I read with a mixture of enthusiasm and wonder your letter to my colleagues about Hungary and the Central European University of Budapest, in which you state your concern for the integrity and values of the European People’s Party. I was enthusiastic because I am pleased that one of the key figures of the scientific world considered it important enough to issue a statement about us and offer us useful advice. After all, the EPP is the biggest and most influential actor in the European Parliament and European politics, so public attention is important to us. It is by all means an honor to have the concern of an outsider or a representative from a different political background. But it also had me wondering because until now we were unaware of your interest in the unity, values and politics of our party. But maybe it just slipped my notice, which is my fault.
As a Hungarian MEP and a member of Fidesz, the governing party of Hungary, I have the same mixed feelings after reading your words about my country, my party and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has achieved hard-won prominence across Europe. However, this time my enthusiasm and wonder is mixed with disappointment. People pay attention to what you say – and rightly so. People rely on scientists and experts of political theory because they assume that their statements are based on facts, research and a thorough, deeper-than-average knowledge of their given field. If that weren’t the case, your assessment would be as low as those of the politicians and journalists who, indiscriminately and without verifying, spread indiscriminately copied, distorted or false information of a Google-like shallowness from secondary and tertiary sources. Out of ignorance, intellectual laziness, sloth, political correctness, malevolence or because they are simply not willing to go against the mainstream, they don’t want to question the predominant, widespread and widely disseminated, bogus picture.
Sadly, you have fallen into the same trap. Most of the claims in your letter do not even come close to the truth. You write that Hungarian democracy is in danger. You claim that Viktor Orbán assailed the judiciary, the media, the education system and the Central European University. He is assaulting immigrants, the Romany minority, the EU…
In our political culture these are serious accusations against a democratic country, its prime minister and its most significant party. It should be a given that accusations such as these should be justified even if they came from a superficial politician, not to mention a professor who has spent decades scientifically analyzing politics. You supported your statements with a one-sentence quote that you clipped from a French newspaper. Well, this is definitely not the level of thoroughness that the people who look up to you and your students (including myself) would expect. Especially not if it comes with accusations of such capital offense.
Now, if you could not be bothered to look deeper into the facts than the level of ‘once I read it somewhere in a newspaper’ I am happy to come to your aid, and perhaps by doing so I will make you doubt your hasty and categorical judgments.
Let’s begin with the claims regarding the judiciary system and the media. Both issues are fait a compli, as your favorite French daily, the Le Croix would say. The debate on these topics was closed five years ago when the Hungarian government reached a written agreement with the European Commission. As the result of the 2011 judiciary reform, Hungary surged to the upper half in the European Justice Scorecard ranking of judiciary independence – a list curated by former Commissioner Viviane Reding – thereby overtaking the judiciary of France, a mature democracy. It is only because of double standards that we never hear or read concerns about the rule of law in countries – like France – that have a ranking worse than Hungary. They always pick on our country.
The Hungarian Media Law has been in force for more than half a decade now. At the time the law was passed, all of Europe considered Hungary’s media freedom dead and buried. I suggest that you, and those who keep repeating the same accusations, come to Hungary, visit a newspaper stand and take a look at the front pages of our dailies and weeklies. Or if you don’t feel like traveling, just browse through the online portals of Index, 444, HVG, Népszava or Magyar Nemzet. There are very few countries where media outlets criticize each and every step of the government as harshly and openly as Hungarian media do. Moreover, we belong to the group of those European countries that have official documentation from the European Commission that our media law is compatible with Europe. There aren’t too many laws that have been scrutinized as thoroughly and lengthily by Brussels as the Hungarian Media Law. The modifications required by the Commission have been made, and both sides agreed to conclude the negotiations (almost five years ago). This – of course – neither prevents superficial or malevolent French journalists, nor European Green politicians, Socialist commissioners nor candidates for the office of German chancellor from continuing to beat that dead horse.
On immigration – as there is not enough space here for detailed elaboration – I have to tell you, that the Hungarian government – unlike other European governments – was brave enough to ask the voters for their opinions on a policy that not only has a direct effect on their everyday lives but can also lead to dramatic social crisis. Last year, we held a referendum, and the third national consultation on immigration will be out in a couple of days, enabling seven million Hungarian voters to share their views on migration with the government and each other. It is difficult to defend the claim that a measure that protects the country’s borders and guarantees that one can only enter the Schengen Area in a controlled and legal way is anti-European or anti-migrant. We never forget that the Hungarian government was elected by the Hungarian citizens and its primary task is to protect the people and the country – and the same is true for other European states as well as the leaders of the EU.
It was your comment about the Hungarian Roma population that disappointed me the most. At the beginning of this decade, during the Hungarian presidency of the European Council, it was the Orbán Government that put the “EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies” on the official EU agenda and succeeded in getting it adopted. It’s now nearly twenty years ago that my party, Fidesz, signed a strategic political alliance with Hungary’s biggest Roma organization, the Lungo Drom. Their representatives sit in the Fidesz group in the Hungarian Parliament. Lívia Járóka, who served as an MEP between 2004 and 2014 and was the only Roma MEP, was elected to the European Parliament through the Fidesz party list. She represents 10 million European Roma people, and my party recently nominated her to fill the vacant Hungarian position of vice-president of the European Parliament. I hope that the Socialists, Greens, Liberals and Communists won’t abandon their aggrandized pro-minority and pro-Roma principles when given the chance to vote for the first-ever Roma MEP in the history of the European Parliament. Now they have the opportunity to turn their words into deeds.
The narrative that the Hungarian government attacks Europe is false. Believe me, my country and I have lived through a regime (e.g., in the Warsaw Pact, Comecon, etc.) – for far too long – where even the slightest criticism of an order from Moscow triggered serious sanctions. We think of the EU as a community of nation states where the center doesn’t tell us what to do, but the 28 member states develop a common policy together. When we criticize Brussels and the way it manages certain issues, we do so only to improve matters and contribute to finding better solutions. As a member of the European Parliament, I believe in debate, in the idea that two heads are better than one and that debate produces better solutions than arrogant commands. The clearest proof of this is that Hungary ranks second in terms of popular support for the EU. Critical approach, good intentions and decisions made through debates increase popular trust, whereas a lack of criticism and false promotion decrease it.
Your letter (who knows who urged you to write it) makes clear that your main concern is the CEU. Over the last several months, I have heard many times in the European Parliament and read it in the press that the freedom of education and respect for acquired rights remain among the most important European values. The Hungarian Parliament’s decision this April – contrary to the accusations that we shut down the university – did not pose any impractical or even unusual conditions. The fact that teaching at CEU – the university that the international press and some European politicians continue to claim has been eliminated by Viktor Orbán – has continued without interruption – according to a statement by the rector, Mr. Ignatieff, that was circulated to teachers and students – clearly refutes any contrary accusation. (We’ve seen that story somewhere before. A few years ago, the Hungarian Klubrádió also told the world and Europe that it had been shut down even though you can listen to it still today, and I can assure you – for the great glory of the freedom of the Hungarian press – it doesn’t spare the government, Viktor Orbán nor Fidesz. Sometimes it spares the truth, though, but that is a more complicated judgment, so let’s not get into it.) The goal of the amendment was to ensure that all universities in Hungary comply with the Constitution. Education is free, but the freedom of education and the quality of degrees are guaranteed by states all over the world. After reviewing the statuses of universities in Hungary, the Hungarian legislature didn’t find any special reason to maintain the tax, employment and other privileges of certain foreign, private universities – where the majority of students are not Hungarian – that were not granted to their Hungarian or European competitors. From now on, a university that doesn’t pursue any educational activity in its homeland – like the American CEU – can only issue a double degree (one Hungarian and one American) once the required international treaty with the affected non-EU country is in place. In other words, we have put an end to the situation where some were more equal than others. It would be very difficult to make Hungarian and European voters understand that certain non-EU, private universities have more rights on Hungarian and European soil than those public institutions that are maintained by taxpayers. Should you have any arguments in favor of granting such privileges, don’t hesitate to share them with us! Anyway, as far as I know, negotiations with New York State – where the CEU has a postal address – have advanced concerning the university. Knowing the immense, global reach of the lobbying power behind the university, I would be surprised if the proud state of New York blocked the process.
While we’re on the subject of freedom of education and respect for acquired rights, dear Professor, I suggest that you consult the recently adopted Ukrainian Education Act. I hope you will become a committed supporter of our case. The measure that, according to you, threatens – in my view, it ensures equality – the CEU’s five hundred students and the same number of staff is clearly not even close to what’s happening to hundreds of thousands of Polish, Romanian, Hungarian and Greek minority children when the Ukrainian Government takes away their right to education in their mother tongue after the 4th grade. The bill makes it impossible for hundreds of schools to survive and strips minorities of their rights. Freedom of education and the protection of acquired rights is important for you – or so it seems to me after reading your letter – so please write a letter to the Ukrainian representatives and the Ukrainian leaders as well. This is a cause that is worth the protection of a scientist with such a global calling for morality and heightened sensitivity for the injustices of our world, a cause that deserves your great ethical reputation. I think this is a question of principle, and when it comes to questions of principle and fundamental values, there is no room for double standards. (You may not have read much about this topic in the United States or Western Europe compared to what you’ve heard about the CEU issue, but don’t let this discourage you from supporting it. After all, truth does not depend on who says it, who is behind it, his lobbying power or wealth…)
You demand that the People’s Party, as an anti-populist party should not tolerate populism within its own ranks. I disagree with you. Fidesz is not a populist party and Viktor Orbán is not a populist. Populism is when politicians promise something that they are unable or unwilling to carry out but only want to win votes by stirring up emotions. The concept of populism has been expanded by the mainstream liberal doctrine to cover anything it doesn’t like. Stopping immigration, according to this doctrine, is populist because it is impossible; strong border protection is populist (I have to note here the exceptional attention from the European press to Hungarian border rangers and the border fence; and, in contrast, the amnesia of the same outlets regarding Calais!) as it violates the rights of the immigrants, and states governed by the rule of law are not allowed to do such a thing; the promise of full employment is populist as well because it is a complicated question; it is populist to say that the burden of the economic crisis shouldn’t be borne only by ordinary people but also by banks and multinational companies because it destabilizes the foundations of capitalist competition; helping those with foreign currency debt is definitely populist on the grounds that everybody has to take responsibility for the consequences of a bad decision they once made (taking a Swiss franc loan was a good deal before the financial crisis, then they found themselves in indentured servitude); it is populist to introduce more severe punishment for capital crimes because the criminals should be rehabilitated into society or kept in user-friendly prisons; populism is when someone produces statistics that find a correlation between the incidence of certain felonies, like sexual abuse, and the increasing number of immigrants because such an implication is nothing less than racist; it is populist to talk about how European Muslim enclaves suppress women and stigmatize homosexuals…
Continue reading József Szájer’s letter here.
Read Professor Steve Lukes’ letter to MEPs of the European People’s Party here.