Fidesz MEP: West is projecting its own frustrations on Hungary

Gyorgy Schopflin.jpg

Hungary is "sort of European" but not in the same way as France or Germany. Meanwhile it's very easy for the West to project its own feelings of disappointment on Budapest by claiming it is guilty, Hungarian MEP György Schöpflin (Fidesz; European People's Party) told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

György Schöpflin, born in Budapest, lived in the UK from 1950 to 2004. He has published academic works about politics in Eastern Europe, nationhood and national identity, and state building. When writing in English, he signs as George Schöpflin.

He was speaking to Georgi Gotev, EURACTIV's senior editor and Dániel Antal, Publisher of EURACTIV Hungary.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

My feeling is that the Hungarian EU Presidency has started off on the wrong foot. Is this your perception?

I would say the Presidency itself seems to be OK, but Hungary has definitely suffered a serious dent to its image. To what extent this will actually influence the administration of the Presidency is hard to say, but I'd say for the time being it's being handled reasonably competently.

But it doesn't do anybody any good if you're holding the Presidency and your image has been fairly seriously attacked on a whole range of fronts – mostly, I would say, on the basis of grossly inadequate information.

You say grossly inadequate information, but one of the criticisms concerns the new Hungarian media law. The general opinion is that it is very controversial and undemocratic. For example, the fines imposed on media found guilty of unbalanced reporting would effectively put them out of business. There are other controversial issues, such as special taxes introduced for foreign companies: 15 of which have complained in a letter to the Commission.

As far as the media law is concerned, these fines aren't small, but the law doesn't necessarily mean that the maximum fine will be imposed on each occasion. I imagine that once the media authority has a track record, it will have some sense of what the appropriate level is.

But I think the whole thing is really to do with the experience of the last 20 years, when a number of newspapers – left and right – have published articles which were absolutely unacceptable. Then, it was impossible to get anything done through legal measures, because large media in particular were able to keep a case going for years.

So in a sense, I would say this is much more a kind of 'outer wall' to prevent the media from being irresponsible. If you know the Hungarian media, you will know that it's been pretty irresponsible. Again, I'm not saying only the left or only the right – both sides, and especially some of the electronic media on the far right, which I think is perfectly disgraceful.

Secondly, while these maximum fines are high, I don't think they exceed what you have in a number of other EU countries. If you look at the law – and I know that the people who put the whole package together did this, they looked at the practice of pretty much every other EU country – what you have in Hungary in a sense is a consolidation of various EU media regulation practices.

So I would say don't pick on Hungary, look at all the other countries where the fines are high.

But why, then, have journalists' associations reacted so strongly to the Hungarian law and not to other laws?

Well, presumably because the other laws have been in force for some years, the other laws were not put through in a consolidated form, and I think, tactically, the other laws were not put through at a time when the country in question was about to do the EU Presidency.

I think it's now understood in Budapest that passing the media law at that particular moment just before Christmas, when there's no other news anyway, was a mistake. It should have been passed somewhat later – a couple of months would not have really mattered – but it's happened now, so it can't be undone.

The other point is that journalists everywhere deeply dislike being regulated. But the media are regulated in every country in the world. So I don't think that Hungary really deserves the opprobrium that it has attracted.

And I think there is a deeper level here, a deeper cultural level: the new member states – that's the East of Europe – have historically been regarded as the area where all sorts of disagreeable things happen. If you go back to Voltaire and 18th Century philosophy, they would say that dubious barbarians live to the east of here.

It happens to be Hungary that's the target at this particular time, but it could just as easily be any other of the new member states. If you look at the British press, for example, Lithuania has been a target quite recently; if you go back a few years, Poland was a target for the German press. It's simply the way in which the Western media – especially the Western liberal media – export their own uneasiness and feelings of guilt eastwards to much smaller countries. I think the origins of this, in the most recent period, were the Serbian wars.

I see it differently, in the sense that if the reaction is very strong, it's because there are concerns that the bad Hungarian example will be contagious. In Bulgaria, one legislator from the ruling party has introduced anti-libel legislation which seems to be modelled on the Hungarian law. Maybe it is not, but this is how it is perceived. This is one aspect. The second is the fact that the Hungarians speak a very specific language. You are Hungarian and you don't speak another language, you are stuck in your national context, and you cannot compare this information with any other information. This is why if the media were under very tough censorship in Hungary, it could be more dangerous than, say, in Belgium.

Well, this is an interesting idea. I don't think we're quite as cut off from the rest of the world as that – I think the rest of the world to some degree is aware of what's going in Hungary. Sometimes it's accurate, sometimes it's distorted, sometimes it's irrelevant.

I would say that if you think about it, pretty much all the Central and South East European states are in this position – they've got a language barrier around them. I don't think it really makes much difference that on the whole Serbs can cope with Bulgarian and Bulgarians can cope with Serbian, that with some effort Poles can understand Czech and Czechs can understand Polish.

I think it's a different area – we're sort of European, but somehow not quite as European as the French or the Germans. I sponsored a conference just before Christmas in Hungary precisely on the question of media law and national image, and the point I made is that our particular problem is that we are alien but we're not exotic.

The Russians are exotic – they can get away with all sorts of things – but we're not, we're expected to behave by a criterion which actually exceeds that of the French or the Germans. We have to be much better.

Then again, some of this really does go back to the collapse of Yugoslavia and the general sense that 'over there' terrible things happen. Really nasty things did happen, but it wasn't just focused on, let's say, Bosnia, in a way it spreads all over the area. By now I think most people know which country is which, but at that time they certainly didn't. So in a sense what was happening in Serbia could be applied with a broad brush to Hungary or Romania or Poland and I don't think this has really stopped.

I think it's extremely convenient in the West – and it's more a left-liberal issue than a centre-right one, who are much more aware of national traditions – if you are a universalist and you see a country behaving in a way that you don't think they should, it's very easy to project your own feelings of disappointment and say that country is guilty.

If you look at the way in which this media avalanche has treated Hungary, the Hungarian voice has really not been heard very much. The initial condemnations came even before the law was passed.

If you go back, Luxembourg's Foreign Minister [Jean] Asselborn – who happens to be a socialist – says that Hungary should not be allowed to take on the EU Presidency and I'm prepared to put money on the proposition that Asselborn had not read the law. That's just one example – by now, no-one seriously wants to read the law.

But it's not only the media law. There are a number of quick decisions adopted in Hungary thanks to the ruling super majority. There is controversial legislation on a crisis tax – a number of companies have already complained to the European Commission – and decisions to nationalise the two-tier pension funds and grant Hungarian citizenship very easily to nationals of other countries. It's not just the media law – one has to face the situation as it is.

What I would say is that precisely because Fidesz got a two-thirds constitutional majority, it's once-in-a-generation – perhaps once-in-a-century – opportunity to recast the entire system of political, social and economic governance, which I think is what this government is doing.

Who knows how history will treat it, but I've got some sense that it may well come to be seen as one of the great reform governments in Hungary in the 21st century. I'm thinking of the 1905 Liberal government in Britain, for example – the radical reforms they pushed through were not very popular in a number of quarters.

Radical reform is very odd coming from a centre-right party – conservatives don't do radical, but sometimes they have to. In a way, the change of regimes in '89/'90 in Hungary was too easy, too smooth, there was no break. I think that in a sense is what Fidesz is trying to do, to make that break, to introduce a new democratic system. The past 20 years have not been quite as democratic as they could have been.

This is bound to create opposition. The left-wing opposition in Hungary suffered two very bad defeats in the 2010 general and local elections, so what they're trying to do is re-accumulate political capital by presenting the Fidesz government as straight from the devil, which is nonsense.

I can't comment on the pension story, I haven't followed that at all. As far as the special taxation is concerned, it seems to me that given the serious economic situation in Hungary, given that these various multinationals did very well out of Hungary for a number of years, I don't think it's too unreasonable to expect them to make a contribution during the lean years.

If this goes against EU regulations, the Commission will tell us and then we will see. I'm sure that Hungary will do whatever the Commission says.

Are you saying to Western companie that: under the socialist government, you got very good conditions and now it's time to repay this?

Not so much because of the conditions under the socialist government, but because they actually benefited very considerably from Hungarian consumers and didn't put all that much back in. There has to be some kind of a balance.

Now, that's an anti-globalisation position and if the outcome is that a number of multinationals withdraw their investments from Hungary, then let it happen.

I'm surprised that you believe Hungary or any other country have a revolution 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Perhaps the revolution was not perfect, but having a re-run 20 years later sounds strange. I was surprised to read that civil servants in Hungary have been fired and they didn't receive the payments they expected according to the law – they received only 2%, and 98% was taken back by the state. It's very difficult to advocate this kind of revolutionary measure in 2010…

I accept that it's difficult to advocate it in 2010, nevertheless I think that given the accumulated resentment among a large part of the Hungarian population towards the left-wing government, it's not surprising that the pressure to do something radical comes from below.

As far as dismissals are concerned, no-one looks at what happened in 2002, when the left-wing government came to power. There was a major purge, something like 10-12,000 people were sacked. So don't be surprised if some of that is now being transformed. During the socialist years, party-political dependence and loyalty was unquestionably more important than technical competence.

At one point I was quite active in an environmental case and tried to make contact with people in the Ministry of the Environment, and they told me that there was no way the experts would talk to me, because if I tried to talk to them, they would be sacked. I'm inclined to believe that.

During the six years that Hungary has been in the EU, the permanent representation in Brussels banned all contact with Fidesz members of the European Parliament. So, clearly, something had to be done to break this. It's a lot of old nasty habits leftover from the Communist period.

Because the transformation was not radical enough in '89-'90, the Communists rapidly transformed themselves into democratic socialists – I say that with some trepidation about their democratic and socialist credentials – and in many ways there was a restoration of a type of one-party rule.

The Communists became socialists and the Socialist Party ruled as if it were a single party. The big event, about which I think a large number Hungarians feel very resentful, was on 23 October 2006, when a peaceful demonstration was dispersed with amazing brutality – and the Western press never said a thing.

But now there is a single party: Fidesz, and everybody is talking about it…

Yes, but it's a single party that still has a democratic opposition. We don't beat people up, we don't send mounted police to disperse crowds, we don't fire rubber bullets at them. We don't need to: apart from anything else, there is still a solid majority behind the Fidesz government.

Those who are condemning what the government is doing don't look at the fact that the polls are telling us that we're still in a very strong position. We'd probably still get the two-thirds majority.

Do you think Prime Minister Viktor Orban will be more careful about what he is doing now Europe is looking at him?

I don't know the answer to that. My guess is that if you look at the politics of other countries, precedents and historical antecedents, reform programmes tend to run out of steam after about a year in office. So probably by the time the Presidency is over, I think Hungary will be much quieter.

The second half of this interview was conducted after the European Parliament hearing, initiated by the liberal ALDE group.

Would you like to share your feelings from the hearing in the European Parliament?

My impression is that it is always very interesting to be a single person minority. In this hearing I was the only person to represent a certain point of view. I felt that although this hearing was organised by the Liberals, they did not play by the rules of liberal democracy.

I told them that I found it very strange and sad that the Hungarian government was not invited to this meeting, even though they have expressed their wish to come to this hearing. The people who were given the floor in this hearing – Miklós Haraszti, László Majtényi and György Konrád, who appeared through a video message [all three have political links to the Free Democrats, a former member party of the ALDE group which did not gain a seat in the current EP] – they cannot be suspected of being friendly to the current Hungarian government.

What Konrád and Haraszti said was contentious. When Konrád spoke about a coup d'état or Haraszti about "torture chambers" [describing the stressful effect of the new media law, leading to self-censorship] could be described as an exaggeration, to say the least. I added to this that here lies a structural problem of all democracies up to a point. I used the American expression 'to speak truth to power'. When the media 'speaks truth to power' it actually also possesses power.

What could be the consequences of the hearing? To what extent do you think this cause is becoming a battlefield for ALDE? What reception do you expect in your own European People's Party group?

Regarding the second question, I agree that the Liberals have made this their own cause, which is likely to peak next week in the plenary session. Regarding the European People's Party I expect some form of support for [Fidesz] from a good couple of delegations, but there will be others who will rather remain silent or try to remain neutral.

Do you expect the media law to remain a distinct topic after the plenary session next week, or do you think this will peter out?

Both scenarios are possible, I do not know. I can imagine that this will remain an excellent topic for the Left. Here comes a right-wing government that starts a series of reforms, seen as scandalous by the left-wing press: 'Right-wing reforms, look at them!' At the same time it is also possible that something else will replace it. Or, God knows, a major crisis may break out somewhere that will completely wash away the Hungarian cause.

Do you imagine that the people mentioned [connected to former ALDE member party the Free Democrats in Hungary] will succeed in linking the media law to other controversial decisions by the Hungarian government, like excessive taxes, changes to the pension system or others?

It is likely that they carry this possibility in their bags. Whether they will succeed or not, I cannot tell. I can imagine that the current situation is completely unacceptable for the Left. They lost two [national and municipal] elections – they somehow have to start to accumulate political capital, this is the nature of politics, and they will continue discrediting Fidesz.

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