Ahead of the European Parliament elections, Hungary is facing a rather unique situation. It appears that 10 years of Fidesz rule has transformed Viktor Orbán’s government into an authoritarian regime.
The European Parliament has condemned the systematic attack against the rule of law and the European Commission has criticised Budapest’s actions. These include constant efforts to undermine the freedom of the press and curtail academic freedom, as well as continuously challenging the EU’s efforts to forge a common policy.
Even the European People’s Party (Orbán’s Fidesz party is a member of this group) has discussed a proposal to expel it.
Despite the many uncertainties, one thing is for sure: Hungary’s democratic opposition is fighting to protect democracy. It is fighting to protect Hungary’s European choice.
In an interview with European Interest, Péter Niedermüller, a Hungarian member of the European Parliament, described the situation in his country. Niedermüller is the Vice-President of the Democratic Coalition party and candidate for mayorship in the 7th district of Budapest in the coming municipal elections in October.
The Hungarian politician stressed that Orbán’s regime destroyed rule of law in Hungary. However, he also said he remained optimistic about the future of democracy in Hungary.
“Hungary indeed has a progressive face, which respects liberal democratic values and cultural diversity,” said Niedermüller. “I am convinced that the democratic opposition has finally understood they need to change strategy.”
He insists that the political parties should put aside all their differences and focus on the fight for free and fair elections, the independence of the judiciary, media freedom, cultural diversity and unconditional respect for free choices in a citizen’s private life.
Niedermüller, who was co-rapporteur in the European Parliament regarding the reform of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), says he is convinced the reformed agency will offer more in the direction of the protection of European borders.
European Interest: Ahead of the European elections, the polls suggest Fidesz and Viktor Orbán will once again come out on top. How do you explain this, since Orbán’s regime has targeted fundamental rights of the Hungarian society?
Péter Niedermüller: Fidesz has systematically and deliberately dismantled the democratic principles in Hungary in the past 10 years. The parliament’s role has become formal. The judiciary has lost its independence, even though some are still fighting for it. The freedom of press has been cruelly killed. At the same time, the prime minister and his propaganda machine have constructed a highly nationalistic narrative, meant to breed hatred and fuel fear. The Hungarian government pretends as if they were the ones to defend people from Brussels and the so-called “migrants” who threaten the country, the Christian culture and Europe itself.
the prime minister and his propaganda machine have constructed a highly nationalistic narrative, meant to breed hatred and fuel fear
On the other hand, the opposition is a traitor, who supports Brussels and migration, serves foreign interests. Orbán doesn’t treat the opposition as an adversary. He calls them – or us – the enemy. This exclusionary and stigmatising narrative was reinforced after the migration crisis and the horrible terror attacks in Paris and Brussels. People from less developed rural regions have only access to state media, which shamelessly echoes government propaganda.
It isn’t surprising that Fidesz has a high support in the countryside, and less popular in cities where people can afford other sources of information. The Fidesz are able to win elections due to their aggressive and harsh propaganda, which triggers fear and hatred in the existentially threatened lower social classes. Orbán’s success doesn’t have to do anything with election victories in Western European democracies.
The parties of the democratic opposition (DK, MSZP, Dialogue and Momentum) agreed in naming common mayor candidates in Budapest. Why isn’t such an alliance possible in the European and general elections?
Party-list proportional representation is applied at European elections in Hungary. This means citizens can’t vote for individual candidates like in municipal elections. Polls don’t show any significant benefit for a single opposition list, and parties want to try their own chance with the voters. Moreover, this alliance for municipal elections doesn’t cover all the opposition parties, given that the LMP[i] and the Jobbik[ii] aren’t willing to cooperate. The first is currently searching for its political identity, while the latter is fighting with its extreme-right past. However, I hope that the alliance between center-left parties will persist.
The European institutions expressed their concern for the rule of law in Hungary as well as for the future of the fundamental freedoms. Do you think the situation is reversible?
Hungary isn’t governed by rule of law at the moment. In its current state, the country wouldn’t be able to join the European Union. The Fidesz turned against the basic principles of liberal democracy and European Christian democracy to such an extent that even their own political family decided to suspend membership.
But Hungary indeed has a progressive face, which respects liberal democratic values and cultural diversity
Orbán hints more and more often that Fidesz shouldn’t belong to the European People’s Party. Orbán and the Hungarian government have openly devoted themselves to the European extreme right and its ideology.
But Hungary indeed has a progressive face, which respects liberal democratic values and cultural diversity. This cleavage has deeply divided the society over the past few decades. I am convinced that the democratic opposition has finally understood they need to change strategy.
Political parties should no longer stress their different opinions on certain policy issues. Instead, they should emphasise what unites them: a commitment towards free and fair elections, an independent judiciary, media freedom, cultural diversity and unconditional respect for free choices in our private life. Hungarian democracy could and should be restored upon these principles.
In the rest of the EU, Jobbik is considered a far-right party. However, the media in Hungary have reported that democratic parties could start a dialogue with it in order to create an anti-Orban front. Given Jobbik’s past, do you think it’s possible for democratic parties to have contact?
I am personally not very convinced that the Jobbik has really split up with its past. Even if the most radical politicians left and founded a new party, the chair of Jobbik is still the same person who claimed a list of Jewish members of the Parliament and the spokesperson called homosexual people aberrant a few years ago. The party hasn’t apologised for their harsh anti-gypsy and anti-Semitic speeches, nor for their abusive behaviour towards homosexual people.
At the same time, we can’t see clearly which side Jobbik belongs to, given that sometimes their MPs do support Fidesz’ motions. I don’t think either that they subscribed to the same values and principles as centre-left parties do. Technical alliances can be agreed on local level for the municipal elections, but I don’t agree that cooperation should be sought at national level.
While they don’t let refugees enter the country and treacherously stigmatise them, tens of thousands were granted residence permits without any security check because they have invested huge amounts in government bonds
Hungary is on the top of the anti-immigration countries in the EU. According to businesspeople, however, the country is facing serious labour shortages. The ‘slave law’ that was recently introduced by the government was an attempt to address such a problem. Do you think that immigrants and refugees can be part of a plan aimed to fill labour shortages?
The Hungarian government is highly hypocritical in this case as well. While they don’t let refugees enter the country and treacherously stigmatise them, tens of thousands were granted residence permits without any security check because they have invested huge amounts in government bonds.
We also know that many Hungarian and multinational companies employ foreign workers, mainly from Ukraine, Romania and Mongolia. There are lot of job opportunities in Hungary, but the skilled workforce is missing because the government has created a useless and anachronic education system, that can’t prepare people for the challenges of the rapidly changing labour market.
Birth rates decline and hundreds of thousands of young and talented people left for Western Europe. The government recently introduced a family support scheme, which favours the middle class instead of helping those in need.
The so-called “slave law” just worsens the situation because instead of the wages, it raises the working hours. Just like other European countries, Hungary needs immigrants and foreign workers in highly skilled positions as well. Our country requires knowledge and innovation, so we can’t put up with assembly parts of factories which develop cutting-edge technology somewhere else.
I found it unacceptable that a government in the EU wants to curb the freedom of academia and science by political means
In March, you reacted to the agreement between the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (HAS) and the Ministry of Innovation and Technology (ITM). What in particular concerns you about this agreement?
The Hungarian government is not able and doesn’t even want to respect the freedom of academia and research. Their mindset is clearly reflected by the conflict around CEU and the transformation of the Corvinus University of Budapest. This is why the government has attacked the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. They want to fully control scientific research as well. They want to decide which projects to finance and what not to subsidise. The minister in charge even said they wouldn’t allow academics to criticise the government or its policies. The majority of HAS’ institutions have been doing a great job for decades, so there isn’t any need for the government to intervene. I found it unacceptable that a government in the EU wants to curb the freedom of academia and science by political means.
In February, the European Union’s co-legislators agreed to strengthen Frontex. You were co-rapporteur in the European Parliament. Why do you think that such an agreement is important for countries with ‘vulnerable’ borders such as Hungary?
The Frontex reform serves the interests of all member states because the agency will be able to work with bigger staff and budget in the future. European border control can only be effective if it uses intelligent tools, not simply puts up walls and fences.
Frontex will also be responsible for saving refugees stuck in dangerous boats on the sea. In 2015, the Hungarian government called for common protection of European borders. Now, they call the Frontex a “travel agency” which brings migrants on purpose to Europe. But it’s only a political trick. I am convinced that Hungary needs to cooperate better with Frontex because the only way to protect European borders is a common scheme with exchanging best practices and experts, providing common budget, training, more modern equipment and providing equal standards in order to reach more safety. The reformed Frontex offers all of this. It’s a shame the Hungarian government lies and hinders European cooperation in this policy as well.