The Hungarian case in the European Parliament

On February 8, a day before the scheduled hearing on the state of Hungarian democracy in the European Parliament’s committee on rights of citizens, Eszter Zalán, Népszabadság‘s correspondent reporting on European Union affairs, believed that interest in the Hungarian question had lost its momentum. It’s true, she wrote, that there will be a four-hour session devoted to Hungary, but the journalist was sure that very few people would be present because, after all, February 9 is a Thursday and most likely many members of parliament will be on their way home for the weekend. All in all, “Orbán will survive the attack from Brussels with relatively few scratches.”

Although earlier, in mid-January, it was reported from Strasbourg that the European parliament was considering a move to strip Hungary of some its European Union rights, a month later this seemed unlikely. But that was before Tibor Navracsics, deputy prime minister of Hungary, showed up at the hearing held yesterday afternoon. By last night it was reported by Euobserver that “the European Commission has indicated it is ready to use its nuclear option–Article 7 on political sanctions–against Hungary if it continues to flout EU law.” This announcement came after a testy exchange between Commissioner Neelie Kroes and Tibor Navracsics.

Presumably Tibor Navracsics was chosen to represent Hungary at the hearing because there is a general perception in Hungary that Navracsics cuts a better figure than Viktor Orbán, especially abroad. He is a less confrontational than Orbán and altogether looks and acts more civilized than the Hungarian prime minister. Well, that might be the case looking at Navracsics from Budapest. A few hundred kilometers west of the Hungarian capital, he looked anything but moderate, civilized, or polite. It didn’t matter how hard Navracsics tried to hold himself back, he didn’t succeed. When I watched the video of the exchange between Navracsics and Neelie Kroes I cringed. Some of the Hungarian sentences I managed to catch before the English translation cut in actually sounded worse than the English version.

Navracsics karikatura

Navracsics wasn’t smiling yesterday

Eszter Zalán was wrong, the chamber was quite full. It seems that interest in the state of Hungarian democracy hasn’t waned. The session devoted to Hungary lasted longer than the scheduled four hours. The Hungarian government was represented by five Fidesz EU parliamentary members: József Szájer, János Ádler, Lívia Járóka, King Gál, and Ádám Kósa, and from Romania, Csaba Sógor. Járóka is Roma and Kósa is a deaf mute. Járóka was there to praise the government’s Roma policies and Kósa to call attention to the excellent treatment of the disabled. Too bad that neither was particularly convincing. In fact, they were squarely contradicted by the other side who cited specific instances of discrimination.Let me also add that by now the Hungarian government’s reputation in Brussels or in Strasbourg cannot sink much lower. When Navracsics explained that he has to obey the Hungarian constitution, the audience broke out in laughter. After all, the problem is with the new Hungarian constitution. So appealing to it can solicit only laughter in this particular setting.

MSZP was represented by Kinga Göncz, who concentrated on the letter as opposed to the spirit of the law. She wanted to know whether the Hungarian government will reinstate András Baka as the chief justice of the Kúria and András Jóri as ombudsman for data security. Of course, Göncz is not naive; she knows full well that the Orbán government has no intention of reinstating either man.

In addition to these politicians Balázs Dénes, a young lawyer working for the Hungarian equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, talked about discrimination against the Roma and the disabled, the new constitution that was thrown together in nine days, and the general disregard of the law. Dénes announced that “the only sober voice is that of the European Commission. Absolute power is like a drug, that’s why we need you.”

Lajos Makai, president of the Association of Hungarian Judges, told the committee that members of the legal profession didn’t take part in drafting the constitution. Only after it was enacted could they express their observations. The judges were surprised about the decision to lower the retirement age for practicing judges. Zoltán Fleck, a legal scholar, stressed the necessity to look at the whole network of institutions and not merely the small deformities of individual institutions.

András Arató, CEO of Klubrádió, talked about the situation of the public TV and radio stations where a central supplier of news has been falsifying the facts. Then he turned to the specific problems of Klubrádió, the only opposition radio in all of Hungary. Until the fall of 2010 Klubrádió could be heard in 10 different cities but since then the Media Council has taken away the frequency of Klubrádió in seven of these towns. Now they are trying to silence the Budapest 95.3 frequency.

A civil activist, Attila Kopjás (Steve), talked about the plight of the homeless. A new law forbids homeless people from “living on the streets.” If caught, they have to pay a heavy fine (500 euros) or, if they don’t happen to have 500 euros ready to hand, the culprits might be jailed. Last year he lay down on a park bench in clothing typical of a homeless man and was immediately arrested. Three days later he lay down on the same bench elegantly dressed and nothing happened to him. He even reported himself to the police for vagrancy, but they were not interested in his crime.

And finally, the Hungarian government let loose on Brussels Tamás Fricz, who is supposedly a political scientist. He works for the Institute of Political Science of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Unfortunately for the Hungarian government, he is poor even as a propagandist.

By today, I think that Tibor Navracsics knows that he lost this particular battle. He announced late last night that “it will not be a tragedy if a negative decision is reached on Hungary at the next plenary session of the European Parliament.” It is true that there are no legal consequences of such a decision, but it surely won’t help Hungary’s case.

And this is not the end. Soon enough Rózsa Hoffmann will have a heart-to-heart with Androulla Vassiliou, commissioner for education, culture, multilingualism, and youth. At the moment the European Commission is studying the new laws that have an impact on education. The European Commission has serious reservations about decreasing the age of compulsory education from eighteen to sixteen years. The commissioner is also not thrilled that the Orbán government reduced the length of study for vocational schools from four to three years. Moreover, according to the new law vocational students will take fewer academic subjects: languages, literature, history. After all, the intellectual giants who run the country at the moment consider such subjects useless. In a recent interview Viktor Orbán talked disdainfully of “himi-humi” subjects which, I assume, means the humanities.

And then there is the government intent to tie down Hungarian university graduates like indentured servants if they receive tuition-free education. Four tuition-free years, eight years of compulsory work in Hungary. This is surely a losing proposition in a country that belongs to the European Union.



  1. “…call attention to the excellent treatment of the disabled.”
    I don’t know about Budapest, but in Debrecen you almost never see blind people or anyone with physical disabilities. And in over 10 years, I have seen exactly ONE person with Downs Syndrome.
    So, either Hungary has considerably fewer disabled people than other countries, or they are all being kept at home – to avoid family embarrassment, as my wife explained it.
    A country that can’t even face up to the fact of disability is a long way from being able to cope with the needs of those people – or even the acceptance that they have the same rights as able-bodied people.

  2. “And then there is the government intent to tie down Hungarian university graduates like indentured servants if they receive tuition-free education. Four tuition-free years, eight years of compulsory work in Hungary. This is surely a losing proposition in a country that belongs to the European Union.”
    This particular item does not seem to be so repulsive. After all the tuition is paid for by the taxpayers and they can expect something back. Maybe student loans would be a more acceptable solution, and under certain conditions the loans could be forgiven. In the US the armed forces finance medical school for those, who then work for a number of years as military doctors.
    I think comparing the Hungarian studetnts to indentured servants is exagerated. After all the indentured servants had to work for nothing a number of years first and then they received some land and were free to go. The students receive their free education first from the government and the government then requires something in return, for a salary.

  3. Knowing that the students must work for 8 years, might employers want to pay them less than the going wage for the positions they fill? My trust level is pretty low.

  4. Gretchen: “Knowing that the students must work for 8 years, might employers want to pay them less than the going wage” Very valid point.
    At the same time Lego announced that they are expending their production in Hungary.. SInce they are building a new facility, it is secure to say that negotiations about the whole plan probably stated under the previous government. (Real estate deals, building permits, environmental assessments required takes years even in well oiled country, like Canada.) In any case, the reasons why they forging ahead is the cheap labour, and the special tax consideration they got but not willing to disclose.

  5. I disagree with you Eva. The Parliament might still be focused on Hungary at some level, but those who really count in Europe (Merkel, Barrosso and for a short time more Sarkozy) don’t want to deal with this.
    (1) Merkel does not want the EU to be blamed for deposing Orban.
    (2) I believe there is a limit to how much the real serious leaders believe the EU should interfere in a member’s internal affairs.
    Finally, look at the list of issues debated-just as reported by you. It seems to me that the hearings have lost focus. there should be two tracks: (1) the economic/financial and (2) the constitutional. On the second, the question is does the current Hungarian constitution violate principles of EU law? If it does, does the EU have the authority to bring sanctions upon the country?
    The EU should not be debating whether in general they approve of Hungarian government policies. This is clearly outside the scope of their authority and is not a standard applied to any countries. By attacking on all sides, by not focusing on the core questions, and by not garnering the explicit support of the key national leaders, in the end this exercise will end in failure AND Orban will survive. Pressure to remove Orban and for the Government to change paths must come from Hungary. This is not really happening. The people are too demoralized and apathetic.

  6. Paul: ” Debrecen you almost never see blind people or anyone with physical disabilities.”
    That’s the case. Partly because they hide them and partly because there are practically facilities to accommodate them.

  7. To GDF, Of course you are right. There should be tuition for all with the exception of the needy. But they don’t want to do this because they were the ones who initiated a referendum that resulted in overwhelming “no” to tuition. Now more than half of the students will pay very, very high tuition and the rest nothing. That way they don’t have to face a united front.

  8. Some1: “At the same time Lego announced that they are expending their production in Hungary.”
    And Nokia just laid off 2,300 people.

  9. Eva: “And Nokia just laid off 2,300 people.” Yes, I am aware of that. Daimler is also in the finishing touches to open their new facility. The point I was making is that the plans likely were put in place while the socialists run the country, but Orban will take the credit for it. Anyone with any level of commercial real estate experience, should be aware that these kind of a developments require years of work in planning/negotiating/permit works and approval, and that is just the Hungarian side. The corporations also have to go back to the board several times (the idea/locations selection/budget/logistics/revisions.) So Hungary should be thankful to the socialists. I seriously doubt that under the current wishy-washy tax/special tax/companies should raise employment earning because of the flat tax environment any of those companies would consider similar moves.
    Also from the 2500 workers that is let go from Nokia 1/3 are Slovakians. THere is a large flux of people who crossed from Komarno to Komarom each day to work.
    THe Benz factory in Kecskemet will employ around 2500 people while the Lego around 250.

  10. I have a daughter with a disability and I would have to say that the services for her are spotty. The biggest problem has been with the educational levels of the doctors and teachers in schools. We have spent considerable efforts educating doctors and teachers/schools with varying degrees of success. Until recently, they didn’t have a clue about the problem let alone diagnosis or treatments. We received our diagnosis in the US. We’ve had to develop a treatment plan on our own with help from organizations from outside of the country. Most of those organizations are simply inaccessible to the average Hungarian (aka language barriers). Today you can get some treatment by only in Budapest. As for vocational training and work prospects.. dismal at best.
    I do say spotty because we have received some state assistance and there have been some allowances made. But these things can’t replace a coordinated treatment schedule.

  11. NWO: “Pressure to remove Orban and for the Government to change paths must come from Hungary. This is not really happening.” and
    “those who really count in Europe … don’t want to deal with this.”
    I was thinking about that. First, no matter how much support the people defending their rights in Brussels have at home, I believe that this contact with the other Europeans is beneficial. The opposition might become more professional and more organised by that. It may lead to debates and a clarification of the current situation among those people who are (out of different reasons) opposed to the current development. It may help eventually to draft a common programme of the opposition. Not today and not tomorrow, probably, but the support of people related to the EP (some have own experience with authoritarian systems, also in the West) can be of great use.
    And second, I would not be so pessimistic about the role of Merkel and Sarkozy. Most likely they will not consider Hungary the most pressing issue at this moment, but why should they boycott work of the European Parliament. Certainly they do not like the idea that within the EU a country is constantly violating some of its basic principles. So should the EP come up with workable solutions or ideas how to tackle this “problem Hungary”, I would not be so sceptical about their contribution. But I fully agree that most of the work has to be done in Hungary by Hungarians.

  12. Re: “excellent care for the disabled”. Totalitarians of all varieties hate any diversions from their ideals of human perfection, those repulsively good-looking square-jawed homonculi in Nazi or Stalinist kitsch-paintings. In the better cases, the physically or mentally disabled are shunted off to isolation wards, in the worst it’s the gas chamber or the medical experiment for them.
    The Orban regime has been going after NGOs for the disabled with a vengeance, in one case that I know (but would prefer not to talk about too openly because I know people involved) actually verging on dirty tricks, or “ratf**king” in Richard Nixon’s charming phrase. Coming out of two successive types of totalitarian rule, Hungary needed its social integration of the “imperfect” to come through the civil society sector. Alas, there never was even enough of it around in the good times – simply by the law of averages, working with the handicapped would put the democratic-minded civil-society minority into direct contact with the undemocratic Hungarian majority, and in a mixture of unthinking snobbery and (largely justified) paranoia, the disabled of Hungary received much less attention than they should have. (Compare with the much wider array of Roma initiatives – from a sense of having less to fear from impoverished shanty-dwellers than the white working class).

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