I spent almost three hours watching the debate in the European Parliament on the Tavares report. We discussed this report at length at the time of its passage in the LIBE Commission of the European Parliament. In addition, I published Rui Tavares’s letter to the Hungarian people both in English and in Hungarian. So, the readers of Hungarian Spectrum are aware that the report is a thoroughly researched document that in many ways echoes the findings of the independent judges of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe.
I found two good summaries of the debate, both in Hungarian. One appeared in Népszabadság and the other on the new Internet website called 444! But it is one thing to read a summary and another to see the debate live. Just to watch Viktor Orbán’s face was itself educational. Sometimes he looked vaguely amused, but most of the time his smile was sardonic. Who can forget that disdainful expression on Orbán’s face when one of his critics, Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the liberals in the European parliament and former prime minister of Belgium, mentioned the name of György Konrád, “the great Hungarian writer”? And when he heard something he didn’t like, Orbán raised his eyebrows and shook his head in disbelief. He considered all criticism utterly baseless and, through body language and facial expressions, made no secret of it. It’s too bad that most of the people in the chamber didn’t see all that since Orbán sat in the front row.
Unfortunately the camera didn’t show Orbán when several people tried to explain to him that his concept of democracy is peculiar. He believes in the “dictatorship of the majority” or “majoritarian rule.” Verhofstadt even invoked John Stuart Mill’s words on the subject in his work On Liberty. In fact, one of the major criticisms centered around the nature of democracy and whether Hungary can still be called a democracy. If one were to ask Verhofstadt he would say: “No, Hungary is not a democracy anymore but ‘demokratúra’ as György Konrád called it.” Several other critics agreed with Verhofstadt although they may not have been so explicit.
A second core topic was the question of freedom and the Orbán government’s “war of independence” against the European Union. Several people expressed their bafflement at the very idea of defending the country from a Union to which Hungary belongs. Actually, here again two worldviews clashed. The one held by Viktor Orbán and his entourage maintains that nation states are the only legitimate formations and that they shouldn’t be superseded in any way by a supranational entity such as the European Union. If one holds this view, as Orbán does, then it is perfectly understandable that he defends his nation against the encroachment of the European Union. The problem is that Hungary joined the European Union of its own volition and thereby its government is obliged to follow EU rules. Orbán attempts to resolve this apparent conflict by claiming that the Union is overstepping its authority, and therefore he has every right to resist its attempt at a “guardianship” that he will never accept.
Another important topic of discussion was Orbán’s interpretation of the criticism of his government as an attack on Hungary and the Hungarian people. Several critics rejected this view, making it clear that their criticisms are directed against the Orbán government and not the Hungarian people. In fact, some of the speakers argued that in their opinion it is the Hungarian people who must be shielded against the authoritarian behavior and laws of their own government.
As for Viktor Orbán, he had two opportunities to speak. At the beginning, right after Rui Tavares and Juán Manuel Barroso, and at the end, just before the leaders of the various parliamentary caucuses could answer him. In his first speech he was quite polite and a great deal less aggressive than is his wont. However, after listening to the debate where the Christian Democratic and Conservative voices were drowned out by speeches delivered by the liberals, socialists, and greens, Orbán returned to his true self. As Gabriella Zimmer (a German socialist) said, Orbán didn’t come to Strasbourg “to debate”; he came to express his anger at what he considers to be interference in Hungarian domestic affairs that are within the sole jurisdiction of the Hungarian government, parliament, and courts. He finished his speech with a refusal to accept tutelage from Brussels. For good measure he accused them of having double standards and of defending the multinational corporations and banks. I had the feeling that by that time Orbán believed that he had nothing to lose. It was no longer necessary to try to mollify the EU parliamentarians. No matter what he does, I suspect he reasoned, the vote will go against him.
And a few more words about the performance of Fidesz and Jobbik MEPs. What can I say? It was embarrassing. Szájer’s comments were the most outrageous. He was not on the list of official speakers but he asked to be recognized perhaps three times. In the first instance he outright lied when he announced that foreign investment was never greater in Hungary than in the last two or three years. Then he claimed that the members of the European Union are afraid of the truth and that’s why they don’t want to give Orbán the opportunity to speak. Both Verhofstadt and Martin Schulz, the president of the EP, corrected Szájer. After all, they were the ones who asked Viktor Orbán to come to the plenary session of the European Parliament. But that was not enough for Szájer. He retorted that even in Stalin’s show trials more time was allotted to the accused than to the accusers. Well, that’s when Martin Schulz’s patience ran out. He reprimanded Szájer for making any comparison between Stalin’s show trials and the European Union. But Szájer is not the kind of guy who knows when to stop. He got up again and tried to explain away his unfortunate remark. He repeated his reference to Stalin’s show trials and added that it was only the time limit that he had in mind. Schulz was not impressed and rebuked him again. Szájer did a disservice to the Fidesz cause.
Kinga Gál, another Fidesz MEP, was one of the official speakers. She didn’t fare any better than Szájer. In her speech she challenged the democratic nature of the European Parliament that voted in committee for the Tavares report. Schulz gave her a piece of his mind. He told her that it is impossible to claim that majority rule in Hungary is perfectly legitimate while questioning the democratic nature of majority rule in the European Parliament. After all, the majority of LIBE members voted for the Tavares report.
The third Fidesz MEP, Ágnes Hankiss, asked to raise a “question.” It turned out that she in fact planned to deliver a lecture on the injustices of the Tavares report. Schulz interrupted her, saying that she was abusing the privilege of posing questions. Hankiss tried to go on but was stopped.
And if that weren’t enough, we had the privilege of listening to Krisztina Morvai (Jobbik) twice. No EU parliamentary caucus accepted Jobbik and therefore they sit as unaffiliated members. Thus she had the privilege of speaking twice, just as the other leaders of the various parties. She sported a blouse adorned with Hungarian folk motifs and held up a sign reading “HUNGARY ≠COLONY.” Otherwise, although Orbán emphasized that he is the one who is most fiercely attacked by the far-right Jobbik, Morvai defended Fidesz and its policies all the way while accusing Viviane Reding of meddling in Hungarian affairs. Her second speech was especially remarkable. She recalled her days working with battered women who often thought that they could change their abusive husband’s behavior by pleasing him, working harder, and being the best of housewives. But eventually when the husband’s behavior remained the same, they came to the conclusion that there was only one remedy: divorce. So, Hungary should pack up and leave the Union if this abuse continues. After that ringing defense of Fidesz it will be difficult for Orbán to maintain his fierce opposition to the far right. After all, they speak the same language and Jobbik fights alongside Fidesz for the “honor of Hungary.” Frank Engel (Luxembourg EPP member) sarcastically remarked immediately afterwards that he hoped that “Ms Morvai has not just offered to go into coalition with Fidesz.”
The vote will take place tomorrow at 11:30 European time or 5:30 EDT. I will be watching.