Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

How To Measure Values: The Hungarian Lessons

Ralitsa Kovacheva, January 20, 2012

The European Parliament organised a debate on the situation in Hungary - a necessary and timely debate, given that the problems of the country occupy the front pages of European newspapers, and a day earlier the European Commission has launched three infringement procedures against Budapest. Moreover, on the very serious issues about the independence of the Hungarian central bank and the judiciary, where it is no longer simply about compliance with European legislation, but with the European values.

Additional interest in the debate provoked Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's participation, who decided to take part in it on his own in order to provide MEPs with "first hand" information, as he explained. The topic is important because it is not just about Hungary - the crisis fuelled populist, nationalist and even authoritarian trends in many European countries, but the topic is particularly sensitive in the new EU member states given their totalitarian past. In Bulgaria, an analogy between Viktor Orban and Prime Minister Boyko Borissov is often being made. The same is being made also by Romanian Socialists, who add to the group their President Traian Basescu. And the question to what extent the former socialist countries respect and have at all adopted the European values, is extremely topical.

For all these reasons the European Parliament's debate on the situation in Hungary had to give an important sign, moreover that this is the only European institution directly elected by the citizens. As a journalist and a citizen, however, during the four-hour heated debate I did not hear neither the questions, nor the answers that I expected to hear. The statements were largely a repetition of the debate on the controversial changes in the Hungarian media law, which took place exactly one year ago. The MEPs easily defined the Commission's objections as "more or less technical" and did not ask Viktor Orban any further questions, although he himself gave a lot of grounds to be insistently and thoroughly questioned by the MEPs.

In his speech Viktor Orban said that, although his country was on the verge of economic collapse, as a result of the work of his government in the past year and a half the budget "for the first time in Hungary, according to European standards, will be regarded as a stable budget." Against the background of Budapest's attempts to get a bailout loan from the EU and the IMF, the European Commission's conclusion that the country has not met the recommendations under its excessive deficit procedure, and all analysis and recommendations concerning Hungary during the last European semester, such a statement does not sound only false, but directly impertinent. But none of the lawmakers raised the subject.

Viktor Orban said he had sent a letter to Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso to assure him that "the issues raised by the Commission can be quickly and easily corrected." It remained unclear why these problems had not been solved "quickly and easily " so far. Moreover, as Mr Orban explained himself at a press conference after the debate, these were not "matters of life and death." In an attempt to downplay the criticism, the Hungarian prime minister repeatedly stressed that actually there was no problem with the very text of the Constitution, but it was only about its transitional provisions. Nobody asked him if it made the observations less valid, or the changes easier and quicker to made.

In their speeches the leaders of political groups clearly set the debate's direction. The leader of the European People's Party Joseph Daul expressed support for the procedures launched by the Commission, but made it clear that his group had no doubt in Orban's government and his allegiance to democratic values. An expected position, given that Orban's party Fidesz is an EPP member.

As could have been expected, the Socialists took advantage the most from the debate, as they were one of the most active participants. Austrian MEP Hannes Swoboda was first to launch the idea, shared also by the liberals, that it was not about the specific laws but the spirit behind them. "You want to exercise power, stay in power. That is the spirit behind the changes and by your measures, you are undermining freedoms you fought so hard for in Hungary." He blamed the EPP for its indifference in the matter and turned to Joseph Daul: "It's in your hand - even more than the Commission's - to say, Mr Orbán, what is right and what is wrong with his policies. Do this at last!" As an EP rapporteur on Croatia, Hannes Swoboda said that if Zagreb had an ‘Orban’ government, the country would have not met the criteria to become an EU member - a view shared by many MEPs who took the floor.

Liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt unleashed himself in his usual emotional style, saying that Europe was not only the euro but also values and principles. He insisted that instead of discussing "technical matters" the Parliamentary Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) “to draw up a report, based on Article 7(1) of the Treaty, stating ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – and it can be ‘no’ – on whether there exists a clear risk of a serious breach of our values”, as defined in Article 2 of the TEU - democracy, rule of law, freedom of religion, freedom of expression and so on. As seen from the speeches of other MEPs, however, the EPP is strongly against this proposal.

Greens' leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit sent the debate irrevocably in the populist tone, comparing Viktor Orban with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. It appeared even necessary a Hungarian Socialist MEP to remind him that this was too much and that Mr Orban had the right of personal dignity. Viktor Orbán and the Hungarian EPP MEPs stubbornly argued that the attacks against Hungary came predominantly from the left, and the arguments of the critics were drawn only from the media. "You are not familiar with Hungary. The accusations in the media are not true," József Szájer said (remember that name, I will mention it again). Unfortunately, with most of their statements MEPs proved this thesis.

One of the few exceptions was Alexander Lambsdorff (ALDE, Germany), who raised the issue of the tax law, according to which taxes can be changed only by a two thirds majority. (The same idea appears in the Financial Stability Pact proposed last spring by the Bulgarian government, but so far it meets resistance in Parliament). According to Alexander Lambsdorff that violates the democratic right of citizens to elect a new government that can make a change, so the question must be central in the political debate. But his appeal remained unheard. The lawmakers did not even touch the issue of Hungarian Central Bank's independence, which is also guaranteed in the European treaties.

MEPs from the Greens and the left-wing groups accused Orban's government of anti-semitism, discrimination of Roma, defiance of gay rights, and the issue of media freedom was raised once again. As already mentioned, the Socialists were particularly active, including Romanian and also Bulgarian MEPs, in the face of Ivaylo Kalfin and Iliana Yotova. They all said the same doubts in loyalty to democratic values could be expressed with regard to the governments of Bulgaria and Romania, so the assessment of the Commission for Hungary would be an important sign. Significantly, however, none of the MEPs from other countries commented on these statements and in general the question of how the Hungarian example could be (or already is) followed by other countries was not discussed at all.

The topic of judicial independence was also addressed tangentially, though there was an intrigue. As euinside wrote, the Commission expressed concerns over the concentration of power in the operational management of the courts in the hands of one person - the president of the newly created National Judicial Office. It turned out that that president is actually the wife of Hungarian EPP MEP József Szájer, whom I mentioned above. According to the statements of some MEPs, he and his wife were among the founders of the ruling party Fidesz and close associates of Viktor Orban. József Szájer explained that his wife had received the post not because of her marital status, but because of her long experience and proven competence. And with that the matter was closed.

From the Bulgarian perspective, however, the story gives a lot of food for thought. As a country that has been observed for five years with a magnifying glass by the Commission in terms of judicial system, we know how important and symptomatic could every detail be. Certainly it comes to values, but values can and should be measured. The Cooperation and Verification Mechanism imposed on Bulgaria after its accession to the EU, includes very specific benchmarks, according to which the country’s progress in fighting corruption, organised crime, conflict of interests and the reform of the judicial system is measured. Twice a year the European Commission issues reports on the situation in Bulgaria (and Romania) of the values cited by the MEPs, based on specific facts.

This does not mean such a mechanism to be imposed on Budapest, but it means that the debate on values should be based on arguments and facts, not on the headlines in the press. Not surprisingly, the Hungarian prime minister told reporters after the debate that if there were evidences that his country had violated European values, he would take appropriate actions. At this stage, however, it does not seem realistic to expect anything beyond the procedures launched by the Commission.

Viktor Orban had every reason to be satisfied when leaving the European Parliament. With an enviable self confidence he replied negatively to journalists questions' whether he feared that these problems could prevent him from getting a loan from the IMF and the EU. We do not want money from the IMF, we want a promise, a precaution, Orban said, adding that if the IMF wanted to give them a loan, they were ready to discuss it. In response to the question of an Italian journalist, he said that his country could still be financed by the markets and preferred to pay higher premiums than to receive cheap money from the EU. "We do no want Germans and other Europeans to pay for the Hungarian problems", Orban said, alluding to the situation in Italy.

The picture at the markets, however, is quite different from that presented by Viktor Orban. In early January, the borrowing cost of Hungary reached its highest levels since 2009, exceeding 10%. Economic analysts agree that the chances of Hungary to raise market funding are close to zero and the country will go bankrupt without an emergency bailout from the EU and IMF.