A few weeks ago HEC Paris (École des hautes études commerciales de Paris) launched its first “Massive Online Open Course” entitled “Understanding Europe: Why It Matters and What It Can Offer You.” The professor, Alberto Alemanno, is a young, enthusiastic Italian who recounts all the wonderful things the European Union can offer to its citizens. Indeed, the list is impressive. But anyone who is at all familiar with “reality on the ground,” let’s say in Hungary, knows how all those good intentions can be abused. Take the case of a small town in Hungary that received a relatively small grant from the convergence money the country gets from Brussels.
The readers of Hungarian Spectrum have already encountered the hero of our story. On May 1, 2013 I gave an optimistic title to that day’s post: “Greed might be the undoing of Viktor Orbán and his regime.” In it I wrote about two possible corruption cases. One was the allocation of tobacconist concessions in the town of Szekszárd, the county seat of Tolna County. The other was possible fraud in Lajos Simicska’s Közgép, the company that received about 75% of all government contracts financed by Brussels. Of course, I was naive. Although the case of Szekszárd was absolutely clear cut, there were no consequences of the revelations. As for the second case, I guessed wrong: the suspension of EU funds had nothing to do with Közgép.
The hero in Szekszárd was Ákos Hadházy, a veterinarian who had served on the city council representing Fidesz. It was he who discovered that the Fidesz mayor and his colleagues had the list of applicants for tobacconist concessions in Szekszárd and singlehandedly decided the winners: friends and relatives, and people who sympathized with Fidesz. I detailed Hadházy’s struggle with his conscience that eventually led him to HVG, which published the story.
Hadházy subsequently left Fidesz but decided to remain in politics. He eventually settled for LMP and today is representing this party on the Szekszárd city council. Our veterinarian continues to keep his eyes and ears open, looking for possible corruption. He even started a blog, szekszardihetkoznapok.blog.hu. It was here that he published his latest findings about the fate of monies received from the European Union.
The Béla I Gymnasium needed a new chemistry-physics lab. This project involved tearing down a wall between two smaller classrooms to make the new lab 155 m². They also created a room for equipment, laid linoleum down on the floors, and supplied the desks with gas pipes, electricity, and water. The cost was 157 million forints or €518,811.74. As Hadházy rightly pointed out, from that amount of money one can build a nice new house.
Here is a list of the items that money was spent on. The town paid €21,000 for advice on writing the grant application. Another €6,000 was spent on “planning and technical supervision.” €59,000 went for IKT (információs és kommunikációs technológiák) which included 2 intelligent blackboards, 2 simple blackboards, voting software for 40, a projector, and 4 laptops. Hadházy checked the prices of these pieces of equipment and found that one could buy them for half the price. The town also needed a feasibility study, costing €16,524. Hadházy had difficulty interpreting the item “creation of pedagogical and professional concepts,” which was €21,500. After all, the experiments the students have to conduct can be found in the textbooks; one does not have to develop new concepts for them.
But we are nowhere close to the end of the list. €66,000 was spent on a “multimedia presentation package.” That involved the performance and description of 100 experiments and their representation on videos. Another €66,000 was needed for “digital material” on chemistry, biology, physics. Almost €66,000 was spent on paper, telephone, and dues. A hefty €51,000 was spent on software that helps allocate space for the different classes in the lab. The project management team received €66,000. And finally €53,000 was spent on outreach, marketing, and the opening day. At the opening there were several speakers, including Rózsa Hoffmann and the local head of the Klebersberg Intézet. There were couple of open house days for students where modest refreshments–coffee, soft drinks, biscuits–were served. Hadházy points out that these kinds of projects are underway throughout the country and the waste is staggering.
As HVG noted in a follow-up article, this particular Szekszárd project by itself is small potatoes; it is just one of 52 projects currently in progress. The entire cost of these projects is borne by the European Union. As one of the Fidesz members of the Szekszárd city council indignantly told Hadházy when he complained about the exorbitant cost, nothing terrible happened here because after all “it did not cost Szekszárd a penny.”
Since then the lawyers of LMP decided that the Szekszárd case warrants further investigation. So, LMP asked János Lázár to look into the case. A strange person to ask for help. After all, it is János Lázár who is responsible for the dispersion of EU grants, and surely it is his staff who oversees the projects. So, if they don’t find it excessive to spend €418,811.74 s on a very ordinary looking science lab then surely they will not investigate either this case or any of the many similar ones. As for the beneficiaries of these contracts, the city fathers, mostly affiliated with Fidesz, choose the winners. Out of the fourteen-member council there are only five opposition members (two LMP, two MSZP, and one Jobbik). The majority makes sure that their friends and acquaintances receive the inflated contracts.
I don’t know what happens in Brussels. Does anyone there find these figures excessive or do they just hand the money over without asking any questions? Perhaps they should take a more serious look at what is happening to the money they so generously give to their poorer neighbors.