Jean-Claude Juncker

Ferenc Gyurcsány on the Merkel and Putin visits to Budapest

Reckless Despair

The first days and weeks of the new year are ideal for making promises, trying to find explanations, and perhaps also posing questions of great importance, i.e. strategic questions. This is all the more so in the discourse of leading Western European politicians. On the one hand, the beginning of the new year and, on the other hand, the tragedies and challenges that happened in the first days of this year have drawn their attention – just as their voters’ – to a number of questions. For this very reason, they have been mainly occupied with European issues, while putting their own domestic policy issues onto the back burner.

Obligation, contract, agreement Yes, lately the wind has gotten stronger but  I'm master of the situation

Obligation, contract, agreement
Yes, lately the wind has gotten stronger but I’m the master of the situation

For example, in his speech to the European Parliament on January 12, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi – besides evaluating the Italian presidency of the EU in the second half of 2014 – called for the strengthening of European solidarity. He also criticised populists and the pessimistic views concerning the future of the Union. In addition, he called attention to the benefits stemming from the economic stimulus of the European investment plan unveiled by Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Union.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls gave a rousing speech to the French National Assembly – interrupted multiple times by the warm applause of the parliamentary caucuses. Even right-wing parties
described the speech as ‘historic’. The session was opened with a minute of silence in remembrance of the victims of the Paris terrorist attacks. After that, members of parliament – in a move unprecedented since 1918 – spontaneously sung the Marseillaise.

In a speech delivered onboard the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle (which was just leaving a French port), the President of the French Republic, François Hollande, promised to review the decision on the reduction of the national armed forces. He called attention to the fact that terrorism must be fought wherever it rears its head: if needed, beyond the borders of France, but if necessary, within France as well. Hollande’s decisive action following the Paris terrorist attacks was praised by French newspapers, which argue that now Hollande truly has become the President of France in spite of the fact that he is still unpopular in certain segments of French society.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel – in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin – talked to the leading figures of the German political landscape about the importance of Europe’s and Germany’s unity. British Prime Minister David Cameron conducted negotiations in Washington with President Barack Obama concerning the new situation. Before, he had mentioned that he would be happy about an early referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union. Meanwhile, British newspapers published articles saying that Europe’s very essence has been attacked.

Thus Europe’s political leaders will not focus on Hungary in the coming months but on preserving the continent’s security, freedom and its democratic system. It is hard to believe that the present situation in Hungary would be seriously raised and dealt with during more important EU discussions. Therefore, the German Chancellor’s visit to Budapest on February 2 will most likely not focus on the domestic political situation in Hungary. Should the well-known differences of opinion on this issue be raised, Angela Merkel will present them in private in accordance with diplomatic rules and in an extremely polite manner. Thus, expectations in Hungarian opposition circles should be lowered. It will not be Merkel who will accomplish the most important task of Hungary’s democrats, which is overturning the Orbán regime.

Will everything stay the same? I would not say that with certainty. Although there is still no alternative political force that could lead Hungary out of the crisis – which was precipitated by the Fidesz regime and the System of National Cooperation, leaders in the West – in Washington, Brussels and, of course, in Berlin – have also realized that the regime itself is the major cause of the crisis; so if someone wants to put an end to the chaos in Hungary, which is looming more and more as a result of the government’s measures, the Orbán regime must be changed. Replacing certain people in the government and reshuffling some institutions will no longer suffice. When the time comes, the whole direction must be changed, and it must be changed drastically.

What will show the way for the future is not what follows the visit of Angela Merkel, but what follows the visit of Vladimir Putin. The first visit might be viewed as a test probe by the West, but the Russian President’s visit is no less important. Let us see what we can expect.

The West wants to know whether Viktor Orbán understands the American and European message, which are becoming increasingly the same. Their message is not that they refuse Orbán’s domestic and foreign policy line, which has been well known to the Hungarian prime minister for some time, but that playing both sides is now over.

Putin wants to know the real content of Orbán’s proffer of friendship, which may have contained promises he cannot or no longer wants to fulfill. He wants to know whether he can expect Orbán to serve – in the long term as well – the interests that guide the Kremlin’s anti-European and anti-American policies, or will his promises, which hitherto have remained unfulfilled, continue to ring hollow? After all, when the chips were down Hungary always voted with the rest of the EU countries.

Merkel and Putin will face a Budapest that expects too much from the former and wants less and less from the latter. Both leaders might appreciate the emotions shown them, which will be slightly intrusive in the case of Merkel, and, by contrast, very dismissive in the case of Putin. They might also perceive the vacuum the prime minister got himself into as a result of selling his country’s interests for pennies on the dollar (instead of protecting them) and the audacious hopelessness with which the Hungarian people nowadays look toward their future. It will be an illuminating visit for both leaders.

—–

Ferenc Gyurcsány is the chairman of the Democratic Coalition and former prime minister of Hungary. The original Hungarian appeared in Népszabadság on January 28, 2015.

 

 

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Why did Viktor Orbán visit Brussels today?

Klubrádió noted this morning that Viktor Orbán’s visit to Brussels was rather strange. It resembled the kinds of visits newly installed prime ministers of member states make to introduce themselves to the dignitaries of the European Union. In this case the visit was obviously about something else since Viktor Orbán is no stranger in EU circles. The government website also felt the need to explain the reason for the visit. Their version talked about “a courtesy visit” necessitated by the change of personnel heading the governmental structure of the European Union.

I think we can safely state that Orbán’s visit to Brussels was no courtesy visit. Rather, it came about as the result of a kind of summons by Jean-Claude Juncker. Of course, it was couched in polite terms.

We know more or less what topics Juncker wanted to discuss with Viktor Orbán. The Hungarian prime minister is not as secretive as some people maintain. One just has to read his statements carefully, because they are usually revelatory, just as they were this time. There were no joint press conferences either with Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, or with Donald Tusk, the new president of the European Council. But Orbán almost always gives a press conference to Hungarian journalists when he is in Brussels, and this time was no exception. From this press conference we learned that Juncker wanted to clarify at least two issues. One was Orbán’s harsh, far-right statements concerning immigrants to the European Union; the other, the meaning of Vladimir Putin’s visit to Hungary.

So, let’s see whether we can reconstruct what transpired, at least in part, during a conversation to which we weren’t privy. One topic was definitely the immigration issue which, according to Orbán, he “managed to clarify.” Judging from Orbán’s wording, it seems that Juncker told Orbán that his statements on the subject were practically the same as those of the extreme right in Western Europe. Otherwise, Orbán wouldn’t have had to say at his press conference that “we don’t share the approach of the European extreme right” on the subject.

There is a good possibility that Juncker was not convinced of the legitimacy of the Hungarian position because, according to Orbán, “we asked them to understand that Hungary does not want to be the destination of immigrants.” This sentence indicates to me that Juncker was reluctant to accept the Hungarian point of view. Orbán tried to convince Juncker that Hungary’s position is unique because it is the transit country for economic immigrants from the Balkans. After all, sooner or later these economic immigrants will end up in countries west of Hungary. So what is in Hungary’s interest is also in the interest of Western Europe. Brussels should support the Hungarian position.

Orbán, it seems, also outlined his ideas about “more reasonable rules than the current ones” governing immigration to the European Union. He suggested “wide and thorough negotiations aimed at the formulation of a new European immigration policy.” I assume that Juncker expressed his readiness to convene such a conference. I’m not convinced, however, that Orbán received assurance that the topic will be discussed at the next EU summit, as the prime minister indicated during his press conference. It is even less likely that at the next summit “results can be achieved” on comprehensive immigration policies. This is surely only Orbán’s pipe dream.

The second topic was the Putin visit to Budapest, now definitely scheduled for February 17. Juncker, and most likely Tusk as well, wanted to know “what will happen” during their meeting, to which he coyly answered: “So would I.” His explanation for this ignorance was that, after all, his final position will be formed only after he has had a chance to talk with Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will spend a few hours in Budapest on February 9. The message was that he is a loyal follower of the EU position vis-à-vis Putin’s Russia and that he will conduct his conversation with Putin accordingly.

During his press conference he added quite a few harsh words, which he probably didn’t utter to either Juncker or Tusk. They sound to me like his typical nationalistic hyperbole that is so popular with hardcore Fidesz voters. Somehow I can’t imagine that Orbán actually delivered this sentence to Juncker or Tusk: “In the last twenty years I have been telling everyone, time and again, that when we joined the European Union we chose allies and not a boss. Hungary has no boss.” Some people would argue this point.

There was a small incident that fired the imagination of Hungarian journalists. At one point Orbán and Juncker had a photo-op, where they were supposed to shake hands. But after a second Juncker had had enough of the posing, turned to Orbán and said “OK. Thanks. Let’s go,” and practically dragged Orbán out of the room. It was the online site 444.hu that discovered this priceless scene. Most papers considered Orbán’s position “humiliating.” Gábor Török, a political commentator, on the other hand, found Juncker “impolite.” Acccording to the reporter for Klubrádió who was present, the two men were rushing to another photo-op, hence the hurry. Yet there was perhaps something symbolic about the scene. When the chips are down, Orbán will have to follow the policies of the European Union, even if he has to be dragged there or led by the hand.

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.

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.

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.

The long shadow of Viktor Orbán: Tibor Navracsics’s nomination as EU commissioner

Tibor Navracsics’s nomination to be one of the commissioners of the European Commission met with negative reviews from the start. Andrew Gardner of European Voice, a regular commentator on European affairs, wrote a scathing article about Navracsics and the man behind him on July 31. Hungary was eyeing the post of Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy, but in Gardner’s opinion that would be precisely the post Navracsics should not get. “Reforms relating to the rule of law–including fundamental values–are now the alpha and omega in the EU’s enlargement talks…. [and] Navracsics would not be a credible spokesman for those principles, both given the record of Orbán’s government and Orbán’s stated intent to experiment with a different approach to democracy.” It is even more worrisome, he argued, that “Navracsics could choose to spin elements of enlargement talks to promote Hungary’s own rancorous policy agenda with its neighbors.” In addition, Gardner continued, “Orbán and Navracsics are using Ukraine’s multi-headed crisis to increase Hungarian influence and push an agenda that, as Orbán’s speech on Saturday suggests, is not an agenda based on liberal democracies’ advocacy of minority rights.” As the headline in Stop said, “Navracsics [is] in the shadow of Orbán.” And it’s a very dark shadow.

In comparison to some other high Fidesz politicians, Navracsics even seems moderate, but one cannot forget what was going on in the Hungarian judiciary under his watch as minister of justice. The chief prosecutor’s office staged dozens of politically motivated trials, and hundreds of laws were introduced without any serious discussion in parliament. The Constitutional Court was stripped of most of its power. It was with Navracsics’s assent that the Azeri murderer was freed from his Hungarian jail cell and returned to Azerbaijan. So, it was no wonder that DK immediately objected and announced that they found the nomination unacceptable. The same argument is now being used by Tibor Szanyi, one of the two MSZP EP members, who claims that the whole socialist EP delegation will refuse to vote for Navracsics. Of course, the opposition’s objections did not deter Viktor Orbán from nominating Navracsics, and it was most unlikely that Juncker would not accept Orbán’s choice. So, the only question was what kind of portfolio he would get.

It was clear from day one that the desired portfolio of enlargement and European neighborhood policy was out. An early, preliminary chart showed Navracsics as the possible commissioner of trade, which is an important position. Commentators treated that piece of information with caution. A few hours later Magyar Nemzet reported that Navracsics will most likely be Commissioner of Taxation, Customs, Statistics & Anti-Fraud, which is considered to be a lowly position in the Commission. You may recall that between 2004 and 2009 that position was occupied by László Kovács (MSZP), who was originally nominated for the post of commissioner in charge of energy, a very important post, which in the end he didn’t get because of his dismal performance at his hearing. Kovács claimed that Fidesz EP members did their best to discredit him. It will be a cruel fate if Viktor Orbán’s nominee receives the same post that Kovács occupied.

Jean-Claude Juncker and Tibor Navracsics discuss his future position in the Commission

Jean-Claude Juncker and Tibor Navracsics discuss his future position in the Commission

Whether the socialist EP delegation will refuse to vote for Navracsics’s nomination is difficult to say at the moment because there is no official word on the subject, but it looks as if the Fidesz EP members are somewhat concerned. They called upon the four Hungarian members of the socialist caucus–two MSZP and two DK members–to support Navracsics’s nomination. They called attention to the fact that if Navracsics’s nomination is vetoed the fate of the whole commission will be in jeopardy. The European Parliament votes for all the members of the commission en bloc.  If Navracsics is rejected, the whole procedure must be repeated. Népszabadság made fun of Fidesz’s argument in a headline: “Europe can be terrified if Navracsics does not become commissioner.”

The opposition papers were also gleeful over the fact that Navracsics may have to be satisfied with a less than weighty post. One online portal noted that the Hungarian nominee was grouped together with the nominees of Greece, Ireland, Lithuania, and Portugal, which are considered to be less important countries. Stop, a newspaper close to the socialists, made fun of his possible position on the commission, saying that “Tibor Navracsics may putter around with taxes,” forgetting that the socialist Kovács filled the same post a few years back when the socialists certainly did not think that he just puttered around.

In any case, the list is complete and on Friday Jean-Claude Juncker sent it to Matteo Renzi, prime minister of Italy, the country that is the current president of the European Union. On Tuesday we should know what post Navracsics is getting.

But he still cannot be entirely confident that the “shadow” of Viktor Orbán will not dampen his chances. The European socialists might play the same game as the Fidesz EP members did in 2004 when they made Kovács appear totally unqualified for the post of commissioner for energy matters. There is nothing in Navracsics’s background that is remotely connected to taxation, customs, or statistics. I’m sure that he can be made to look inept and unfit for this post.

If Navracsics encounters serious opposition in the European Parliament, we can be pretty certain that the real cause is Viktor Orbán’s relations with the “bureaucrats in Brussels.” Just yesterday at the traditional Fidesz picnic in Kötcse that he 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?

The Hungarian news agency in the service of the state

A few weeks ago György Bolgár, who practically never writes on politics in the daily press, could no longer stand it. He wrote an article in Népszabadság about “the death of MTI,” the Hungarian news agency.

In 2010 several changes were made in MTI reflecting Viktor Orbán’s far-reaching plans for the agency. First and most critical, the government announced that from there on the services of MTI would be free. No longer would only the better-off newspapers and electronic outlets be able to afford articles written by the correspondents of MTI. Everybody, even the smallest provincial paper, would have free access to their archives. Well, one could say, isn’t that grand? How democratic. But naturally, this was not the real aim of the Orbán government. By making MTI’s news service free, they made sure that only MTI could stay afloat in the Hungarian media market. And indeed, since then the other news agency closed its doors.

Second, Viktor Orbán ensured that only loyal supporters would be in top management at the agency. Third, the scope of the agency was greatly restricted; MTI today is only a shadow of its former self. And fourth, its independence had to be abolished. Indeed, over the last four years MTI has become a state organ serving propaganda purposes.

The new logo of the Magyar Távirati Iroda (MTI)

The new logo of the Magyar Távirati Iroda (MTI)

The journalists working there are worried about their jobs and therefore tread lightly. Their reports go through several hands as one can see by the number of initials: “kkz, kbt, kto, kvs.” Four men or women were responsible for the article about The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial on Viktor Orbán’s speech in Tusnádfürdő. Indeed, that is a very sensitive topic and no “mistakes” would be tolerated.

As György Bolgár contended in his article, the situation is worse now than it was in the Kádár regime. Then at least the journalists were told by the party what they could and what could not write about. Now frightened journalists are measuring their words on every subject at the MTI headquarters in Budapest. And they have good reason to be frightened: back in 2011 a seasoned correspondent to Berlin was sacked because of “wrong wording” in a report on conductor Zoltán’s Kocsis’s interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

A couple of days ago Tamás Szele wrote an article, “English Lesson to MTI,”  in Gépnarancs.  In it he compared MTI’s reports on three important editorials from the United States about Viktor Orbán’s by now notorious speech on his vision of an “illiberal state.” The editorials appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. I decided to devote a post to the subject as well because non-Hungarian speakers should be aware of how the Orbán government controls the flow of information. This topic is especially timely since it was only yesterday that we could read Neelie Kroes’s words on the self-censorship that is prevalent nowadays in Orbán’s Hungary. Gergely Gulyás in his answer to Kroes hotly contested the existence of any kind of self-censorship by pointing out the prevalence of anti-government articles in the Hungarian press.

So, let’s see how much the Hungarian newspapers who use the MTI newsfeed reported about the three editorials, starting with the Wall Street Journal editorial entitled “The ‘ Illiberal Idea Rises: Hungary’s Leader Issues a Warning to a Complacent West.” Anyone who knows Hungarian and is interested in comparing the original and the Hungarian version can visit MTI’s website. By my best estimate, MTI translated less than half of the article, leaving out some of the sentences uttered by Viktor Orbán that were deemed to be “unrepeatable.” For example, “I don’t think that our European Union membership precludes us from building an illiberal new state based on national foundations.”  They also did not think it judicious to mention Russia, Turkey, and China “as successful models to emulate.” MTI generously left in the charge that “he has chipped away at the country’s constitutional checks and balances” but they omitted the next sentence: “He has packed courts and other independent institutions with loyalists from his ruling Fidesz party, politicized the central bank, nationalized private pensions, and barred the media from delivering ‘unbalanced news coverage.'”

MTI also didn’t include the Wall Street Journal‘s reference to “the rise of Jobbik” and its claim that “Fidesz has often abetted and amplified, rather than confronted, Jobbik’s ugly politics.” But at least we could read in the MTI report that “Mr. Orban looks with admiration to Vladimir Putin–and harbors Putin-like aspirations.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the WSJ‘s claim that “the goal of resurrecting a Greater Hungary stretching beyond the country’s post-World War borders is no fantasy for many nationalist elites” remained.

Now let’s move on to Fareed Zakaria’s “The Rise of Putinism” in The Washington PostThis article was so mutilated that practically nothing remained of it. MTI did include the beginning of the article: “When the Cold War ended, Hungary occupied a special place in the story of the revolutions of 1989. It was the first country in the Soviet orbit to abandon communism and embrace liberal democracy. Today it is again a trendsetter, becoming the first European country to denounce and distance itself from liberal democracy.” The next three paragraphs, however, were left out. In these paragraphs were several important sentences. For example, Zakaria mentions his 1997 essay about “illiberal democracies” and writes that “even I never imagined that a national leader–from Europe no less–would use the term as a badge of honor.” Well, you can imagine that that sentence could not be translated. MTI did, however, report the following sentence: “Orban has enacted and implemented in Hungary a version of what can best be described as ‘Putinism.'”

Zakaria’s article proceeds with a short synopsis of Putin’s career between 1998 and now and mentions that “he began creating a repressive system of political, economic and social control to maintain his power.” Obviously, comparing the current Hungarian regime to a repressive system of political, economic and social control to maintain power was too much for the sensitivities of MTI’s journalists. But they thought that the crucial elements of Putinism–“nationalism, religion, social conservatism, state capitalism, and government domination of the media”–did not need to be censored.

The next paragraph again led to forbidden territory and thus remained untranslated: “Orban has followed in Putin’s footsteps, eroding judicial independence, limiting individual rights, speaking in nationalist terms about ethnic Hungarians and muzzling the press. The methods of control are often more sophisticated than traditional censorship. Hungary recently announced a 40 percent tax on ad revenues that seems to particularly target the country’s only major independent television network, which could result in its bankruptcy.”

The last paragraph of the article about Putin’s gamble in Ukraine remained. If he triumphs in Ukraine, he can come out of the conflict as a winner but if Ukraine succeeds in resisting Russian encroachment “Putin might find himself presiding over a globally isolated Siberian petro-state.”

Finally, let’s see what happened to The New York Times’s “A Test for the European Union” written by the newspaper’s editorial board. This was a true hatchet job. The editorial consists of five paragraphs, but the first four were completely eliminated. I guess it was time for “the most unkindest cut of all” because this editorial was the most hard-hitting of the three and the one that showed the greatest knowledge of the Hungarian situation. “Orban’s government has taken steps to undermine the rule of law, gut press freedom, attack civil society groups and increase executive power.” The editors of The New York Times recall that when the Constitutional Court struck down some of the laws that the government introduced, “the government simply brought them back as constitutional amendments.” The editorial mentions advertisement revenues, the pressure on civil society groups, criminalization of the homeless, and stripping 300 religious groups of their official status.

The New York Times was also well-informed about the Venice Commission’s condemnation of the Orbán government’s actions. They knew about Neelie Kroes’s criticism of the advertising tax, calling it “a threat to a free press that is the foundation of a democratic society.” In the editorial they note that Viviane Reding, the European Commissioner for Justice, said that the EU should consider the suspension of Hungary’s voting rights. Naturally, none of these things could ever reach the eyes or ears of ordinary Hungarian citizens.

MTI accurately translated only the last paragraph, which contains some suggestions for the European Commission. “The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, needs to respond with more than the usual admonitions and hand-wringing.” They suggest a decrease of the 21.91 billion euros the European Union has allocated to Hungary. They mention the suspension of Hungary’s voting rights as a possible step.

The aim of the massive cuts in this particular editorial is clear. Neglecting to mention the “sins” of the Orbán government and reporting on only the harsh treatment suggested by the paper, MTI is abetting the government’s efforts to portray the West as an antagonistic foe that wants to punish the Hungarian people for defending their independence and sovereignty. Poor innocent Hungary! I’ve already read comments from outraged Hungarian patriots who question the right of anyone to demand punitive action directed at their country and only a few hours ago Tamás Fricz, a propagandist masquerading as a political scientist wrote a vitriolic article in Magyar Nemzet, questioning the right of Americans to meddle in the affairs of the European Union.