Viktor Orbán’s grandiose plans might be thwarted by Strasbourg and Brussels

The bureaucrats, speculators, and foreign press are once again lining up against the Hungarian government.

Let’s start with the forint, which today breached the 300 mark against the euro. The forint’s weakness is the result of several factors: the appointment of György Matolcsy as chairman of the Hungarian National Bank; rumors about the possible exchange of some of the bank’s foreign reserves for rubles; and, the latest, word that the government intends “to assist” Hungarians with their foreign currency loans. The government would convert these loans into ones denominated in forints and would also lighten their burden by paying a certain percentage of their debt. The Hungarian government would use some of the reserves of the Hungarian National Bank for this purpose.

There are political pressures on the Orbán government as well. In the March 5 issue of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Michael Link, undersecretary in the German Foreign Ministry, wrote a piece that appeared on the op/ed page of the newspaper and available on the website of the German Foreign Ministry or in Hungarian on the Galamus site. The title itself is telling: “Hungary must remain a country of the law.” In the body of the article Link reasserts that “we cannot be indifferent” to what is happening in Hungary. Earlier the European Commission managed to convince the Hungarian government to change some passages in the Constitution. The Hungarian Constitutional Court also found some of the laws passed by the Hungarian Parliament to be unconstitutional. Now, however, there are new attempts to smuggle back all the formerly objectionable passages into the body of the constitution. These “new initiatives limit the freedom of expression for the alleged protection of the dignity of the Hungarian nation.”

rule of lawAs a friend of Hungary, Link would like Hungary “to demonstrate that the country has an effective separation of power between the legislative and the judicial” branches. As it stands, the Constitutional Court hands down judgments that the government ignores. “We need a vibrant parliament with a perceptible opposition and a confident Constitutional Court.” Link also wishes that “the two-thirds majority the Government relies on is used prudently. A two-thirds majority is not a free ride…. The European values that we share in the world, we must also cherish at home.” For good measure Link mentioned that Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle shares these concerns. Common European values “must apply to all EU members, both new and old.” As with each member state Hungary remains “master of its cultural identity,” but there have to be shared values. Among them the rule of law is the most central. “It must be able to develop without any ifs, and, or buts.”

The Hungarian answer that came from Gergely Gulyás, a young Fidesz MP and a member of the parliamentary committee on constitutional matters, was that “it is a misunderstanding” that the Hungarian government wants to limit the competence of the Constitutional Court. To the contrary, its latest amendments were made at the request of the Court itself. What else is new? We know from earlier government statements that everybody misunderstands the intentions of the Hungarian government and Viktor Orbán.

On the very same day the Financial Times came out with an editorial on “Orbán’s threat to democratic values.” It is about the same amendments Michael Link was talking about. The article reminds people that last year Viktor Orbán backed down on aspects of a new constitution that would have posed a threat to judicial, religious, and press freedoms. But this week the Hungarian parliament threatened to revive “curbs that violate European values in an amendment to the constitution. If this goes ahead, the response from Brussels should be rapid and robust.” According to the editorial, Brussels should “set out in precise detail where the amendment violates Hungary’s membership of the EU. But once that is established, it should warn Mr Orbán that it is prepared to use the most powerful weapons in its armoury to defend European values.” The article recalls that the EU was ill equipped thirteen years ago to handle the situation when the Austrian government included a far-right party as a coalition partner. But the editorial stresses that “this time there is greater political consensus that Mr Orbán’s attacks on democratic norms cannot be tolerated.” The FT editors suggest a withdrawal of Hungary’s voting rights and add that “financial sanctions too should be considered…. Faced with an economy in deep recession, and a decline in foreign investment, Mr. Orbán needs the money. Brussels should not hesitate to threaten a withdrawal of structural subsidies, for example, if Mr. Orbán does not call on his party to drop any amendments that violate EU membership. If the Hungarian prime minister insists on flouting European values, he cannot expect Europe’s support.”

And if that weren’t enough, today the secretary general of the Council of Europe called on the Hungarian government to postpone the vote on the latest amendment to the constitution. Thorbjørn Jagland wrote: “I have misgivings concerning the amendments that may not be compatible with the rule of law.”  He further argued that with the incorporation of these amendments the government with its two-thirds majority is forcing its will on the Constitutional Court and is thereby endangering the system of checks and balances. He suggests a postponement of the vote in order for the Venice Commission to study the matter.

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31 comments

  1. G. Gulyas…? Who the hell is he?

    Notice that Orban sends these young bucks out ‘to make their bones’…and they’re so much kindling. Nice. Wouldn’t want to be them looking into the mirror in a couple of years.

    Anyway, no one of substance (if there is such a dog left in the Fidesz pound) to answer these questions. And who would want to?

    How would you explain that the government
    is removing 20 years of judicial precedent and declaring them invalid in the future?

  2. Gulyás’ or rather Orbán’s tactic re the foreign critique of the proposed constitutinal changes is complete obfusctaion.

    The current amendments to the constitution consist literally of dozens of provisions, many of which have separate rationale and serve various reasons (some are planned assurances should a new government be formed, some are just overriding case law etc.).

    So – as there are so many issues raised in the amendments and therefore so many points to criticize – it is very easy to start an argument (discourse) by Fidesz, which could then drag on for ever, while the parties miss the point.

    By the time the parties amicably settle their arguments and everybody are happy and smiling (remember that Fidesz sucessfully sold the very restrictive media law to both the EU and the Council of Europe), the amendments are enacted.

    The problem is that – and Fidesz knows this – the critical party (whether Brussels, Strasbourg etc.) is ready to enter into a “professional discussion” with Fidesz because thereby such European entity could be, like any nice European, a reasonable gentleman, it will embody the European ideals of friendly, but professional delibaretaion.

    But the very point such foreign entity enters into an argument or debate or discussion, Fidesz already won, because the foreign entity enters a discourse which is lead and controlled by Fidesz. This is because Fidesz provides the ‘official’ translation, they created the whole Constitution, so their advisors have professional authority and intimate knowledge of the text, they are in a position to change the subject, i.e. rewrite the draft amendment which means that the discussion will shoot on a moving target etc.

    So politically it is very difficult to win over Fidesz (it is impossible). The only method would be to demand something and refuse to negotiate. Being open to negotiation immediatley makes the EU the loser of the game. Concidentally this kind of command/order style is the kind of power politics Orbán only understands.

    For Orbán, being friendly and open to debate means that ou are a loser and so such person immediately loses Orbán’s respect. But this is Europe, so nobody will order anything. The EU has never have done anything tough and decisive (e.g. it was the US which stopped the Balkan War with a couple of bombs, the EU, or its members like the Dutch in Sebrenica, could not care less). It’s not the European style.

  3. @Troppauer: Exactly. Europe doesn’t know how to deal with bullies… and it’s not the first time in history.

  4. Apologies. Re-posting the above. My left/right arrows played havoc with the implicit html and the message came out garbled:

    VIKTOR ORBAN IN THE MEDIA

    HS readers might find it amusing to see the games being played by the Fidesz faithful on Wikipedia.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viktor_Orbán#Viktor_Orb.C3.A1n_in_the_media

    After I posted this:


    In March 2013, Princeton University international constitutional law scholar and Hungary specialist Kim Lane Scheppele reported that the Hungarian ruling party’s supermajority is re-introducing in one “mega-amendment” multiple constitutional amendments which had been introduced before and nullified by the Constitutional Court or changed at the insistence of European bodies. The new constitutional mega-amendment again puts an end to the independence of the judiciary, brings universities under still more governmental control, opens the door to political prosecutions, criminalizes homelessness, makes the recognition of religious groups dependent on their cooperation with the government and weakens human rights guarantees across the board. In addition, the constitution will now buffer the government from further financial sanctions by permitting it to pass on all fines for noncompliance with the constitution or with European law to the Hungarian population as special taxes, not payable by the normal state budget. The mega-amendment annuls all of the decisions made by the Court before 1 January 2012 so that they have no legal effect. Henceforth no longer can anyone in the country – neither the Constitutional Court, nor the ordinary courts, nor human rights groups nor ordinary citizens – rely on the Court’s prior string of rights-protecting decisions.[84][85][86]

    “The amendment reverses virtually all of the concessions that the government has been forced to make over the last year, and it provides further evidence that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán recognizes no limits on his power.[87] :”[I]t seems increasingly likely that the Hungarian government is heading toward the creation of a police state” .[88][89]

    one “Ltbuni” posted this, by way of “balance” (with a few further amusing self-serving accuracies, which I fixed [I did not fix his English]: see the Revision history:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Viktor_Orbán&action=history )


    Mr. György Schöpflin — formerly Jean Monnet Professor of Politics at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London and currently member of the European Parliament for Viktor Orban’s party, Fidesz — has stated that the assertions of Kim Lane Scheppele „are teeming with misunderstandings, errors of fact, misreadings and ill-will.”[90] Analyzing the blog entry of the Princeton constitutional law professor, Mr. Ferenc Kumin — Deputy State Secretary for International Communication for Viktor Orban’s party, Fidesz — also states that on the one hand it has conceptual errors, because it constructs a narrative based on half-information gained only from opposition sources. Typical example of this is the case of homelessness, which is of course not criminalized in Hungary. The amendement declares that “in order to preserve the public order, public safety, public health and cultural values” the government may prohibit living in the streets, but the same amendment also says that the government is to ensure the right to housing, and the government has invested a considerable amount in shelters in the interest of the homeless as well as the general public. These are not mentioned in the blog entry of Miss Scheppele. On the other hand, according to Mr. Kumin, the entry is full of factual mistakes as well, of which the worst is the question of the decisions of the previous Court, which are and will be valid – contrary to Miss Scheppele’s text. Therefore Mr. Kumin – quoting her previous mistakes as well – concludes that the blog-entry did not meet the criteria of an objective analysis, and can be seen only as a political opinion.[91]

    I also noticed that our Ltbuni had also done a little more balanced reporting. In response to the Norway Helsinki report I posted:


    The new report of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, entitled “Democracy and Human Rights at Stake in Hungary: The Viktor Orbán Government’s drive for centralisation of power”[80] “describes how the Orbán government is centralizing power, undermining the independence of courts, and putting media freedom under pressure.[81]

    our latter-day exponent of the goddess Maat (no doubt soon to be claimed as an ancient Hungarian deity) appended this:


    The Hungarian ambassador in Norway, Géza Jeszenszky in his complaint letter refused this accusations drawing attention both to the factual mistakes (The leader of the so-called Media Council is not appointed by the Government – as stated in the report – but elected by the National Assembly, etc ) both to the biased sources of the report (The Committee consulted ten persons who belong to the political opposition or to opposition-leaning institutions, and only one person, who stood for the government). [82] [83]
    <—

    Our Ltbuni has just been naive: his special pleading will be transparent to any reader. But expect heavier vandalism of these critiques of Orban, once true believers are unleashed on it…

  5. Well Ltbuni isn’t that naive after all. I dug into his Wiki history.

    He is a prolific Wiki contributor since 2001 March. Right at the beginning of his Wiki career he wrote a bunch of disgusting racists modifications to the “Roma in Hungary” article that was reverted later (some 18 entries) and he was warned to avoid “personal analysis”.

    Try to report him, if you can, and mention the racist comments in the Roma article.

  6. Stevan Harnad :
    [according to Mr. Kumin] Typical example of this is the case of homelessness, which is of course not criminalized in Hungary.

    It’s a bit OT but I can’t help it. This video was shot about a year ago in BP by an undercover journalist.

  7. The Orban government will erect statues at prominent public places to Janos Esterhazy (on May 15) and Istvan Bethlen (on October 8).

    http://www.168ora.hu/itthon/orbant-faraokhoz-meri-kerenyi-111170.html

    1.
    Esterhazy, as the only Hungarian member of Tiso’s Slovak Parliament abstained at the vote for the deportation of the Jews from Slovakia on May 15, 1942.

    [It is not true, however that he was the only member not voting for the bill. It is also not true that he voted against the bill]

    His reasoning was the following:
    he was afraid that the 70,000 ethnic Hungarians would also expelled from Slovakia after this precedent.

    He emphasized: “antiszemita szellemben nevelkedtem, az vagyok és az is maradok.”
    “I was raised in antisemitic spirit, I am antisemitic and I will remain antisemitic”

    2.
    Bethlen, is well known.

  8. Other sources uphold the official view in Hungary that Janos Esterhazy was the only member of the Slovak Parliament voting against the deportation of the Jews.

    If there is an expert on the topic, please enlighten me what actually happened in the Slovak Parliament on May 15, 1942.

  9. The World Reacts to the Holocaust by David S. Wyman,Charles H. Rosenzveig
    p. 170

    “On May 15, 1942, constitutional law 68/1942, which sanctioned post factum the deportation of the Jews, was passed unanimously. Only one member of Parliament, the representative of the Hungarian minority, Count Janos Eszterhazy, abstained from voting”

    But other sources add that MP Pavel Čarnogurský and Speaker Martin Sokol also abstained.

  10. tappanch :

    Navracsics answered Jagland today, March 7:

    they just obey the opinion of the Constitutional Court by lifting the “temporary measures” of the “Basic Law” struck down by the court into the “Basic Law” itself.

    To summarize, Fidesz do not care about outside opinion, they will put the numerous anti-constitutional measures into the “Basic Law”

    http://hvg.hu/itthon/20130307_Navracsics_Jaglandnak_irt_azok_nem_tartal

    My feeling is that this is where they will start but this may not be the end.

  11. I much recommend András Keszthelyi’s article in this week’s Magyar Narancs (unfortunately it’s not available online). He is being very diplomatic, but he is right, and is generally a good observer.

    I agree with him and unfortuntely this article only supports my impression (Keszthelyi does not say this, though) that MSZP in its current form and with its current leaders cannot win over Fidesz (even if Együtt joins the project).

    MSZP, just lately, missed dozens of opportunities to act and send a message as a leftist party (plus essentially it slept over the last 3 years since getting out of government) and generally lacks vision, coherence and leadership.

    While Fidesz started to systematically and strategically to organise when losing power (the grassroots organisation, also the media and PR management, the think tanks, the financing etc.), MSZP did and let’s stress this: absolutely nothing.

    The problem is that people don’t change suddenly, if someone (like Mesterházi the chairman of the party and other people linked to him, who have no name in politics, even politics buff could not name his fellow board members) has been passive and vision-less for years, he/she can’t and won’t change, even if a campaign is coming.

    So, I guess until a visionary and charismatic leader comes along, Hungary is condemned to suffer under Fidesz who are extremely strategic and cohesive and thus effective (with all their incompetence).

  12. A certain Hungarian saying keeps coming to mind when considering this showdown between the EU and Hungary: “Addig jár a korsó a kútra, míg el nem törik”. This is incredibly difficult to translate into English (somebody else can give it a go) but it means something like somebody will continue doing something until they get caught or reprimanded.

    The phrase keeps coming to mind because for all their talk, really what HAS Strasbourg/Brussels done save voicing their concerns over a number of situations? If anything, I take my hat off to Orban for revealing the seeming impotence of the European Union. Until they suspend serious funding and/or subsidies for Hungary, Fidesz will continue doing whatever the hell will enrich them the most and ensure that they are in power for decades whether or not this is in line with EU law; thus far, the EU hasn’t been capable of doing much of anything to censure them.

  13. David, in the EU nobody owns such problem (well, generally in an organisation nobody owns a problem).

    That is nobody feels that it is him/her who has to stop Hungary. They are burocrats, no passion, no sense of mission, no commitment, they don’t have competence, jurisdiction, attention. The EU is toothless.

    Hungarians living in Hungary must do something.

  14. “Hungarians living in Hungary must do something.” – But they are occupied:

    Working day and night to make enough money to survive – with rising prices and no hope …

    At least that’s what I hear from the “normal people”: my wife’s family, my neighbours and everyone in business. Even here around Hévíz a lot have given up and went to Austria, Germany, Switzerland etc for work …

  15. Wolfi, yes and no, mostly no.

    The activity ratio (ie. those having a job vs. those in active years who could theoretically hold a job) is the worst in Europe. So there are a lot of idle people, way more than everywhere else (except perhaps in Greece).

    In addition, in many countries, people earn much less and have to work much more to get the same value and still can save a lot. For example, in China where people earning with 60-70 hour jobs half what an average Hungarian does legally and still can save 30-40% of it (and not because life is so cheap, not in Shangahai or Beijing and many urban places). Granted this is because there is no social security, so if they don’t save, they simply die when they get old or sick, but it is an incentive only, the bottom line is that it is physically possible, hard as though it is, to save even from much less money and be active in politics, if someone wants to (though not in China).

    In Hungary there is a pervasive culture of complaint (we do it as well), in fact people do it because it is a way through which Hungarians can connect and feel as part of a community. Someone who can make it, reach or attain something is simply strange, almost un-Hungarian. And its not just the envy; its simply strange, foreign, un-Hungarian not to complain.

    It’s not like out of 10m people, everybody is so busy with work. It’s a complex issue why people like us don’t want to join politics in Hungary, but this is the only way.

    Nobody will save us, least of all the EU.

  16. Joe, I only told what I hear from the people that I’ve been in contact with. And yes, this reminds me of an old joke:

    A Hungarian finds a bottle with an imprisoned genie and gets a free wish. He asks for a motorway bridge from Budapest to the Mediterranean Sea …

    The genie says, well, what about something easier ? So the guy asks for help in understanding his fellow countrymen …

    Oh well, answers the genie: Would a two lane bridge be ok or does it really have to be a motorway ?

  17. A few minutes ago a guy told this joke on the Klubradio.

    Orban goes fishing. He’s sitting at the shore frying a fish then Laszlo Kover cames along.

    “Hey, Vic! What are you doing?”
    “Frying a fish.”
    “… but don’t you see? This is a goldfish. It will grant you 3 wishes!”
    Orban goes:
    “I know. We already had that.”

  18. tappanch :
    Other sources uphold the official view in Hungary that Janos Esterhazy was the only member of the Slovak Parliament voting against the deportation of the Jews.
    If there is an expert on the topic, please enlighten me what actually happened in the Slovak Parliament on May 15, 1942.

    There are many sources concerning Janos Esterhazy in Slovakia, unfortunately the most relevant ones only in Slovak language. Practically all of them confirm your characteristics of Esterhazy´s behaviour and his motivation including the fact that he didn´t vote against, he abstained at the vote. So did also other members of parliament who left the voting room (about 5 of them did so).

    Probably the most interesting standpoint to Esterhazy is that of The Central Union of the Jewish Churches in Slovakia (Ústredný zväzu židovských náboženských obcí v Slovenskej republike): http://www.uzzno.sk/stanovisko-k-osobe-janosa-esterhazyho. Although they appreciate that Esterhazy abstained at the vote at the same time they allege Esterhazy wrote a letter to the parlament chairman shortly after the voting in which he excused for having done that and made sure that he always was anti-semite (something like : “I was raised in antisemitic spirit, I am antisemitic and I will remain antisemitic”). They also accuse him of voting for all other antisemitic acts and accept his punishment after the war for his contribution to building up of the totalitarian regime. As for his supposed help to many Jews, Czechs and Slovaks during the war they consider it for mystification – there is no one proof for that.

  19. Demonstration at the Fidesz HQ. Peace marchers in action.

    Listen to the old gentleman around the 9th second. I captioned it. Make sure CC is on.

  20. Mutt :
    Well Ltbuni isn’t that naive after all. I dug into his Wiki history.
    He is a prolific Wiki contributor since 2001 March. Right at the beginning of his Wiki career he wrote a bunch of disgusting racists modifications to the “Roma in Hungary” article that was reverted later (some 18 entries) and he was warned to avoid “personal analysis”.
    Try to report him, if you can, and mention the racist comments in the Roma article.

    +1, the wiki reviewers will revert and amend text provided from questionable sources.

  21. Mutt :
    Demonstration at the Fidesz HQ. Peace marchers in action.

    Listen to the old gentleman around the 9th second. I captioned it. Make sure CC is on.

    Gentleman?
    Time to forget this ‘turn the other cheek’ stuff.
    Back where I grew up, if that old fart had touched me I would’ve twisted his arthritic arm half-way off.

    Of course, one can always beg the question where the guards or the police were to keep the old bunko at a distance….

  22. It’s beginning: http://hvg.hu/vilag/20130307_Merkel_tanacsadoja_is_firtatta_az_alaptor

    Fidesz will translate the amendments so that the provisionscan be explained to Merkel’s advisors.

    Good, so now a week for the translation, then about 3 more weeks until it turns out that the translation was completely misleading, so after a month we will have a text that is usable and the arguments on the merits can start.

    Within a month, however, even the most agressive EU burocrat will be bored to death by the whole issue,

    And by April (early May) Orbán will have enacted a text that is 85% what he wanted. Everybody will be happy, most of all Fidesz, which will have succeeded to turn the screw five times on the Hungarian democracy even with a watared down version.

    Note the change of discourse: instead of arguing why we need a completely new constitution as the current version (after 3 amendments) is fundamentally an autocratic one, which runs counter the very concepts of separation of power, limited government and rule of law, now the discourse is about how to try to water down – after huge fights – an extremely comprehensive addition (24 pages) to the current version of an already autocratic constitution.

    While there will be a compromise to delete at most 10-20%, the situation will have significantly worsened from an already terrible state and people will havet to smile on occasion of a nice European compromise.

    (Orbán did not change more than 2% in the media law after which now the EU and the Council of Europe are happy as a child, all the tricky and ominous rules are there, and Fidesz’ control over media is complete, only they are smart enough not to outlaw and fine to death everything, but the quiet threat is there, people simly learned how to behave).

    But Orbán is not alone, he is supported by an extremely loyal power conglomerate. It’s like the evolutiuon, those politicians which survived the last 20 years with Orbán and are now in powerful positions are those who could most adapt to the expectations of their constituency of one (e.g. Orbán).

  23. petofi :

    Mutt :
    Demonstration at the Fidesz HQ. Peace marchers in action.
    [youtube


    Listen to the old gentleman around the 9th second. I captioned it. Make sure CC is on.

    Gentleman?
    Time to forget this ‘turn the other cheek’ stuff.
    Back where I grew up, if that old fart had touched me I would’ve twisted his arthritic arm half-way off.
    Of course, one can always beg the question where the guards or the police were to keep the old bunko at a distance….

    The police and other security institutions including TEC, are busy protecting the little boss, harassing homeless and do speed checks. Take your pick.

  24. DieKakalaken: you are wrong. The Parliament votes next week, so Orbán will argue with the EU afterwards. So perhaps there will be a fifth round of amendments.

  25. People do realize, that if Jobbik was to hypothetically win under the constitution with the next set of amendments, it would be not that different to Hungary in 1938.

  26. petofi :

    Mutt :
    Demonstration at the Fidesz HQ. Peace marchers in action.
    [youtube


    Listen to the old gentleman around the 9th second. I captioned it. Make sure CC is on.

    Gentleman?
    Time to forget this ‘turn the other cheek’ stuff.
    Back where I grew up, if that old fart had touched me I would’ve twisted his arthritic arm half-way off.
    Of course, one can always beg the question where the guards or the police were to keep the old bunko at a distance….

    The protester reacted just a he should of – as a non-violent resister. A violent reaction would have derailed the protest. You are always putting Hungarians down. That young man was a Hungarian I am very proud of.

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