by ALEXANDER SHAW in Brussels
In under two years, Viktor Orbán’s regime has reduced the Hungarian budget deficit, reduced personal income taxes, returned the GDP to growth and proclaimed sovereign primacy over supranational diktats. Adopted at the beginning of this year, Fidesz’s new national constitution finally overthrows the Communist era law of 1949. Hungary is the last former East Bloc nation to have achieved this. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that 300,000 Hungarians marched to support their government when the reforms came under fire from the EU in January. It was the biggest demonstration in Hungary since the regime change. The message was clear: Fidesz’s democratic mandate is as mighty as ever and Hungarians want sovereignty.
This is bad news for anyone bent on a macro-managed, uniform European society. Whereas a big national debt and a powerful, unaccountable civil service are required for Brussels to maintain its grip, Hungary’s new constitution shrinks the public sector (in real terms – not David Cameron terms), and stipulates that budgets may only be adopted provided that they do not lead to an increase of the state debt. Desperate to find some legitimate reason to punish the Hungarian regime, Orbán’s critics test the waters here and there with little success. The Commission protests that Hungary brought retirement ages for judges in line with that of other civil servants, although similar moves attracted no animosity elsewhere. The BBC whipped up criticism of ‘Soviet-style’ media laws, which turned out to be nothing more than a competitive tendering process (beyond government control), in which a Socialist radio station lost its bandwidth. ALDE’s Sophia in ’t Veld fumed that schools are being handed from the municipalities to the Church and students introduced to morning prayers. Others have whined that the constitution’s conservative approach to marriage, abortion, and contraception are not consistent with ‘European values.’
These diverse charges are all symptoms of one underlying tantrum: eurocentralists are distraught because power is being handed from the old apparatchiki and statist institutions to the people. This is what the socialist collapse was meant to achieve – and the EU are fighting it tooth and nail.
Getting behind the freedom movement in the eighties, the Communist MSZMP party was re-branded as MSZP and re-elected after a short hiatus. The Hungarian civil service remained largely unshaken. Many of the same political figures remained in the same jobs – even at ministerial level – transferring their former political and media power into economic assets. Péter Medgyessy, the MSZP Prime Minister (2002-2004), had been Deputy Prime Minister in the eighties and his predecessor in that role, Judit Csehák, was the minister of Health and Social affairs from 2002-2003. Her husband, László Békesi, made an almost seamless transition from Deputy Finance Minister to Finance Minister in the period from 1986 – 1995. I could easily go on. Under MSZP’s latest government, public debt – Hungary’s Achilles heel to this day – rocketed from 53% of GDP in 2002 to above 80% in 2009. When Ferenc Gyurcsány, the Socialist Prime Minister, appealed for an IMF bailout in 2008, he could almost have been doing Brussels a favour: fiscal incompetence has since enabled the Commission to dominate Italy and Greece entirely. At home in Budapest, however, the tide was changing. A 2006 leak had revealed that Gyurcsány himself had lost faith in his own regime and had lied to achieve reelection. Tens of thousands of protestors had gathered in Budapest and called for him to resign. Police were ordered to mask up, take off their ID badges and confront demonstrators – some of whom were held down, urinated upon, and beaten unconscious. Hundreds of people were detained, while others were too afraid to visit hospitals, as police had been ordered to collect medical documentation to incriminate demonstrators. Despite pleas from opposition MEPs and international human rights organisations, the European Commission failed to look into the abuses. The Mayor of Budapest rewarded the Chief of Police for his handling of the demonstration. It was a tough lesson that Western help was no more available to Hungary now than in 1956 and the people turned to the ballot box for radical change. Fidesz won a massive two-thirds of seats in the Hungarian parliament following the next election in 2010. Variously described as ‘populist’ and ‘a tyranny of the majority,’ the Commission has shrieked like a Victorian maiden aunt at their every liberal reform since.
“When we are campaigning, these double standards make it very difficult for us to defend Europe,” Jozsef Szajer MEP, a founding member of Fidesz, told me. He may not be eurosceptic, but his brazen assumption that the Union is a service contract offered to the Hungarians by their own government puts a gulf between him and other ‘conservative’ politicians, whose fatalistic acceptance of the status quo lead them to represent the union to their voters rather than the other way around. No wonder Fidesz is so unpopular with the Commission.
Although punishment of Hungary may not be justifiable, suspension of funding needs no logical explanation and, if Orbán is unable simultaneously to satisfy voters and stand up to eurocrats, Hungarian socialism may survive through its own legacy of debt. The recent denial of a €495m fund because Hungary’s 3% deficit is deemed too high was deeply illogical. Most of the EU27’s deficits exceed that of Hungary, 23 of the EU 27 have missed targets in the past, but Hungary is the first and only to be punished – a decision which caused further public outrage in Budapest and which also lead the Austrian finance minister, Maria Fekter, to accuse the EU of double standards. Hungary’s budget deficit was as high as 9% under MSZP.
The Commissioners may wield immense power, but their culture of unnacountability, secrecy, and isolation has left them weak at negotiating. Their attempts to subjegate the fast-talking Hungarian government under the spotlight demonstrate a decrepitude which leads one into a certain Schadenfreude.
I witnessed a wonderful show-trial event in February, when Hungarian deputy MP Tibor Navracsics came from Budapest to defended his administration against a tirade of opposition from press, MEPs, and the Dutch vice-president of the Commission, Neelie Kroes. Navracsics calmly addressed concerns from a packed and predominantly hostile committee room. At one point, Kroes started to assert how she felt a civil dispute should be settled in Hungary, apparently unaware that, under the principle of the separation of powers, this was no responsibility of the Hungarian government. Only then, to protect the courts’ autonomy, did Navracsics show a flicker of alarm:
‘Please don’t make the Hungarian courts feel under pressure from you! This is sub-judiciary!’ he protested.
But the best was yet to come, because Kroes was aiming to demonstrate publically the subservience of Hungary by forcing Navracsics to state that Hungary would apply recommendations of the Council of Europe which ran counter to the new national constitution. She claimed already to have established with Navracsics in private that his government would bend to the will of the Council of Europe, in accordance with the EU’s Treaty of Lisbon. In public, however, Kroes’ plan backfired beautifully, when Navracsics made it clear: ‘Quite simply, the Council of Europe cannot impose anything which runs counter to our constitution.’
She stormed out, expressing her ‘grave concerns’ about Hungary to the usual journos and sycophants who thronged around her with cameras and dictaphones, thanking her profusely for condescending to drop over the road from the Berlaymont – as is the custom in this place. Navracsics, endorsed by the votes of over half a nation, stood quiet and neglected in a corner, fiddling with his Blackberry.
The Kroes are circling over Orbán’s regime, but Brussels may not be able to withstand the continent’s continued scrutiny of their efforts to punish him. The only question is: who will cave in first? If national leaders pioneer malicious compliance within the EU, the popular opinion could suddenly be crucial to the course of history. Those in the Berlaymont should be aware that, outside of a few small rooms in Brussels, eurosceptics such as Nigel Farage now enjoy more popularity than every Commissioner combined – his YouTube speeches providing a guilty pleasure even among their own staff.
And I’ve identified another, even stronger force at work against the Commission. Through their resistance, Fidesz are emerging a guardians of European Christendom. Peering over Joszef Szajer’s shoulder at a recent press conference, I saw him doodling a number of motifs which, to me, reflected the familiar subconscious of the Christian mind. Religion is a contentious subject in the Union. Faith may be a shiny badge, an erstwhile adversary, or a social illness – but fundamentally it threatens to usurp the political attempt to ’unite people in diversity,’ and frustrate Euroland’s oppressive culture of social cohesion. Szajer’s accidental communication was no affectation, however. The images were forming for the benefit of no one as he explained Hungary’s welfare system to a German hack from Die Welt. Szajer discreetly tore and binned his scribblings after the meeting.
Back at my desk, I decided to read the controversial constitution that Szajer’s drifting pen had helped to draft. It was extraordinary. Europe’s newest constitution has a primordial dignity to it. As you might expect, is completely incompatible with the attitude and vernacular of the EU’s primary legislation. It makes Lisbon look like looroll. I’ll let the preamble speak for itself. Let’s hope that Hungary will do the rest.