18 May 2014

The Revival of Central Europe


NT: Hungary’s worthiness to lead the European Union has been questioned by the Foreign Minister of Luxembourg, the Czech Foreign Minister has also sharply criticised Hungary, as have a host of international organisations and international media. That’s not a pleasant start to the Hungarian presidency, is it?

JM: All those who criticise the law should at least read an objective summary or analysis. They are not obliged to read through an extremely extensive piece of legislation, which has only just become available in English, but they should at least have correct information about the contents of the law. That is what I recommend to all my colleagues and friends, whether they are foreign ministers or journalists or whoever. Because there is now a political campaign. We have witnessed such campaigns even before, this is a kind of self-generating spiral. Moderation and information is needed, and well advised.

Let us see those provisions of the law which give cause or reason for concern.

It would be important to establish whether the concern is based upon facts, or if this is just based on a kind of anxiety or fear, that this or that provision might be abused or used in a wrong way. If you read the OSCE comments, for instance, these state right at the beginning that “this law contains provisions which might be, or which are dangerous if badly or wrongly used”. Note the word ‘if.’ So in all such cases I think we should see the facts, we should wait and see whether the law is applied in harmony with all the effective democratic legal safeguards and procedures, and then we can pass judgement.

I also hear criticism that some expressions in the law are very general, and might be misused. That is a general characteristic of any law, any legislation. The law works with abstract notions. Much depends on how you apply them. “Public morals” for instance, or “human dignity”, or “freedom” – they are all concepts which you have to apply in reality. After all, as I always try to explain, there is  complete judicial control here in this country. If, for instance, you are fined because, let us say, you used such expressions which seem to imply pedophilia, but that was not your intention and you feel that you have been fined unfairly, you can go to court, and the court will decide where the limits of public morals are. I don’t want to get into the professional debate on that. I just recommend a kind of objective, careful analysis, and then a discussion or dialogue. We are not against it. I myself am ready to discuss this as much as I can, with anyone who wishes to do so.

NT: A common defence of the law is that it subjects the media to Parliamentary control, as in many other democracies. Fidesz has a large majority, and those appointed to lead and control the media are strong supporters of the government. Surely that does represent a danger to fair and objective media?

JM: In the Media Council there is a two-thirds to one-third division between the majority and the opposition, and the opposition declined to delegate members. That was a mistake on their part, because there should be elected opposition members of this council as well.

The appointments are made by Parliament, and I think it is still better if it is the Parliament, because the Parliament consists of elected people, and we cannot be blamed for having a two-thirds majority there. On the other hand of course, Parliament may appoint or elect persons.

Where is the guarantee that these persons will be subservient to one or another political party for a long time? Parliament appoints these people just as other independent officials. For example the Governor of the National Bank, and no one says that because this was done by such and such a government, or such and such a parliament, that person will serve the interests of that particular political party. In many European countries key positions are simply decided by the government, and in some countries by the president of the republic. All in all, especially when some people use excessive language, they should also look into their own media laws and legislation, and they will find a striking similarity between the provisions they now violently criticise and those which exist in fact in their own country.

NT: Your government has also been criticised for failing to respect the system of checks and balances which exist in mature democracies. Some members of the government even say privately that this is not a time for checks and balances, this is a time for action. Is that the philosophy of your government? Are you trying to push through so many changes in such a short time at the beginning of your time in office that you feel there is less need for checks and balances now?

JM: No, this is certainly not my philosophy. I am definitely convinced that we need checks and balances, and the stronger they are, the more secure I feel. I fully reject those arguments that, because changes must be rapid, we should or would pay less attention to checks and balances. It is just the opposite. We have to scrutinise all these legislative measures closely and objectively. For instance, when we talk about the Constitutional Court, I was in full disagreement with the first version of the contested legislation (concerning a retroactive cut in the pay of top civil servants – ed). And then it was corrected. I refer to the version which was finally adopted about the right of supervision of the Constitutional Court with respect to legislation on taxes and charges and so on. Now it is in line with European standards. In fact we still have a Constitutional Court with some of the widest powers in Europe. We should not forget that in 1989 and 1990, we adopted legislation on the Constitutional Court that gave the Hungarian court extensive powers, even wider than the powers of the German court, which was a kind of model for us. This is in itself the widest constitutional supervision of legislation adopted by Parliament.

So now I would recognise that a small step was made in the other direction, but we still have a very wide constitutional supervision. We will have a new constitution in 2011, and I believe that the present system of constitutional control and supervision as modelled upon the German example will be basically preserved.

NT: Another criticism one hears of the government in general, is that “the winner takes all”. Is that the philosophy of the government?

JM: Well, what did it take? It took two thirds of the Parliamentary seats, so what can I do? That is a fact, and that is the result of a disastrous government of the previous eight years! And I don’t personally think this situation will be with us for very long.

People shouldn’t forget that we have a very vibrant democracy, sometimes indeed with excessive language, which is now an all-European, if not a global phenomenon. I do not always like it too much, but I have to accept that this is very much characteristic of politics nowadays. Coming back to Hungary, even this media law debate demonstrates very well that there is a very heated debate and fight, in fact. People do not control their language too much, and they would never accept being curbed or controlled in any way whatsoever.

So the political camp will always be divided. It is true that at present the centre-right is in a very favourable position. Not only because it has a two thirds majority, but because it has opposition on both sides. On the one hand there is a left of centre opposition, on the other a radical right opposition, so the government is in between. This will change in time.

NT: What are the issues closest to your heart in the Hungarian EU presidency?

JM: Our agenda is very much defined and determined by the European agenda. So like it or not, this is now the economy. This is the primary concern. We have for instance six legislative texts before us, and also before the European Parliament. All these are about fiscal discipline and macro-economic surveillance, about a preventive phase and a corrective phase, and sanctions and so on. And one of the primary objectives, in fact responsibilities of the rotating presidency, is or will be to conclude those legislative texts, so that they be adopted before the end of June.

So that is a priority that was set by the European agenda. This should be, of course, separated from the treaty revision, which is a different subject – also very important – but here the rotating presidency will not have a special role. It is a very special arrangement, it will be a so-called inter-governmental arrangement, and only the Euro-zone countries will have a decisive say in that.

The economic governance package is our primary responsibility. We will also have to implement the first six months of the European semester – again, a completely new challenge, a new task, so it will give us enough work.

Now a very special Central European or Hungarian issue is certainly the Danube region strategy. Which in the bureaucratic jargon is referred to as a kind of macro-regional complex development project, with all the elements such as environment, transportation, energy, tourism, and cultural heritage. All of that is in this strategy which will be adopted during our presidency, which will at the same time – and that is why it is dear to us – send a cultural and a political message about the existence or the revival of what we now call the wider Central Europe.

There are now fourteen countries. Eight of them are members, six are non-members, but all are included in this strategy. I think it is an important message for Europe, and also for the world, that here you have a region which was kind of forgotten about for a long time, and now we are here again, and we try to act together in all those important areas I was referring to. I would be extremely happy if this strategy is adopted during our presidency.

Of course there are other things that we also try to underline. Our main slogan is “a strong Europe, but with a human touch”. If you look into our programme and our priorities you will see that there is a kind of over-arching principle of the human touch, or the human factor. Whether we speak about growth or employment, or social inclusion or the fight against poverty, or – and that’s what I wanted to come to – the integration of the Roma. This is a social and an economic problem, but at the same time it is a cultural issue. It is also something which is very important for some memberstates. It is a challenge which exists in a different way in different member states, but from Spain to Slovakia, from France to Bulgaria or Romania, there are common elements. This is why we have been advocating for a long time an all-European framework strategy, a kind of umbrella under which the member states work out their national strategies. That is what we are doing now. So in most of these issues the national interest of Hungary and the European interest not only overlap but coincide.

We need strong policies. If we want to have a strong Europe, we need to have strong policies. Strong policies need to be financed – that’s another issue, which perhaps is not for the Hungarian presidency, but for afterwards. It will come, no doubt. So there will be a big debate in the upcoming years: how much money we want to spend. Some countries have already expressed the view that they don’t want to spend more money. There is a famous letter which was signed by five prime ministers and heads of state, respectively. Clearly there is an important group of countries that do not want to spend more money for the financial framework from 2014 to 2020. Whatever amount of money is spent, it is quite clear that we need to develop and to maintain strong policies, and that’s why we want to have an orientation discussion or debate about cohesion policy.

We ask the very simple question. How can you make Europe the most competitive region of the world? Which is now the objective of Europe, the 2020 strategy. With the presently existing economic and territorial disparities. So we need to have a strong and no doubt more efficient cohesion policy. But we also think that we need to develop new things, not immediately, but at least to push things in this direction. The future energy policy, for example, which we believe would be an indispensable condition of a genuinely single market. And a single voice in the external arena. I could mention other policies like innovation or agriculture, the Common Agricultural Policy, but our main approach is that in fact national interests and European interests are to a large extent identical.

NT: Will Hungary be a champion of the Western Balkans during its presidency? Croatia is the most urgent issue, but Serbia and other countries are knocking on the door. Is Hungary willing to champion the further enlargement of the EU into the Balkans, at a time when such strong opposition exists to further enlargement among the older members of the union?

JM: That is again an area where the special Hungarian, or in a wider sense, Central European interests and European interests are identical. Even those who are now hesitant or reticent about further enlargement would not deny that here we have unfinished business. Europe as a whole is not yet whole. The European construction is not yet finished. You cannot leave black holes  on the map, at least for the long run. Sooner or later this reunification process will have to be completed – including the western Balkans. And I think that is a message which is accepted, although the ways and means to be followed are different.

So first Croatia. There has been good news in this field, because on 22 December three chapters were closed. We still have extremely important issues to resolve, but now there is a very fair chance that accession negotiations can be concluded before the end of June. We will not be able to sign because of the technical work of translation, but the objective is to conclude negotiations.

Then we have of course other candidate countries. A new one is Montenegro. Macedonia of course, and Turkey as well. We also have Iceland.

So our objective for the upcoming six months is very simple. We want to move, to push the process forward. Whether in the case of Turkey, Croatia, or Iceland. You mentioned Serbia. I think a very important decision was taken when the European Commission was invited by the Council to start working on the avis. The Commission is now working on this, or will be working very soon, once they get the questionnaire from the Serbs, and then it will be decided in the second half of next year how we can proceed.

In any case, Hungary will always support the enlargement process, because as I said, this is also a very special Hungarian interest. If you look at the map and imagine that the whole western Balkans has already been incorporated, integrated into Europe – I don’t want to define any date or year for that – but just imagine it. Then Hungary will no longer be on the edge of Europe.

In a recent interview I gave to the BBC in London, I was introduced with the words: “here is Hungary, a small country on the edge of Europe”. I didn’t want to contradict the interviewer, that would not have been polite. By European standards we are a so-called middle-sized country, but never mind, it’s a very complex classification. But then I was thinking about it. Are we really on the edge of Europe? Who is on the edge of Europe? It depends on the perspective from which you look at it. But after all, if the western Balkans are fully integrated, then we will be more or less in the middle of Europe. Maybe not in an east-west sense, but certainly the situation that existed before the fifteenth century will be re-established, in a way, which allows Hungary and the other countries of the region to become countries of Central Europe again. So all in all, that is our strategic objective – to continue and to speed up this enlargement process.

NT: Are you afraid that national sovereignty is being eroded? Is it your intention to defend not only Hungarian sovereignty but other nations’ sovereignty? How will you deal with this issue during the presidency?

JM: I personally was a federalist through all the decades of European construction. I was a federalist even ten years ago. Now we don’t think – and we have put this in the Fidesz programme for the European Parliamentary elections – that this is a debate that we have to continue. It is an old debate, which was justified before, but which is now no longer relevant.

The question is very often asked: who won the fight in the Lisbon treaty – the federalists, or simply those in favour of national sovereignty? There was no winner – it was a tie. And why? Because most people realised that this is not the key issue. And when we say we want to have a strong Europe, it sounds federalist. But then we say we also want to have strong member states, because strong member states make Europe strong. And we also need a strong Euro, which is perhaps a slightly federalist approach. But then you realise that we have, at the same time, the basic principle of subsidiarity, which protects member states’ powers and responsibilities, vis-a-vis an uncontrolled process. This was perhaps useful in the 1960s and 1970s, this kind of incremental expansion of community powers. But now member states are more cautious, especially for instance the German Constitutional Court. They said very clearly “don’t do that anymore – if you want to expand your powers, first come to me and ask my view on that.”

So the point is that the situation has changed. This kind of old debate  – who wants more national sovereignty, who wants a small Europe – is somewhat outdated. I think we need strong policies as well, that’s why I said what we need in this respect. We also need a safe and solid financing of those possibilities.

And at the same time, of course, we have to respect the treaty. The treaty is very clear – without the unanimous decision of the member states you cannot obstruct the powers conferred now on the Union.

You even now have the symbolic possibility of exit. I don’t think any member ever wanted to exit. But now this is legally there. So I think the Treaty of Lisbon struck a fair balance between the two approaches, and at the same time we are saying that there must be progress – always respecting the frameworks.

The success of any rotating presidency is also evaluated on the basis of the progress which has been made, not necessarily on the big things, but on the small matters. There are hundreds and hundreds of small matters. No one could really list them all. They are before the European Parliament, or before the Council, and you know the famous co-decision process going on now. And here we have to make progress. To say, “We have five or ten or twelve files which have been closed, because we managed to find compromises.”

At the beginning there was a huge gap between member states’ provisions, but somehow we found reasonable compromises. That is our job. That’s why we say it is a stewardship. Maybe sometimes a little bit of leadership, but basically it is supporting, helping, negotiating, cooperating – that is the main task. People say that you have to be an honest broker. We would add that we have to be a kind of diligent shepherd. The problem is that the herd is not easy. The herd is diverse – member states, institutions, public opinion, the markets – and it reacts immediately and irrationally, but you have to calculate with that kind of reaction. So it’s a very complex game, and here you have the shepherd in the middle of the game, surrounded by some bigger guys, who are watching to see whether he can do the job, keep the herd together. So we shall see. We will try to do our best.




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