Yesterday I reported on two speeches that Viktor Orbán gave last Thursday and Friday. I didn’t mention his usual Friday morning interview on the state radio station. But this interview was certainly important, perhaps more important than his ruminations about a “work-based” society or likening his government’s economic policies to building a Lego structure full of fantasy and inventiveness.
It was more important because the better part of the interview was about the European Commission’s objections to the Fourth Amendment to the Hungarian constitution.
As far as the Hungarian prime minister is concerned, there is nothing wrong with the Hungarian constitution or any of the new laws passed by his two-thirds majority. The alleged legal objections are no more than “pretexts.” The real reason is a disapproval of his government’s economic policies. And he doesn’t beat around the bush. “Hungary stepped on the toes of [the western countries]. This is clear. Every time in the interest of the Hungarian people we introduce, for example, bank levies or we tax multinational companies, attacks on Hungary come immediately. Now that we have decreased the price of utilities, these attacks intensify.”
So, the western countries of the European Union are putting political and legal pressure on Hungary in defense of the economic interests of their own capitalists. The pressure must be kept up because “the multinationals, especially some of the largest ones in the world, cannot reconcile themselves to the fact that they have to give up their extra, luxury, and guaranteed profits. They don’t want to accept the fact that we, meaning the current Hungarian government, will not resign ourselves to a situation in which people in Hungary should spend more for basic services than these firms charge in their own countries. This is unacceptable.”
In case some of you don’t know what Viktor Orbán is talking about when he mentions “luxury profit,” extra profit, and guaranteed profit, don’t worry. He doesn’t either. “Luxury profit” doesn’t crop up too often in Hungarian texts, but it seems that Fidesz politicians created this new “concept.” I found references to it from 2005 when Lajos Kósa and others used the word. I guess it means high profit. “Extra profit” is a hangover from the earlier socialist times when Marxist economists talked about a kind of ceiling on profit; any profit above that was a sign of capitalistic excess and exploitation. Unfortunately, one can still hear the term far too often.
Another comment I would like to make here is that utility prices are not really higher in Hungary than in other countries. In fact, they are a tad below the European Union average. The profit margin of foreign utility companies is pretty low. After all, prices are set by the government. Yes, the average Hungarian family spends a larger portion of its income on utilities, but not because the prices are extraordinarily high but because Hungarian wages are very low. So much for the tirade against foreign owners of utility companies.
The journalist who conducts these Friday interviews is well trained. He formulates his questions in such a way that Viktor Orbán has total freedom to talk about whatever he wants. So, there was plenty of opportunity for the prime minister to express his total astonishment that there are no reasoned arguments on the part of the European Commission. Moreover, “there are no concrete criticisms.”
A little later, however, Orbán forgot his contention that there was nothing concrete in either José Manuel Barroso’s letter or in Viviane Reding’s speech in the European Parliament. Orbán admitted that he knows “about three concrete questions mentioned by Mr. Barroso…. Two of them have no significance, so we are quite ready to accept his–in my opinion, wrong opinions. But in the third question, we don’t want to engage in any discussion [with the Union].” The first two questions address the very severe limitations on political advertisement at election time and the transference of certain court cases at will from one court to another. If you recall, the Orbán government was willing to change these two laws slightly. There would be no limitation on advertisement for the European Parliamentary election and cases that involve European Union law would not be transferable.
Let’s see what Viviane Reding said about these two newly worded paragraphs. On the issue of restrictions of political advertisement she said: “Whilst limitations may be acceptable in some cases, they would only be lawful if they are duly justified and proportionate. It should be noted that the audience share of private media where the restriction would apply represents almost 80% in Hungary.” As for the amendment enabling the president of the National Office for the Judiciary to transfer cases from one court to another, she said: “If applied to a case concerning EU law, it could raise issues of incompatibility with the EU obligation to provide for remedies sufficient to ensure effective legal protection and to the right to a fair trial as foreseen by the Charter of Fundamental Rights.”
The third concrete issue mentioned in the Barroso letter was Article 17 of the Fourth Amendment that deals with fines for infringement of European Union laws. Reding argued: “The implementation of this provision would mean that Hungary would introduce an ad-hoc tax on Hungarian citizens should Hungary be fined for breach of EU law. Is it really sensible to make citizens pay for a tax whenever the state would fail to be in compliance with EU law? In practice citizens would be penalised twice: once for not having had their rights under EU law upheld and a second time for having to pay for this. This could undermine the authority of the Court of Justice and could constitute a violation of the duty of sincere cooperation in Article 4 (3) of the Treaty on the European Union on the part of Hungary.”
Orbán refuses to budge on this third point. If Hungary has to pay a fine because its government violated European law, the government has a right to tax the people because otherwise the deficit might not be kept under the magic 3%. And Hungary can’t afford this. “This is a rule that is perfectly compatible with European efforts to keep the deficit low. This is an important limit on overspending. We will not retreat on this point. If necessary we are ready to go to the European Court of Justice on this issue.”
This is where Viktor Orbán stands at the moment. Let’s see where the European Commission stands: “As for the rule of law. Hungary will also need to take due account of the opinion that the Council of Europe/Venice Commission will deliver in June, in full accordance with both European Union and Council of Europe principles, rules and values. The Commission expects a responsible answer from Hungary to this opinion. “
I assume that by now the politicians of the European Union fully understand whom they are dealing with. Orbán is cunning, combatative, and ruthless. He might alter a word here or there in the constitution, but fundamentally nothing will change. He is standing firm. I don’t think he would even care very much if Hungary were stripped of its voting rights in the Union. What he cares about is EU money. Practically every penny that Hungary receives from the European Union in one way or another ends up in the pockets of his cronies and/or is spent on useless frivolities. EU subsidies help keep this man in power. And that’s a crime against the Hungarian people.