european union subsidies

An optimistic prediction: The Orbán regime’s inevitable demise

I would like to report on a lengthy article that appeared on 444.hu on September 18, 2014, written by someone who calls himself “Nolite Timere,” “don’t be afraid” in Latin. The piece has the upbeat title “The NER’s coming demise.” An optimistic title, that is, for those who are opponents of the Orbán regime. It is a prediction few people believe today in Hungary. In fact, an increasing number of editorial and op/ed pages forecast exactly the opposite. So, let’s see on what basis Nolite Timere makes his prediction.

Before I attempt to summarize his argument, let me remind everybody that NER is the abbreviation of Nemzeti Együttműködés Rendszere or, in English, the System of National Cooperation. In the first few months of the Orbán administration one could hear a lot about NER, but by early July I wrote that, despite Péter Szijjártó’s best efforts, the designation had disappeared from usage. Well, the name may have disappeared, but Viktor Orbán’s proclamation of NER signaled the beginning of a new era and a new political system. The text of the proclamation can be found in the above cited post.

Nolite Timere begins his argument by saying that NER rests on shaky foundations. Its support comes exclusively from Fidesz voters. The graph below shows the tight correlation between those Hungarians who support Fidesz and those who are satisfied with the performance of the government.

Therefore, opposition to the government automatically means opposition to the regime. Once this government loses power, the new government will most likely try to dismantle the NER. A lot of economic and political players may even find themselves in legal trouble. Therefore, maintenance of the Orbán system is of vital importance to those in power today.

Blue: the country is moving in the right direction. Orange: voters' support of Fidesz Source: 444.hu

Blue: the country is moving in the right direction. Orange: voters’ support for Fidesz
Source: 444.hu

The graph shows how the population reacts to financial fluctuations. At the beginning of 2012 only about 17-18 percent of the population was satisfied with the government’s performance, but as soon as utility prices were lowered and the impoverished population got a few thousand extra forints a month, they were once again ready to support Fidesz and its government. Conclusion? Viktor Orbán must make sure that he can reduce the number of dissatisfied voters for twenty or thirty years by increasing the well-being of the population. Nolite Timere’s prediction is that he will not be able to pull this off. At least this is what earlier efforts tell us.

All regimes since 1919 attempted to do two things simultaneously: continuously raise living standards and at the same time satisfy the expectations of their own base. The Horthy regime failed because it was unwilling to break up the large aristocratic and church estates; Mátyás Rákosi favored those who came from the working class and the peasantry to such an extent that by 1952 there was widespread hunger in the country; János Kádár refused to give up the primacy of the communist party in economic matters and therefore could maintain the modest but steady rise in living standards only as the result of  cheap Soviet energy and foreign loans. Once there were no more loans and no cheap oil the regime collapsed. The slow economic growth that began in 1995-96 lasted only as long as there were state-owned companies to be sold. After 2002 the economic growth could once again be maintained only through indebtedness. In 2008 that came to an end.

Hungary’s perennial problem ever since modern capitalism arrived in the region is a lack of capital. Since 1990 almost all capital came from abroad, and this has at least two serious drawbacks: it is expensive and it can be moved at any time. However, a country without its own capital must first rely on foreign sources. This was the case in Hungary between 1867 and 1914. Originally 60% of all investment came from Austria and Germany, but over the next 35 years a new generation of Hungarian capitalists grew up who learned from their foreign colleagues and amassed capital of their own. By 1914 only 25% of investment came from outside of the country. (Note that Viktor Orbán wants to achieve the same shift in the source of investment in a few years. Failure is guaranteed.)

Nolite Timere is convinced that in a country short on capital it is dangerous to build a regime that has only shaky legitimacy, as NER does. “The trick can be achieved only with foreign help … the regime survives only as long as foreign capital is coming in.” There was no appreciable economic growth in Hungary, yet the government lowered taxes, raised pensions, built stadiums. Where did they get the money? In part from foreign companies, in the form of extra levies, the lowering of utility prices, and many other tricks that took away large chunks of these companies’ profits. In some cases the companies even had to dip into their own capital to satisfy the Orbán regime’s appetite.

The second source is naturally the European Union. Between 2007 and 2012 Hungary received subsidies equivalent to 21% of the country’s GDP. In 2013 monies coming Brussels amounted to 5% of the GDP. In 2014 it will most likely be higher. In brief, “the future of the regime depends on the availability of foreign capital.”

The author is convinced that the end is nigh. All the money taken from foreign firms and received from the European Union was only enough to raise real wages modestly in the second half of 2013 and early 2014 in preparation for the coming election. As a result of the large amount of capital pumped into the economy, GDP growth in 2014 is expected to be substantial. Government propaganda points to this as a great success that will continue into the future. This is unlikely, claims our author.

Banks and other foreign companies are at a breaking point; they can absorb no additional levies. Bayern LB, owner of MKB, is a case in point; it threw in the towel and sold its Hungarian holding to the state rather than pay all the debts it accrued as a result of the government’s interference in its business activities. It is very possible that others will follow. If the state then sells these banks and other concerns to its supporters, it will be difficult to extract more taxes from them or even to maintain the low utility prices. After all, there will be no foreign money coming in to replenish the losses.

The leaders of the regime might try to attract foreign companies, especially German and Austrian businesses, to Hungary, but such recruiting has its limits. After all, the government wants to strengthen those Hungarian capitalists who are friends of the regime. That’s why the government makes a distinction between “good” and “bad” foreign investors, thereby limiting their number. Of course, the question is how long a foreign company can remain a “good company” and when Viktor Orbán will decide that, after all, he made a mistake. Moreover, Nolite Timere thinks that unless some kind of miracle happens, the amount of money coming from Brussels in 2016-2017 will decrease sharply as a result of the very nature of the system of disbursement.

And so Viktor Orbán needs capital from outside the European Union and the United States. Hence the “Eastern Opening,” which up to this point has not brought real results. That’s why Orbán turned to Vladimir Putin last year and signed a 10-billion euro secret agreement for a Russian company to construct a new atomic reactor in Paks. Most of that money will not add to Hungary’s GDP because once construction actually begins on the reactor the lion’s share of the work will be done by the Russian company that “won” the contract. In comparison to the EU subsidies, this Russian money is small potatoes, 120 billion euros a year as opposed to the 30,000 billion coming from Brussels. Of course, it is possible that Orbán is hoping for very inexpensive gas from Russia, which would add another 50 billion euros worth of capital a year.

The maintenance of the Orbán regime in the long run needs all three sources of financing: the EU, Moscow, and Western capital via government bond purchases. If any one of these three falters, the regime itself might be in danger. Brussels must pay without delay. Withholding money might upset the delicate financial balancing act of the Orbán government. As far as Paks is concerned, the Russian-Ukrainian crisis came at the worst possible time from Orbán’s point of view. Even before the crisis Brussels was not exactly happy either with the building of the Southern Stream or with the secret Russian-Hungarian agreement to have Russia build a nuclear reactor inside of the European Union. In addition, one never knows what may happen in the internal financial markets that might weaken the forint further. Hungarian bonds might be less attractive to foreign investors if the United States raises its interest rates in the future. All this could have disastrous effects on the Hungarian economy. This is especially so because the capital that is coming into the country is not being used to lay the groundwork for further economic growth. Instead it is being used to artificially raise living standards, lower utility prices, hand out higher pensions, maintain the flat tax, buy companies to be passed on to friends of Fidesz, and erect state-financed projects like stadiums and renovate state-owned buildings. With such a strategy no country ever became highly developed.

Hungary managed to lock itself into a position of total economic dependence. At this stage the regime no longer cares from whom the money comes or how much it costs in the long run; what counts is that comes and that it comes fast. When foreign capital dries up, this regime will inevitably fail.

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Barroso in Budapest

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.

José Manuel Barroso and Viktor Orbán Source: Népszabadság / Photo Zsolt Reviczky

José Manuel Barroso and Viktor Orbán: We can feel equal financially
Source: Népszabadság / Photo Zsolt Reviczky

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.

The asphalt tax: Lajos Simicska is not taking it lying down

A few days ago 444 reported that the government is planning to levy extra taxes on companies that have received large government contracts for road construction over the past few years. The reason for these new taxes is a large fine that the Hungarian government is expecting from the European Union. Apparently, ever since 2007  Hungarian governments have insisted that only construction companies that had asphalt mixing plants close to the job sites could bid for contracts. The European Union objected to this constraint which, in their opinion, restricts free competition.

The argument between Budapest and Brussels has been going on for some time, and it looks as if the Hungarian government has reconciled itself to the fact that it will have to pay a heavy fine, perhaps as much as 100 billion forints. Although the current Hungarian government spends money quite freely, it either doesn’t have the money for such a fine or doesn’t feel like paying it from funds it would rather spend on stadiums or the purchase of private enterprises. In any case, the government came up with a splendid idea: let the companies pay for something that is clearly the Hungarian government’s fault.

Although the public usually hears only about Lajos Simicska’s company Közgép, the firm that receives most of the government orders, there are others. Apparently, there is a company called Duna Aszfalt that lately has become a true competitor to Közgép. In addition, there is a French company called Colas, the Austrian Strabag and Swietelsky Magyarország, Magyar Aszfalt, and Hídépìtő Group. Each of these companies has had more than 100 billion forints worth of government orders and thus would be obligated to pay a 15% tax on its gross income.

According to an article that appeared in HVGKözgép was the greatest beneficiary of the Orbán government’s largesse. Since 2007 it won bids for projects to the tune of 132 billion forints, which would mean a retroactive tax of 20 billion. But in the last two years Duna Aszfalt–which is in fact situated in Tiszakécske–has grown tremendously. In 2012 it received government work amounting to 28 billion forints, whereas in 2013 this amount was 54 billion and its profits almost quadrupled. The two owners received 1.8 billion forints in dividends. It was Duna Aszfalt that built the road from Makó to the Serbian border.

road construction

Soon after the first report of the possibility of an extra levy on these companies, the Hungarian government denied any such plan. The denial, however, was carefully worded. On HírTV János Lázár said only that “in the last few months the topic has not even been mentioned in cabinet meetings.” That is not a categorical denial of the existence of such a plan, especially since Lázár during the same interview admitted that Brussels “has formulated doubts and misgivings concerning road construction worth about 500 billion forints.” He added that “it was probable that Hungary will have to pay a significant fine.” For the time being Lázár couldn’t say how and to what extent this fine will affect the companies that were the beneficiaries of the contracts, but he claimed that the “Hungarian government will defend the Hungarian people and the Hungarian companies.” He added that “this defense will not be extended to foreign companies.”

That is clear enough. The Hungarians will not have to pay or will have to pay less while the Austrians and the French will pay through the nose. Therefore, it might seem surprising that Magyar Nemzet today wrote a scathing article against the government’s plan in defense of the construction companies. One must keep in mind, however, that Lajos Simicska and Zsolt Nyerges, his close business partner, have a stake in the newspaper. The publisher of Magyar Nemzet is Nemzet Kft, which used to be called Mahir Kft; this was Simicska’s first business venture.

The title of the article is: “How will a 100 billion forint tax become a 1.2 trillion deficit?” The article claims that if the companies have to pay such a large amount, their own future business activities will be in jeopardy. The contention is that the companies’ profit margin is nowhere near 15%. In fact, the spokesman for Strabag talked about a 3% profit margin on road construction. The author thus calculates that the loss to these companies would be unbearable. Moreover, these companies haven’t even received all of the money the government owes them: “in brief, the money that the government wants to collect is nonexistent.” The consequences will be serious, the article warned. There will be liquidity problems that will result in these companies not being able to pay their workers and their subcontractors; they wouldn’t even be able to buy material. In brief, their current projects will come to a screeching halt.

And that’s not all. Even the slightest delay might mean that these firms could not finish the construction jobs before the December 31, 2015 deadline, in which case the country would have to pay back all of the subsidies received from Brussels. That would mean a loss of 1.2 trillion forints. Further, the article warns about possible bankruptcies, which may result in the loss of 90,000 jobs. Problems in the construction sector could seriously affect Hungarian economic growth. In the first quarter of 2014 GDP was 3.5%, and the construction sector contributed 0.5% to that figure. As a result, it can easily happen that Hungary’s deficit may exceed 3%. If that happens, Hungary could be placed under the excessive deficit procedure, which would mean a suspension of all EU subsidies.

The construction lobby is pushing hard, using Magyar Nemzet to describe the worst case scenario if the “asphalt” tax is imposed. It may persuade the government to go light on Hungarian companies, as Lázár already intimated the government would. But I don’t know what Brussels will think if Hungary implements a two-tiered tax: one for domestic companies and the other for foreign companies. Such a solution would definitely restrict free competition, which was Brussels’ objection in the first place.

No good players, no spectators but more and more stadiums

There was great excitement in government circles yesterday in the wake of the news that the third quarter Hungarian GDP grew by 1.8%. Observers who look around the country couldn’t quite believe that number and skeptics immediately questioned the figures of the Central Statistical Office.

No, the numbers are not falsified, but if they are not put into context they are misleading. What the ordinary citizen, even the one who more or less follows the news, doesn’t realize is that a year ago during the same period there was a decrease in the GDP of 1.7% compared to 2011. Thus, this single figure simply indicates that we are where we were two years ago. Moreover, economic growth during the first three quarters of 2013 didn’t herald a robust recovery. It was a modest 0.5%.

Prospects for the future are not especially bright because investment is still very low and comes mostly in the form of large government projects financed by the European Union. Since the Orbán government stopped all convergence projects that were under way in 2010, only a fraction of the available subsidies was used as late as the summer of this year. Then János Lázár took over the office handling EU projects and promised to begin large and hitherto postponed projects in a great hurry. According to critics, the government has been spending money with very little thought for utility. I for one find it outrageous that billions of euros given to Hungary by the citizens of better-off countries in the European Union go for projects that have nothing to do with convergence.

Let’s focus on the most objectionable: football stadiums. As of August 2013 a total of 123 billion forints was set aside for stadiums whose construction was already under way. And announcements over the last few months indicated that the Hungarian government will spend an additional 110-130 billion forints refurbishing existing stadiums or building new ones. These new stadiums, taken together, will be able to seat about 110,000 football fans. In the fall of 2012 the average number of spectators at the matches of Division I was 2,807; this number decreased to 2,728 during the 2012/13 season. Attendance varied widely by club. Ferencváros averaged 6,174; Diósgyőr, 5,669; Debrecen, 4,400; and Szombathely, 3,433. Then there was Mezőkövesd with an average attendance of 800 and the famed Felcsút with a mere 300-500 spectators.

Some 80% of the population object to spending public money for building or refurbishing stadiums. As far as Felcsút is concerned, even the majority of Fidesz voters disapprove of Viktor Orbán’s pet project. Yet voter dislike of this stadium building frenzy didn’t dampen Viktor Orbán’s zeal. In the 2014 budget the government allocated an additional 82.8 billion forints for stadiums.

Two days ago Népszabadság learned that the cabinet had discussed refurbishing and/or expanding twenty-six existing stadiums. The cost will be 21 billion forints. Most of the money will go to Honvéd (Army) in Budapest. In addition, Pécs, Paks, Kaposvár, Nyíregyháza, Zalaegerszeg, Vasas, Cegléd, Gyimót, Kisvárda, Szigetszentmiklós and several others will all have stadiums. Soon there will scarcely be any larger than average size town in Hungary without a spanky new stadium. Someone wittily remarked that if sometime in the distant future archaeologists undertake extensive excavations in the Carpathian Basin they will wonder what all those oval-shaped foundations were used for by the people who lived here thousands of years before.

Bishop Kiss-Rigó plays football / MTI

Bishop Kiss-Rigó plays football / MTI

It seems that the football stadium mania is infectious. The Szeged-Csanádi Diocese started a business venture, Szeged 2011 Labdarugó Sportszolgáltató Kft. The bishop, László Kiss-Rigó, is keenly interested in football. He put half a million forints of his own money into the Grosics Football Academy in Gyula. He also put money into Profi Futball Kft. Now Kiss-Rigó wants to rebuild one of the two abandoned football stadiums in Szeged. Never mind that Szeged doesn’t even have a team. The diocese’s company will build a stadium–and maybe “they will come.”

The reconstruction of the stadium will cost about 2-3 billion forints, and the Hungarian Football Association (MLSZ) already promised the diocese-owned company 700 million forints toward the cost. The company itself hasn’t been doing well. In fact, just last year it lost 95 million forints. However, the bishop is optimistic that his business venture will receive a few billions from private donations–donations that can be written off on the donors’ taxes. Just as Felcsút managed to get 4-5 billion, Kiss-Rigó, a great Fidesz supporter, will most likely get generous support thanks to his connection to Viktor Orbán. As far permission from the city of Szeged is concerned, one doesn’t have to worry. Although the mayor is a socialist, the majority of the city fathers are members of Fidesz. They already gave their blessing to the bishop’s project.

But not all is in order in the Szeged-Csanád Diocese. The Hungarian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service (NAV) is investigating possible tax fraud and other unspecified felonious acts. And that leads me to the surprising fact that businesses owned by church organizations have all sorts of privileges granted by the Orbán government that other businesses don’t receive. For example, lower corporate taxes, no taxes on company vehicles, and lower personal income tax rates for ministers and priests. The Democratic Coalition included repeal of these perks among the party’s sixteen points.

The investigation of the Szeged-Csanád Diocese is still under way. An earlier investigation into the crooked business practices of the Pécs Diocese ended the career of the bishop of Pécs.

It would be interesting to know the extent to which churches are engaged in business ventures and how much the Hungarian government is helping them along. In the Szeged case, the Hungarian Football Association’s 700 million donation to Kiss-Rigó’s business venture comes from the Hungarian taxpayers, who are most likely not terribly keen on a church-built stadium in Szeged.

Hungary and the European Union

Anyone who thinks that Fidesz politicians–and here I think mostly of Viktor Orbán and his bosom buddy László Kövér–have been using unacceptable language about the European Union only lately is wrong. Among my notes I found a few choice words from the not so recent past. László Kövér, for example, described European politics as “gang warfare” and members of the European Union as “ignominious dregs.” Lajos Kósa compared José Manuel Barroso to “an absolutely undistinguished coach of a football team in the second tier of the national championship. Just read Karinthy. It is about Barroso.” [Frigyes Karinthy (1887-1938) was a writer of satirical pieces that are great favorites in Hungary.] As for the seriousness of the Commission, “its work can be compared to that of  a provincial fishing club.” All these quotes are from March 2012 when the Hungarian government pretended that it actually wanted to have a deal with the IMF and claimed that it was only the European Commission that stood in the way of an agreement.

A year later, in February 2013, it was time for a different tactic. Herman Van Rompuy was visiting Hungary and Viktor Orbán went out of his way to be ingratiating. He begged the European Union to be understanding toward poor Hungary, a country that had been cut off from the world for forty years and had suffered under communism. In February he still had to worry about the excessive deficit procedure and had to convince the officials in Brussels that his unorthodox handling of the economy would bear fruit. He assured Van Rompuy that economic growth would be much more robust than predicted and proudly pointed to a very low deficit. (Since then it has become obvious that economic growth is still practically nonexistent. Moreover, in the first five months of the year the deficit was 3.8%.) Orbán said that the success of the European Union is vital for Hungary, and therefore he promised support for the proposed banking union. (He hasn’t had to deliver on his promise yet.)

After February Viktor Orbán’s attitude changed. Orbán decided to return to his old game of  biting the hand that feeds him. Because, let’s face it, without the EU subsidies the economic situation of the country would be even more disastrous than it is now.

I just read a short article that appeared on the Internet site fn.24. It gives exact figures on the subsidies Hungary has received from the convergence program that is designed to help the less developed countries catch up with the richer countries in the West. The numbers are truly staggering.

In five years Hungary paid into the common EU treasury about 5 billlion euros, about 0.9-1.0 billion every year. But in 2007 it received 2.4, in 2008 2.0, in 2009 3.6, in 2010 3.6, and in 2011 2.4 billion euros. The difference in Hungary’s favor amounted to 9.3 billion euros. That means that every Hungarian citizen, including babes-in-arms, received 280,000 forints from the European Union between 2007 and 2011.

Tons of money by pfala / Flickr

Tons of money by pfala / Flickr.com

Fn24’s reporters tried to find out how much the honorable members of Hungary’s parliament know about the size of these subsidies. They didn’t manage to get any answer that even came close. In fact, most of the parliamentarians had no clue at all. They didn’t even dare to guess.

Now let’s see what is happening in foreign investment. You may recall that József Szájer had the temerity to lie straight into the face of his fellow MEPs when he claimed that Hungary has never received as much foreign investment as it did this past year. The truth is just the opposite. Ever since 2007 fewer and fewer foreign companies have been investing in Hungary. In 2007 foreign investment was still quite high: 4.4 billion euros. A year later it shrank to 3.1 billion and in 2009, in the wake of the financial crisis, it dropped dramatically to 1.3 billion. By 2011, two years into the Orbán administration, it is still only 1.1 billion euros. In the last three years EU subsidies were about triple the amount of direct foreign investments.

Meanwhile one can hear the most incredible claims belittling the amount of money Hungary is receiving from the European Union. The latest example comes from Bence Rétvári, a Christian Democrat and undersecretary in the Ministry of Administration and Justice, in an interview with Olga Kálmán of ATV. Actually, it is worth watching this exchange if for no other reason than to get a glimpse of this unctuous fellow who is in many ways a prototype of the young Christian Democrats who received high positions in the administration. In vain did Kálmán insist that Hungary received a great deal more money than it contributed to the common purse. Rétvári wouldn’t buy it. According to him, as a result of Hungary’s membership in the EU it loses sizable revenues that it was able to collect before. I assume he means export and import duties, but I have no idea what that would have amounted to in five years.

Hungarian politicians’ harsh words on the European Union and all the disadvantages Hungary’s membership entail reminded the author of the article I relied on for the figures of EU subsidies of The Life of Brian (1979). Specifically the perhaps most famous scene when the members of the Judaean People’s Front try to incite the people to revolt against the Romans. I recommend it for a hearty laugh.

Indeed, the advantages so outweigh the alleged disadvantages, and not just in economic terms, that EU membership really shouldn’t be a topic of discussion. But then, Hungary’s membership in the European Union might prevent Viktor Orbán from introducing outright dictatorship. And I guess that’s a colossal disadvantage.

Greed might be the undoing of Viktor Orbán and his regime

Today I’m going to look at two corruption cases that might have serious consequences for the Fidesz empire in Hungary. The first is the “seizure” of the profitable retail tobacco market and its redistribution among friends and families of Fidesz politicians. It seems that the government may have gone too far here; there are signs of internal party opposition. We know only about small fry at the moment, but that doesn’t mean that dissatisfaction isn’t present in the highest circles of the Fidesz leadership.

The other scandal is not new at all. For years Közgép, a company owned by Lajos Simicska, a childhood friend of Viktor Orbán, has won practically all government projects financed by European Union subsidies. But it came to light only now that Brussels suspended payments on two very important “operative programs,” one dealing with the environment and energy and the other with transportation.

First, the response of  two party faithfuls to the tobacco shop scandal. On April 26 HVG received a letter from a Fidesz city council member in which he said that in his town the Fidesz members of the council decided who would get the tobacco concessions. At that point the informer didn’t want to reveal his identity, but two days later he was ready to give an interview, name and all. It is a long interview from which I will quote the key sentences.

Ákos Hadházy is a veterinarian in Szekszárd, the county seat of Tolna. He considers himself to be a conservative, but “this tobacconist shop-affair broke something in [him].” The Fidesz members of the council looked at all the applicants and suggested who should get favorable treatment.” Mostly friends and relatives. Hadházy struggled with his conscience. He felt that the way the selection was made was wrong, but at the same time he realized that “many would consider revealing his doubts a betrayal” of his party. Finally he decided that although “perhaps in the short run the party might lose a few percentage points, in the long run these revelations might actually be good for this party.”

In his opinion “the 2010 landslide victory was a fantastic opportunity, but at the same time such a large victory is harmful for a party.” A well functioning opposition is “a basic necessity…. If there is no opposition, sooner or later [the party leadership] will be unable to control [its] own decisions. There will be no reaction when [they] make wrong decisions.” Unfortunately this is what happened in Fidesz’s case.

Hadházy even went further and announced that the problem is that there is no opposition within the party either. The members of parliament are no more than voting machines because after 2014 there will be fewer seats available and naturally everybody would like to keep his job. “One can’t expect negative opinions from them…. If there are no debates within a party … then there are only two possibilities: either [the party] does something fantastically well or something is not right.” Most often decisions are unanimous. Ordinary party members are not consulted. Maybe once a year there is a meeting of the local party members, but that’s all.

corruption2Fidesz is indeed a very disciplined party, but he thinks they “went too far.” Such discipline was fine when Fidesz was in opposition. Then “the para-military structure was acceptable, but when in power the party should have moved in a more democratic direction.” Hadházy believes–I think wrongly–that Fidesz has fantastic “intellectual capital” but doesn’t try to use this capacity and doesn’t listen to them. “This in the long run is a suicidal strategy because the members of the intelligentsia  are the ones who can influence public opinion.”

As far as he is concerned there are two possibilities: the party will not take kindly to his going public and then his political career will be over. If, on the other hand, he is spared he “will be very glad to know that Fidesz is full of real democrats, even if this is not always evident given how decisions are made now.”

The other rebel is András Stumpf of the pro-government Heti Válasz.  Don’t think that András Stumpf is a “soft” Fidesz supporter. He is no Bálint Ablonczy, another reporter for the same weekly, who is a moderate right-winger. Stumpf is pretty hard-core. He aggressively defends the government at every opportunity–for instance, when he appears on ATV’s Start. Even in this critical article he expresses his belief that Sándor Laborc of the Office of National Security hired Tamás Portik to spy on the opposition, meaning Fidesz. Yet it seems that the tobacconist concessions and the amendment to the Freedom of Information Act were too much for him. Not even he believes that the quickly amended piece of legislation has nothing to do with the concessions and the government’s attempt to hide the truth from the public. In Stumpf’s opinion, the amendment is most likely unconstitutional and what the government is doing is “frightening.” If they have nothing to hide, make the documents public.

Moving on to the withheld EU payments, a new internet website, 444.hu, published an article entitled “Secret war between Budapest and Brussels” on April 30. According to the article, last summer the European Union suspended payment for cohesion fund projects. The apparent reason was that Brussels discovered that there is discrimination against foreign engineers. Only engineers who belong to the Hungarian Society of Engineers can be hired.

With due respect to the journalist of 444.hu, I can’t believe that this is the real reason for the suspension of billions of euros. Instead, I recall that about a year ago Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció turned to the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) to call attention to the fact that Közgép, Simicska’s company, had received an incredible number of government contracts, all financed by the European Union. The suspicion is that Közgép through Lajos Simicska is actually owned by Fidesz. Or at least a substantial percentage of  its profits ends up in party coffers. I remember that sometime during the summer of 2012 OLAF’s investigators took possession of Közgép’s computers. I suspect that the suspension of funds has more to do with Fidesz government corruption than with discrimination against foreign engineers.

By now opposition politicians are openly accusing Közgép of being a front for Fidesz. Gábor Scheiring (PM) said that “the essence of Lajos Simicska’s firm … is financing Fidesz from its profits.” Gyurcsány considers “Lajos Simicska  the most notorious and most influential person in Fidesz and the business establishment built around it.” László Varju, the party director of DK, in one of his press conferences talked about the need to investigate the possible “role of [Közgép] in the financing of the government party.” If it could be proven that Közgép and Simicska are just a front for Fidesz, Orbán might find himself and his party a lot poorer.