Can you take no for an answer?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.


The political attacks against the Hungarian Government’s response to the coronavirus work against a strong and unified Europe, argues Judit Varga.

Judit Varga is the Hungarian Minister of Justice

On April 29, Commission Vice President Věra Jourová confirmed – and not for the first time – that there is no reason to start an infringement procedure against Hungary because of our law on the containment of the COVID-19 pandemic. To be exact, she said that there is no reason yet to do so. Of course, one could argue that the word ‘yet’ makes a mockery out of the principle of equal treatment of Member States. The Commission either initiates an infringement procedure or it does not. There is no third way – except for Hungary where the ‘presumption of guilt’ continues to be applied. But one must also admit that after weeks of unprecedented coordinated political attacks against the Hungarian Government during the most serious crisis in the history of European integration, it indeed took some courage from Vice President Jourová to say no. Small moments of truth must also be cherished. Even a timid – almost apologetic – no counts for a no.

But some just refuse to take no for an answer. Especially those who under the disguise of European values have built the image of an enemy. This enemy is Hungary. As a pretext, it is often claimed that Hungary does not respect the fundamental values of European integration, including democracy and rule of law. I resist the temptation to elaborate why and how such statements are untrue and malicious because I have done so many times in numerous fora. Now I turn to the impact and causes of this refusal because they are at least as important as the arguments themselves.

The values that are self-evident and common to us have become a political tool. Abused, they create division instead of unity. Those who walked down this path so far have at least made an effort to pretend that proposed new mechanisms, such as the rule of law conditionality allegedly aimed at protecting the EU’s budget, do not target any specific Member State. This is no longer the case. Many important decisions in the EU, including the Multiannual Financial Framework, call for a consensus among Member States either because of Treaty requirements or because only a consensus can offer the political ownership necessary to effectively implement difficult decisions. It is not easy to see how this consensus could be built if measures specifically targeting certain Member States are also part of the package.

The reasons are less obvious. The blatant double standards that have been built up against Hungary suggest that the real issue here is not about the fundamental values of the Union. I do not expect too many letters of apology from the authors of unsubstantiated claims that the exceptional measures taken by Hungary violate European standards. Maybe the real political agenda is to deepen divisions before the real start of negotiations on the next Multiannual Financial Framework. Maybe the actual objective is to put pressure on certain Member States that are, probably by mere coincidence, also the ones who are projected to suffer in relative terms the most significant cuts under the current budgetary proposals. As they go against the overarching objective of cohesion, such proposals are impossible to defend from an economic or even moral point of view. Hence the political need to demonise the targeted Member States.

This political strategy works against a strong and unified Europe.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not defeated yet. Member States are in different phases of the pandemic curve and it is not certain whether the number of infected persons has reached its peak on a European level. Exceptional measures are still needed in order to protect the lives and health of our citizens. The European economy is in a shock and in need of urgent treatment while further instruments and resources must be found to facilitate its recovery. It is vital to reach a consensus on the next Multiannual Financial Framework – which is a gigantic task even in ordinary times but today it borders on the impossible. The migration crisis is not over either. The general paralysis caused by the pandemic situation and the related closures have reduced mass migratory movements across the borders but it is most likely to reappear in an even stronger form as the restrictions are eased. Brexit is also an unfinished business since a mutually satisfactory solution is yet to be finalised on the future relationship between the EU and the UK. And all these issues emerge in a global economic environment where the restoration of the EU’s competitiveness is a serious challenge.

Today, more than ever, Europe needs consensus building and cooperation. Hungary stands ready to work with all those who are willing to build political consensus in difficult questions.

Does our community based on common values and interests have a future? To this question, we cannot take no for an answer.

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