José Manuel Barroso, the outgoing president of the European Commission, spent a day and a night in Budapest on the way to Ukraine. During his stay he and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán signed a “partnership agreement” that seals the European Union’s 35 billion euro financial support for Hungary for the period between 2014 and 2020. In addition, he received an honorary doctorate from Corvinus University.
In the last few weeks a debate has been going on between the government and the opposition: is the amount Budapest will receive in the next six years more or less than it got in the previous six years, support that was procured by the Gyurcsány government? Of course, the current government claims that it is more while almost everybody else, including financial experts, claims that it is less. Whatever the case, it is an enormous amount of money which, according to the critics of both the Orbán government and the European Union, enables Viktor Orbán to build his “illiberal state.” In brief, the European Union is the one that is supporting the destruction of democracy in Hungary.
People who oppose the current regime were dismayed when they heard that the official signing of the document will take place in Budapest. They argued that Barroso should not sanction Orbán’s autocratic regime with his presence in the Hungarian capital. Deep dissatisfaction set in, not just in political circles but also among ordinary people who watched what they considered to be overly friendly gestures by Barroso toward Orbán. It is true that the president of the commission did make a quip indicating his awareness of the Orbán government’s untrustworthiness when he remarked that he hoped the content of the Hungarian version of the document is what he expects. In the past it happened several times that the Hungarian government falsified translations of official texts.
I don’t know whether Barroso was aware of what Orbán told journalists after the ceremony, but I hope that by now he is. Orbán explained to journalists why this enormous amount of money is not really extra help for Hungary. He claimed that foreign investors move approximately the same amount of money out of the country that Hungary receives from the European Union. If Hungary did not get these subsidies, the country’s financial equilibrium would be out of kilter. This reasoning is of course economically unsound, but his reference to equilibrium brought to mind a funny line from Nick Gogerty’s The Nature of Value: “The only economic systems found today that are truly at or close to equilibrium are nearly dead economies. A cow that achieves equilibrium is called a steak, and the economy closest to achieving equilibrium today is probably North Korea.”
Orbán proposed another equally unconvincing reason that Hungary needs these subsidies. They raise the self-esteem of Hungarians who can in this way feel like full-fledged members of the European community. It’s nice to know that Hungarians’ psychological well being depends on 34 billion euros. Considering that the mood of the Hungarian population is abysmal, perhaps the money is not so well spent.
Now that the Orbán government’s attacks on NGOs have been widely reported and almost all the articles compare the events of the last few months to what Vladimir Putin did in the last year and a half to Russia’s civic groups, a lot of people hoped that Barroso would have a few words to say about them. The COO of TASZ (Civil Liberties Union) told Der Spiegel that “Brussels no longer can be silent on the putinization of Hungary.” However, Barroso was silent on the issue until a question was addressed to him about whether the EU will get involved in the dispute between Norway and Hungary over the Norwegian Funds. Barroso expressed the opinion that this is “the business of Norway and Hungary, but they follow the developments.” The author of HVG‘s opinion piece seemed to be very unhappy with this answer, and I know many people who share his opinion. I, on the other hand, think this hands-off decision of the EU actually works in favor of those who would like to stop the Orbán government’s assault on democracy. From experience we know that the EU has not been a steadfast defender of Hungarian democracy, and in the past it overlooked Viktor Orbán’s transgressions more often than not. The Norwegians are less accommodating; ever since May they haven’t moved an inch in their insistence that the Hungarian government has no right to investigate the allocation of their civic funds. 140 million euros are at stake. If the EU agreed to arbitrate, most likely a compromise solution would be found that would again allow the Orbán government to play one of its tricks.
There was a small demonstration in front of Corvinus University. Népszabadság noted that Barroso as a seasoned politician knows how to handle situations like that. He acted as if he did not see them at all and marched straight into the building. Whether he read a letter addressed to him by the Oktatási Hálózat (Net of University Lecturers) or not I have no idea. It is an excellent description of what has been going on in Hungary in the field of education. To sum up: In the last five years government spending on higher education decreased by half. Hungary currently spends only 0.43% of GDP on it as opposed to the 1% that is recommended by the European Union. The autonomy of the universities will be curtailed when state appointed supervisors are placed above the presidents. It is now the fifth year that the government has no clearly stated higher-education strategy. Financial resources are distributed in an ad hoc manner, mostly to institutions preferred by the government. For example, 90% of the money received as part of the Horizon 2020 program subsidized by the European Union went to the newly established National Civil Service University. Just lately it became known that the Hungarian National Bank is spending 200 billion forints, which is one and a half times more than the government spends a year in higher education, to train people in “unorthodox economics.” Because of the high tuition fees the number of students entering college or university has decreased by 30%. Moving away from higher education, the letter mentions the lowering of the compulsory school age to 16 from 18 and the government’s endorsement of segregated Roma schools.
It is too bad that this was the only letter addressed to Barroso. Where were the other groups? Where were the members of the opposition? Not that these letters achieve that much, but when only one group protests in front of Corvinus University and only one letter is written by a small group of university lecturers, it is difficult to stir the European Union.
After ten years Barroso is leaving his post and Jean-Claude Juncker is taking over. Hopes are high that a new era will begin, but for that to happen the Hungarian opposition must lend him a helping hand.