This weekend, President Barack Obama participated in a summit of Eastern-European leaders in Warsaw, Poland, before he arrived back in the US to visit tornado devastation in his own country. The road that led to Warsaw, however, is much more complicated than one might imagine, and since, indirect as it might be, it nevertheless implicates the failures of Hungarian democracy, Hungarians have a lengthy story to tell about it.
But as probably only a small part of the world might be aware, in January 2011, Hungary assumed the Presidency of the Council European Union. The surprising part about this piece of knowledge is that Hungary is (still) in the European Union. The presidency of the EU is rotated among its members, so that every half year a different country acts as president. No one has yet been able to explain to me what the president country of the EU does or supposed to do; and I will certainly not rely on the official communications of the Hungarian government for an explanation. Based on the EU’s constitution, it is the president country’s prerogative to set the priorities of the European Union for one half year. They also must represent the EU to the rest of the world, facilitate compromises and schedule meetings.
The Hungarian government’s spinning of the same matter to their public indicated a slightly different, though not necessarily incorrect take on the above. They did very well, one could conclude by listening to their spokespersons, in coming up with a plan – the ambition’s of which would have made any EU member proud – with goals so generic and vague so as to be able to declare success when it comes to assessing their performance upon what, one must admit, is really a rather short time for substantial leadership. I do not have any basis for comparison as to how well this meets the European norm, it very well might.
And the Hungarian government that setting an agenda for the rest of Europe may or may not accomplish might in fact be all that’s involved in holding the presidency of the Council of the European Union. It certainly appeared to be a reasonable assessment of the matter, which the Hungarian government continued to handle as routine business. Thus Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minster traveled to Strasbourg on a cold day in January 2011, to announce the Hungarian governments program for their presidency, only to be grilled by the liberal and green members of the European Parliament.
The treatment Orbán had received was quite telling about just how far afield his political platform veered from the mainstream political platforms acceptable in countries of the democratic tradition. One might put the matter this way: in societies infused with democratic principles, there are certain limits (limitations self-imposed, in the name of democracy) as to what is imaginable in politics. What these limits are is really the hardest aspect of democratic theory, and as such, these definitions are rarely given, and since democracies are usually fluid affairs, one is hardly ever pressed to do so.
This does not mean, however, that new alternatives, or novel and imaginative visions of what a society might become are democratic because they were envisioned in the freedom democracies tend to afford to their citizens. Orbán’s vision for Hungary, however, is precisely such a – novel and perhaps imaginative, in so far that is bizarre and backward-turning – vision for his society. It is a nightmare, which even the healthiest and most peaceful individuals might dream every once in a while. Unlike the psychopath who realizes his frightful dream however – first and foremost because it is his, and because it is so insane that its realization testifies to one thing only: that he is stronger than anyone else – no person would put effort into instituting it as reality. For most observers, however, Orbán’s political agenda is simply unimaginable. It is too much centered on the prime minister’s permeation of his political powers, it is too anti-democratic, too disrespectful of human rights, or of the welfare of the country, and its citizens, and its future.
The further one lives from the Hungarian Parliament where Orbán’s political platform is transformed into legislation, the clearer it is that he is invested in a political vision which is beyond the limits of the democratic imagination – an imagination that censors and limits itself precisely because, due to its long history, it is keenly aware of just how many ways may unnoticed transgressions of this limit throw countries back into the turmoils of political history.
It was this sense of being “out of line” that stirred up the democratic sentiments of members of the European Union in what Orbán came to face in Strasbourg at the time Hungary assumed the presidency of the EU. It is rare that EU politics comes to focus on the internal affairs of a member state. Again, the Hungarian government’s policies certainly would not have been subject to criticism if they were simply “disagreeable” from a sepcific political perspective. The reception given to Orbán suggested rather that the policies of his government were discussed in the plenary meeting of the European Parliament because they were deemed in violation of democratic standards and expectations of governing by the rule of law, rather than, as it is increasingly the method of the Hungarian government, as the rule of force. Green, liberal and socialist members of the European Parliament staged a protest in particular of the Hungarian government’s media law – a law was enacted only a week or so before Orbán’s travel to Strasbourg (but which is not going to come into full effect during Hungary’s term as EU president – according to its critics, in part so that its anti-democratic measures would not become demonstrable while the EU closely scrutinizes Hungarian affairs).
Eva S. Balogh of The Hungarian Spectrum writes of the quite unprecedented spectacle that ensued in the European Parliament on January 18, 2011:
“It was an uncommon scene by EU parliamentary standards and it “appeared to validate fears that Hungary’s first presidency of the European Union would be a rocky one.” Orbán’s speech about the next six months and his plans concerning the future of Europe was quite well received. The trouble came later during the debate. Most of the remarks weren’t about Hungary’s rotating presidency but about the controversial media law. Before the debate started Orbán asked his audience “not to mix Hungarian internal affairs with the presidency,” but he added that if the members of parliament don’t oblige “he is ready for a fight.” Mixing up the two will do more harm to Europe than to Hungary.Thus even before the debate began Orbán took an antagonistic stance. No wonder that what came afterward was, according to the journalist of euobserver.com, “a barrage” of criticism.
I read in several papers that Orbán’s encounter in Strassbourg “was an unprecedentedly hostile welcome for an incoming EU presidency in the European Parliament.” That was confirmed by Csaba Tabajdi, Hungarian socialist MP who has spent the last six years in Brussels. Some of the journalists found Orbán belligerent and antagonistic. Yet at the same time he expressed his willingness to change the media law if the European Commission finds shortcomings in it. Orbán had to oblige because José Manuel Barroso called for amendments to the law. Later this week the Commission will demand “clarifications” and Barroso pointed out that “some points of the law were problematic.” Joseph Daul, parliamentary leader of the conservative European People’s Party, said it was enough for the premier to vow to change the law if necessary.”
This, in retrospect, was the end of the public denouncement of Hungary – already reaching quite a level of scandal, especially considering standards of interaction within the European political community. It seems that the rest of the story of just how emphatically democratic countries are willing to shun Hungary developed via diplomatic means.
Hungary set four goals for the duration of tis presidency of the Council of the European Union: (1) the reinforcement of economic policy co-ordination, (2) “stronger” energy and natural resources policy, (3) deepening the recognition of fundamental human rights – an ironic goal, given the treatment of Romas in Hungary – and (4) practical steps toward enlarging the EU. The last of these means that Hungary was to emphasize the need to include countries in the Balkan, as well as countries East of the EU’s current borders, in the EU. This is a noble inspiration given the noted lag in these specific geopolitical areas in their level of democratization.
In fact, the culmination of Hungary’s presidency would have been a summit meeting (originally planned at the level of “head of states,” though subsequently the expectations were lowered to “foreign ministers”). The Hungarian EU presidency team was so excited about hosting such a summit at Gödöllő that they even announced one of their best organizational decisions: that they were going to give Herend china (a famous china manufacturer in Hungary) to its participants. Not even Herend china was going to lure those high-level diplomats out of their despair over the potential implications of accepting an invitation to Hungary, however. Within a month of the Hungarian prime minister’s disastrous trip to Strasbourg, Hungary was forced to announce the cancellation of the EU-Eastern European heads of state summit, the proposed star event of Hungary’s European presidency.
The details of what brought Hungarian officials to give up on their most glamorous event are fuzzy. As per the Hungarian daily Népszabadság’s article of February 18, due to a time conflict, registration to the summit was below their original expectations. It was especially notable that, rather than examining in great detail this sudden shift in the priorities of the EU presidency in the Hungarian press (pointing out that the announcement was made approximately one month after the enactment of the media law might give an idea as to why). Left-wing Népszabadság did in fact publish two different takes on the matter, one containing a very fact-of-the-matter report on the scheduling conflict in question relying solely on governmental sources, and another with the Sociality Party’s “opinion” on the matter – both of which fit the new media laws requirements of “fair and balanced” reporting. These two reports, quite surprisingly as far as I’m concerned, were followed on the next day by an opinion piece to the effect that it would not be patriotic to rejoice over the snubbing of the Hungarian government that this event indicates.
As far as the scheduling conflict is concerned, the details are quite interesting, especially now that we know what meetings did in fact take place on said dates. Originally, the Hungarians proposed that the summit take place on May 24-25, which fell on the same week as the 50th meeting of the OECD and the G8 summit in Paris. Hungarian officials also made it known that the original date they scheduled for was May 28th [the very date on which the same summit was held in Warsaw], but “because Tbilisi [the capital of Georgia, one of the former Soviet states] requested the observation of May 27th as the national day of Georgian independence,” they were flexible enough to move their summit to May 24-25 – a date which was then vetoed due to its conflict with the G8 summit.
It is widely acknowledged that it is a matter of prestige that one such meeting is held in the country holding the EU presidency. It was this way that Prague was visited by President Obama during its EU presidency. There was never any discussion that the US would grace a Hungarian -held EU summit with delegating at a diplomatic level as high as the president. The Hungarians were, however, hopeful that they could secure Hillary Clinton’s participation in the summit. In a typically diplomatic communication, Pamela Quanrud, Deputy Secretary of the State said at a civic event that, due to uncertainties in Mrs. Clinton’s schedule for May, she did not know whether there was such a visit under way [read: “as a diplomat, I can’t really say no, but this is the clearest I can say no]. Of course in Warsaw, the US was represented by its President. As far as why he was happy to include the summit held by Poland into his busy schedule: his visit was framed as a tribute to the democratization of Eastern Europe and, though their example, to the countries of the Arab Spring.
RSVPs were arriving in much more meagre numbers from EU member states as well. Instead of heads of states, ministers of foreign affairs or their deputies were registered for the summit – if the RSVPs were returned at all. The Hungarian pressed could have noted what a blow this must have been for the EU presidency team, which had been at work on organizing the summit at Gödöllő, Hungary for years. Had I been employed as a reporter, I would have sought out the views of Gábor Iván, leader of Hungary’s EU mission to Brussels who, in a move that at the time (before the media law) was widely criticized in the Hungarian press, was replaced by Péter Györkös. Györkös had the party affiliation that Iván lacked, but, as ambassador to Belgrade (not even close to Brussels), had nothing of the extensive network of diplomatic relations that Iván developed (for years he co-ordinated with the Spanish and Belgian EU presidency teams, the two president countries of 2010, on the specific tasks of the Eu presidency as set forth by EU-agreements in wide-ranging areas of co-operation).
Because of the scheduling conflicts, the summit originally put together by the Hungarian EU team was postponed to the fall and transferred to Poland, the next president of the European council. The Hungarians were going to be co-organizers of the summit (and to this day their webpage proudly states that it is going to be Hungarian wine that the Polish are going to serve during every single one of the meetings they hold as EU presidents). It is not clear when the date of the summit was moved back to the exact same date reserved for it in every one of the participating countries of the summit: to May 28.
Finally, it is to be noted what an utter failure this Warsaw meeting turned out to be. The promising region that Obama was hoping to visit could not have made it clearer that it is not only in constant flirtation with civil war and dictatorial rule, but that, unlike the network of long-time EU nations, its organization is in complete disarray. The discordance could not have been more arrogantly displayed – especially given Mr. Obama’s keen skills of recognizing strife and scorn for disunity. In the name of such those two values, host country Poland was trying to disguise its dispute with neighboring Lithuania over minority rights of Poles living in the Baltic states. Because Kosovo’s president took part in the summit, Serbia and Romania stayed away, and Slovakia participated only on the condition that no document or agreement would be forged during the summit, because its president was not going to sign a document that bears the signature of the Kosovan president as well (these Slavic nations object to the recognition of Kosovo as an independent state). Finally, in the kind of style that only the Hungarians could have contributed to the event, Pál Schmitt, President of Hungary and Viktor Orbán returned the American’s slight by attending a concert of Hungarian composer Ferenc Liszt’s works in the company of Pope Benedict – instead of attending the dinner in honor of Barack Obama. There is no doubt that the Pope represents a higher power than the President of the United States, but there is no way that this blunt vendetta against the leader of the free world – who probably just does not care, or if he does, he probably only in so far that it hurts his image to appear on the side of these Hungarian politicians – can even compare to the class and style with which the EU denied Hungary the opportunity to pretend to be partners in democratic self-governance with the rest of the world.
The shunning of Hungarians: well-done. The soft-gloved treatment of the Hungarian government, which this difficult history of the otherwise quite unnotable Warsaw summit duly exemplifies, however, is objectionable. It would be in the interest of the Hungarian people if the countries that thought it too risky to appear with the current leaders of the Hungarian state would just say so. After all, this country’s leaders were elected democratically, but they are more and more isolated from the world’s opinion about the political choices they are making and the causes to which they give support. Finally, why is the supposedly free and democratic press omit these details of its reporting of the Warsaw summit? Why are the obvious (though diplomatically expressed) reservations of EU countries and the United States not factored into what will become a recurring theme in Hungarian media: of the assessments of Hungary’s EU presidency?