Orban and Věra Jourová? – Márton Gyöngyösi was interviewed by the ParlamentniListy.cz

Márton Gyöngyösi



The Czech European Commission Vice President for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová, has been consistent in her criticism of Hungary. She said that Hungary is a „fragile democracy“ and she also expressed some doubts about the Epidemic Bill. Jourová ultimately said that the commission had no grounds on which to launch an infringement procedure against Hungary over its epidemic response law, yet. Her criticism and usage of the word „yet“ even prompted the Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga to react. What do you think of Ms. Jourová’s approach? Can the EU do anything to protect democracy in Hungary?

As an EU Commissioner, Ms Jourová is probably not in an easy situation when she has to make a point in such a sensitive matter. Her office requires her to represent the European interests while it is obvious that the activity of Hungary’s Orbán government has clearly been incompatible with the European Union’s values. On the other hand, we also know that European Commissioners attain their seats through political deals and  as a result ofan efficient support from their national governments so their often-declared independence is probably never complete in reality. The Czech government, which is also accused of populism at times, may have different ideas from the European Commission. This dichotomy may have led to the contradictions or uncertainties in Ms Jourová’s communication.

As for Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga’s reaction – I am not surprised. Ms Varga usually doesn’t refrain from taking words out of context or even lying blatantly in the Hungarian public discourse, so the EU officials’ compromise-seeking and diplomatic language is like a goldmine for an unscrupulous politician like Judit Varga. I think if the European Union realized that its unassertiveness just gives more ammunition for populists, it could greatly help us to defend democracy in Hungary as well as in other member states.

Is Hungary being treated fairly by the EU?

Countries join the European Union on their own accord, through negotiations. During these negotiations, each member state, including Hungary, has accepted a lot of guidelines and regulations that they can rightfully held accountable to later on. I am convinced that the Hungarian politicians involved in our EU accession failed to properly represent the Hungarian interests and it is a legitimate thing to open a debate on that. However, nobody ever contested that the fundamental principles of democracy or the freedom of speech are beyond question and dispute, but the Orbán government was shamed because of trampling upon these very values. Actually, it is a good thing that it was shamed because, finally, the EU is morally obliged to react to what Fidesz does in Hungary.

Have Hungarians noticed the criticism from the European Commission? How do they see Jourová? 

The Hungarian public is aware of the European Commission’s critical remarks but whenever you talk about Hungary and the Hungarian public opinion, you must keep in mind it is the manipulated discourse of a country moving towards dictatorship. In a country where the government closes down opposition newspapers while the state television and radio broadcast 24/7 party propaganda reminiscent of the 1930s, it’s hard to get a nuanced picture of what people think about Ms Jourová’s acts. The people led on by the governing party likely consider her as a hero or a “puppet of the deep state” (this is not a joke, I am quoting the style of Hungary’s state-run media), depending on what the TV said on that particular day. Opposition supporters, on the other hand, would like to see more assertive actions since it is the security, daily lives and future of the Hungarian people at stake, while they also know that openly supporting the opposition is no guarantee for an unperturbed life.

Two weeks ago, the Hungarian parliament voted unanimously in favour of ending the nation’s state of emergency, which had been in effect since late March. The government has come under harsh criticism from abroad for fears of abusing its power via the option to rule by decree. What would you say to those critics as representative of the second biggest opposition in the Hungarian parliament? Was there any abuse? Was the state of emergency a good move by Fidesz?

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is a grand master of ordering a retreat in the international battlefield without having to actually retract anything. “Giving back” his special powers a few weeks ago was such a move, too, because the most controversial elements have still remained as part of the permanent legal order. For example, they kept the so-called prohibition of scaremongering, which they used during the pandemic to enable the police to persecute citizens on account of Facebook posts.

That being said, it’s obvious that Orbán and Fidesz didn’t need the special powers for protecting the country from the pandemic. Even before the vote, we voiced our position that if you have a two-thirds parliamentary majority, you hardly need any additional powers to manage a crisis. Furthermore, when Mr Orbán asked for such mandate for an indefinite period of time, the cloven hoof was shown ever more clearly. This is unprecedented in any European country. No wonder there was so much backlash. What happened afterwards validated our concerns: the government used its special powers to withdraw state funds from the opposition parties, to launch a revenge campaign against the opposition town mayors elected last autumn, to take away most of the local tax income from these towns, to use military force to take private companies under control and even to remove the managers of private companies that had a dispute with the state. In addition, the government adopted a controversial law on fake news and intimidated people on account of their opinions. There was one thing they didn’t use the special powers for: they did not adopt any anti-pandemic measures at all. This is what you need to take into consideration when you evaluate the special powers and their apparent withdrawal.

As one of the most prominent opposition figures, how do you rate the Hungarian government’s overall performance?

Viktor Orbán’s government is very successful in channelling the people’s money into the pockets of its own clientèle. In today’s Hungary, you can hardly buy or consume anything without funding a Fidesz oligarch, from listening to the radio, through doing your shopping, to staying at a hotel for your vacation, because independent businesses have completely been squeezed out in the past ten years, having been replaced by a true Mafia system. They are very good at that. If you look at how hundreds of thousands of Hungarians emigrated to Western Europe, how Hungarian wages are the lowest in our region even according to the doctored data of the state statistical office, how we are slowly being surpassed by Romania, which had long been considered as the poorest in Europe, we can conclude that the government’s efficiency is very low. If you also consider the increasingly blatant Mafia methods, the curbing of political rights and the intimidation of the opposition, I have to say the outcome is tragic. Unfortunately, this can go almost completely unnoticed by the European Union, apart from a few critical remarks.

Just to mention an example: the State Audit Office of Hungary, the president of which is a former Fidesz MP, imposed a fine of nearly €3 million on my party Jobbik, after a show trial-like procedure. Since this gargantuan fine nearly put us in bankruptcy, we had to suspend our election campaign. Furthermore, the State Audit Office doesn’t even have the right under Hungarian law to impose fines and, for the very same reason, its decisions cannot be appealed, either. As the whole procedure is unprecedented in any democracy, we turned to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights where a judge, who has multiple ties to Fidesz, made a decision in a Single Judge procedure to reject our appeal, claiming that we failed to exhaust legal remedies in Hungary. This is nonsense: a supposedly independent European institution served Fidesz’ political agenda. As long as the leaders of the European Union fail to do something about this, they remain complicit to the Orbán regime no matter how harsh language they use to condemn it.

Many people in the Czech Republic believe in further cooperation within the V4. Do you think Viktor Orbán is doing a good job promoting V4? And do you consider the alliance to be important?

I believe the V4 cooperation is very important. The countries of Central Europe are bound together by their common history of a thousand years. That’s why it’s so important for us to help and support each other in the European Union, too. This is a value from which the European Union can benefit as well. Of course, Viktor Orbán has a different goal: he does not view V4 as a unique opportunity for us to represent the values and interests of our region within the European community, but a tool to sabotage Europe. He inflicts enormous damage and discredits the V4 idea. The next Hungarian government will have a huge burden to handle Orbán’s legacy in that regard, too.

Speaking of international criticism of Hungary, media seem to play a huge role in that. Do you think the European media are treating Hungary in a fair manner?

In pluralistic media conditions, politicians, parties or governments are always criticized. Some of those criticisms are unjustified. There’s nothing special about that, and if you can’t bear it, don’t pursue a political career. However, if the entire European media space, regardless of political lines and ideologies, echoes with the Hungarian situation, that’s not a one-time difference of opinion. That’s a sign of a consensus that there’s big trouble in Hungary. This is not surprising. It would be much more surprising if nobody took notice in Europe.

What about freedom of media? The mainstream media’s position in the Czech Republic is that freedom of media is in serious danger in Hungary, is that true?

Look, Hungary no longer has any nationally broadcast radio station that is fully independent from the government. There is no nationally broadcast television channel that is 100 per cent independent from the government. The two big daily newspapers that shaped public opinion since the collapse of Communism in Hungary no longer exist. One of them was bought by a businessman with ties to Fidesz and then closed down overnight a few years ago. As far as the other one is concerned, you can still see its logo on the news-stands but Fidesz replaced the entire editorial staff and now publishes a micro-managed paper under the name of the old one. The largest independent online news portal is being liquidated as we speak. The last independent centre-right weekly magazine is printed in Slovakia because there’s no Hungarian printer who would risk doing the job. The few remaining seemingly independent media outlets are often funded by government money, so they can immediately hush up any matter of genuine importance.

Opposition parties don’t get screen time in the state television at all. It only hosts the governing parties’ politicians and airs their opinions. The other type of message that is broadcast comes from the experts of Fidesz-funded institutes, who parrot their anti-EU and often anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. In the meantime, the state-owned pop radio regularly plays a song performed by Justice Minister Judit Varga.

Need I say more?

Věra Jourová has initiated distribution of 5.1 million Euros among selected European media to help them during the coronavirus crisis. She is also creating the so called „Democracy action plan“ to further boost media freedom and independence. What is your take on that?

I think initiatives like these are very good. The Covid-19 pandemic clearly showed how vulnerable we are to fake news. The media has a central role in the 21st century, and this is clear for everyone, including those who want to incite animosity and chaos in the European Union.

The big question is if this money goes to the right place or it goes into the pocket of Fidesz’ propaganda media, for example.

That’s why my party Jobbik joined a civil initiative to create an independent, European public media which would broadcast in the language of each member state, representing a politically and ideologically balanced, pluralistic programming that would air different opinions.

Could those money find a better use during the COVID-19 pandemic?

This is a very difficult question because our financial resources are limited while the problems are nearly endless. Many areas need a quick help and I think the protection of European values, democracy and the freedom of speech can never be under-prioritized, even during a crisis.

You are Jobbik’s vice president and you were also leading the Jobbik’s 2019 EP candidates list. Jobbik has been accused of extremist policies in the past, but it seems that your party underwent an important policy change in the last two years. What do you think about the accusations and what does Jobbik represent today?

Jobbik was organized into a political party by university students in 2003. They set out with enormous enthusiasm and great plans but, due to their lack of political experience, they often spoke before thinking. That was a mistake which we paid for, and we apologized for the harm we caused. Of course, there were some people in Jobbik at the time who didn’t make intolerable statements or committed such acts out of youthful fervor and political immaturity but they really had extreme political views. After the party’s then president Gábor Vona announced the policy of “progress into a people’s party” and started moving towards the political centre, these extremist politicians either left the party on their own, or we asked them to leave. I’m happy that the results of this several-years-long cleansing process is now visible in Hungary and abroad as well, it is a very important feedback for us.

We have just adopted our Declaration of Principles which states that Jobbik is a patriotic, socially sensitive, conservative, centre-right party with Christian values, and considers Konrad Adenauer and Robert Schuman as its ideological predecessors. We want to create a freer Hungary which can guarantee European-level prosperity for its citizens. Although we are an independent party, we have been cooperating with the other opposition parties in many issues, regardless of our ideological differences because if we want to achieve our goals, we first need to oust the Fidesz government. In last year’s municipal elections we ran joint candidates with the leftist and liberal parties in most of the constituencies. The great success we achieved prompts us to do the same in the 2022 parliamentary elections as well. In that regard, it’s a great help that our president Péter Jakab is one of the most popular opposition politicians in Hungary.

Let’s move to another topic. The Black lives matter movement has gained traction even beyond the US borders. We have seen statues torn down in Great Britain and defaced in many other countries, including the Czech Republic, where statue of Winston Churchill was vandalized. Have there been any similar cases in Hungary? What do you think about the nature of said protests? Where is this going?

I am saddened by the vandalization of statues. Perhaps it comes as nothing new for Czech readers but the fact that we in Central Europe were always under the pressure of totalitarian ideologies over the last 100 years and therefore we have never been able to objectively evaluate and discuss our past is a major tragedy in our history. As a result, tearing down statues has become somewhat of a tradition in Central Europe as the totalitarian regimes pulled down the old sculptures and put their own in their place, and when this regime fell, the people tore down their statues, too. I’ve always envied the western part of the world where they had a chance to evaluate their past and clash their opinions instead of erasing their memory. The latest toppling of statues is nothing like that. It is driven by a a totalitarian approach, a tunnel vision that I do not wish on any nation. Don’t get me wrong; I wouldn’t miss the statues of unmitigated political scoundrels but the sculptures being torn down in the west are not of dictators or tyrants. They are the statues of people from the past who might not fully comply with today’s social expectations but they nonetheless gained respect in their time and they deserve respect now, too. Not because of what is no longer acceptable but because of what we still consider exemplary. Last but not least, we should not forget that we are the children of our own time, too. What would we say if our great-great grandchildren dishonoured our memory because of something we did without knowing that history will surpass it in a few hundred years?

On the whole, the vandalization did not have a significant echo in Hungary although someone did pour paint on Winston Churchill’s statue here as well. I think it’s sad.

Renaming and rebranding seem to be in fashion these days. What are the long-term consequences of these actions? Why do you think the Black Lives Matter movement is so strong in western countries? Is there any connection with the fact that these countries have never experienced communism?

As I said, it’s a sad world where you often need to rename your streets and remove your heroes. But I still hope that western societies will ultimately rely on pluralism, the freedom of expression and organic democratic development rather than the long-discredited anarchist and far leftist ideas dating back to 1968.

Two years ago, a statue of Karl Marx was erected in Germany. Less than two weeks ago, a statue of Vladimir Lenin followed. What do you think of this? Is there any connection to the tearing down of other statues?

There is probably a small but loud group that likes this. As I said, I don’t want to see unmitigated political scoundrels but everyone deserves not to be taken out of the context of their political era. As far as Vladimir Illich Lenin is concerned, we can safely state that his acts are unacceptable by the moral standards of any historical era, his deeds are completely intolerable, with the blood of millions being on his hand. I don’t think that any serious person with a sound moral compass could consider such a bloody, barbarian tyrant as their role model.

I don’t think Marx deserves a statue, either, but the analysis of his legacy requires a more nuanced approach since he was an important thinker in political history – we should know his ideas without following them!

Czech president Miloš Zeman became probably the first EU country leader to denounce the „Black Lives Matter“ slogan. Zeman thinks it is racist by definition and that instead, all lives matter. Zeman also criticised the violent nature of the protests. Do you agree with Zeman’s statement? Should other presidents follow suit?

I think it is the American nation that has to overcome the injustices of the American society. We can’t help them from here in Europe. This is their history and their disagreements. I don’t think it’s advisable to import them to Europe. That being said, human dignity is universal and everybody is entitled to it regardless of their skin colour, ideology or nationality.


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