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EP vs. Fidesz-Hungary: Not Lost in Translation

by DoDo Sat Feb 18th, 2012 at 08:51:24 AM EST

At the end of 2011, the European Commission made clear that it finds three new laws enacted by the parliamentary supermajority of Hungary's right-populist government party Fidesz problematic, which led to the start of infringement procedures on 17 January 2012. This and a 2 January mass protest in Budapest against Fidesz's new constitution brought the sweeping legal changes in Hungary to international attention. As I argued in Protest in a one-party state, the Commission action didn't appear to be motivated by concern for democracy (criticism focused on a violation of the dogma of central bank independence, though the other two concerned legal protection issues), while the criticised laws were only a small part of a legal coup to remove checks & balances and cement power beyond the current election cycle.

Discussions started in the European Parliament (EP), too, where earlier only the Greens (Daniel Cohn-Bendit) made significant efforts to thematise the developments in Hungary. Things came to head on 18 January, when Hungary's PM Viktor Orbán had invited himself for a debate before the EP. While the debate was an opportunity for the EP factions for a show of sharp political debate, as I argued, it also served Orbán's intentions perfectly: for his home crowd, he was spinning criticism from the EU as a conspiracy of the international Left, and whatever the party allegiance of Barroso and the Council majority, Orbán's EPP comrades in the EP were only too glad to play their role in the show.

Extremists and crooks in the region can get away with a lot on the European stage due to the circumstance that most of what they say and do will never get translated into French or English (and will often get translated to German with a loss of context). This weighted on the initial reactions of the European Parliament, too. But, lately, there is too much that gets across the language barrier for Fidesz. A Green MEP, the leader of the Socialist & Democrat EP faction, and digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes got a taste of Fidesz double-talk and vicious defamation in pro-Fidesz media, with the help of voluntary translators.

And on Thursday (16 February), the EP adopted a motion of the liberal and left-of-centre factions, with support from right-wing deserters, calling on the Commission to launch much wider reviews and consider Article 7 action; while alternative motions tabled by the EPP and the eurosceptic Conservatives were rejected.

The brainless impetigo-suffering lying idiot MEP

On 9 January, the EP's Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee held a hearing about Hungary. The issue of the big pro-government rally on 21 January came up. Greens-EFA MEP Ulrike Lunacek, who hails from Austria, and had made herself heard in the 18 January EP debate already, rose to mention the presence of anti-Semitic placards at the event.

I wrote about this and more in my reports in One hundred years of protests. That pro-government rally was indeed initiated by Fidesz's in-house far-right (although GOTV-style mobilisation was done by the party itself). They staged the event for an international audience, so they tried their best to hide their (and their followers') true colours by calling it a "Peace March", by not holding any speeches, and by asking attendants to bring only candles. But too many didn't listen, including the holder of a placard with a David star and a bizarre figure of a skinhead in ski mask (below), the photo of which Lunacek probably saw in a post by Pusztaranger, a German-language blogger on Hungary. In addition to the anti-Semitic posters, there were anti-gay ones, too, and other symbols of the far-right which are less obvious to a Western European audience (like Árpád-stripes flags and Greater Hungary maps).

Lunacek's comments greatly angered the main initiator of the Peace March, Zsolt Bayer.

Bayer is a founder of Fidesz (holder of party book No. 5) and personal friend of Orbán, but in the past two decades, he worked as a propagandistjournalist in the media. His post-1989 re-discovery of his ethnic-German roots somehow led him to anti-Semitism and with that back to Hungarian chauvinism, which came handy when Fidesz first attempted to steal the voters of far-right parties ten years ago. He was also the point man in failed attempts to compete for anti-Roma racist voters with present main far-right party, Jobbik, which included hyperboles calling on police to summarily shoot rioting Roma and on drivers to hit-and-run when they see Roma children. Beyond trying to get as brutal as possible behind the cover of plausible deniability, Bayer's style involves an escalating use of expletives for political opponents. In short, Bayer is a ranter who would get banned as commenter on the sites of some western newspapers, but who in Fidesz-Hungary is a columnist in a main daily and commenter on cable news channel Echo TV, both owned by a pro-Fidesz industrialist, and got a state culture award last year.

In reaction to Lunacek, on 10 February on Echo TV, Bayer flat-out denied the presence of anti-Semitic posters at the "Peace March", and raged on in his usual style: "Then around comes a brainless impetigo-suffering lying idiot like Ulrike Lunacek, and I expressed myself mildly. [...] It all is a rotten scummy lie from the mouth of a rotten scum."

Unfortunately for Bayer, blogger Pusztaranger saw this, and posted a translation, which was noticed by Lunacek herself, as well as Austrian media. Lunacek reacted with a demand for apology in a letter to Echo TV, in which she threatened formal action at Hungary's media authority (though that's Fidesz-controlled and has been highly biased, too).

The latest in the affair is a letter to Lunacek by a Fidesz MEP who defends the expletives as only subjectively outrageous with the exception of the accusation of being a liar, but he puts it on Lunacek to prove herself not a liar. Read the original letter in English at Pusztaranger again; in a post which also does the job of proving Lunacek right with photos of three anti-Semitic posters. I'll also reproduce the most-eye-opening pair of photos: apparently, initially someone told the poster holder to cover up the David star, but the sheet of paper was removed or came off later:

Kroes the harpy

At the same EP hearing on 9 February, as reported in the Salon, digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes got into a frosty exchange with deputy PM of Hungary Tibor Navracsics. The issue was media freedom, and what Navracsics did was standard Fidesz mode of operation at home: pay lip service to democratic values by making clear promises to one audience and hollow them out in front of another audience. Kroes reacted saying: "That is different from what you were answering in my office".

Again this wasn't the end of it. In the same TV show in which he insulted MEP Ulrike Lunacek, Zsolt Bayer also had some insults for Kroes: "And there sits Neelie Kroes, this hapless idiot, and thinks that she can allow herself to do that." This was relayed via EP President Martin Schulz to the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso.

The extremist Echo TV isn't the only pro-Fidesz cable news channel: there is Hír TV, too, a channel established after Fidesz's 2002 election loss. Although it ended up much less extreme than its role model, Fox News, its activity included the live reporting of the first riot in 2006 (when far-right protesters stormed and torched the headquarters of public television) as if it were a revolution. Hír TV practises defamation in more subtle ways. On the same day Bayer spouted his expletives, Hír TV interviewed Navracsics himself. After dismissing the EP beforehand as a flea circus, the talking head chose to (partly) hide behind a quote from an anonymous viewer in a question: "...Our viewers are very critical. They write that 'an arrogant, prideful harpy' tried to humiliate, insult, belie you. Just how did you endure that without flipping the table?"  Now Pusztaranger translated this, too.

Swoboda the coup leader

During the 18 January parliamentary debate, Orbán told critics that they should come to Hungary to see the situation for themselves. Taking him on his word, Socialists and Democrats faction leader Hannes Swoboda (who hails from Austria) travelled to Hungary on 10 February, to meet the local Socialists and the government-critical NGOs.

Earlier that week, Fidesz leaders held a closed workshop. Reportedly, PM Orbán demanded party discipline by upping the earlier rhetoric about the conspiracy of the international Left, claiming that there was an international coup attempt against him personally that included CNN as well as moles in Fidesz circles. Although Fidesz denied these reports, Fidesz-close media reported it, too. And then came government speaker Gabriella Selmeczi (the key player in the 1999 Lockheed scandal I wrote about in one of my first diaries) who issued a communique upon Swoboda's arrival just in line with the coup rhetoric, also accusing him of 'defaming Hungary with baseless and base lies'.

The above is rhetoric for the home crowd, but Swoboda's Hungarian Socialist hosts didn't omit a translation. The S&D leader reacted at the press conference saying "Maybe Viktor Orbán and his supporters should think about why it was him who received these [the EU] criticisms. He is not as important a person as to make all of Europe to conspire for his removal."

Swoboda also saw Pusztaranger's report on the defamation of Lunacek and Kroes, and made it the subject of a question before the EP on Monday (13 February). He said "Mores are breaking in which are totally unacceptable", then "The fact that I have now been described as a liar by many speakers in Hungary is only an aside. But the way colleague Lunacek is depicted in public in Hungary is totally unacceptable." Fidesz's reaction in turn was to accuse Swoboda of opposing press freedom.

More importantly, having talked to the NGOs, Swoboda returned to Strasbourg with a wider view on Fidesz's legal coup. This likely played a role in the EP motion.

The EP motions

The liberal (ALDE), Socialist and Democrat (S&D), Green (Greens-EFA) and hard-left (GUE-NGL) factions of the EP began to draft a resolution with strong words on Hungary last week. The resolution includes a near-full list of the objectionable legal changes I mentioned in Protest in a one-party state, and calls on the European Commission to monitor legal changes in eight fields:

  • independence of the judiciary,
  • EU conformity of the central bank (more below),
  • data protection,
  • constitutional court authority,
  • media freedom,
  • electoral law,
  • political freedom of public employees,
  • religious freedom.
The liberals, greens and leftists wanted to include an explicit call on the European Commission to start Article 7 action against Hungary. The socialists however argued that this motion should be one to pass, for which it is necessary to win some EPP renegades, and an Article 7 call before the conclusion of Commission reviews would scare them away. The compromise was to mention Article 7 only in reminders.

The EPP for its part sought to kill the four-party motion by tabling a rival motion of its own ahead of it. This counter-motion was tabled by two Fidesz MEPs, as well as a Bavarian, a Maltese (both of whom already defended Orbán on 18 January, see naming and shaming again) and two Italian co-sponsors. It combined a reaffirmation of European values with a rejection of unspecified unfounded attacks, a declaration of sovereignty, and even a lie about Fidesz's constitution having replaced Hungary's 1949 communist constitution (see this comment on that issue).

The eurosceptic ECR faction had more sense and tabled a much shorter motion, sponsored by two British MEPs, using a neutral tone, in calling on the Commission to be fact based and balanced in its review and on the Hungarian government to cooperate and change legislation if necessary.

The three motions were tabled before the EP on Thursday, 16 February. The results:

MotionParty sponsor(s)ForAgainstAbstention
B7-0095/2012S&D, ALDE, Greens-EFA, GUE-NGL31526349

It must be noted that there was a separate vote on a GUE-NGL amendment to remove the part on the central bank, but it failed with a surprisingly balanced 277 For, 305 Against and 49 Abstentions. A further GUE-NGL Amendment wanted to add the issue of labour law, but that one didn't even made to a vote.

Paradoxically, the EPP resolution fared even worse than the ECR one. According to information of the website of Hungarian business magazine HVG, French and German EPP MEPs felt that the motion of their own comrades is too mild on Hungary. The four-party proposal passed with a slight majority of those present, which must have included EPP renegades.

I wondered whether loud EP action on attacks against democracy in Greece is missing due to PASOK membership in both the government majority of Greece and in the S&D faction of the EP. Not necessarily – I found this:

European Socialists and Democrats will send 'alternative' Troika to Greece

"The situation in Greece remains fragile and while it is positive that the Greek parliament has accepted the package from the Troika, we as Socialists and Democrats still do not agree with the measures it contains.   "Instead of only offering harsh austerity measures to the people, we need to work on an alternative way out of the crisis based on measures to foster growth and employment.   "We want to work with the Greek people and with the experts in Greece. We have therefore decided to send our own alternative Troika to Greece. This will consist of three high-level and experienced members of our Group and will come up with real alternatives for the people".

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sat Feb 18th, 2012 at 08:55:35 AM EST
Meanwhile, protests by all sorts of groups continued in Budapest. Two of these were related to important changes I haven't discussed before.

The education state secretary (a Catholic zealot BTW) hit university students with two reforms. On one hand, as a government budget saving measure, the (state-regulated) student enrolment numbers were cut radically for some fields. Orbán himself gave support saying that this country doesn't need a single more lawyer. On the other hand, not just as a budget measure but also in a ham-fisted attempt to stem a brain drain, study without tuition fee was made conditional on signing an agreement to not go abroad after graduation. These moves kicked a student protest movement into life (I showed a first protest here), which held a major rally last week ending in the occupation of the law faculty.

In its centralisation of power, Fidesz also reduces the autonomy of local governments. This is above all a part of the austerity measures (which the media should please not call austerity measures). This peaked in open conflict with Budapest's major (who was elected as Fidesz candidate and is a rabid populist, but too independent for Orbán's taste) over the debts and deficits of the capital's public transport company BKV. The government just won't give any money. While the intra-Fidesz battle rages on, BKV employees staged their first own protest. Next Wednesday, they plan to protest again, on a route that will close down the entire downtown.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sat Feb 18th, 2012 at 09:10:33 AM EST
Wanted to ask you what you think of the current state of the opposition. Because whilst there have been attempts to mobilise, I have to say that I think most people are swallowing the government line on the EU 'picking on' Hungary, combined with a general failure to recognise the deep shit Hungary is in economically.

Unless something big happens this year it doesn't look to me as if any electoral force will emerge from Milla/Solidaritas - which means the lineup in 2014 will be MSZP/DK, a separate LMP which is increasingly looking up for coalition with Fidesz, and a smattering of small, barely organised leftist parties unable to get beyond the 5%.

In summary, any failure to organise this year will bring MSZP back from the dead, and people opposed to the government will have little choice but to put on a noseclip. And this looks to me like an increasingly likely scenario, despite the MSZP still acting stupidly (eg their call to "bring back MALEV") and failing to consider the reasons for their failure in office.

by car05 on Wed Feb 22nd, 2012 at 05:57:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
what you think of the current state of the opposition

A bunch of hapless idiots (to borrow from Bayer)...

  • Milla is openly dissing Szolidaritás for organising the March 10 protest without consulting them,
  • Kornél Árok organised that silly ersatz Opposition Round Table with left-wing parties only which instantly fell apart,
  • for this (but officially for forming a party of his own) Árok was kicked from Szolidaritás,
  • LMP, whose december 23 civic resistance protest was hijacked by the Socialists and Gyurcsány, now attempted to hijack the students' protest, for which the students openly blasted them...

I think most people are swallowing the government line on the EU 'picking on' Hungary

I just don't know. I haven't seen a poll, I didn't hear people on the train talking about this, I haven't seen a single anti-EU graffiti (compare to the "D-209" and "Elkúrtad!" graffiti waves against former Socialists PMs Medgyessy resp. Gyurcsány) and people I know aren't a representative sample. If a majority feels the EU is picking on Hungary, then I think a wide majority of those is watching it with fatalism.

any electoral force will emerge from Milla/Solidaritas

We'll see what will become of 4K!, once they turn a party officially (always the pessimist, I won't hold my breath though).

will bring MSZP back from the dead

I don't think it was ever completely dead, or will become. They are well footed in a wide grassroots base, who won't go away even if what is left is a bunch of stupid and/or corrupt people. The best scenario would be to reduce MSzP to a dwarf like the unreconstituted commies (Munkáspárt). But, the likeliest scenario is what you write, a return of an MSzP who haven't learnt anything and haven't faced up to past mistakes.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Feb 22nd, 2012 at 09:25:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The weird thing is that whilst I got very angry at Gyurcsany during his disastrous/clumsy period as PM, I actually think DK look like they may turn out more promising than the MSZP in some ways. They may actually have a better grasp and understanding of what's going on, even if they totally fail to offer much other than neo-liberalism. At the core of it, I suspect many in the upper-working/middle class no longer trust the MSZP as effective administrators.

The opportunity for DK is bigger than I initially thought it would be, if they manage two things: a) provide a lead candidate other than Gyurcsany to deflect the light b) think about positive reforms people would actually vote for (eg in relation to education, freedom of information, housing). The first of these currently seems less likely.

by car05 on Wed Feb 22nd, 2012 at 10:13:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Regarding a), isn't DK all about Gyurcsány? I think he is the only real Homo politicus among all members of the former government (someone who instinctively politicises anything that he sees or happens to him and who enjoys getting into battle, even if the opponent plays dirty), and DK's base consists of his fans. Regarding b), I'm not at all optimistic: a few weeks ago Gyurcsány had no better idea than to advocate doctor visit fees (something abolished in the 2008 referendum).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Feb 22nd, 2012 at 03:25:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm afraid you're right - looking at http://program.demokratikuskoalicio.hu/ it seems the plans for private health insurance abandoned in 2007 have been disinterred, on the basis of the current universal system being unaffordable - quite astonishing. Note the criticisms of the current system for unevenness of outcome, and then the apparently contradictory advocation of less regulation and private health insurers. And of course, this looks as if it's written by Feri himself. So that answers both questions.
by car05 on Thu Feb 23rd, 2012 at 03:18:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The EU's Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship Commissioner, Viviane Reding, is in charge of reviewing Hungary's reforms of its judicial branch, and is thus behind the infringement procedures for the change of the retirement age of judges and the abolition of the post of data protection ombudsman. She is a member of Luxembourg's Christian Social People's Party CSV (along with Eurogroup leader and Luxembourg PM Jean-Claude Juncker), and thus the EPP.

Earlier, just like Kroes, Reding had her own run-in with Fidesz double-talk: she wrote a letter about her concerns regarding the then not yet adopted laws on 12 December 2012, which Hungary's government answered with obfuscation, while at the same time, Orbán told Hungarian media categorically that there won't be any changes to the laws. She indicated her displeasure at this treatment at the 18 January EP debate already. In an interview with Austria's Kurier over the weekend, she upped the ante by speaking for the EPP:

Griechenland: ,,Euro-Rauswurf ist nicht vorgesehen" - Wirtschaft - KURIER.at Greece: No kicking out from the Euro is foreseen - Economy - KURIER.at
Ungarns Regierungspartei Fidesz gehört der Europäischen Volkspartei an. Warum schweigt die EVP beharrlich zu Ungarn?Hungary's governing party Fidesz belongs to the European People's Party. Why is the EPP persistent in keeping silent about Hungary?
Der Meinung bin ich nicht. Die EVP hat gesagt, dass sie nicht einverstanden ist, wie in Ungarn gehandelt wird. Die EVP hat klar und deutlich gegen ihre Mitgliedspartei Stellung bezogen. Auch Kommissionspräsident Barroso und ich sind Mitglied der EVP und haben drei beschleunigte Vertragsverletzungsverfahren gegen die Regierung O[r]bán eingeleitet. Es geht um die Durchsetzung von EU-Recht, nicht um Parteipolitik.I don't share that opinion. The EPP has said that she does not agree with the way things are done in Hungary. The EPP has taken a stand against its member party in no uncertain terms. President Barroso and I are members of the EPP, too, and have initiated three accelerated infringement proceedings against the Orbán government. This is about the enforcement of EU law, not party politics.

Methinks she is spinning, there never was a clear distancing from Fidesz issued by the EPP. Also, in the next paragraph, she 'predicts' that there won't be an Article 7 action. Still, at least for the purposes of EP debates and Fidesz's domestic propaganda, she just destroyed the "conspiracy of the international Left" meme.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Feb 20th, 2012 at 03:48:28 AM EST
The EPP, as such, cannot stand with Fidesz on this if they are subject to enough scrutiny.

Looking at the list of French EPP MPs, I can imagine that perhaps as many as half of them might side with Fidesz if they took the trouble to inform themselves on the issues. However, I have trouble imagining that even right-wing authoritarians like Françoise Grossetête or Brice Hortefeux would stick to their guns if subject to scrutiny in France.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Mon Feb 20th, 2012 at 04:39:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I wrote in the diary:

It must be noted that there was a separate vote on a GUE-NGL amendment to remove the part on the central bank, but it failed with a surprisingly balanced 277 For, 305 Against and 49 Abstentions.

Well, checking on VoteWatch.eu, most of the 277 supportive votes came from – the EPP! Of the 233 EPP MEPs present for the vote, 224 voted For. Apparently, for tactical reasons, there can be alliances with the communists...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Feb 21st, 2012 at 09:23:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Forget the PIIGS, Hungary is where we learn what the EU is really about.  If Hungary becomes a fascist dictatorship, will the EU be good with it so long as the trains run on time?
by rifek on Sun Feb 26th, 2012 at 07:01:33 PM EST

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