Today’s post was written by a Hungarian political commentator who is calling on the European Union, the European People’s Party, and those member states who care about Hungarian democracy to act at last.
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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said Friday (3 April) that he has “no time” to deal with the scathing criticism by EU allies of the sweeping powers he has assumed, ostensibly to tackle the coronavirus threat. I can fully understand why Orbán has no time. Besides dealing with the pandemic, he must eliminate the last remnants of democracy in Hungary and provide his cronies with even more chances to continue their plundering of the country.
During Orbán’s reign, the Hungarian Parliament was transformed into a mere rubber stamp of the prime minister’s will. However, at least opposition politicians could speak there, submit proposals, discuss the proposed measures in various committees, and all these activities were to some extent reflected in the media. Now, all this has come to an end, and with the new law “On protecting against the coronavirus” Orbán secured the power to rule by decree in perpetuity. Yet even this did not satisfy him.
The new law allows for up to a five-year prison sentence for “spreading false or distorted information” regarding the fight against the coronavirus. And it is the government who decides whether the journalist should be summoned to court for violating this law. In the last few days, I received information from reliable sources that many journalists are already in despair and are resorting to self-censorship. This is even more understandable because media revenues are falling drastically. Newspapers cannot be sold on the streets, and advertisements are disappearing from all independent media due to the financial difficulties of many companies. The government, however, is still pouring an enormous amount of money into the government-friendly media. All this means that, even if life returns to normal after a few months, the independent media might be wiped out almost completely.
The government’s decision to substantially reduce the funding of political parties (allegedly to raise money for the fight against the coronavirus) will be an enormous blow to all opposition parties because their financing is predominantly based on state money. At the same time, there is no limit to the government’s continued funding to strengthen its own party, Fidesz – by, among other means, funding those “NGOs” whose main activity is to spread government propaganda.
The requirement that municipalities transfer part of their revenues to the government, ostensibly for the fight against the virus, is evidently meant to weaken those municipalities whose constituencies dared to elect candidates of the opposition as mayors. There can be no other explanation for this measure as it is the municipalities that are on the front line against the epidemic while they lack the financial and other means to cope with this insuperable task.
Orbán has had ill feelings toward universities for a long time, since he knows only too well that students are often at the heart of revolutions. So now, he found the perfect time to eliminate the autonomy of five big Hungarian universities.
Orbán also needs a lot of time to support his family and his friends. Just a few days ago, the government allocated $6 million to a company which forms part of the business empire of István Tiborcz, the prime minister’s son-in-law, and Lőrinc Mészáros, the prime minister’s childhood friend, to build a new port at Lake Balaton. (Compare this sum with the $3.5 million that Orbán intends to take away from the political parties!) Moreover, this construction would be another nail in the coffin of the lake as its ecosystem is already strained due to the many newly constructed hotels and other facilities (mainly with public money provided to Orbán’s friends).
Another provision of the new law gives the government extraordinary power to continue to construct huge new buildings in the Budapest City Park (Városliget), which is strongly opposed by the Budapest Municipality and by more than 80% of the Budapest citizens and is good only for some friends of Orbán who are doing the construction work. Although the government declared that they will not construct any new buildings without the consent of the Budapest Municipality, work necessary for them are already being carried out on the spot.
Still another provision of the law offers new opportunities for the land grab already widely practiced by Fidesz. Now even nature parks are under threat.
There is only one way to stop Orbán running amok: suspend EU funding to the Hungarian government. We have already seen many times that Orbán simply laughs at words. The only thing he understands is money (and power, of course). There is ample legal ground to suspend the funding (we already wrote about this topic in 2017).
The main argument against such suspension is that then the Hungarian people will suffer. However, suspension does not mean discontinuing funding forever. As soon as the Hungarian government fulfills the EU’s requirements, funding could and should be immediately renewed. These requirements are set out in the 2019 Recommendation of the European Council to Hungary, which, by the way, was also approved by the Hungarian government and which includes, among other recommendations, the following: “Reinforce the anti-corruption framework, including by improving prosecutorial efforts and access to public information, and strengthen judicial independence. Improve the quality and transparency of the decision-making process through effective social dialogue and engagement with other stakeholders and through regular, appropriate impact assessments.” (These recommendations are based on the Country Reports by the European Commission, where many details can be found. For example, in the Country Report Hungary 2020, the word “corruption” figures 38 times.)
But there is a much weightier argument for the suspension of the EU funding. As was stated by Guy Verhofstadt and Sophie In ’t Veld, members of the European Parliament, “Europe will be destroyed by Orbán’s authoritarianism – unless it unites to stop him.” We all know from history that authoritarianism can be just as contagious as the coronavirus. History has also taught us that dictatorship, discord among nations, and the violation of internationally accepted rules and norms can cause even more calamities and deaths than the coronavirus. The EU must make the right decision now.
April 5, 2020