it in the end.  But the roll-call votes on the proposed amendments to the bill (see pp. 106-119 of this complicated document)  revealed that many members of the European People’s Party (EPP) and the even-more-conservative group of European Conservatives and Reformists (ERC) voted to keep the report from being diluted at crucial junctures.   Each attempt to weaken the report was rejected openly by 18-22 EPP votes and by 8-12 ERC votes.   We can guess that the MEPs who rejected the hostile changes must have voted in favor of the report in the end, along with even more of their colleagues who could at that point vote anonymously.

For a government that believes that majorities are everything and supermajorities are divine, it must have been hard for Fidesz to see only one-third of those in the European Parliament voting in its defense, when conservatives occupy about half of the seats.   Since many of the votes in the Fidesz column were from cranky Euro-skeptics who simply did not want the EU to gain more powers rather than from those who were solidly backing the broader Fidesz view of the world, the defeat is even more humiliating.    Where was the United European Right when Orbán needed them?   Apparently not in his camp.

When he dramatically appeared in the European Parliament for the debate yesterday, Orbán claimed that the report represented the persecution of a well-meaning right-wing government by the unified and hostile European left.

Today, with this extraordinary vote, we saw a coalition of left and right MEPs standing up together for the values of Europe.

The Tavares report is named after Rui Tavares, the Portuguese MEP who was the rapporteur on this patient and careful study of the Hungarian constitutional revolution.  He deserves much of the credit for the factually impeccable report and as well as for skillfully guiding it through a complicated and perilous process.   Despite repeated attempts to amend the report, gut its strong conclusions and weaken its remedies by Fidesz MEPs and their allies, all efforts to change the report in any substantial way failed at every stage.

Rui Tavares

Rui Tavares

With its acceptance today of the Tavares Report, the European Parliament has created a new framework for enforcing the principles of Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union, which proclaims that the 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 persons belonging to minorities.”

So what, concretely, does the report do?  It puts a very clever system of monitoring and assessment in place.    While there are many elements in the report, the most important four elements are these, identified by paragraph number in the report as voted by the Parliament today:

  1.   An “Article 2 Alarm Agenda” which requires the European Commission in all of its dealings with Hungary to raise only Article 2 issues until such time as Hungary comes into compliance with the report (para. 69).  This Alarm Agenda effectively blocks all other dealings between the Commission and Hungary until Hungary addresses the issues raised in the report.
  2. A “Trilogue” (a three-way dialogue) in which the Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament will each delegate members to a new committee that will engage in a close review of all activities of the Hungarian government relevant to the report (Para. 85).   This committee is charged with assessing the progress that Hungary is making in complying with the list of specific objections that the report identifies.  The Trilogue sets up a system of intrusive monitoring, much more intrusive than the Excessive Deficit Procedure (EDP) from which Hungary just escaped.   Under the EDP, European bodies only looked at the budget’s bottom line to determine whether Hungary’s deficit was within acceptable bounds.  Under the Trilogue, the committee can examine anything that is on the long list of particulars that the report identifies as within its scope.
  3. A “Copenhagen Commission” or high-level expert body through which a panel of distinguished and independent experts will be assigned the power to review continued compliance with the Copenhagen criteria used for admission to the EU on the part of any member state (para. 78-80).   The idea behind this body, elaborated in a report by my Princeton colleague Jan-Werner Müller, is that non-political experts should be given the task of judging whether member states are still acting on the values of Article 2.   Since Orbán kept claiming double standards and dirty politics all of the way through this process in the European Parliament, a Copenhagen Commission consisting of impeccable experts and modeled on the Council of Europe’s Commission for Democracy through Law (the Venice Commission) would move the process of fact-finding and assessment from political officials to non-partisan experts.
  4. And in the background, there is still Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union.  Article 7, which identifies a procedure through which an EU member state can be deprived of its vote in the European Council and therefore would lose representation in the decision-making processes of the EU, is considered the “nuclear option” – unusable because extreme.   But the Tavares Report holds out the possibility of invoking Article 7 if the Hungarian government does not comply with the monitoring program and reform its ways  (para. 86).    Because the Tavares Report lays out detailed expectations of the Hungarian government, the Parliament and the Council who would have to vote on Article 7 in the end would have a strong factual record to work with if they decided to go nuclear.

These are important tools in the toolkit that European institutions can now use to ensure that a member state of the European Union maintains its European constitutional commitments.

Yesterday at the plenary debate, both Commission President José Manual Barroso and Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship Viviane Reding indicated their willingness to follow the Parliament’s direction.    We can therefore expect an eager uptake from the Commission on the elements of the report that require the Commission’s active participation.

But perhaps the most breathtaking part of the report is the list of what these various monitoring bodies can examine.    Here it is worth quoting at length from the report itself, because the scope and breadth of the complaints against the Hungarian government indicate that these monitoring processes will be authorized to look at the most fundamental elements of what it means to be a robust democracy committed to the rule of law and the protection of human rights.  Here is the list of items that the Hungarian government must address, taken from para. 71 of the report, where the Parliament . . .

Urges the Hungarian authorities to implement as swiftly as possible all the measures the European Commission as the guardian of the treaties deems necessary in order to fully comply with EU law, fully comply with the decisions of the Hungarian Constitutional Court and implement as swiftly as possible the following recommendations, in line with the recommendations of the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe and other international bodies for the protection of the rule of law and fundamental rights, with a view to fully complying with 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 on strong safeguards for fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, the media and religion or belief, protection of minorities, action to combat discrimination, 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 reduce the recurrent use of cardinal laws in order to leave policy areas such as family, social, fiscal and budget matters to ordinary legislation and majorities;

–             to implement the recommendations of the Venice Commission and, in particular, to revise the list of policy areas requiring a qualified majority with a view to ensuring meaningful future 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 participation by the wider public in the legislative procedure;

–             to ensure the widest possible participation by all parliamentary parties in the constitutional process, even though the relevant special majority is held by the governing coalition alone;

On checks and balances:

–             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 changes to the Fundamental Law, as well as the abolition of two decades of constitutional case law; 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 full judicial review; such a judicial and constitutional review may be exerted in different ways in different Member States, depending on the specificities of each national constitutional history, but once established, a Constitutional Court – like the Hungarian one, which after the fall of the communist regime has rapidly built a reputation among Supreme Courts in Europe – should not be subject to measures aimed at reducing its competences and thus undermining the rule of law;

–             to restore the possibility for the judicial system to refer to the case law issued before the entry into force of the Fundamental Law, in particular in the field of fundamental rights;

             to strive for consensus when electing the members of the Constitutional Court, with meaningful involvement of the opposition, and to ensure that the members of the court are free from political influence;

–             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 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 and the safeguards on the independence of the Constitutional Court are enshrined in the Fundamental Law;

–             to promptly and correctly implement the abovementioned 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;  [NOTE:  Venice Commission reports on Hungary can be found here.]

On the electoral reform:

–              to invite the Venice Commission and the OSCE/ ODIHR to carry out a joint analysis of the comprehensively changed legal and institutional framework of the elections and to invite the ODIHR for a Needs Assessment Mission and a long and short term election observation.

–             to ensure balanced representation within the National Election Committee;

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 objective, 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 related European Court of Human Rights 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, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities:

–             to take, and continue with, positive actions and effective measures to ensure that the fundamental rights of all persons, including persons belonging to minorities and homeless persons, are respected and to ensure their implementation by all competent public authorities; when reviewing the definition of ‘family’, to take into account the legislative trend in Europe to broaden the scope of the definition of family and the negative impact of a restricted definition of family on the fundamental rights of those who will be excluded by the new and more restrictive definition;

–             to take a new approach, finally assuming its responsibilities towards homeless – and therefore vulnerable – people, as set out in the international treaties on human rights to which Hungary is a signatory, such as the European Convention on Human Rights and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, and thus to promote fundamental rights rather than violating them by including in its Fundamental Law provisions that criminalise homeless people;

–             calls on the Hungarian Government to do all in its power to strengthen the mechanism for social dialogue and comprehensive consultation and to guarantee the rights associated with this;

–             calls on the Hungarian Government to increase its efforts to integrate the Roma and to lay down targeted measures to ensure their protection. Racist threats directed at the Roma must be unequivocally and resolutely repelled;

On freedom of religion or belief and 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 abovementioned Decision 6/2013 of the Constitutional Court;

One more item was added to this list by amendment from Rui Tavares in the Parliament this morning:

– to cooperate with the European institutions in order to ensure that the provisions of the new National Security Law comply with the fundamental principles of the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, respect for private and family life and the right to an effective remedy.

In short, this is a huge list of items, which together constitute the core of the Fidesz power grab.  This section of the report identifies the list of things that the Hungarian government must now change, and the mechanisms I identified above are the key ones through which compliance will be monitored and assessed.

It is hard to imagine a more sweeping indictment of the Fidesz constitutional revolution in Hungary over these last three years.

But back to where we started:  with today’s vote in the European Parliament.   This long list of offending actions of the Hungarian government was agreed to by left and right in the European Parliament, by a large majority and with serious tools to ensure that the Hungarian government changes its ways and returns to the path of democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights.

The European Parliament is the most diverse and democratic institution in Europe.  One day when the history of the European constitution is written, the Tavares Report and its enthusiastic acceptance in the European Parliament will stand for Europe at its best.

Viviane Reding is the target in the Hungarian “war of independence”

It is truly amazing how fast “scandals” can break out in Hungary especially if, as I suspect, there is a concerted effort on the part of the government to create them. Here I was without a computer for two days and almost missed “the greatest scandal of the European Union.” Or at least this is what Fidesz MEP László Surján claims. He was talking about accusations originating in Hungarian circles about Viviane Reding, European Commissioner  for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship. She is accused of trying to cast a shadow on the outcome of next year’s national election. Of course, the assumption is that Fidesz will again win the election, but the “enemies of Hungary” led by Viviane Reding herself will question the validity of this outcome.

What happened? On the morning of June 18 Magyar Nemzet came out with a news item that began an avalanche of articles, to be precise fifteen in number, within two and a half days. According to the article, the paper received information from Brussels that Reding along with José Manuel Barroso had attended the Bilderberg Conference held in England between June 6 and 9. The Bilderberg Group which organizes these conferences was created with a view to building bridges between the United States and the European Union. It is often the target of far-right groups in the U.S. as well as in Europe.

At the conference allegedly fifteen minutes were devoted to the case of Hungary during which Reding informed her audience of her efforts on behalf of the Hungarian opposition to cast a shadow on the purity of the forthcoming Hungarian elections. These opposition forces are allegedly being financed by the United States. In no time it also became clear that Gordon Bajnai and Ferenc Gyurcsány are involved in this plot as well. At this point Magyar Nemzet didn’t reveal the origin of its story but later we found out that the source was an unnamed Italian “official.”

By the afternoon the Fidesz script was already written. It was most likely also decided that it will be the Christian Democrats who will lead the charge against Reding. I guess the Fidesz strategists remain convinced that those “ignorant bureaucrats” in Brussels don’t realize that Fidesz and KDNP are one and the same. Occasionally there is a division of labor depending on the issue. In any case, a few hours after the first article appeared on June 18 the Christian Democrats already had a communiqué ready. They will sue Reding and everybody else involved. By the next day they demanded her resignation. A Christian Democrat MEP, László Surján, officially approached the appropriate committee to investigate her case. He also called for her resignation.

Meanwhile back home Zsolt Semjén, chairman of the party and deputy prime minister; Péter Harrach, whip of the Christian Democratic caucus; and the spokesman of the party, István Pálffy, did the talking. They were everywhere, but HírTV, the pro-government television station owned by the same group that is in charge of Magyar Nemzet, was especially full of interviews. By the time the Christian Democrats began talking in the electronic media there was no doubt in their minds that Reding is guilty of the charge. She really did reveal that she was conspiring with the Hungarian opposition against the rightful government of the country.  Harrach was especially adamant. Perhaps they will not be able to prove it, but they are convinced that the report coming from Brussels is “true.” Reding should not only be removed but should disappear altogether from the political life of her country and the Union. Pálffy even went so far as to talk about possible withdrawal from the Union if the present structure of the EU is changed in 2020.

Goddess Diana hunting / Wikipedia

Goddess Diana hunting / Wikipedia

On what basis does the Hungarian government hiding behind the nonexistent Christian Democratic party accuse Viviane Reding of criminal behavior? The man who first reported that Reding would attend the Bilderberg Conference was István Lovas, Magyar Nemzet‘s correspondent in Brussels. The readers of Hungarian Spectrum are most likely unfamiliar with his name because lately he hasn’t been in the limelight unlike during the 1998-2002 period when he had a rather unsavory reputation. At that time he was in charge of creating a right-wing pro-Fidesz corps of journalists. His students were told to keep lists of “unreliable” foreign journalists who were critical of the first Orbán government. Altogether he has a murky past. As a young man in Hungary he was accused of rape. Later he illegally left Hungary and worked for Radio Free Europe in Munich for a while, but apparently he couldn’t get along with anyone. He also spent some time in California where he left behind a wife and child whom he refused to support.

In any case, Lovas claims that sometime in April a mysterious Italian official approached him with the news that Reding would be attending the Bilderberg Conference. Lovas approached Reding’s spokeswoman who told him that this was the first time she had heard about such a trip. So he dropped the story, but the journalists at Magyar Nemzet didn’t. They madly tried to learn something about the Bilderberg Group and were happy to discover that an economist known for her far-right views was the first in Hungary to call attention to this evil secret organization. Then they approached the liberal Paul Lendvai who attended three of these conferences between 1968 and 1993. Lendvai assured them that there was nothing sinister about these meetings between politicians and influential European and American businessmen. I’m certain that the Magyar Nemzet journalists opted to believe the right-leaning economist and not Paul Lendvai, whom they consider “an enemy of the country.” Obviously the Bilderberg Group and Reding interested them greatly, and they published a number of articles about the Bilderberg conferences.

Then came June 5 when Lovas’s mysterious informer, the Italian official,  told him that the conference would have a 15-minute discussion on Hungary. The conference ended on June 10, and I assume that further details about this 15-minute discussion must have reached Lovas soon thereafter. So why the long wait to break the story? My guess is that Magyar Nemzet withheld it until Fidesz-KDNP could create its own version.

What most likely helped their work was that during the weekend both Gordon Bajnai and Ferenc Gyurcsány talked about the growing fear that is gripping the country and about stories circulating of hidden cameras above the voting booths. With that the connection between Reding and the opposition could easily be established.

Reding categorically denied the story and the European Commission announced that it has no intention of investigating Reding’s alleged criminal activity.

By the way, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Hungary actually came up in the discussion. After all, the Hungarian government’s behavior in the European Union has been causing considerable headache for the EU leadership and parliament lately. Reding may even have described the general atmosphere in Hungary and the fear of political retribution spreading in the country. However, the rest of the story is simply unbelievable. Reding is a seasoned politician who has been in political life since 1979; she wouldn’t share such a bizarre story even if it were true. As I said, she may have talked about the fear of possible electoral fraud and/or fear of the almighty and very aggressive Fidesz. But the rest of the story was concocted somewhere in the witches’ kitchen of Fidesz-KDNP’s strategists.

But this is a dangerous game. Both Barroso and Reding are members of the European People’s party. What do the Hungarian Christians want to achieve with this frontal attack on a fellow Christian Democrat? I can’t imagine that this attack could possibly help the Hungarian cause. But perhaps their minds work differently from mine.

Viktor Orbán’s ongoing fight with the European Union. It’s time to end it!

Yesterday I reported on two speeches that Viktor Orbán gave last Thursday and Friday. I didn’t mention his usual Friday morning interview on the state radio station. But this interview was certainly important, perhaps more important than his ruminations about a “work-based” society or likening his government’s economic policies to building a Lego structure full of fantasy and inventiveness.

It was more important because the better part of the interview was about the European Commission’s objections to the Fourth Amendment to the Hungarian constitution.

As far as the Hungarian prime minister is concerned, there is nothing wrong with the Hungarian constitution or any of the new laws passed by his two-thirds majority. The alleged legal objections are no more than “pretexts.” The real reason is a disapproval of his government’s economic policies. And he doesn’t beat around the bush. “Hungary stepped on the toes of [the western countries]. This is clear. Every time in the interest of the Hungarian people we introduce, for example, bank levies or we tax multinational companies, attacks on Hungary come immediately. Now that we have decreased the price of utilities, these attacks intensify.”

So, the western countries of the European Union are putting political and legal pressure on Hungary in defense of the economic interests of their own capitalists. The pressure must be kept up because “the multinationals, especially some of the largest ones in the world, cannot reconcile themselves to the fact that they have to give up their extra, luxury, and guaranteed profits. They don’t want to accept the fact that we, meaning the current Hungarian government, will not resign ourselves to a situation in which people in Hungary should spend more for basic services than these firms charge in their own countries. This is unacceptable.”

In case some of you don’t know what Viktor Orbán is talking about when he mentions “luxury profit,” extra profit, and guaranteed profit, don’t worry. He doesn’t either. “Luxury profit” doesn’t crop up too often in Hungarian texts, but it seems that Fidesz politicians created this new “concept.” I found references to it from 2005 when Lajos Kósa and others used the word. I guess it means high profit. “Extra profit” is a hangover from the earlier socialist times when Marxist economists talked about a kind of ceiling on profit; any profit above that was a sign of capitalistic excess and exploitation. Unfortunately, one can still hear the term far too often.

Another comment I would like to make here is that utility prices are not really higher in Hungary than in other countries. In fact, they are a tad below the European Union average. The profit margin of foreign utility companies is pretty low. After all, prices are set by the government. Yes, the average Hungarian family spends a larger portion of its income on utilities, but not because the prices are extraordinarily high but because Hungarian wages are very low. So much for the tirade against foreign owners of utility companies.

The journalist who conducts these Friday interviews is well trained. He formulates his questions in such a way that Viktor Orbán has total freedom to talk about whatever he wants.  So, there was plenty of opportunity for the prime minister to express his total astonishment that there are no reasoned arguments on the part of the European Commission. Moreover,  “there are no concrete criticisms.”

A little later, however, Orbán forgot his contention that there was nothing concrete in either José Manuel Barroso’s letter or in Viviane Reding’s  speech in the European Parliament. Orbán admitted that  he knows “about three concrete questions mentioned by Mr. Barroso…. Two of them have no significance, so we are quite ready to accept his–in my opinion, wrong opinions.  But in the third question, we don’t want to engage in any discussion [with the Union].” The first two questions address the very severe limitations on political advertisement at election time and the transference of certain court cases at will from one court to another. If you recall, the Orbán government was willing to change these two laws slightly. There would be no limitation on advertisement for the European Parliamentary election and cases that involve European Union law would not be transferable.

Viktor Orbán at a press conference after his 2912 debate in the European Parliament  Reuters, photo  Vincent  Kessler

Viktor Orbán at a press conference after his 2012 debate in the European Parliament
Reuters, photo Vincent Kessler

Let’s see what Viviane Reding said about these two newly worded paragraphs. On the issue of restrictions of political advertisement she said: “Whilst limitations may be acceptable in some cases, they would only be lawful if they are duly justified and proportionate. It should be noted that the audience share of private media where the restriction would apply represents almost 80% in Hungary.” As for the amendment enabling the president of the National Office for the Judiciary to transfer cases from one court to another, she said: “If applied to a case concerning EU law, it could raise issues of incompatibility with the EU obligation to provide for remedies sufficient to ensure effective legal protection and to the right to a fair trial as foreseen by the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The third concrete issue mentioned in the Barroso letter was Article 17 of the Fourth Amendment that deals with fines for infringement of European Union laws. Reding argued: “The implementation of this provision would mean that Hungary would introduce an ad-hoc tax on Hungarian citizens should Hungary be fined for breach of EU law. Is it really sensible to make citizens pay for a tax whenever the state would fail to be in compliance with EU law? In practice citizens would be penalised twice: once for not having had their rights under EU law upheld and a second time for having to pay for this. This could undermine the authority of the Court of Justice and could constitute a violation of the duty of sincere cooperation in Article 4 (3) of the Treaty on the European Union on the part of Hungary.”

Orbán refuses to budge on this third point. If Hungary has to pay a fine because its government violated European law, the government has a right to tax the people because otherwise the deficit might not be kept under the magic 3%. And Hungary can’t afford this. “This is a rule that is perfectly compatible with European efforts to keep the deficit low. This is an important limit on overspending. We will not retreat on this point. If necessary we are ready to go to the European Court of Justice on this issue.”

This is where Viktor Orbán stands at the moment. Let’s see where the European Commission stands: “As for the rule of law. 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. “

I assume that by now the politicians of the European Union fully understand whom they are dealing with. Orbán is cunning, combatative, and ruthless. He might alter a word here or there in the constitution, but fundamentally nothing will change. He is standing firm. I don’t think he would even care very much if Hungary were stripped of its voting rights in the Union. What he cares about is EU money. Practically every penny that Hungary receives from the European Union in one way or another ends up in the pockets of his cronies and/or is spent on useless frivolities. EU subsidies help keep this man in power. And that’s a crime against the Hungarian people.

The right-wing media on the parliamentary debate on Hungary in Strasbourg

While the opposition papers published scores of articles before and after the European parliamentary discussion in Strasbourg, government organs have been fairly quiet. Of those few articles that did appear in Magyar Nemzet and Magyar Hírlap some were simply personal attacks on European parliamentary members who are in one way or the other connected with the Hungarian case.

Way ahead of the parliamentary debate Magyar Nemzet made certain that its readers know who that horrible Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, is. Where he came from and how he got the top EP job. The article was written by János Boros, a professor of philosophy who made a rather unsavory name for himself as one of the henchmen of the Orbán government involved in the attack against liberal philosophers back in 2011. I wrote about him and the Institute of Philosophy of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences at that time. His new mission was to explain to those unsuspecting Hungarians who don’t read Der Spiegel or any other foreign newspaper that Schulz is a truly despicable character.

A while back Der Spiegel had a spread on the career of  Schulz–from a troubled youth to one of the best known figures in European politics. But while Der Spiegel talked about the road he traveled in admiring terms, Boros finished his article this way: “His first girlfriend, who left him because he was in a drunken stupor too often, today is proud of him. Schulz is also proud of himself. But whom should Europe be proud of? And the European Hungary?” Although the article is not at all original because Boros only quotes a sentence here and a sentence there from Der Spiegel, his choices were intended to show Schulz in the worst possible light.

T. Gyula Máté of Magyar Hírlap wrote an even more tasteless piece on Hannes Swoboda, the leader of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, whom he called “the lapdog of Reding.” He imagined a breakfast meeting with the Hungarian socialist MP Zita Gurmai–Genosse Zita, as Máté called her–who naturally misinforms Swoboda about the Hungarian situation. As if Swoboda needed a lot of outside information. He is an Austrian who is connected to Hungary by family ties. His mother’s family is from Miskolc and he visits Hungary quite often. In any case, according to Máté, Swoboda’s argumentation during the debate clearly showed that Reding’s strategy of courting the socialists and liberals to bolster her candidacy for the presidency of the European Commission is bearing fruit. I might add that Máté misspelled the name of Swoboda as well as Luxembourg throughout.

Only Hungary has gripes against Viviane Reding? Europe's bulldog / Heti Válasz, April 11, 2013

Only Hungary has gripes against Viviane Reding?
Europe’s bulldog / Heti Válasz, April 11, 2013

Well, if Swoboda is a lapdog, Reding is a bulldog. At least according to Heti Válasz, a pro-government weekly. A bulldog is considered to be stubbornly persistent. But it seems that Reding is more than that. She is also a schemer, at least according to Magyar Nemzet, who most likely passed on the “lie” about the dissatisfaction of the European People’s Party with Viktor Orbán to Új Magyar Szó, a Hungarian-language paper from Cluj/Kolozsvár. She decided to pick a journalist from a Hungarian paper in Romania to spread the news worldwide!

Another Magyar Nemzet article appeared today under the headline “The left uses the methods of the communist secret police.” This piece of nonsense came from Ágnes Hankiss, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament. In her opinion the very fact that the debate on the “Hungarian question” took place in Strasbourg signifies that the 2014 European parliamentary campaign has already begun. At the center of the campaign is “the weakening of the EPP and the Christian Democratic parties.”  She also immediately addressed a letter to Viviane Reding asking her opinion on the Slovak government’s prohibition of dual citizenship for its Slovak-Hungarian minority. Surely, this is an attempt to prove Reding’s partiality.

I might also mention here that during the parliamentary debate only a Pole from the PiS of Jarosław Kaczyński and Krisztina Morvai of Jobbik defended the Hungarian government. Morvai’s speech is available on YouTube. Judging from the comments, it seems that only Jobbik members and sympathizers have visited the site. Morvai, just like her close friends in Fidesz, lobbed personal attacks on Viviane Reding and Rui Tavares, the chairman of  a parliamentary committee (LIBE) that is in charge of preparing the working documents on the Hungarian case for consideration by the whole parliament.

She declared that since neither Reding nor Tavares has a law degree neither of them is qualified for the job. Moreover, the whole procedure against Hungary is unlawful and “explicitly arbitrary.” It is part of the “European Union’s war against Hungary.”

This is how the Orbán government, its media, and their Jobbik friends are casting the European Union debate. Surely, if they were so confident that their legislative actions would pass scrutiny they wouldn’t have to resort to character assassination. But we shouldn’t be surprised. This is exactly what Fidesz politicians have been doing for almost twenty years. They have plenty of practice.

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.

Fidesz, the European People’s Party, and the Alliance of Reformers and Conservatives

Let me to return to my post of April 12 entitled “Europe fights back: Viktor Orbán may be in real trouble this time.” In it I wrote that according to the reporter of Új Magyar Szó, a Hungarian-language paper in Romania, the caucus of the European People’s Party is seriously thinking about removing Fidesz from the group because the politicians of EPP no longer consider Fidesz a conservative-liberal party with a Christian Democratic program. According to a person close to Viviane Reding, Joseph Daul, the leader of the caucus, Viviane Reding, and Antonio López-Istúriz, secretary-general of EPP, discussed the matter over dinner in Dubrovnik.

Soon enough came the denial. The report from Romania is entirely without foundation, said Kostas Sasmatsoglu, EPP spokesman.  Antonio López-Istúriz wasn’t even present at the meeting of the caucus in Dubrovnik. He added that Vivane Reding ” didn’t hold a dinner meeting where the question of the future of Fidesz was discussed.”  He added that EPP can hardly wait to welcome Viktor Orbán in Strasbourg.

As soon as I read this communiqué I was struck by the odd sentence about Reding not holding a dinner meeting where the future of Fidesz was on the agenda. Sure, there may have been nothing official, but Daul and Reding might have discussed the question informally. I said at the time that although it is possible that not all the details are correct, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if at the end it turns out that there is something to the story.

Well, it looks as if I was right. The reporter for Új Magyar Szó, Árpád Zsolt Moldován, insists that his story is accurate. Fidesz’s possible departure was not only discussed during dinner but Daul and Reding also had a private meeting about the matter in the afternoon.

Fidesz's next home in Brussels? After the liberals, the Christian Democrats, now the Euro-Skeptics?

Fidesz’s next home in Brussels? After the liberals and then the Christian Democrats, now the Euro-Skeptics?

Moldován’s source is a member of Reding’s closest circle. The source claims that it was Daul who initiated the talk with Reding. Daul had found out from the Polish group in the caucus that the Fidesz delegation had begun exploratory talks with the EP caucus called the Alliance of European Reformers and Conservatives (AERC). Who are they? The caucus was formed in 2009 from EP members of parliament who are on the whole Euro-skeptic and farther to the right than EPP.  To give you an idea of the composition of the group, the largest contingent comes from the British Conservative Party, the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists (26 members) followed by 9 Občanská demokratická strana (Civic Democratic Party) members from the Czech Republic and 6 members of Kaczyński’s party (PiS) and 5 members of the Polska Jest Najważniejsza (Poland Comes First). Daul was told that Viktor Orbán had met Jarosław Kaczyński just the other day. The suspicion was that the talk might have had something to do with Fidesz’s decision to look around for a caucus where they might feel more at home.

If Fidesz leaves on its own or is expelled, the EPP caucus, the largest in the European Parliament, will lose 17 members. Certainly the leaders of the EPP delegation are not happy about such an eventuality, but “at least then the situation would be clearer.”

Moldován’s source emphasized that nothing has been decided yet, but the number of those who are worried about developments in Hungary is growing. He claimed that the delegation membership is split right down  the middle. Fifty percent support Fidesz while the other half are against Viktor Orbán’s policies. But in EPP as a whole–that would include members of the commission and other officials of the Brussels bureaucracy–the percentage of those who oppose Fidesz’s membership in EPP is 70%. And their numbers are steadily growing. More and more people question Orbán’s honesty and reliability. But “it will be Wilfried Martens, the president of EPP, who will make the final decision.”

My hunch is that Fidesz’s position within the EPP delegation is not in imminent danger. I think he could still get at least a slight majority of the members to side with him. But he is preparing for the eventuality that perhaps that slight majority will evaporate in the next few weeks, and he wants the decision to be his whether he stays or leaves the Christian Democrats and joins the Euro-skeptics where he actually belongs.

What I also find fascinating is that according to the insider’s information it was the Polish delegation that warned most likely Daul about the exploratory talks between Fidesz and the leadership of the AERC. You may recall that right after he became prime minister Viktor Orbán’s first foreign trip was to Warsaw. He had grandiose plans for a north-south axis of like-minded East-Central European States from the Baltic to the Adriatic. He made several overtures to Donald Tusk, whom he was certain would be an ally. But Orbán received a cold shoulder from Tusk. Tusk is a whole-hearted  supporter of the European Union and envisages Poland’s future in close cooperation with its western neighbor Germany. Thus, although Orbán made at least two trips to Warsaw, Tusk failed to return the visits. Presumably he keeps away from Orbán, at least in part, because he realizes that Orbán’s policies are leading him farther and farther away from Europe. Perhaps the Polish Christian Democrats’  “helpful”  information was intended to speed up the “divorce” process. After all, if Fidesz joins AERC at least he will be with his true Polish friends in the PiS. From there on Tusk doesn’t even have to pretend.