European Parliament

American rapprochement with Viktor Orbán’s Hungary?

While readers of Hungarian Spectrum continue to discuss the possible reasons for André Goodfriend’s departure, let me share one right-wing Hungarian reaction to the exit of the former chargé, István Lovas’s opinion piece in yesterday’s Magyar Hírlap titled “The Bell Change.”

One could devote a whole series of posts to István Lovas himself, from his brush with the law as a teenager to the open letter he wrote recently to Vladimir Putin in which he asked him to start a Hungarian-language “Russia Today” because the Russian propaganda television station is actually much better than BBC. Lovas lived in Canada, the United States, and Germany, where he worked for Radio Free Europe. He was considered to be a difficult man who caused a lot of turmoil in the Hungarian section of the organization.

For many years Lovas was a devoted Fidesz man. He already held important positions in the first Orbán government (1998-2002). For years he worked for Magyar Nemzet, most recently as its Brussels correspondent, but a few months ago Lovas, along with a number of other Orbán stalwarts, lost his job. Mind you, the European Parliament had had enough of Lovas even before he was sacked by Magyar Nemzet, especially after he presented a bucket of artificial blood to Sophie in ‘t Veld, the Dutch liberal MEP. The bucket of blood was supposed to symbolize the Palestinian children who were victims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lovas, himself of Jewish descent, is a well-known anti-Semite.

After having lost his job at Magyar Nemzet and after Putin failed to respond to his plea for a Hungarian “Russia Today,” Lovas moved on. Gábor Széles, who owns Magyar Hírlap and EchoTV, offered him a job. Now he has a weekly political program called “Fault Lines” (Törésvonalak) on EchoTV, and he also writes opinion pieces for Széles’s newspaper.

So how does István Lovas see American-Hungarian relations in the wake of the arrival of Colleen Bell and the departure of André Goodfriend? To summarize his opinion in one sentence: from here on the United States and the Orbán government will be the best of friends.

According to Lovas, André Goodfriend was the darling of those lost liberals who have been wandering in the wilderness “ever since SZDSZ was thrown into the garbage heap of history.” They are still hoping that nothing will change. Originally they were certain that Goodfriend would run the embassy while the newly arrived ambassador would be its public face. Meanwhile, Goodfriend would continue visiting “left/neoliberal SZDSZ or MSZP politicians and intellectuals.”

These liberal hopes were dashed soon after Colleen Bell’s arrival. The new orientation was clear from day one. Bell went and laid a wreath at the statue of the unknown soldier on Heroes’ Square. She visited the Csángó Ball organized every year to celebrate a fairly mysterious group of Hungarians living in the Romanian region of Moldavia, speaking an old Hungarian dialect. These are important signs of the new American attitude toward things dear to the current government: fallen heroes and national minorities. Certainly, says Lovas, Goodfriend would never have been found in such places. Yet liberals don’t seem to have grasped the significance of all this. They think that more Hungarians will be banished from the United States and that Hungary will have to pay a high price for peace with the United States. Most likely, Orbán will have to compromise on Paks, on Russian-Hungarian relations in general, and/or will have to buy American helicopters.

But Lovas has bad news for them. There will be no more talk about corruption cases, and Hungary will pay no price whatsoever. Colleen Bell realized that Goodfriend’s methods had failed. Of course, Lovas is talking nonsense here. Even if Lovas is right about a change in U.S. policy, it was not Bell who decided on this new strategy but the United States government.

Lovas is certain that the change has already occurred. It is enough to look at the new website of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest. There are no more programs on tolerance, on Holocaust events, “all those things that are kicks in the groin of the Hungarian people and their elected government.” A drastic change occurred in U.S.-Hungarian relations which even such liberal-socialist diplomats as Péter Balázs, foreign minister in the Bajnai government, László Kovács, foreign minister under Gyula Horn, or András Simonyi, ambassador to Washington (2002-2010), couldn’t explain away.

This change couldn’t have taken place if Goodfriend had stayed or if the Orbán government had conducted “the kind of servile atlantist policy recommended by Géza Jeszenszky,” foreign minister under József Antall and ambassador to Washington during the first Orbán government. Jeszenszky, who just resigned as ambassador to Norway, had a long interview in which he expressed his deep disappointment with Viktor Orbán and his foreign policy, especially with his attitude toward the United States.

According to Lovas, what happened recently is a victory for Orbán’s foreign policy, a feat that “could be achieved only by the courage and tenacity” of the Hungarian prime minister. The United States government tried to mend its ways by sending someone to Budapest who is not worried about such things as tolerance or the Holocaust. From here on the Budapest embassy will function just as American embassies do in other capitals. The U.S. Embassy in Vienna, for example, does not report “breaking news” about the Anschluss.

Lovas might exaggerate, but something is going on. When was the last time that Viktor Orbán called together the whips of all political parties for a discussion on Hungarian foreign policy? As far as I know, never. As Magyar Nemzet put it, “Viktor Orbán asked for the support of the political parties in reaching the nation’s foreign policy goals.” Among the topics was the objective of “strengthening the American-Hungarian alliance.” Péter Szijjártó, who was of course present, claimed that “political relations with the United States are improving” and that the Orbán government “will take further steps toward the restoration of earlier economic, political, and military cooperation.”

The meeting of the leaders of the parliamentary delegations  Source: MTI / Photo Gergely Botár

The meeting of the leaders of the parliamentary delegations convened by Viktor Orbán
Source: MTI / Photo Gergely Botár

I’m sure that we all want better relations between Hungary and the United States, but the question is at what price. The United States can’t close its eyes to Viktor Orbán’s blatant attacks on democracy, the media, human rights, and civil society. And then there is the timing of this alleged renewed love affair between Budapest and Washington. If true, and that’s a big if, it couldn’t have come at a worse time for Hungarian democracy–yes, liberal democracy. Just when Viktor Orbán’s support is dropping precipitously and when it looks as if he may lose his precious two-thirds majority in spite of all the billions of forints he promised from taxpayer money to the city of Veszprém to buy votes. When a large part of the hitherto slavish right-wing media at last decided to return to more critical and balanced journalism.

No, this is not the time to court Viktor Orbán. It would be a grave mistake. It is, in fact, time to be tough because the great leader is in trouble. Trouble abroad, trouble at home. Frans Timmermans, the first vice-president of the European Commission, in a speech to the European Parliament said the following without mentioning Viktor Orbán’s name: “We cannot let our societies imperceptibly slip back; we cannot allow illiberal logics to take hold. There is no such thing as an illiberal democracy…. We are keeping a close eye on all issues arising in Member States relating to the rule of law, and I will not hesitate to use the [EU Rule of Framework established last March] if required by the situation in a particular Member State.”

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Zoltán Kovács, Viktor Orbán’s international spokesman in Brussels

Today I will try to squeeze three topics into one post. Two will be short, more like addenda to earlier pieces. The third subject of today’s post is new: the stormy meeting of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) on Hungary.

The Albert Wass Library in Tapolca

As one of our readers pointed out, György Konrád incorrectly said that the János Batsányi Library was renamed after Elemér Vass, a lesser known Hungarian painter, that it was instead named after Albert Wass. The reader was correct. Moreover, what Konrád left out of his brief story at the very end of his interview with Olga Kálmán on “Egyenes beszéd” was that the name change actually took place in 2006. Tapolca’s town council has had a solid Fidesz majority for years. Why the city fathers decided in 2006 that Albert Wass was a more important representative of Hungarian literature than János Batsányi is a mystery to me. Anyone who’s unfamiliar with the works and politics of Albert Wass should read my summary of his activities.

The Gala Event at the Ferenc Liszt Academy

A friend who lives in the United States happens to be in Budapest at the moment. Her family’s apartment is very close to the Ferenc Liszt Academy, so she witnessed the preparations for the arrival of Viktor Orbán at the Academy, where he delivered a speech at the unveiling of the Hungarian “miracle piano.” According to her, there was no parking either on Nagymező utca or on Király utca. The police or, more likely TEK, Orbán’s private bodyguards despite being called the Anti-Terror Center, set up three white tents equipped with magnetic gates, the kind that are used at airports. The distinguished guests had to go through these gates before they could share the same air as Hungary’s great leader. By six o’clock the TEK people, in full gear, had cordoned off a huge area. Hungary’s prime minister is deadly afraid. Earlier prime ministers never had a security contingent like Viktor Orbán has now. I remember that Ferenc Gyurcsány used to jog with scores of other ordinary citizens on Margitsziget (Margaret Island) with two guys running behind him at a distance. Well, today the situation seems to be different.

Hearings of  the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs*

The announced agenda was “The Situation of Human Rights in Hungary,” specifically the pressure the Hungarian government has been putting on nongovernmental organizations and civic groups, especially “Okotárs Alaítvány,” about which we have talked at length. That’s why three civic group leaders were invited from Hungary: Tamás Fricz, founder of the Civil Union Forum; Veronika Móra, director of Ökotárs Alapítvány; and Attila Mong, editor of Atlatszo.hu. In addition, two experts were present: Barbora Cernusakova from Amnesty International and Anne Weber, advisor to Nils Muižnieks, commissioner for human rights of the Council of Europe. The Hungarian government was represented by Zoltán Kovács, international spokesman from the prime minister’s office.

Although the main topic was the Hungarian government’s attack on civic organizations that are critical of the Orbán government, during the two and a half hours speakers addressed other human rights issues as well: media freedom, censorship, homelessness, and even Viktor Orbán’s anti-immigration statements.

The first half hour was spent on procedural wrangling between the European People’s Party members of parliament, including naturally the Fidesz representatives, and the rest of those present. Kinga Gál (Fidesz) presented their grievances. The EPP representatives wanted to invite at least three civic groups close to the Hungarian government, arguing that after all in addition to the two NGO’s critical of the government, Ökotárs and Átlátszó.hu, there were two international organizations (Council of Europe and Amnesty International) represented. They failed to convince the majority, however, and therefore only Tamás Fricz was left to represent the NGO that organized two large pro-government demonstrations in the last few years. Tamás Fricz opted not to attend. I suspect that his declining the invitation in the last minute was part of an overarching strategy to make the hearings totally lopsided. Everybody on one side and only a government spokesman, Zoltán Kovács, on the other. Such a situation could easily discredit the proceedings. However, as it turned out, it was Zoltán Kovács himself who was discredited, though not before the EPP MEPs had walked out of the hearings.

Zoltán Kovács

Zoltán Kovács

I will not go into the content of the speeches since the readers of Hungarian Spectrum are only too familiar with the problems that exist in Hungary today as far as human rights issues are concerned. Instead, I would like to concentrate on Zoltán Kovács’s representation of the Hungarian position.

All the participants delivered their speeches in English with the exception of Zoltán Kovács, whose English is actually excellent, but, as he admitted later to György Bolgár, he decided to speak in Hungarian so his words wouldn’t have to be translated. In brief, Kovács’s message was addressed not so much to those present at the meeting but rather to Hungarians at home who could admire his effective defense of their government. The trouble was that what he considered to be simply a vigorous defense turned out to be aggressive and disrespectful. Calling the hearings of an EP committee “the fifth season of a soap opera” did not go over well, to put it mildly, especially since he added that “by now neither the actors nor the script writer knows what means what and what they want to say.” He called the charges against the Hungarian government “half truths or outright lies” and said that the members present were prejudiced against his country.

The reaction was predictable. Many of those who spoke up reacted sharply to Kovács’s speech. They were outraged that Kovács talked about the European Parliament, which “represents 500 million inhabitants of the European Union, in such a manner.” It was at this point that Péter Niedermüller (DK) told Kovács that as a result of his behavior “you yourself became the protagonist of these hearings.” Kovács later complained bitterly that Niedermüller spoke out of order, which in his opinion besmirched the dignity of the European Parliament.

A Dutch MEP inquired whether the Norwegian or the Dutch government, the German chancellor, everybody who ever criticizes the Hungarian government is part of this soap opera. Finally, she announced that she is sick and tired of the so-called “Hungarian debates” which are no more than “dialogues of the deaf.” What is needed is a new, effective mechanism that monitors the affairs of the member states yearly. A Swedish MEP “was beside herself”and warned Kovács to watch his words. “The European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, the Venice Commission all say that there are problems with human rights in Hungary. So, then we all lie?” Another MEP called Kovács’s attitude “contemptuous cynicism” and offensive because after all he said that 500 million EU citizens don’t live in a democracy and that the EP commission doesn’t function according to democratic rules. He told Kovács that what’s going on in Hungary at the moment is “the tyranny of the majority.” Kovács was not moved. In his answer he repeated his charges and indicated that as far as the Hungarian government is concerned “the case is closed.”

A few years back Kovács served as government spokesman, but after a while he was replaced by András Giró-Szász. Viktor Orbán remarked on that occasion that “it is time to see some smiles” when the spokesman makes his announcements. The remark was on target. Kovács would resemble Rasputin if he let his very dark beard grow. One has learned not to expect smiles from the man, although on official photos he tries hard. After his removal from his high-profile position he spent some time in the ministry of human resources responsible for, of all things, Roma integration. But last year he was reinstated as “international spokesman.” I don’t know why Zoltán Kovács was considered to be more fit to be a spokesman of the Hungarian government on the international scene than he was at home. His reception in Brussels was not exactly promising.

*Video streaming is now available here:

http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/news-room/content/20150116IPR09871/html/Committee-on-Civil-Liberties-Justice-Home-Affairs-meeting-22-01-2015-0900

Interview with Kim Scheppele, Part II: From the Tavares Report to the Electoral System

Members of the Orbán government and its defenders never miss an opportunity to remind critics that it was the Hungarian people who democratically elected Viktor Orbán and his party to govern their land. Not once, they add, but three times just this year–and each time with an overwhelming majority. What they neglect to say is that “Fidesz got its two-thirds using every trick in the book, and it needed every trick in the book to do that,” as Kim Scheppele tells Benjamin Novak in the second part of the interview The Budapest Beacon conducted with her at Princeton University. The first part of the interview can be seen on Hungarian Spectrum (November 13). Kim Scheppele is an expert on the Hungarian constitution, but as you can see here she is thoroughly conversant with Fidesz’s electoral law as well.

Thanks to The Budapest Beacon, I can republish the video and the transcript of the interview. I’m sure that you will all find it most enlightening.


Let’s talk about the Tavares Report. George Schöpflin tells me that it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.

In what sense? Does he thinks it’s false or does he think it’s meaningless?

He thinks it’s the left-liberal way of complaining about this unacceptable situation in which a center-right conservative party gets a two-thirds parliamentary majority.

So let me start with what I take to be the vote on the report, and then maybe we can get into what the report actually says. The report actually came to the floor of the European Parliament. As I understand it, the European People’s Party, which is the party that Fidesz is affiliated with, had a number of members who wanted to be able to vote for the report but were afraid to do so because their party leadership told them to object to the bill. So there was an agreement that there would be a “voice vote”, which is to say just a count of the actual numbers and not a roll call vote. So that said, when you look at the actual numbers for the Tavares Report, the number of people who voted against it was less than half of the total number of European People’s Party representatives, which means that the EPP was divided. Now, it was true that almost all those who opposed the report were on the conservative side. But it was also the case that conservatives had a majority in the European Parliament at the time that that report was voted on. Actually, two-thirds of the members of the European Parliament either voted for it or abstained and let it go through. So, you can’t any longer make this argument that it was just the left against Hungary, because at least half of the conservatives in the European Parliament had to support the report in one way or another. So it’s just wrong that this was something that the left pushed through and the right opposed.  In fact, what was so striking was that that was the first vote in which you could see that the European People’s Party was already splitting on Hungary.

And now they’re splitting again. Just the other day MTI actually reported on the European Parliament’s debate on Hungary and there were a number of people who participated in the debate who afterward gave interviews to MTI.  There was one guy who was described in the Hungarian news service as “Frank Engel, MEP from Luxembourg” because they didn’t want to say “Frank Engel, MEP from the European People’s Party”. He’s in the leadership of the European People’s Party and he came out and said Hungary is really on the edge of being kicked out of the family of democratic states.  I’m seeing this from an outside perspective, but if you look at the comments being made by EPP leaders, you look at the votes on issues having to do with Hungary, I don’t think that the Hungarian government should presume that it’s got the support of the European People’s Party, or that it’s divided the European Parliament left-right.  It just hasn’t done that.

Also every time the European Commission brings sanctions against the Hungarian government, or brings an infringement procedure against the Hungarian government, or makes a criticism of the Hungarian government, it’s very often EPP commissioners who are doing it. The commissioner that the Hungarian government loved to hate most was Viviane Reding, who was an EPP representative from Luxembourg, that was her party. So I think it’s a mistake to think of this as left-right in the European Union. It clearly isn’t. It’s true that the supporters of the Hungarian government in the European Parliament are EPP people. But the EPP is very divided.  And I would be very surprised if the whole party stood up on mass to defend the Orbán government. I just don’t see that happening.

What does the Hungarian government have in store for itself in the upcoming years? Are there going to be sanctions? Obviously, you don’t know if there will be but if there were, what would these look like?

Several of the commissioners during their hearing before the European Parliament, both Juncker who is the President of the European Commission, and now also Timmermans, who is kind of the right-hand man of Mr. Juncker – they’ve all said that when countries violate basic European principles that something must be done. They’ve never mentioned the Hungarian government by name, but they’ve actually made some quite tough statements going into their new terms that something I think is going to happen.

Also, the European Parliament has already started to schedule these hearings on Hungary. So far it has been the left who have initiated these hearings. But the Tavares Report is still there as the statement of the European Parliament.  And the Tavares Report laid out a series of programs for both monitoring what was happening inside Hungary and also checking on whether what the Hungarian government said it was doing actually fixed the problems that the European Parliament identified, and set up a potential road to sanctions. Last Spring the European Commission came out with something it called its Rule of Law Initiative which provided a kind of glide path for how to use Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union, which is the harshest punishment available now in the European system. So they’re all inching toward actually using the mechanisms that European law makes available to sanction Hungary.

So then the question is what kind of sanctions?  What people don’t realize is that in the European Union there is no way to throw a state out. There now is a way for a state to quit. If Orbán really believes that the EU is being a really repressive actor . . .

. . . then he can pack up and leave.

That’s what Britain’s talking about doing. But if Orbán thinks that, then he can leave. But I really suspect that Orbán will not do it because Hungary really needs the money. You know, the vast majority of funds coming in for economic development to Hungary are coming from the EU. The EU is holding up the Hungarian economy in ways that Orbán can’t afford to walk away from. But if he wants to complain that much, then he has that exit strategy.

Do you think this “eastward opening” is a bluff?

No, I think the “eastward opening” is really important to Orbán because I think what he realizes is that the Hungarian economy rests on a very shaky foundation. And it rests on a shakier foundation now that he’s disrupted all of the legal certainty that foreign investors came to Hungary in reliance on. So, as you’ve seen, foreign investment has been drying up. That’s why the dominant money coming into the country right now is coming in from EU funds. So Orbán has to find some way to kickstart the economy.

Now he’s clearly indicated that he wants no constraints on his own sphere of action. So, any money coming from the Troika – which is the IMF, the ECB and the Commission – or any EU sources is going to come with strings attached about changing the domestic landscape so that Orbán is no longer an autocratic monopolist as it were. Obviously, he doesn’t want that, so he has to find money elsewhere.

Frankly, I think the “eastward opening” is Orbán’s trick of how to find money elsewhere because what he’s discovered, and all the attention right now on Hungary is because of Russia, that he’s also (seeking) investments from China, he’s been going hat in hand to Azerbaijan, to Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, the Saudis –

To the ideal illiberal democracies.

Well. they’re not even democracies in many cases. Turkmenistan is definitely nowhere close to a democracy.  I was just there this summer.  But these are countries that are rich and Orbán goes to them and says “give us some money”.  And in a number of cases these countries are giving Orbán money. So then the question is, why are those countries giving Orbán money? Now, we’ve had the most focus on Russia and think that Russia is Orbán’s model. Although, these autocracies, these non-constitutional, non-rule of law, non-democracies, will never ask Orbán to become a constitutional democrat.

Of course not.

So what do they want from Orbán? I think what they want from Orbán is Orbán’s position within the EU. They want somebody on the inside of the EU advocating for their interests.

It wouldn’t be unheard of.

In fact, here at Princeton University we had an undergraduate student who did a very fabulous senior thesis a few years ago. He wanted to know how do tiny, tiny little countries, like little islands in the South Pacific that have only 10,000 people but they’re members of the United Nations… they have nothing to sell, no natural resources… how do they support themselves? He went off and he interviewed members of those parliaments, people in the governments, and what he discovered is that these little countries joined every single international organization that they can.  And then they sell their votes in these international organizations to the states that will pay to keep their governments going.

I read this thesis and thought what an interesting model for government finance! I can’t prove that this is what Hungary is doing, but then what does Hungary have that it can sell? I mean, pálinka is great, Tokaji is divine, I mean there are a number of things that Hungary has that it can sell, but not enough to hold up the whole government.

In Hungary’s case, it wouldn’t be unheard of.  There was this case regarding Béla Kovács, this Jobbik MEP, who allegedly was spying for Russia.

The relationship between Jobbik and Fidesz is not nothing, but they don’t have exactly the same interests. It’s clear that Russia has been sneaking around and looking for ways to get its perspective into European countries and EU institutions.  Because I think that Russia sees the EU as a competitor and a threat. You look at all the signals and it would make sense for Russia to try and make allies inside the EU.

So what does Hungary have to sell? It has its position within the EU. Again, I cannot prove this because I don’t yet have all the evidence, but one of the things that Orbán could be doing with the opening to east, is to get investment into Hungary. Then you have to ask what’s he giving back in return? I don’t think we have a good answer yet to that question.

Only time will tell.  What do you see happening with regards to the United States relationship with Hungary at this point?

Well, I think the United States has been saying for some time that “Hungary is an ally,”  “We’re a little concerned,”  “We’re a little more concerned”.  “Hungary is a friend,” “Friends criticize friends”.   The U.S. was making all those kinds of noises.

But then last month things changed. So first, there was that kind of off-hand remark by Bill Clinton, who is so clever that off-hand remarks like that are not anything he does. Then President Obama repeated these words at a speech in which he was critical of Hungary. Nothing the President says is casual, especially not when he mentions a foreign country. Then we have Victoria Nuland’s speech where she almost threatens Hungary’s position in NATO where she said that we fought for democracies in that part of world, now countries have become democracies, if they start to think that they can pull away from that, then they will not be able to “comfortably sleep at night under their Article 5 blanket”. Now, Article 5 is a piece of the NATO treaty that says that if any country is attacked that all the others will come to its defense. It’s the core of the collective self-defense provision. She put that on the table as contingent on being a member of the club of democracies. And then suddenly we have these sanctions against unnamed Hungarians, probably state officials. That’s a very rapid downhill slide of US-Hungary relations. And then we had the comment by Deputy Chief of Mission Goodfriend that says we are essentially wondering whether Hungary can still be an ally. Those are sharp words. In diplomatic language, that’s huge.  And its concerted, it’s coming from multiple players, and it’s not an accident. This is something that really represents, I think, looking from the outside, a breach in US-Hungary diplomatic relations.

Do you think US-Hungary relations will play a role in helping things at the EU level move forward with respect to Hungary?

This is interesting. When we think of what European Union sanctions are, they have this possibility of excluding Hungary from voting in European affairs. If you think about what I said a minute ago about Hungary’s eastward opening, if I’m right (and it’s a hypothesis), if Hungary is selling its influence in the EU to dodgy states, then losing its vote in the EU would matter a lot because then it could no longer vote on matters in the European Council, its position will be marginalized in European institutions, it can no longer have any influence in the European Union. That’s what that Article 7 is all about. That’s why sanctions could be serious if this is what Hungary is really doing.  Again, this is speculation, but it really is something that one has to wonder. Why are dodgy countries supporting Hungary? What is Hungary selling in exchange? That’s one kind of theory about this.

In terms of US sanctions, the US has relatively few ways it can directly sanction Hungary, except in the way that it’s been sanctioning Russia by issuing individually targeted sanctions on individuals. Those are very powerful. If you’ve been in Moscow recently you’ve seen that high-flying society there is basically closed down. Restaurants are empty. The high-value stores are empty. It hasn’t affected the average Russian very much, which is the good thing about those kinds of targeted sanctions. The US is a friend to the Hungarian people, as I hope it’s clear that I’m also a friend of the Hungarian people.  It’s the government we’re having trouble. Ideally, if the diplomatic community wants to have an effect on the government, they need to figure out a way to do that without also having it affect the people of that country.

Article 7 sanctions in the European Union would just affect Hungary’s vote. It will not be noticed by the average Hungarian. These denial of entry sanctions that the U.S. State Department has now issued against a number of Hungarians. Even financial sanctions which the U.S. has done in the case of Russian individuals and businesses, if the U.S. moves that way, are really designed to influence exactly the circle around the government and not the average people. I think that looks to me like that may be where the EU is going.  It may be where the U.S. is going.  But I think it’s very important for Hungarians to understand that, as I see it from the outside, it looks to me like both the EU and the U.S. are teeing up this possibility of having sanctions that will just be confined to the Hungarian government and the officials in the inner circle.

Let’s talk a bit about the Hungarian elections. In 2010 Fidesz wins with an unprecedented landslide two-thirds majority, a supermajority. Why can’t the West just accept that two-thirds of Hungarians want this?

Well, first of all, two-thirds of Hungarians didn’t want this.  If you look at the low turnout, so more than a third of Hungarians didn’t vote at all. Of those who voted, the opposition was divided. Fidesz only got 54 percent of the vote. This time, however, they got 45 percent. That’s pretty significant. If you look at the numbers, they’ve lost a big fraction of their voters and they managed to win this recent election by reducing the overall vote. Something like 500,000 Hungarians have left the country under the Fidesz watch since 2010, at least as far as we can tell. Many of them were voters affiliated with the opposition and Fidesz made it very difficult for them to vote in the election.

So they exiled the opposition. They then made it harder for them to vote. Then they give new citizenship to all these people in neighboring countries. That vote, by the way, went 97-98 percent for Fidesz. That’s like North Korea voting. There’s no election in which you get that percentage of the vote for the governing party. All the polls that were being taken in Romania, in the community of Hungarian citizens there, showed that Jobbik would probably get 20 percent of the vote, and Jobbik got nothing.   Which makes me wonder what happened to the Jobbik vote.  I’m not a fan of Jobbik but it really makes me wonder what happened to the Jobbik vote in this last election.

It was an election that was very carefully staged to make it appear that Fidesz got this two-thirds vote.  And often times what you’ll hear Fidesz leaders saying that, “We won with two-thirds support!” Well, certainly that’s just wrong in terms of just the numbers. It’s definitely wrong when you look at the way the election was micromanaged from the way they redrew the electoral districts.

Some serious gerrymandering happened.

Also, they put in all these new rules like this winner compensation vote. That was six seats in the parliament.

How would you explain the compensation vote to an American. It took me two months to understand what that is all about!

This is a really complex system. In many European parliamentary systems, voters get two votes when they go to the polls. One vote is like the American election where you vote for your representative. The second vote is where you vote for a party and the seats in the parliament are divided between single member seats and then these party list seats where the party makes a list of who will get in. If they get such and such a percentage of the vote then their top ten people get in and so forth.

So what happens is that single member districts are wildly disproportionate. Somebody can win with one vote and then they get the whole seat, even those where  one less than half voted for somebody else. So it means that these systems are always disproportionate, the American system, the British system, all the ones that use this “first past the post” system are highly disproportionate. What parliamentary systems that have this double vote do is they say maybe we can make it somewhat more proportional by taking the losing votes, the votes cast for losing candidates, and let’s give those votes to the parties when you count the party list votes. So either all of those votes, or a fraction of those votes, or some mathematical function of those votes get added to the other column where people voted for the party lists.

So this was for the original compensation list so that the winner doesn’t take all.

The German system works like that, they have a very disproportionate first past the post system for individual districts. Then by adding the lost votes, the votes cast for losing candidates, to the list votes. They then kind of balance the parliament so that overall the seats kind of represent the underlying votes across parties. It’s a very sane system. Now, that was the system that Hungary had before. It wasn’t perfect, it was still quite disproportionate in all kinds of ways, but that was the prior system.

So Fidesz comes in and says, “Let’s define what is a lost vote”, and they say, “A lost vote is any vote that was not absolutely necessary to a candidate winning the seat.” So suppose you’ve got three candidates in a district and the winner wins by 300 votes and the other candidates get 200 and 100. Under the old system, the 200 votes for that candidate would be added to that candidate’s party list votes, the other 100 votes would be added to that candidate’s party list votes, and the winner who got the seat would get nothing because the winner got the seat. They won.

Now, under winner compensation Fidesz says, “Okay, it turns out that we could have won that seat with 201 votes. The other 99 were just gravy, like that was just extra. So, as a result, those other 99 votes were lost because we didn’t need them to win the seat. So we’re going to add those 99 votes to our compensation list on the party list side.”

What that does just mathematically is it completely tips the balance because it makes it completely disproportionate, especially since Fidesz drew the electoral districts and could maximize its own votes in a lot of these places by dividing the opposition. This is why every time the opposition divided, either between Jobbik and the democratic opposition – and I’m not saying they should get together – or between LMP, the Socialists and the Unity ticket, every time you split the vote you not only split the vote and make it less likely that any opposition party will win the seat, you give Fidesz a bigger advantage over the second-place party because the more you divide, the more they conquer.

So it just compounds the problem.

So the new parliament has 199 seats. Those of us who have looked at the numbers and run the numbers have now realized that they got 6 of those seats just because of this trick. Now, look at how many seats they need for their two-thirds. They needed every vote they got for that two-thirds.  If they didn’t have winner compensation, if they did the election like any normal parliamentary system, they would not have their two-thirds and then they would not have bragging rights.

The foreign vote is another problem. There, they clearly were depressing the voter turnout for the emigré Hungarians – people who had lived in the country, still have permanent residence in the country, but were registered to vote elsewhere. Those people had to register to vote outside and their registration had to exact match what was back in the office in Budapest. So, first of all, a bunch people are rejected because they spelled their mother’s maiden name the wrong way, or if the information they provided didn’t exact match the data at home they were automatically rejected. And there were lots of people who were rejected for that reason. Then, people had to physically go to a consulate or to an embassy to vote. In the UK where there are somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 Hungarians, everyone had to go to London. There was no other place to vote except London.  So if someone was relatively far away from London, they’d have to physically travel to London. Then, the National Election Office sent a letter to everyone telling them what address to go to vote. Then it turned out that the address was wrong. They sent out the wrong instructions for the British vote.

Wow!

They also sent out the wrong instructions for what day the Americans had to vote. “Oops a mistake!” But all the mistakes went to suppress the external vote. So then, everyone has to go to the consulate to vote or go to the embassy to vote. Or in London they had to rent a bigger hall because they were expecting so many people. Then suddenly people show up and they are told “you need your foreign passport to be able to vote.” A lot of people showed up to vote with the identification they’d use to vote with in Budapest, their address card. So people show up with their address card and they’re told, “No, you need your foreign passport.” And so people who had travelled all that distance, people who could not go home to pick up their foreign passport and come back, they were then denied the right to vote in the designated polling station. Not surprisingly, there was a relatively small turnout among émigré Hungarians.  Because you really had to be determined and because Fidesz really had to let you vote and there were all these places where they could turn you down, in the registration, in giving you the proper instructions to vote, in going there and checking your ID. There were certainly members of the opposition who voted abroad.  But there were lots of people who were turned down too. In opposition circles the understanding is that it was not random who was turned down. You can’t prove it without better numbers but that was certainly the impression that a lot of people had.

But was that also the case with votes coming from neighboring countries inside the Carpathian Basin?

No. “Near abroad voters” as Fidesz calls them, had a completely separate set of rules. They would register to vote. The could sign up anywhere. Actually, their information didn’t even have to match. In the statute it actually says if their registration doesn’t match all the information we have on file for them, the election officials should ignore the discrepancy. It says that in the law.

So if you have the wrong birthplace, or if you picked the wrong district in Budapest where your family was last registered, or whatever else they needed, and you didn’t match the registration information in the official records, then you were still permitted to register. There was almost no basis on which the electoral officials could deny the registration. Then, how did they get to vote? They could vote by mail. So, you didn’t have to travel, moreover you could vote by mail and you could hand your ballot to anyone who would turn your ballot in for you. You didn’t even have to vote by mail. So there would be people who were of unclear political affiliation, but shall we say were given the vote were probably not affiliated with the democratic opposition, would go through these Hungarian villages and pick up all the ballots and take them to all these new consulates that were opened for example in Romania. Also, there was never a live human who showed up to check anything.

So there were no controls?

There were no controls, there were no checks. Somebody could register in the name of a voter with partial information because, again, the information didn’t have to match.  There was no check that the person who was registered was the one who cast the ballot.  There was no check that the bundler who handled all these hundreds or thousands of ballots hadn’t changed them.  There were no election officials where those ballots were opened in the consulates abroad. So there were no checks on that system at all. So far as we can tell, there were 2 or 3 seats in the Parliament that were determined with those foreign votes.

Again, you add those votes to the winner compensation scheme, I mean, Fidesz got its two-thirds using every trick in the book and it needed every trick in the book to do that. Any one trick, you didn’t have that way of doing foreign votes, you didn’t have that way of doing winner compensation, you didn’t have that way of redrawing districts, etc, etc., any one of those things meant that they certainly wouldn’t have their two-thirds. They probably would have gotten the majority anyway given the turnout. It’s like in Russia where if Vladimir Putin steals elections he’s going to win anyway. But in this case, that two-thirds was crucial because if you don’t have the two-thirds in Parliament, then Fidesz can’t just change any law at will, even the Constitution.

Viktor Orbán: The brave prime minister who is not a communist

On October 28 József Szájer, a Fidesz member of the European Parliament, gave an interview to Inforádió, a station close to the government party. To long-time readers of Hungarian Spectrum or those who have been following Hungarian politics in the last twenty-five years Szájer is a familiar figure. However, since we have a lot of new subscribers who might be less familiar with the leading figures of Hungarian political life, I should say a few words about this man.

Szájer is a real old-timer in Fidesz. He was there from the very beginning, living in the dormitory where Fidesz was born. He held important positions in parliament and in Fidesz between 1988 and 2004, when he was sent to Brussels as the leader of the Fidesz delegation. He is also one of  deputy chairmen of the European People’s Party. Since Hungarian politicians don’t consider the job of MEP a particularly important one, it is hard to fathom why the decision was made to remove Szájer from direct involvement in Hungarian politics. He is supposed to be brilliant although, at least in my opinion, he does not put his brain power to the best use.

Just because Szájer officially holds no position doesn’t mean that he plays no role in the party behind the scenes. For example, Szájer himself proudly announced that he wrote the text of the new Hungarian constitution on his iPad. When the Orbán government is criticized in the European Parliament, it is Szájer who leads the troops in defense of the Orbán regime. And when in March 2013 there was a U.S. Senate hearing on the state of democracy in Hungary it was József Szájer who was dispatched to explain the Hungarian position.

During the interview on Inforádió Szájer defended the introduction of the internet tax with his usual vehemence. A government that dares to tax internet usage is a brave one, he said. “There are times,” he claimed, “when one has to speak in the language of strength.” Such a tax is “no attack on the internet.” After all, we have to pay for our food, but that doesn’t mean that it is an attack against the freedom of eating. The very fact that I had a heck of a time translating this sentence means that the comparison is outright idiotic. I consider the example Olga Kálmán used more apt. Let’s say that we buy a book but we still have to pay extra for being able to read it. Indeed, that is exactly what the internet tax is. Internet subscribers pay for their service, which includes a 27% tax, but in addition the government wants to tax their right to use the material offered by the provider whom they’ve already paid.

The reason that I quoted Szájer’s belligerent words on the brave government that dares to tax the internet is because it took no more than three days for the government to decide not to be so brave. The reason? Apparently, a quick poll was ordered which showed that the people who were at the demonstrations had been apolitical until now. They seemed to have awakened from their long slumber, and that truly frightened Viktor Orbán. Many of the people chanting slogans never even bothered to vote and claimed that they are not interested in politics. Suddenly they became active. This is the last thing Viktor Orbán wants. Among them might be future political leaders who will force this authoritarian government to resign one day.

A typical Fidesz warrior: József Szájer in the European Parliament

A typical Fidesz warrior: József Szájer in the European Parliament

In Viktor Orbán’s interview last Friday there was one sentence that I found especially revealing. He decided to shelve the internet tax because his government listens to the people, and they certainly don’t want to do anything that is unacceptable to the people. After all, they are not “communists.” But the problem is that the governing style of the Orbán government closely resembles that of the Kádár regime. For all practical purposes there is a one-party system in Hungary today.

During the communist period it was the Politburo that made the decisions. The size of that body varied from eight to thirteen members. They met weekly and discussed the day-to-day running of the country. Today the situation is actually worse. As far as we know, there are no weekly meetings of the Fidesz executive board. Decisions are not made by the ministers either because cabinet meetings are exceedingly short and there are practically no discussions. Everything is decided by Viktor Orbán and until he speaks, as someone wittily remarked, no one knows what to think. The people started to see the strong resemblance between the two regimes.

I watched Henrik Havas’s Saturday political program on ATV where the older participants recalled that in the last parliament of the Kádár regime there was a discussion about the Czechoslovak-Hungarian dam to be built on the Danube. The population opposed it, but the government was determined that it be built. The president of parliament called on those who were against the dam to stand up. Twenty some people did. And that was during a communist regime. Today it would be unimaginable for Fidesz MPs to stand up in a similar situation. Or to dare vote against a bill they don’t agree with. This is illiberal democracy in action.

The state of the churches in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary: An exchange of views

Today I’m republishing an exchange of letters between György Hölvényi, a Christian Democrat who is a member of the Fidesz European Parliamentary delegation, and H. David Baer, associate professor at the Texas Lutheran University. The reason for the exchange was an article that appeared in The Economist entitled “A slippery Magyar slope.” The article was about the “ill-named law on ‘the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on the Legal Status of Churches, Religious Denominations and Religious Communities.’” Hölvényi, who before becoming a MEP was deputy undersecretary in charge of the government’s relations with churches, national minorities and civil society, came to the defense of the much criticized law. Since the article in The Economist was republished by Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF), Hölvényi sent his reply to that organization, which subsequently included it in its newsletter. Baer, an expert on Hungarian religious affairs, decided to respond. His reply was also published in HRWF’s newsletter. I thought that this exchange of letters, which shines a light on the Orbán regime’s attitude toward religious freedom, was worth republishing.

First a few words about György Hölvényi. He comes from a devout Catholic family. His father was a Cistercian priest who eventually left the order and married. The young Hölvényi became involved with the Christian Democratic movement and in 1989 was one of the founders of the Christian Democratic Union. He spent many years in Brussels serving the parliamentary delegation of the European People’s Party in various capacities. As a result, his name was practically unknown in Hungary. That changed in May 2012 when he was named assistant undersecretary in Zoltán Balog’s Ministry of Human Resources.

Prior to that date the post was occupied by László Szászfalvi, who was a Hungarian Reformed minister just like Balog himself. Apparently the Catholics in the Christian Democratic Party raised a stink: two Protestant ministers were at least one too many. A Catholic must be found. Szászfalvi had to depart and came Hölvényi.

In the most recent elections for the EU parliament Hölvényi was number 12 on the Fidesz list. The party had to do very well for Hölvényi to get to Brussels. One reason for his low rank on the list was that certain positions were reserved for ethnic Hungarians from Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia. But the size of the Fidesz victory was such that he made it, and now he is a member of the new European Parliament.

The article in The Economist pointed out that “getting recognition as an ‘incorporated church’ required a two-thirds majority in Parliament. So what should be a simple administrative decision was turned into a political one, in which legislators have to assess the merits of a religion…. As a result of the law, at least 200 religious communities, including Methodists, Pentecostalists, Seventh Day Adventists, Reform Jews, Buddhists and Hindus faced a downgrading of their status…. In February 2013, Hungary’s Constitutional Court ruled that 67 groups had been deregistered unconstitutionally. However the government seems to have ignored the ruling. A government ministry rejected the written requests of at least four deregistered bodies to be added to the list of incorporated churches.”

Gábor Iványi, one of the victim's of the Orbán regime's church law

Gábor Iványi, one of the victims of the Orbán regime’s church law

With this introduction here is the exchange of letters. First, György Hölvényi’s letter written immediately after the appearance of the article in The Economist. David Baer’s letter was published only a few days ago in the HRWF newsletter.

 * * *

Response to the Erasmus blog post “A slippery Magyar slope,” September 25th 2014

The recent post of The Economist’s blog Erasmus on religious freedom in Central Europe (“A slippery Magyar slope”” by B. C., September 25th 2014) makes several misleading statements and offers a rather personal interpretation of the existing legal regulations on churches in Hungary.

Basic aspects on the registration process of churches have not been detailed in your blog post. Firstly, all associations dealing with religious activities are registered solely by the courts in Hungary. A politically highly neutral system. These communities operate independetly from the state, acoording to their own principles of faith and rituals.

The blog post makes references on “incorporated churches” in Hungary. It is crucial to know that the category of “incorporated churches,” as you call it, does not affect religious freedom at all. It is simply about financial aspects such as state subsidies for churches running social activities for the common good of the society.

It must be pointed out that many European countries apply legal distinctions between different religious organisations for various reasons. Quite often it is the Parliament who is entitled to grant them a special status (e.g. in Lithuania, Belgium). Besides, there are a number of European countries where the constitution itself places an established religion above the rest of the religious communities (e. g. in Denmark, Finland, Greece, Malta). For the record, it needs to be mentioned that the Parliament is involved in special recognition processes of the churches at different later stages also in Austria, Denmark, Portugal or Spain. In general, the European Union leaves the rules on the foundation of churches in the Member States’ competence.

As the post correctly recalls, the original Hungarian regulation on churches of 1990 was probably the most permissive in Europe. Uniquely in the world, more than 300 registered churches operated in Hungary for decades, enjoying the widest range of financial entitlements provided by the state, with no respect to their real social activities. The amended Church Act provides for a complete freedom of conscience and religion in Hungary, at the same time it eliminates errors of the uniquely permissive regulation.

When looking at international commentaries of the issue let us focus on the facts again. The relevant opinion of Venice Commission on the issue of religious freedom in Hungary stated that the Hungarian regulation in place “constitutes a liberal and generous framework for the freedom of religion.” The resolution of the Constitutional Court in Hungary referred to in your blog post did not make any reference to the freedom of religion in Hungary. On the contrary, the government’s intention with the new legislation was widely acknowledged by the Court. The US State Department’s report on religious freedem of 2013 does underline that the Fundamental Law and all legislation in Hungary defends religious freedom. Facts that have been disregarded by the author of your post.

Last but not least, the alliances of the non-incorporated churches in Hungary recognised and declared in a joint statement with the responsible Hungarian minister that they enjoy religious freedom in Hungary.

In contrast to the statements of your article, incorporated churches in Hungary include the Methodists: the United Methodist Church in Hungary is a widely recognised and active community in Hungary, as well as internationally. The fact is that Mr Iványi’s group has not been included in the UMC itself and is not recognised at all by the international Methodist bodies. Describing it as a “highly respected” church is again a serious factual mistake, reflecting a lack of information on the issue.

Coming finally to the issue of the European Court on Human Rights’ decision: some of the member judges formed special opinions to the appeal of the affected churches. Although the Hungarian government is challenging the decision, at the same time it started negotiations with the appealing communities on the remedy process.

In conclusion, I would highly recommend that your blogger B.C. pay wider attention to the facts to better understand regulations on church affairs that have been in place in Europe for decades and centuries.

HÖLVÉNYI György
Member of the European Parliament for Hungary / EPP Group

 * * *

H. David Baer’s reply:

Mr. Hölvényi writes to defend a church law that the ECtHR has found to breach the European Convention and which the Hungarian government refuses to amend.  He would thus have us believe that religious communities in Hungary enjoy religious freedom even as they are not protected by the rule of law.

Mr. Hölvényi urges that we stick to the facts. The fact is that in 2011 the government of Hungary retroactively “deregistered” religious communities already recognized as churches under Hungarian law.  The fact is that in 2013 Hungary’s Constitutional Court found this deregistration procedure unconstitutional.  The fact is that after 2013 the government of Hungary blatantly ignored the Court’s decision, refusing to treat unconstitutionally deregistered religious communities as legal churches.  The fact is that in 2014 the European Court of Human Rights found that Hungary’s unconstitutional church law also violated the right of religious freedom and the European Convention.  The fact is that the Hungarian government has still not, as of this day, acted to abide by the European Court’s decision.

Mr. Hölvényi knows these facts, because prior to being an MP in the European Parliament he was the state undersecretary responsible for dealing with the churches in Viktor Orbán’s government.  As undersecretary, Hölvényi worked closely with Zoltán Balog, Minister of Human Capacities, to obstruct implementation of the Constitutional Court’s decision so as to deny deregistered religious communities their constitutional rights. Just this past month, Péter Paczolay, the president of Hungary’s Constitutional Court, lamented openly in a public address that the Court’s decision on Hungary’s church law had never been respected or implemented.  Mr. Hölvényi bears direct responsibility for this.  Thus, to listen to him aver that Hungary’s deregistered churches enjoy religious freedom is a little like listening to a man caught stealing his neighbor’s shirt and pants aver that his neighbor has the freedom to wear underwear.

Religious communities in Hungary enjoy religious freedom the way NGO’s in Hungary enjoy freedom of association. Denied equality under the law and subject to opaque regulations, deregistered religious communities, like unpopular NGO’s, are subjected to arbitrary and expensive audits, hindered or prevented from raising money, attacked in the government controlled media, and harassed by local officials.  Mr. Hölvényi, a member of the European Parliament, should know that when citizens aren’t equal under the law they aren’t equally free.

Instead of defending Hungary’s indefensible church law, perhaps Mr. Hölvényi should encourage the government of his country to respect the rule of law, uphold its international commitments, and abide by the European Convention.

David Baer
Texas Lutheran University
USA

Tibor Navracsics is not recommended to be commissioner of education, culture, youth and citizenship

Never a dull moment. I was just ready to sit down to write about the Budapest election and its influence on the parties of the democratic opposition when I learned that the EU parliamentary committee, although it approved Tibor Navracsics as a candidate worthy to be one of the commissioners of the European Commission, found him unfit for the job of commissioner of education, culture, youth and citizenship. There were some earlier warning signs, yet this piece of news was still a surprise to most of us. This development throws a monkey wrench into the plans of Jean Claude Juncker, who was hoping for the acceptance of his candidates in toto. Now Juncker is faced with further negotiations. As far as I can see, he has three choices. First, he can make a swap if he finds a candidate ready to change portfolios and go through another round of hearings. Second, he can further trim the tasks Navracsics would be responsible for in the hope that such an arrangement would satisfy the members of the committee. And, third, Juncker can go back to Viktor Orbán and ask for another candidate, preferably not a politician who bears the heavy weight of the Orbán government’s “illiberal” past. I assume that Juncker finds none of these options especially appealing.

I wrote two posts on Tibor Navracsics’s encounter with the European Commission and Parliament. The first was published before we knew for sure what portfolio was waiting for the Hungarian candidate. The title of that post was “The long shadow of Viktor Orbán.” There I outlined objections to Navracsics’s occupying the post he wanted most, Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy. And, indeed, instead of this or some other more weighty job he had to be satisfied with the post of education, culture, youth and citizenship, a choice that surprised Navracsics and most likely disappointed the Hungarian government. It was at this point that I wrote my second article on the subject. Soon enough the pro-Fidesz press began running article after article extolling the importance of Navracsics’s post. In fact one article claimed that it was the most important of all 28 because “the future of Europe” depends on his work. I ended that post with the following sentence: “Just yesterday at the traditional Fidesz picnic in Kötcse [Orbán] claimed that if there is unity, we will conquer the crisis, the flood, the bureaucrats in Brussels, the financial powers and the banks. He is ready to take on Brussels. Is Brussels ready to take him on?” Well, it looks as if they have.

Immediately after the nomination one started hearing serious criticisms of the nominee’s past and his unsuitability for the job. He was identified as one of the five “problematic nominees”: the Slovenian Alenka Bratušek, the British Jonathan Hill, the Spanish Miguel Arias Cañete, the Maltese Karmenu Vella, and the Hungarian Tibor Navracsics. The chief problem, according to European Voice, was that he was nominated by Viktor Orbán. Members of the European Parliament were also concerned about the “citizenship” part of the portfolio since the Hungarian government “has been accused of trampling on fundamental rights and the rule of law.” At that time, however, the talking heads in Brussels thought that “a rejection [was] unlikely.”

And then came the actual hearing that lasted three and a half hours. To every hard-to-answer question Navracsics’s response was that he personally had nothing to do with it. The media law was not his creation. As far as Hungarian anti-Semitism is concerned, he always had the best of relations with the Jewish community. NGO’s? He’s gotten along with them splendidly. In brief, he tried to disassociate himself from the government he served as minister of justice and deputy prime minister.

Tibor Navracsics before the Committee on Culture and Education

Tibor Navracsics before the Committee on Culture and Education

Interestingly, the Hungarian media found his performance brilliant. He looked cultured, moderate, and professional while his opponents were ill-prepared. A typical reaction was the article that appeared in 444.hu. But the members of the European Parliament who were present at the hearing had a different take on the matter. They found Navracsics evasive and lacking in credibility. According to Csaba Molnár (DK MEP) who was present, the members of the committee lingered on for some time after the hearing was over and in smaller groups discussed the “disgraceful” performance of Navracsics. What was considered in Hungary “clever” was judged outrageous in Brussels. Molnár was not exaggerating: the committee members were not satisfied.

Six new questions were posed which Navracsics had to answer in writing. The  hardest demand was “to take officially distance from the stances of [his] party FIDESZ, the Hungarian government and [his] Prime Minister Viktor Orban.” He was also asked to admit publicly that the media law he co-authored was not in line with the EU charter of fundamental rights. The committee also questioned his reassurances that the law that was eventually changed at the insistence of the European Commission fully complies with EU requirements.

When I first read these questions, I said to myself that Navracsics cannot officially distance himself from his party and his prime minister. This would mean denying his whole past. Well, yesterday he submitted his answers, which I thought would satisfy the committee. He disassociated himself from the media law and admitted that the decisions of the Orbán government that limited the freedom of the media were wrong. Navracsics explained that the infamous law was not drafted in his ministry but was submitted to parliament by an individual member of parliament. In fact, he disagreed with many of its particulars, especially passages concerning the freedom and diversity of  media. Navracsics said they “are of key importance in democratic societies and I regret that in the past the Hungarian government, of which I am no longer a member, did not attach due importance to this very significant point.” Well, it seems, this mea culpa was not enough.

Finally, let’s look at the Fidesz and pro-government media’s reaction to the bad news. The Fidesz European parliamentary delegation tonight released a statement in which they called the committee’s approval of Navracsics’s person “an exceptionally great success.” The statement called special attention to the fact that the left majority suggested only modifications to the portfolio, as most likely will be the case with some other commissioners as well. Magyar Nemzet’s headline read: “They suggest another portfolio to Navracsics,” not exactly the most accurate way of describing what happened.

What will happen now? A couple of days ago Peter Spiegel wrote a piece in The Financial Times‘s European edition, “Brussels confirmations descend into bloodletting,” which stated that “‘Mr Navracsics, an EPP member, faces the most uncertain future.” But even the usually well informed Spiegel thought that Navracsics, by distancing himself from the government, would survive. He may be right. But even if he is, will Navracsics–and his portfolio–survive whole? I have no idea.

An unexpected turn of events: Tibor Navracsics has to be satisfied with the post of education, culture, and youth

Today around noon Jean-Claude Juncker, future president of the European Commission, made his final decision on his “cabinet” or, in EU speak, the “college.” EurActiv published an excellent and telling infographic that depicts the structure of the cabinet as well as the relative importance of the commissioner-designates. Juncker will have seven deputies, the most important of whom is Frans Timmermans of the Netherlands who will be “first vice-president.” He will be in charge of “better regulation, inter-institutional relations, rule of law and charter of fundamental rights.” The other six come from Italy, Bulgaria, Estonia, Slovenia, Latvia, and Finland. So, as you can see, the new member states are well represented. One must also keep in mind that the future president of the European Council will be the Polish Donald Tusk.

In the infographic the seven vice-presidents are followed by the rest, not in alphabetical order but by what seems to me a ranking of the importance of the posts. Hungary’s nominee, Tibor Navracsics, who to everybody’s surprise got the post of commissioner of education, culture, youth & citizenship, is in the penultimate place, just before Cyprus’s Christos Stylianides (humanitarian aid & crisis management).  Most papers published in Brussels dealing with European affairs describe the post as lightweight. According to Euobserver, “the least weighty dossiers have gone to Belgium’s Marianne Thyssen (employment) and Hungary’s Tibor Navracsics (citizenship). ” The paper added that “the latter may face difficulties in the EP, which has to hear all commissioners, because he belongs to the increasingly authoritarian government of Viktor Orban.” The Hungarian-language Bruxinfo also pointed out that “the portfolio does not belong to the most heavyweight ones” but notes that Navracsics’s staff is huge, the second largest within the commission. As for his possible difficulties in the European Parliament, Benedek Jávor, the Együtt-PM EP member, reported on his Facebook page that, according to rumors in Brussels, Navracsics might be drilled hard at his hearing and there is a possibility that he will not be confirmed.

Navracsics himself was also surprised, and most likely disappointed, with the post because he was hoping for a job that has something to do with foreign affairs. But he put on a good face. Naturally, for Fidesz the position was elevated to one of the utmost importance. As a Fidesz official statement said, the future of Europe depends on Navracsics’s work in the next five years. Indeed, education is very important and it is true that many European countries could do a great deal better in that department. The problem is that education is the domain of the member states, and therefore Navracsics will not be able to make a substantial difference in educational policies across the EU.

Navracsics and his fight with Vice-President Vivien Reding was not forgotten

Navracsics and his fight with Vice-President Vivien Reding was not forgotten

Juncker initiated a major structural change, whereby the vice-presidents will be the overseers of the rest of the commissioners. In his letter to Tibor Navracsics he described the new system this way:

I will entrust a number of well defined priority projects to the Vice-Presidents and ask them to steer and coordinate work across the Commission in the key areas of the Political Guidelines.  This will allow for a better focus and a much stronger cooperation amongst Members of the College, with several Commissioners working closely together as a team, led by the Vice-Presidents, in compositions that may change according to need and as new projects develop over time.

In Navracsics’s case this will entail close cooperation with  the Finnish Jyrki Katainen, vice-president for jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness; with Latvia’s Valdis Dombrovskis, vice-president for euro and social dialogue; and with Estonia’s Andrus Ansip, vice-president for digital single market. Keep in mind that under Navracsics’s short tenure as foreign minister Hungary closed its embassy in Tallinn. Juncker emphasized in the letter than the vice-presidents have his total trust and their decisions on certain projects are final. They speak in his name. The success of the Juncker Commission will largely depend on these “über-commissioners,” as Eurobserver called them.

Navracsics gave a press conference for Hungarian journalists where he admitted that “it is possible that education in comparison to the portfolio of internal market is considered to be less weighty but every job is worth as much as we manage to make of it,” which is certainly true. The commissioner for internal market, industry, entrepreneurship & SMEs is the Polish Elźbieta Bieńkowska, and the fact that Navracsics mentioned this particular post I think says something about the frustration of the Hungarians. There are all those others in the region who did much better.

According to the new government spokesman, Éva Kurucz, Navracsics’s post is about the future and his nomination to the post is an “outstanding success.” Fidesz’s EP delegation agrees. The youth of Europe is of the utmost importance and Navracsics has twenty years of academic experience behind him. Of course, there is nothing surprising about Fidesz and the government extolling the importance of Navracsics’s new job, but the enthusiasm of LMP’s András Schiffer is hard to understand. Perhaps he would like to get a few more brownie points from Viktor Orbán and a few more invitations to Fidesz and government functions. According to him, the education portfolio is strategically more important than any of the others that had been mentioned in the last few weeks, which is patently not true.

The opposition parties’ opinion of the post was predictable. Jobbik blamed the Orbán government for not lobbying harder for a more important post. MSZP’s József Tóbiás blamed the Orbán government and Viktor Orbán himself for getting this lowly portfolio. According to him, the fault lies not with the Hungarian people but with Viktor Orbán and his regime. “It is a slap in the face for Orbán but it is we Hungarians who feel the pain.” DK’s spokesman, Zsolt Gréczy, called this particular portfolio the weakest of the twenty-eight. After all, the EU has no common educational or cultural program. He added that DK will not support Navracsics’s candidacy. That means that DK’s two delegates in EP’s socialist delegation will vote against him. MSZP, as far as I know, hasn’t decided yet.  Benedek Jávor, the sole representative of Együtt-PM, rightly pointed out that it will be difficult for Navracsics “to promote cultural diversity while at home his government dictates what real culture is, how youth should be educated, and wants to make self-organization of the citizenry impossible.” All very true.

Final approval of the Juncker Commission will take place in October at the plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. I agree with some of the commentators: there might still be surprises concerning Navracsics’s appointment. If I were Viktor Orbán I would hold my tongue for a couple of more months. Otherwise, “the slap in the face” might be even harder and more painful than it is now.