José Manuel Barroso

Culture and education in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary

Now that it is almost certain that Tibor Navracsics will be responsible for education and culture in the European Commission, perhaps it is appropriate to focus on how these areas have fared under the watchful eye of Viktor Orbán. I am not exaggerating the prime minister’s role here because we have seen a carefully orchestrated Kulturkampf in Hungary ever since 2010. The government purposely fosters the kind of artistic and literary work that appeals to the political leadership, whose taste is not exactly avant garde. Abstract art is frowned upon, as are the kinds of novels that Péter Nádas, Péter Esterházy or László Krasznahorkai write, although they are the best known contemporary Hungarian writers. The statues that are being ordered or resurrected by the government take us back not to the twentieth but rather to the nineteenth century. I wrote several posts about the fate of Róbert Alföldi’s National Theater, now under the direction of Attila Vidnyánszky, originally from Ukraine. His productions have resulted in a loss of 40,000 theatergoers.

The fate of the fine arts was handed over to György Fekete, a rather bizarre interior decorator, in the form of a new Fine Arts Academy. Its future was ensured when it was included in the new constitution. The academy also got full ownership of the Műcsarnok (Art Gallery/Kunsthalle), until now in the hands of the Hungarian state. It is the largest art gallery in Hungary. It specializes in contemporary art. Or at least until now it did.

Fekete, who is 82 years old and an arch-conservative in politics as well as in artistic taste, picked a man after his own heart, György Szegő, to be the director of the gallery. He is an architect best known for his stage sets. Despite his appointment as director of a gallery devoted to contemporary art, he actually despises the genre that “has become fashionable in the last twenty-five years.” He also has some frightening ideas about art which, according to him, should not “criticize” but “only delight.” Instead of the “art of the technical media” one must concentrate on traditional art forms, especially painting with its 8,000-10,000 year tradition. What the West presents as art is a “soap-bubble” that will burst in no time. So, the gallery that is supposed to give space to contemporary art will be headed by a man who hates it. He will undoubtedly force his own taste on the public. Very soon we will be back to the fifties when only socialist realism could be exhibited.

I’m no art critic, but the man whom Szegő extolled as his guiding light produced this work.

The Two of Us (2010)

György Fekete: The Two of Us (2010)

By contrast, Szegő mentioned by name one of those soap-bubble artists–Jeff Koons, whose exhibit in the Whitney Museum of American Art has been a great success this summer and fall. The Koons retrospective is moving to the Centre Pompidou, Musée d’art moderne, and from there to the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

Here is an example of Koons’s work.

Jeff Koons: Tulips (1995-1998)

Jeff Koons: Tulips (1995-1998)

I guess from here on Hungarian art lovers will have to go to Vienna for major contemporary art exhibits, but I’m happy to announce that Szegő will receive twice as much money as his predecessor to run the gallery.

And now we can turn to education and all that the Orbán government did and did not do for it. I talked about the Net of University Lecturers who wrote an open letter to José Manuel Barroso on the sad state of Hungarian higher education. Today Budapest Beacon published the English translation of the document, which I republish here with the permission of the editor of the internet portal.

* * *

September 11, 2014

Dear President:

On behalf of university lecturers working in Hungarian higher education, we would like to congratulate you on the occasion of receiving an honorary degree from the Budapest Corvinus University.  All of us greatly appreciate the highly responsible work you performed as president of the European Commission over the past ten years in the interest of advancing the cause of Europe. We would like to use the occasion of your visit to Budapest to call your attention to the crisis situation in Hungarian education.

Over the past five years the Hungarian government has decreased public funding of higher education in real terms by half, and to this day has not created a measured, predictable financial system for the sector.  The Hungarian budget for 2013 allocates 0.43 percent of GDP to education in place of the minimum 1 percent recommended by the European Union.  The current government seriously limits the autonomy of universities by forcing the dismissal of the directors of financially dependent institutions.  The head of government personally appoints chancellors to serve next to rectors through which he can directly interfere in the running of universities.  The government also threatens the independent operation of the Hungarian Accreditation Committee, thereby discrediting its quality inspections and endangering the international integration of our universities. The financial austerity measures have resulted in many being forced into retirement or dismissed. The body of teachers has suffered significant losses, with those retaining their jobs forced to work more for extremely low wages by European standards.

For five years the Hungarian government has failed to adopt a well-grounded strategy for higher education.  The rights and responsibilities of those running higher education are not transparent.  Meanwhile, the government’s administration for education divvies up resources and provides unlawful advantages to institutions close to them or founded by them.  For example, they intend to give 90% of the support for higher education obtained through tender from the European Horizon 2020 program to the National Public Service University.

Alongside existing higher educational and research facilities struggling to retain what is left of their autonomy, the government is building a parallel higher education and research network to service its own goals.  Part of this strategy is the creation and funding (often circumventing normative criteria) of the National Public Service University and the University of Physical Education.  The latter institution was established by the parliamentary majority with an ad hoc modification to a law.  The rules governing the title of university teacher were changed in a manner custom-tailored to a specific individual in such a way that devalues the title of university teacher.  Recently, it came to light that the Hungarian National Bank awarded an amount equal to one and a half times the annual higher education budget, HUF 200 billion (USD 850 million), to its own foundations with which to endow the teaching of its own “unorthodox” economic theories.  This means that state responsibilities are being funded with public money outside the budgetary process in a manner that cannot be controlled, and on ideological grounds.

As a devoted adherent to European values it may be important for you to know that the current Hungarian government does not help, but obstructs the possibility of social advancement.  The Hungarian government undertakes to strengthen the middle class, abandoning the social strata that is increasingly impoverished.  It lowered the obligatory age for attending school to 16. Instead of real programs intending to close the gap and adequate family support and scholarship system, it pursues policies that are harmful to the poor and encourages segregation in Roma schools.  With these actions it makes it impossible for socially disadvantaged students to continue their education.

In the field of education policy the Hungarian government decreased by 30% the number of students beginning their studies in higher educational institutions, which first and foremost destroys the chances of disadvantaged youth.  It is especially important to state here at the Budapest Corvinus College that the limits placed on the legal, economics and other social studies departments by the Orban government mean only those in exceptional circumstances are to be given the chance to join the economic and political elite.

Through its words and deeds the Hungarian government devalues knowledge and expertise.  Its decisions are made without broad consultation or the involvement of experts, with the exclusion of openness.   Europe must see that the Hungarian government intentionally, deliberately and systematically abandons the values of a democratic Europe and the declared goals of the European Union.

In light of the above, we ask that the European Union more determinedly stand up for its own principles, and take action in every instance when the Hungarian government works against European values.

Translated by Éva Nagy

* * *

A few years ago Tibor Navracsics unabashedly admitted that he faithfully executes all tasks he receives from his superior. Let’s hope that he will be severely constrained if he tries to inject Viktor Orbán’s ideas into the EU’s educational and cultural policies. What is happening in Hungary in these fields goes against everything the European Union stands for.

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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 European Union addresses rule of law issues: Hungary is center stage

Interestingly, it was The Irish Times that first got wind of the news that Vivien Reding, European Commission Vice-President responsible for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, will announce a new mechanism to make it easier for the EU to deal with countries whose governments repeatedly abuse its judicial and legal framework and thereby threaten the rule of law in member states of the European Union. It is no secret that one of these countries is Hungary; the other is Romania. In Hungary, the Orbán government threatened the independence of the courts in addition to limiting freedom of expression. In Romania, Victor Ponta wanted to abolish the Constitutional Court altogether.

We knew, at least since José Manuel Barroso’s “state of the union” speech last fall, that the Commission was working on some kind of mechanism that would close the gap between repeated infringement procedures and the invocation of Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union. Article 7 states that in case of serious and persistent breach “the Council, acting by a qualified  majority, may decide to suspend certain of the rights deriving from the application of the Treaties to the Member State in question, including the voting rights of the representative of the government of that Member State in the Council.” This is the most powerful weapon the EU has in its arsenal, but it has never been invoked because it is considered to be far too harsh. Leaders of the “rogue states” know that they will never face the threat inherent in Article 7. Accordingly, EU officials have pointed out that they either have to break the taboo concerning Article 7 or have to come up with alternative measures. Vivien Reding in the presence of President Barroso and Cecilia Malmström, Commissioner of Home Affairs, announced such an “alternative measure,” a mechanism that would close the gap between the lengthy and most of the time ineffectual infringement proceedings and the draconian but never used Article 7.

At first glance, the measures outlined by Vivien Reding seemed toothless to me. I was especially disappointed when I read about the “dialogue” the Commission will conduct with the government of any rogue member state. I recalled the endless dialogues between Brussels and Viktor Orbán that led nowhere while the Hungarian prime minister danced his peacock dance. But then I discovered a sentence that might give us hope. Reding said that “the Commission, as guardian of the EU treaties, also had to become the guardian of the rule of law in the Union.” They envisage an extension of the Commission’s competence.

The Commission will not deal with individual cases or miscarriages of justice, only with “systemic threats” to EU values. That is, a distinction will be drawn between individual infringements that don’t threaten the fundamental democratic structure of the state and grave, all-embracing changes that affect the entire body politic. As we know, in the last four years the Hungarian government fundamentally changed the whole “system.” In fact, Orbán only a few weeks ago admitted that the system that exists now is fundamentally different from what Hungary had prior to 2010. Indeed. Then Hungary was a democracy. Today it is not.

The photo Napi Gazdaság used for its article on the  Brussels's move against rogue states

The photo napi.hu used for its article on Brussels’ move against rogue states

How does the European Commission propose to deal with systemic threats to democracy? As a first step, it will collect evidence of “a systemic threat to the rule of law.” If such an assessment is made, “it will initiate a dialogue” by sending a “rule of law opinion” to the government in question. At that point the member state will have an opportunity to respond. In the second stage, “unless the matter has already been resolved, the Commission issues a ‘rule of law recommendation’ to the country concerned.” At this point the country will be given a fixed length of time in which to remedy the situation. These recommendations, unlike the “rule of law opinions,” will be made public. If the issue is not satisfactorily resolved, “the Commission can resort to one of the mechanisms set out in Article 7 of the EU treaty.” Whether this new three-tiered system ends up being as ineffectual as the former procedure remains to be seen.

The Hungarian media is in no hurry to report on this particular bit of news. Only two Internet sites published something on Vivien Reding’s announcement: Index and napi.hu. Both point out that the announcement is the consequence of the European Union’s endless and mostly fruitless struggles with Viktor Orbán’s systemic attack on the rule of law. Index specifically mentions Rui Tavares’s suggestion that the EU establish a new supervisory Copenhagen mechanism assessing member states’ compliance with the rule of law, fundamental rights and democracy. As you can see, the Copenhagen suggestion was not included in the proposal. Instead, the Commission itself assumed the role. Whether this is a better solution or not, I cannot determine.

In any case, the European Union made the first move. Of course, it will be many months before the new mechanism is in place, but I think that this time the Commission means business. Reding even announced “the need for an EU Minister for Justice taking the helm at a central level, giving EU justice policy a face and, of course, held accountable to the European parliament.”

Unfortunately, the European Union as it functions today is not a viable entity. Just as the Articles of Confederation turned out to be unworkable and had to be replaced by the Constitution of the United States of America. The European Union should realize that without a stronger framework, it will remain a toothless giant bogged down in intra-state struggles and endless bureaucratic wranglings.

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.

Kim Lane Scheppele: In praise of the Tavares Report

Today Europe acted to hold the Hungarian government to the constitutional values that it eagerly endorsed when it joined the European Union nearly a decade ago.

The action came in the form of the Tavares Report which sailed through the European Parliament with many votes to spare.  The report provides a bill of particulars against the Fidesz government and lays out a strong program to guide European Union institutions in bringing Hungary back into the European fold.   With the passage of this report, Europe has finally said no to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his constitutional revolution.

The Tavares Report is by far the strongest and most consequential official condemnation of the Fidesz consolidation of power over the last three years.  And it creates a strong set of tools for European institutions to use in defending the long-term prospects for Hungarian democracy.

The report passed with a surprisingly strong vote:   370 in favor, 248 against and 82 abstentions.   In a Parliament split almost evenly between left and right, this tally gave the lie to the Hungarian government’s claim that the report was merely a conspiracy of the left.  With about 50 of the 754 MEPs absent, the total number of yes votes was still larger than the total number of MEPs of all of the left parties combined.   In short, even if all MEPs had been present, the left alone still couldn’t account for all of those votes.   And since the 82 abstentions had the effect of allowing the report to go forward, they should be read as soft “yeses” rather than undecided or negative votes.

Most of the abstentions no doubt came from Fidesz’s own party in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party (EPP).  Many EPP members signaled ahead of time that they could not back Orbán but also would not vote overtly against the position of their party, which officially supported him without whipping the votes.    FIdesz had been counting on party discipline to save it.  But now it is clear that Fidesz is terribly isolated within the EPP.

The tally on the final report was not a roll-call vote, so we do not know for sure just who voted for it in the end.  But the roll-call votes on the proposed amendments to the bill (see pp. 106-119 of this complicated document)  revealed that many members of the European People’s Party (EPP) and the even-more-conservative group of European Conservatives and Reformists (ERC) voted to keep the report from being diluted at crucial junctures.   Each attempt to weaken the report was rejected openly by 18-22 EPP votes and by 8-12 ERC votes.   We can guess that the MEPs who rejected the hostile changes must have voted in favor of the report in the end, along with even more of their colleagues who could at that point vote anonymously.

For a government that believes that majorities are everything and supermajorities are divine, it must have been hard for Fidesz to see only one-third of those in the European Parliament voting in its defense, when conservatives occupy about half of the seats.   Since many of the votes in the Fidesz column were from cranky Euro-skeptics who simply did not want the EU to gain more powers rather than from those who were solidly backing the broader Fidesz view of the world, the defeat is even more humiliating.    Where was the United European Right when Orbán needed them?   Apparently not in his camp.

When he dramatically appeared in the European Parliament for the debate yesterday, Orbán claimed that the report represented the persecution of a well-meaning right-wing government by the unified and hostile European left.

Today, with this extraordinary vote, we saw a coalition of left and right MEPs standing up together for the values of Europe.

The Tavares report is named after Rui Tavares, the Portuguese MEP who was the rapporteur on this patient and careful study of the Hungarian constitutional revolution.  He deserves much of the credit for the factually impeccable report and as well as for skillfully guiding it through a complicated and perilous process.   Despite repeated attempts to amend the report, gut its strong conclusions and weaken its remedies by Fidesz MEPs and their allies, all efforts to change the report in any substantial way failed at every stage.

Rui Tavares

Rui Tavares

With its acceptance today of the Tavares Report, the European Parliament has created a new framework for enforcing the principles of Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union, which proclaims that the Union is “founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.”

So what, concretely, does the report do?  It puts a very clever system of monitoring and assessment in place.    While there are many elements in the report, the most important four elements are these, identified by paragraph number in the report as voted by the Parliament today:

  1.   An “Article 2 Alarm Agenda” which requires the European Commission in all of its dealings with Hungary to raise only Article 2 issues until such time as Hungary comes into compliance with the report (para. 69).  This Alarm Agenda effectively blocks all other dealings between the Commission and Hungary until Hungary addresses the issues raised in the report.
  2. A “Trilogue” (a three-way dialogue) in which the Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament will each delegate members to a new committee that will engage in a close review of all activities of the Hungarian government relevant to the report (Para. 85).   This committee is charged with assessing the progress that Hungary is making in complying with the list of specific objections that the report identifies.  The Trilogue sets up a system of intrusive monitoring, much more intrusive than the Excessive Deficit Procedure (EDP) from which Hungary just escaped.   Under the EDP, European bodies only looked at the budget’s bottom line to determine whether Hungary’s deficit was within acceptable bounds.  Under the Trilogue, the committee can examine anything that is on the long list of particulars that the report identifies as within its scope.
  3. A “Copenhagen Commission” or high-level expert body through which a panel of distinguished and independent experts will be assigned the power to review continued compliance with the Copenhagen criteria used for admission to the EU on the part of any member state (para. 78-80).   The idea behind this body, elaborated in a report by my Princeton colleague Jan-Werner Müller, is that non-political experts should be given the task of judging whether member states are still acting on the values of Article 2.   Since Orbán kept claiming double standards and dirty politics all of the way through this process in the European Parliament, a Copenhagen Commission consisting of impeccable experts and modeled on the Council of Europe’s Commission for Democracy through Law (the Venice Commission) would move the process of fact-finding and assessment from political officials to non-partisan experts.
  4. And in the background, there is still Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union.  Article 7, which identifies a procedure through which an EU member state can be deprived of its vote in the European Council and therefore would lose representation in the decision-making processes of the EU, is considered the “nuclear option” – unusable because extreme.   But the Tavares Report holds out the possibility of invoking Article 7 if the Hungarian government does not comply with the monitoring program and reform its ways  (para. 86).    Because the Tavares Report lays out detailed expectations of the Hungarian government, the Parliament and the Council who would have to vote on Article 7 in the end would have a strong factual record to work with if they decided to go nuclear.

These are important tools in the toolkit that European institutions can now use to ensure that a member state of the European Union maintains its European constitutional commitments.

Yesterday at the plenary debate, both Commission President José Manual Barroso and Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship Viviane Reding indicated their willingness to follow the Parliament’s direction.    We can therefore expect an eager uptake from the Commission on the elements of the report that require the Commission’s active participation.

But perhaps the most breathtaking part of the report is the list of what these various monitoring bodies can examine.    Here it is worth quoting at length from the report itself, because the scope and breadth of the complaints against the Hungarian government indicate that these monitoring processes will be authorized to look at the most fundamental elements of what it means to be a robust democracy committed to the rule of law and the protection of human rights.  Here is the list of items that the Hungarian government must address, taken from para. 71 of the report, where the Parliament . . .

Urges the Hungarian authorities to implement as swiftly as possible all the measures the European Commission as the guardian of the treaties deems necessary in order to fully comply with EU law, fully comply with the decisions of the Hungarian Constitutional Court and implement as swiftly as possible the following recommendations, in line with the recommendations of the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe and other international bodies for the protection of the rule of law and fundamental rights, with a view to fully complying with the rule of law and its key requirements on the constitutional setting, the system of checks and balances and the independence of the judiciary, as well as on strong safeguards for fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, the media and religion or belief, protection of minorities, action to combat discrimination, and the right to property:

On the Fundamental Law:

–             to fully restore the supremacy of the Fundamental Law by removing from it those provisions previously declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court;

–             to reduce the recurrent use of cardinal laws in order to leave policy areas such as family, social, fiscal and budget matters to ordinary legislation and majorities;

–             to implement the recommendations of the Venice Commission and, in particular, to revise the list of policy areas requiring a qualified majority with a view to ensuring meaningful future elections;

–             to secure a lively parliamentary system which also respects opposition forces by allowing a reasonable time for a genuine debate between the majority and the opposition and for participation by the wider public in the legislative procedure;

–             to ensure the widest possible participation by all parliamentary parties in the constitutional process, even though the relevant special majority is held by the governing coalition alone;

On checks and balances:

–             to fully restore the prerogatives of the Constitutional Court as the supreme body of constitutional protection, and thus the primacy of the Fundamental Law, by removing from its text the limitations on the Constitutional Court’s power to review the constitutionality of any changes to the Fundamental Law, as well as the abolition of two decades of constitutional case law; to restore the right of the Constitutional Court to review all legislation without exception, with a view to counterbalancing parliamentary and executive actions and ensuring full judicial review; such a judicial and constitutional review may be exerted in different ways in different Member States, depending on the specificities of each national constitutional history, but once established, a Constitutional Court – like the Hungarian one, which after the fall of the communist regime has rapidly built a reputation among Supreme Courts in Europe – should not be subject to measures aimed at reducing its competences and thus undermining the rule of law;

–             to restore the possibility for the judicial system to refer to the case law issued before the entry into force of the Fundamental Law, in particular in the field of fundamental rights;

             to strive for consensus when electing the members of the Constitutional Court, with meaningful involvement of the opposition, and to ensure that the members of the court are free from political influence;

–             to restore the prerogatives of the parliament in the budgetary field and thus secure the full democratic legitimacy of budgetary decisions by removing the restriction of parliamentary powers by the non‑parliamentary Budget Council;

–             to provide clarifications on how the Hungarian authorities intend to remedy the premature termination of the term of office of senior officials with a view to securing the institutional independence of the data protection authority;

On the independence of the judiciary:

–             to fully guarantee the independence of the judiciary by ensuring that the principles of irremovability and guaranteed term of office of judges, the rules governing the structure and composition of the governing bodies of the judiciary and the safeguards on the independence of the Constitutional Court are enshrined in the Fundamental Law;

–             to promptly and correctly implement the abovementioned decisions of the Court of Justice of the European Union of 6 November 2012 and of the Hungarian Constitutional Court, by enabling the dismissed judges who so wish to be reinstated in their previous positions, including those presiding judges whose original executive posts are no longer vacant;

–             to establish objective selection criteria, or to mandate the National Judicial Council to establish such criteria, with a view to ensuring that the rules on the transfer of cases respect the right to a fair trial and the principle of a lawful judge;

–             to implement the remaining recommendations laid down in the Venice Commission’s Opinion No CDL-AD(2012)020 on the cardinal acts on the judiciary that were amended following the adoption of Opinion CDL-AD(2012)001;  [NOTE:  Venice Commission reports on Hungary can be found here.]

On the electoral reform:

–              to invite the Venice Commission and the OSCE/ ODIHR to carry out a joint analysis of the comprehensively changed legal and institutional framework of the elections and to invite the ODIHR for a Needs Assessment Mission and a long and short term election observation.

–             to ensure balanced representation within the National Election Committee;

On the media and pluralism:

–             to fulfil the commitment to further discuss cooperation activities at expert level on the more long‑term perspective of the freedom of the media, building on the most important remaining recommendations of the 2012 legal expertise of the Council of Europe;

–             to ensure timely and close involvement of all relevant stakeholders, including media professionals, opposition parties and civil society, in any further review of this legislation, which regulates such a fundamental aspect of the functioning of a democratic society, and in the process of implementation;

–             to observe the positive obligation arising from European Court of Human Rights jurisprudence under Article 10 ECHR to protect freedom of expression as one of the preconditions for a functioning democracy;

–             to respect, guarantee, protect and promote the fundamental right to freedom of expression and information, as well as media freedom and pluralism, and to refrain from developing or supporting mechanisms that threaten media freedom and journalistic and editorial independence;

–             to make sure that objective, legally binding procedures and mechanisms are in place for the selection and appointment of heads of public media, management boards, media councils and regulatory bodies, in line with the principles of independence, integrity, experience and professionalism, representation of the entire political and social spectrum, legal certainty and continuity;

–             to provide legal guarantees regarding full protection of the confidentiality-of-sources principle and to strictly apply related European Court of Human Rights case law;

–             to ensure that rules relating to political information throughout the audiovisual media sector guarantee fair access to different political competitors, opinions and viewpoints, in particular on the occasion of elections and referendums, allowing citizens to form their own opinions without undue influence from one dominant opinion‑forming power;

On respect for fundamental rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities:

–             to take, and continue with, positive actions and effective measures to ensure that the fundamental rights of all persons, including persons belonging to minorities and homeless persons, are respected and to ensure their implementation by all competent public authorities; when reviewing the definition of ‘family’, to take into account the legislative trend in Europe to broaden the scope of the definition of family and the negative impact of a restricted definition of family on the fundamental rights of those who will be excluded by the new and more restrictive definition;

–             to take a new approach, finally assuming its responsibilities towards homeless – and therefore vulnerable – people, as set out in the international treaties on human rights to which Hungary is a signatory, such as the European Convention on Human Rights and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, and thus to promote fundamental rights rather than violating them by including in its Fundamental Law provisions that criminalise homeless people;

–             calls on the Hungarian Government to do all in its power to strengthen the mechanism for social dialogue and comprehensive consultation and to guarantee the rights associated with this;

–             calls on the Hungarian Government to increase its efforts to integrate the Roma and to lay down targeted measures to ensure their protection. Racist threats directed at the Roma must be unequivocally and resolutely repelled;

On freedom of religion or belief and recognition of churches:

–             to establish clear, neutral and impartial requirements and institutional procedures for the recognition of religious organisations as churches, which respect the duty of the State to remain neutral and impartial in its relations with the various religions and beliefs and to provide effective means of redress in cases of non‑recognition or lack of a decision, in line with the constitutional requirements set out in the abovementioned Decision 6/2013 of the Constitutional Court;

One more item was added to this list by amendment from Rui Tavares in the Parliament this morning:

– to cooperate with the European institutions in order to ensure that the provisions of the new National Security Law comply with the fundamental principles of the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, respect for private and family life and the right to an effective remedy.

In short, this is a huge list of items, which together constitute the core of the Fidesz power grab.  This section of the report identifies the list of things that the Hungarian government must now change, and the mechanisms I identified above are the key ones through which compliance will be monitored and assessed.

It is hard to imagine a more sweeping indictment of the Fidesz constitutional revolution in Hungary over these last three years.

But back to where we started:  with today’s vote in the European Parliament.   This long list of offending actions of the Hungarian government was agreed to by left and right in the European Parliament, by a large majority and with serious tools to ensure that the Hungarian government changes its ways and returns to the path of democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights.

The European Parliament is the most diverse and democratic institution in Europe.  One day when the history of the European constitution is written, the Tavares Report and its enthusiastic acceptance in the European Parliament will stand for Europe at its best.

Viviane Reding is the target in the Hungarian “war of independence”

It is truly amazing how fast “scandals” can break out in Hungary especially if, as I suspect, there is a concerted effort on the part of the government to create them. Here I was without a computer for two days and almost missed “the greatest scandal of the European Union.” Or at least this is what Fidesz MEP László Surján claims. He was talking about accusations originating in Hungarian circles about Viviane Reding, European Commissioner  for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship. She is accused of trying to cast a shadow on the outcome of next year’s national election. Of course, the assumption is that Fidesz will again win the election, but the “enemies of Hungary” led by Viviane Reding herself will question the validity of this outcome.

What happened? On the morning of June 18 Magyar Nemzet came out with a news item that began an avalanche of articles, to be precise fifteen in number, within two and a half days. According to the article, the paper received information from Brussels that Reding along with José Manuel Barroso had attended the Bilderberg Conference held in England between June 6 and 9. The Bilderberg Group which organizes these conferences was created with a view to building bridges between the United States and the European Union. It is often the target of far-right groups in the U.S. as well as in Europe.

At the conference allegedly fifteen minutes were devoted to the case of Hungary during which Reding informed her audience of her efforts on behalf of the Hungarian opposition to cast a shadow on the purity of the forthcoming Hungarian elections. These opposition forces are allegedly being financed by the United States. In no time it also became clear that Gordon Bajnai and Ferenc Gyurcsány are involved in this plot as well. At this point Magyar Nemzet didn’t reveal the origin of its story but later we found out that the source was an unnamed Italian “official.”

By the afternoon the Fidesz script was already written. It was most likely also decided that it will be the Christian Democrats who will lead the charge against Reding. I guess the Fidesz strategists remain convinced that those “ignorant bureaucrats” in Brussels don’t realize that Fidesz and KDNP are one and the same. Occasionally there is a division of labor depending on the issue. In any case, a few hours after the first article appeared on June 18 the Christian Democrats already had a communiqué ready. They will sue Reding and everybody else involved. By the next day they demanded her resignation. A Christian Democrat MEP, László Surján, officially approached the appropriate committee to investigate her case. He also called for her resignation.

Meanwhile back home Zsolt Semjén, chairman of the party and deputy prime minister; Péter Harrach, whip of the Christian Democratic caucus; and the spokesman of the party, István Pálffy, did the talking. They were everywhere, but HírTV, the pro-government television station owned by the same group that is in charge of Magyar Nemzet, was especially full of interviews. By the time the Christian Democrats began talking in the electronic media there was no doubt in their minds that Reding is guilty of the charge. She really did reveal that she was conspiring with the Hungarian opposition against the rightful government of the country.  Harrach was especially adamant. Perhaps they will not be able to prove it, but they are convinced that the report coming from Brussels is “true.” Reding should not only be removed but should disappear altogether from the political life of her country and the Union. Pálffy even went so far as to talk about possible withdrawal from the Union if the present structure of the EU is changed in 2020.

Goddess Diana hunting / Wikipedia

Goddess Diana hunting / Wikipedia

On what basis does the Hungarian government hiding behind the nonexistent Christian Democratic party accuse Viviane Reding of criminal behavior? The man who first reported that Reding would attend the Bilderberg Conference was István Lovas, Magyar Nemzet‘s correspondent in Brussels. The readers of Hungarian Spectrum are most likely unfamiliar with his name because lately he hasn’t been in the limelight unlike during the 1998-2002 period when he had a rather unsavory reputation. At that time he was in charge of creating a right-wing pro-Fidesz corps of journalists. His students were told to keep lists of “unreliable” foreign journalists who were critical of the first Orbán government. Altogether he has a murky past. As a young man in Hungary he was accused of rape. Later he illegally left Hungary and worked for Radio Free Europe in Munich for a while, but apparently he couldn’t get along with anyone. He also spent some time in California where he left behind a wife and child whom he refused to support.

In any case, Lovas claims that sometime in April a mysterious Italian official approached him with the news that Reding would be attending the Bilderberg Conference. Lovas approached Reding’s spokeswoman who told him that this was the first time she had heard about such a trip. So he dropped the story, but the journalists at Magyar Nemzet didn’t. They madly tried to learn something about the Bilderberg Group and were happy to discover that an economist known for her far-right views was the first in Hungary to call attention to this evil secret organization. Then they approached the liberal Paul Lendvai who attended three of these conferences between 1968 and 1993. Lendvai assured them that there was nothing sinister about these meetings between politicians and influential European and American businessmen. I’m certain that the Magyar Nemzet journalists opted to believe the right-leaning economist and not Paul Lendvai, whom they consider “an enemy of the country.” Obviously the Bilderberg Group and Reding interested them greatly, and they published a number of articles about the Bilderberg conferences.

Then came June 5 when Lovas’s mysterious informer, the Italian official,  told him that the conference would have a 15-minute discussion on Hungary. The conference ended on June 10, and I assume that further details about this 15-minute discussion must have reached Lovas soon thereafter. So why the long wait to break the story? My guess is that Magyar Nemzet withheld it until Fidesz-KDNP could create its own version.

What most likely helped their work was that during the weekend both Gordon Bajnai and Ferenc Gyurcsány talked about the growing fear that is gripping the country and about stories circulating of hidden cameras above the voting booths. With that the connection between Reding and the opposition could easily be established.

Reding categorically denied the story and the European Commission announced that it has no intention of investigating Reding’s alleged criminal activity.

By the way, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Hungary actually came up in the discussion. After all, the Hungarian government’s behavior in the European Union has been causing considerable headache for the EU leadership and parliament lately. Reding may even have described the general atmosphere in Hungary and the fear of political retribution spreading in the country. However, the rest of the story is simply unbelievable. Reding is a seasoned politician who has been in political life since 1979; she wouldn’t share such a bizarre story even if it were true. As I said, she may have talked about the fear of possible electoral fraud and/or fear of the almighty and very aggressive Fidesz. But the rest of the story was concocted somewhere in the witches’ kitchen of Fidesz-KDNP’s strategists.

But this is a dangerous game. Both Barroso and Reding are members of the European People’s party. What do the Hungarian Christians want to achieve with this frontal attack on a fellow Christian Democrat? I can’t imagine that this attack could possibly help the Hungarian cause. But perhaps their minds work differently from mine.

Report of the Venice Commission on the Hungarian Constitution: End of the dance of the peacock?

On March 12 the Hungarian parliament, despite protestations,  passed the fourth amendment to the less than one-year-old Hungarian constitution. The amendment itself was fifteen pages long and incorporated all the objectionable laws that had earlier been part of the temporary provisions. By incorporating them into the constitution proper, the Hungarian government through its super-majority in parliament prevented the Constitutional Court from studying their constitutionality. Earlier the Constitutional Court had found some of these provisions unconstitutional.

When the Hungarian parliament was considering passage of the fourth amendment, prominent EU politicians such as Thorbjørn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe, and José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, asked them not to move ahead. Angela Merkel personally warned János Áder, who happened to be on a state visit in Berlin, of the possible serious consequences if he signs this amendment to the constitution into law. Yet Áder went ahead and in a speech to the nation tried to justify his action by claiming that he had no other choice. His hands were tied by law. Some people, including former President László Sólyom, earlier chief justice of the Hungarian Constitutional Court, thought otherwise.

Viktor Orbán himself dismissed the criticism that the changes his government had made to the constitution were anti-democratic. “Who is able to present even one single point of evidence, facts may I say, that would be the basis for any argument that what we are doing is against democracy? Just one concrete step,” he told reporters ahead of a summit of  EU leaders in Brussels.

Well, it seems that the five constitutional scholars who were in charge of examining the provisions of the fourth amendment had plenty of evidence to prove that it is “against democracy.” I doubt that Viktor Orbán is as cocky today, after the Venice Commission’s report was mistakenly uploaded to its website ahead of schedule, as he was a day or two after the storm in mid-March. Apparently he told the Fidesz-KDNP parliamentary delegation at that time that “the more they attack us the better.” This time around it seems that these “attacks” will indeed have very serious consequences. Every European organization that is involved with the Hungarian constitutional crisis–the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, and the European Commission–had been waiting for word from the Venice Commission.

The handwriting was already on the wall in mid-April when the members of the Venice Commission visited Budapest and were handed a fifty-page reply to their criticisms. Róbert Répássy, undersecretary in the Ministry of Administration and Justice, sensed that “the members of the Venice Commission had already made up their minds.” I’m sure they had. After all, these five legal scholars had been studying the new Hungarian constitution as well as its amendments for over a year.

At this point, János Martonyi, most likely on instruction from above, asked three conservative legal scholars to take a look at the constitution and its amendments. The government was hoping for an endorsement of its position, but even their report, which arrived in early May, was not an unequivocal seal of approval.

Venice CommissionI have only the summary of the report that  Népszava published last night. The original is 34 pages long and is apparently a complete condemnation of the Hungarian constitution as it now stands. (The report was taken off the site once the timing error was discovered.) The members of the Commission (the Austrian Christoph Grabenwarter, the German Wolfgang Hoffmann-Riem, the Polish Hanna Suchocka, the Finnish Kaarlo Tuori, and the Belgian Jan Velaers) consider the fourth amendment no more than a “political declaration” that “aims at the perpetuation of the political power of the current government.” The document itself has seven chapters and the objections are summarized in 155 points. Without trying to go into details on the basis of a summary, I’ll skip straight to the Commission’s final verdict. The Commission, unlike in other cases, doesn’t even bother to make suggestions that would perhaps remedy some of their objections. Rather, they indicate that the whole thing is unacceptable. It has to be abrogated. Thrown out.

The limits imposed on the Constitutional Court “have a negative influence on the Council of Europe’s three fundamental pillars: the separation of powers, the defense of human rights, and the rule of law…. The Hungarian constitution cannot be a political instrument…. The fourth amendment perpetuates the problems of the judiciary independence, severely undermines the possibilities of constitutional scrutiny, and endangers the constitutional system of checks and balances.”

Even Gergely Gulyás, Fidesz’s young star and expert on the constitution, admitted that this was a much worse outcome than he himself had anticipated. Naturally, he pointed out all the alleged inaccuracies and wrong interpretations, but I had the impression listening to his interview this afternoon that even he realizes that the Hungarian government doesn’t have a leg to stand on. The government will answer, but I doubt that they are too sanguine about being able to change the mind of the Venice Commission.

And a lot depends on the opinion of the Venice Commission. In the Council of Europe, the members have been waiting for the opinion of the legal experts before they hold a vote on imposing a monitoring procedure against Hungary. The European Parliament will soon vote on the LIBE recommendations.  The Venice Commission’s opinion might sway some members who hitherto have been undecided on the merits of Rui Tavares’s report. And there is the European Commission, whose decision on a new infringement procedure as a result of the fourth amendment has been in limbo, pending word from the Venice Commission. And finally, the legal opinion on the Hungarian political situation as embodied in the new Orbán constitution might tip the scale against Fidesz in the European People’s Party where until now the majority supported Viktor Orbán. After the release of this document it will be difficult if not impossible to stand by a man who uses his power for the perpetuation of his own rule while trampling on the most sacred tenets of democracy.

Viktor Orbán most likely knew a couple of months ago that this is what would happen. He said in one of his speeches that a new attack is under way and that by June Hungary will be the target of an international assault. I guess he has been preparing for the battle. But this battle will be very difficult to win. His opponents are numerous and strong. And the god of democracy is on their side.