It was only today that I managed to find more than an hour to listen to Viktor Orbán’s speech to the honorary consuls who gather every five years in Budapest to reinforce their ties to the country they serve. An honorary consul doesn’t have to be a Hungarian national. For example, I learned that an American professor who teaches in a nearby college in Connecticut just became an honorary consul. Apparently Hungary has honorary consuls in 100 countries, only 54 of which have official Hungarian consular service. In the United States there are 18-19 honorary consuls strategically placed in different parts of the country.
The event took place on September 18 in the chamber that was the home of the Hungarian Upper House before World War II. By all descriptions the consuls found the prime minister’s speech elevating and, although his speech was not interrupted by periodic applause, at the end the audience gave Orbán a standing ovation.
The speech in some ways was quite remarkable. It was a curious combination of surprising honesty and unsurprising falsehood. I doubt that too many people in attendance comprehended the full significance of what they heard.
What did Orbán want to accomplish with this speech? To provide the honorary consuls with ammunition to defend Hungary against foreign criticism. Or at least to explain away Hungary’s bad press in the international media as based on misconceptions. He admitted that these consuls most likely had a hard time in the last three years. Hungarian nationals see their own country differently from those who look at Hungary from the outside. But he offered a few fundamental facts that might make the consuls’ work easier.
First, Orbán tried to explain his government’s position vis-à-vis the European Union. Ignoring the fact that in the last years his anti-European Union speeches have multiplied and become increasingly antagonistic, he tried to convince his audience that he and his government are not euro-skeptics. They are only euro-realists. During the course of the speech it became crystal clear that Hungary has no intention of joining the eurozone and thus adopting the euro as Hungary’s currency. Of course, Hungary is required to join the eurozone eventually, despite the fact that the new constitution includes the statement that “Hungary’s currency is the forint.” Since Hungary is obligated to join the eurozone, avoiding this obligation can be accomplished only by leaving the European Union.
There was another issue about which he was brutally honest. He told his audience that the new Hungarian constitution is not a liberal document because, in his opinion, “a liberal constitution cannot be the basis of the economic renewal of the country.” He admitted that this is “a strong statement, perhaps even debatable,” but this new Hungary he is building cannot be founded on a constitution that emphasizes “the interests of the individuals.” This is a fact that he will not hide from all those countries whose constitutions are based on liberal concepts. One day other countries will come to realize that indeed a “new economic system” cannot be built on a liberal basis. He categorically stated that economic competition and liberalism are incompatible.
He admitted that questioning the validity of individual rights might have given rise to harsh international criticism and huge debates, but Orbán proudly announced that he managed to prevent such adverse reactions by “a political novum” called “national consultation.” I assume you all remember those 13-14 meaningless questionnaires sent out to 8 million Hungarian citizens. One of these inquired about the relationship between the rights of individuals and the rights of the community; 85% of those who answered agreed that both should be included in the new constitution. With that he avoided possible controversy over the new illiberal constitution, or at least so he said.
What can we learn from this speech about Hungary’s breakthrough economic system? Nothing new. Hungary will not be a welfare state but a workfare state. Hungary will handle the economic crisis differently from the rest of the world. Common wisdom holds that after an economic crisis there will be a slow recovery and that as an economy starts to recover investment will grow and with it job opportunities. The Hungarian solution will be the opposite of this sequence of events. They will start with work which will eventually solve the economic crisis. I don’t think that I have tell you how fallacious this argument is. If there is no private investment and the state doesn’t have money, as Orbán admitted in this speech, then only useless public work can be provided. And digging roadside drains financed by public money will never amount to anything. Orbán invoked the example of Roosevelt, but anyone familiar with economic history knows that the end of the Great Depression in the United States wasn’t brought about by FDR’s public work projects.
As I said at the beginning, the speech was a combination of brutal honesty and outright lies. Here are a few lies. In 2010 Hungary was in a worse economic state than Greece. Since then Hungary’s economic policy has been most successful. In the European Union only five countries managed to lower their national debt and Hungary is one of them. This, of course, is not true. In fact, the national debt has grown. It is true that the excessive deficit procedure was lifted by Brussels against Hungary, but the budget is so tight that there is a good possibility that Hungary will not be able to hold the 2.9% deficit currently projected. He repeated the lie that before 2010 only 1.8 million people paid taxes and now there are 4 million. And, not a lie but a conveniently undated forecast, Hungary will be the leading economic force in the region just as it was ten years ago.
And finally, a few interesting comments from the Q&A session. This is always the time that Orbán improvises and comes up with some interesting “facts.” All cities east of Strasbourg are “German cities.” Like, for example, Vienna, Prague, and and even St. Petersburg. There is only one exception: Budapest. The same Budapest where the majority of the population as late as the second half of the nineteenth century was largely German-speaking? Where first there was a German theater and only afterwards a Hungarian theater?
His thoughts on networking were also amusing. For Hungarians networking is a strange idea because what is networking really? Hungarians are friendly and hospitable, but networking is based on “calculation.” One does something for somebody in order to get something in return. This is really alien to the Hungarian psyche. But the world went a different way and, although it is nice to be old-fashioned occasionally, yes, Hungarians must learn the art of networking.
One final word on Orbán’s illiberal constitution. Yesterday, Károly Herényi, the second man in the Ibolya Dávid-led MDF, wrote an article in Galamus. Here is a man who is not considered to be a far-left liberal. On the contrary. He was a member of a moderate right-of-center party. And what does he say? There is no way that Orbán’s constitution can stay after a (possible) victory by the democratic forces. It must go. He considers any attempt by Gordon Bajnai to make a deal with Viktor Orbán a mistake. He suggests holding a referendum on the constitution right after the election to decide its fate. I agree with him.