Hungary’s government led by Viktor Orbán has been making the headlines of the world’s media since it trampled nearly all fundamental principles of the European Union. The government has acted out against refugees and migrants, as well as NGOs offering humanitarian aid to migrants, and against the country’s Roma population, the homeless and religious minorities. The freedom of the media and the mining of the political game have also been widely criticised by politicians in EU member countries including members of the EPP Group.
All the while, Budapest’s relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin have practically undermined the EU’s foreign policy. There is also widespread corruption and the looting of EU funds, involving members of the prime minister’s family, as well new oligarchs with links to the government. All this is being investigated by OLAF.
As a consequence, the European Parliament has asked EU member states to determine, in accordance with Treaty Article 7, whether Hungary is at risk of breaching the EU´s founding values.
On April 2018, Orbán and his Fidesz party won (again) the national elections. The Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) arrived third in the preferences since the opposition parties failed to present a common front against Fidesz. After the elections, its defeated leader Gyula Molnár resigned.
Molnár was a member of the Hungarian parliament between 1994 and 2010. He also served as the mayor of Újbuda (the 11th and most populous district of Budapest) from 2002 to 2010. He was the leader of the party between 2016 and 2018.
In an interview with European Interest, Molnár explains why Orbán maintains such a hard line on many topics that put him in confrontation with EU, as well as his ‘flirting’ with Russia and relations with the European far-right.
We “are willing to fight for a peaceful, normal and European country,” says the former leader of MSZP.
European Interest: Viktor Orbán seems to enjoy widespread public support in Hungary, even though his narrative is becoming increasingly intolerant, racist and authoritarian. In addition, Jobbik, a neo-Nazi party, remains the second party in preferences. Racist ideas were not unknown in Hungary before and during WWII. How do you think these ideas have managed to survive and have now found a voice in today’s Hungarian politics?
Gyula Molnár: I don’t think these ideas survived since WWII, just as I don’t think this is a Hungarian phenomenon. Look at the United States, Italy, Poland or most recently Brazil and any other country where racist parties and politicians were elected. This new wave of far-right politicians has found a way to gain support out of people’s fear from Muslims, Roma, Jews or even the poor without being tagged what they are: racists. Our task is to call them by the name and to offer alternatives to their hateful, fear-mongering politics. These far-right politicians are good at gaining votes, but their governing performance is awful. The left should offer people peace and good governance instead of their widespread corruption and constant political wars.
Orbán has attacked all the vulnerable groups of Hungarian society. Migrants and refugees, the Roma population, poor people and homeless, as well as Muslims. Now he is targeting the freedom of academic research by attacking the Central European University. The European Parliament condemned Viktor Orbán’s politics. What does this mean practically? Does the EU have the means to interfere?
I hope so, even though I know that Orbán has allies in the European Union who wish to do the very same in their countries what Orbán did in Hungary: stealing all the EU subsidies and establishing a political system where basically everyone is dependent to one person. I also know that we can’t just sit and wait for the EU to do something against an emerging dictatorship in the middle of Europe. Change has to come from inside, from Hungary. We, Hungarian Socialists and our allies have to be better and more effective in order to win over Orbán.
The Hungarian PM is directly defying the EU and, to a certain extent, the EPP, his European partner. On the other hand, his family and his political friends are deeply involved in scandals investigated by OLAF. What do you think that Orbán hopes to achieve by maintaining such an anti-EU position? What makes him feel so secure?
I give you an example: Orbán opposes Hungary’s accession to the European Prosecutor’s Office. He knows that a deeper and more effective European cooperation could be dangerous for him. What’s interesting is that Hungarians – even the voters of Fidesz – disagree: despite of the government’s public funded anti-EU campaigns, the general support for Hungary’s the EU-membership has never been stronger. That is an opportunity for MSZP, the Socialist Party. We can represent the majority opinion in connection with Europe-related issues. And that’s exactly what we will do in the next EU campaign.
Hungary seems to be a de facto ally of Vladimir Putin. But, in December 2017, Hungary accused a Jobbik MEP of spying for Russia. What is the logic behind Orbán’s pro-Russian tendency?
It’s very simple: Orbán and Putin are strong allies, but sometimes they act as enemies in order to represent their personal interests more effectively. EU politicians have to see their game if they wish to defend Europe’s values.
Do you think Russia is interfering in Hungarian politics? Did it play a role during the last general elections? Are you afraid that it will be involved in the next European elections?
It’s a complicated question. There are some concerns that Russian intelligence gets information from the Hungarian government – and there are also some signs that these concerns are true. There are more than a hundred Hungary-language online fake news sites that broadcast Kremlin propaganda to Hungarian social media users. But I also think that in Hungary, it’s not the Russian influence we should be mostly worried about in connection with the fairness of the recent or upcoming elections: it’s the fact that 80-90% of all media is in the hands of Prime Minister Orbán or his oligarchs. They also re-wrote the country’s election system and gained decisive influence in all formerly independent institutions like the Prosecutor’s Office, the judges, the State Audit Office (that constantly fines opposition parties), the National Election Committee and others.
Talking about the European elections, in the next European Parliament, far-right parties are expected to secure a bigger number of MEPs. Since Fidesz’ rhetoric does not differ from those of Matteo Salvini or Marine Le Pen, do you see any possible alignment between them after the elections?
There is already an alignment – it’s just has not been formalised yet. The decision is up to the conservative parties in Europe. EPP party leaders have two choices: either they turn a blind eye to Orbán’s corruption and violation of democratic norms, and let his party, Fidesz remain a member of European People’s Party or they finally realise that they don’t want a racist, anti-poor, anti-European party in their family. If they choose the first option, leading conservative politicians might lose their influence in their own party in the recent years. If they choose to stand up to their principles and exclude parties that don’t, EPP members will not only save Europe as a strong community but they take a huge step in preserving their own popularity in their home counties. One thing I’ve learned from MSZP’s mistake is that people don’t like politicians who don’t take a stand.
What do you expect from the next European elections in Hungary? Will the democratic opposition find a way to re-emerge and how?
The Socialist Party’s Campaign will be about the choice Hungary has to make: to remain in Europe or leave the EU in the long run. Orbán wants to stay in the EU just as long as he and his oligarchs benefit from EU subsidies. If we want to stay in Europe, we have to vote for it. That’s the message that hopefully will bring the majority of Hungarian voters to us, who are willing to fight for a peaceful, normal and European country.