EU ZMK's Diary

Genval, 14th April 2017Harassment of independent and critical NGOs, attempt to close the Central European University, mass anti-European campaign called ‘Let’s stop Brussels!’, violating Human Rights of Asylum seekers and antigypsyism resulting segregated education are the recent scandals in Hungary. If you look at them one-by-one and together, they can be considered as a systemic violation of fundamental European values: democracy, rule of law and human rights. But what can the EU do for Hungary, with the Hungarians?

What the Hell is going on in Hungary?

‘What is wrong with you (Hungarians), guys?’ This is a question I received from a Luxembourgish anti-poverty NGO when I visited the country already in 2014. Since 2010, the government started a step-by-step approach to slice down the different aspects of democracy and rule of law which reached such a level in 2017 then the country is now somewhere between a democracy and an authoritarian regime. Some democratic institutions, including regular elections still exist, but the checks and balances (Constitutional Court, Independent Media, Critical NGOs, Oppostion, President of the Republic, Hungarian National Bank, Ombudspersons, Courts) are deeply weakened to such an extent that they can hardly control properly the government anymore. Let’s have a closer look at the five aforementioned developments which undermine the country’s democratic values.

1.) Harassment of independent and critical NGOs

Being an adamant civil advocate myself, this topic is very close to me. NGOs are key for a healthy democracy as they provide services the State can not or does not want to deliver. However, they can also formulate a critical voice and standing up for Human Rights. This is why their functioning is essential and this is why they are targeted by the government, following the methodology of Putin’s Russia or Erdogan’s Turkey. As I recently explained with my fellow Polish colleague and friend, Hungarian civil society is under permanent pressure since 2014.

See below the English translation of the “Let’s stop Brussels!” / National Consultation 2017 of the Hungarian government (source of the translation: Hungarianspectrum.org) You can judge yourselves what are they really about:

‘1. Brussels is planning to take a dangerous step. It wants to force the abolition of utility rate reduction on us. What do you think Hungary should do? (a) Defend the utility rate reduction. We should insist that the price of utilities must be determined in Hungary. (b) We should accept the plan of Brussels and trust the large companies with fixing utility prices’

2.) Attemtps to close the Central European University

This is the most recent and most insane development I analysed recently. By targeting Hungary’s best known, most recognised University, the government made a huge mistake: this was the spark which ignated the flame of manifestations. It generated unnecessary conflict with the U.S. Trump administration and the EU at the same time. It gave a campaigning theme for the impotent opposition. It revealed the loyality of the President of the Republic to the government. And I do not think it contributed to the popularity of the governing party in its own electorate. I am convinced that this is the front where the government will retreat very soon.

‘2. In recent times, terror attack after terror attack has taken place in Europe. Despite this fact, Brussels wants to force Hungary to allow illegal immigrants into the country. What do you think Hungary should do? (a) For the sake of the safety of Hungarians these people should be placed under supervision (felügyelet) while the authorities decide their fate. (b) Allow the illegal immigrants to move freely in Hungary.’

3.) Mass anti-European campaign called ‘Let’s stop Brussels!’

A few days after signign the 60th years anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, the Hungarian government launched a massively subsidised campaign called ‘Let’s Stop Brussels – National consultation 2017’, using public money. This is an old trick: it aims to motivate pro-government voters as well as to refresh the governing party’s database about them which is essential during elections. The proposed questions are mainstreamed throughout this blog. This is a classical example how a national government can use the EU as a scapegoat and how can the EU blamed for anything forgetting, that Budapest and the Hungarian government are part of the EU and its decisions via various ways.

Here I recall the policy briefing of the Hungarian Prime Minister on 23rd April 2012 which I attended and covered in my blog. After answering the last question, the Prime Minister kept speaking and mentioned the idea of a ‘National Consultation’ which is ‘very important’. As he said: ‘Imagine that people are sitting in the kitchen and giving direct input to the government by answering to a letter sent to them’. That is a good example to demonstrate how populist that move is and how embedded is that kind of pseude-consultation in the legitimation of the current regime.

‘3. By now it has become clear that, in addition to the smugglers, certain international organizations encourage the illegal immigrants to commit illegal acts. What do you think Hungary should do? (a) Activities assisting illegal immigration such as human trafficking and the popularization of illegal immigration must be punished. (b) Let us accept that there are international organizations which, without any consequences, urge the circumvention of Hungarian laws.’


4.) Violating Human Rights of Asylum seekers

Migration put Hungary on the map of European policy and it became one of the cornerstone of the current illiberal regime by erecting a fence and closing the Balkan route. The anti-Soros, anti-NGO rhetoric can be explained by that. However, the situation went so far that UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, called for a temporary suspension of all transfers of asylum-seekers to Hungary from other European States under the Dublin Regulation.
The situation for asylum-seekers in Hungary, which was already of deep concern to UNHCR, has only gotten worse since the new law introducing mandatory detention for asylum-seekers came into effect. Since it came into force on 28 March, new asylum-seekers, including children, are detained in shipping containers surrounded by high razor fences at the border for the entire length of their asylum procedures.

‘4. More and more foreign-supported organizations operate in Hungary with the aim of interfering in the internal affairs of our country in an opaque manner. These organizations could jeopardize our independence. What do you think Hungary should do? (a) Require them to register, revealing the objectives of their activities and the sources of their finances. (b) Allow them to continue their risky activities without any supervision.’


5.) Antigypsyism resulting segregated education

Roma integration is another topic which is very important for me. It is a key issue for both Hungary and Europe and I can go as far as saying that it is definitely among the top 3 public policy challenges of Hungary. Hence, there is a growing concern about the living condition of Roma in Hungary. Here, there is already a clear, ongoing case which needs follow up and attention: on 26 May 2016 the European Commission launched an infringgement procedure against the State by calling on Hungary to stop discriminating against Romani children in education and to adjust its laws accordingly. The Commission made the announcement within the framework of its regular review of transgressions committed by Member States against EU legislation.

‘5. In the last few years we have been successful at job creation because we followed our own strategies. But Brussels is attacking our job-creating measures. What do you think Hungary should do? (a) We, Hungarians, must continue to make decisions on the future of the Hungarian economy. (b) Brussels should decide what to do in the economic sphere.’

It is often said that we, Hungarians are a rebel nation. We behave like sheep. We are silent for a long-long time but after reaching the critical moment, we explode. This happened many times against opression and most recently, once in every century, especially in 1848 and 1956. Two of our three national holidays reflect those revolutions: 15th March and 23th October. Since 2010, people were treated like sheep. Anger and frustration are widespread in the nation and demonstrations follow demonstrations. Having a look at some of the transparents of the manifestations can tell you more than thousand words about it. The wind of change has finally arrived to the country.

‘6. Hungary is committed to tax cuts. Brussels is attacking Hungary because of it. What do you think Hungary should do? (a) We should insist that we, Hungarians, decide on tax cuts. (b) We should accept that Brussels dictates the level of taxes.’

(Source of the Photo 24.hu – author: Berecz Valter)

But what can the EU do for Hungary, if anything? The first, most likely option is to simply contintue its current appeasement policy which is equivalent with issuing statements without any meaningful action – business as usual. The second, harder option would require some political courage therefore it is less likely. Potential actions would include launching additional infringement procedures for violating EU laws, kicking-out the governing Fidesz Party from the European People’s Party (EPP), suspending EU funding to the country, suspending the country’s voting rights by triggering ‘article 7’ (the nuclear option), or all together. Hence, whatever will the EU do, it cannot trigger structural change in the semi-authoritarian regime: the future re-democratisation of the country could only be achieved by the Hungarian people themselves.

‘Though ships bob on the surface
And oceans run beneath us
It is the water rules’

Sándor Petőfi: The whole sea has revolted (English Translation: George Szirtes)

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