Since the European Parliament passed a resolution directing the European Council to “thoroughly examine” the Hungarian constitution, and to return to them an analysis of potential human rights and EU treaty violations it might contain, I must have read at least 50 newspaper pieces and blogs in Hungarian which invariably expressed either indignation or ridicule over this development. My friends often ask me why Hungarians are such numbskulls about the glaring problems that are so plain to see in their new constitution, and believe me that I wonder about this myself, intensely and often.
So forgive me that I’m giving you what sounds like a rather generic excuse – that it all started in communism – because, in this case, the association is not at all inappropriate. It was Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s Prime Minister himself who brought up the connection, in a haughty remark this Tuesday in Strasbourg. “Brussels is not Moscow,” he retorted almost automatically to yet another criticism charging him of dictatorial ambition during the plenary session.
Now I know that the guy says the darndest things, especially under pressure. He must be the most awkward person to be around in a social setting, with all of his random comments. Brussels is not Moscow. Correct, Viktor. Brussels is Brussels. And Moscow is Moscow. Kind of how a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. Can you imagine how a conversation with this guy at a cocktail party would go?
I however like to use Viktor Orbán’s random remarks to see what they reveal about him. Another of his really bizarre moment this week, the famed “koki és saller” speech, where he cast his gargantuan struggles with the EU as him boxing the ears and hitting the napes of his critics in the European Parliament was similarly instructive: besides the hilarious language, it was not such a bad description of what did in fact happen, except that it was him who has been treated as a rambunctious child. So what’s with this Moscow is not Brussels talk? Why is there reason to state what is plainly obvious? What deeply seated reactions are haunting you and your country yet again?
During 40 years of Communism in Hungary, Hungarians were used to telling themselves that there were exactly three types of feedback one could get from those who were in power. The Communist dictatorship was referred to as the system of three Ts. There was tiltás (being banned), tűrés (being tolerated) and támogatás (being supported).
Hungarians used to tell me about this laughingly, sort of as if they were proud to have figured this out: it was a very witty thing to recognize about the Communist system. It was witty because it took notice of the fact that, besides the “you mustn’t” and the “you must“, there existed a “do what you want.” Hungarians were giddy about being granted this third option, even though the whole thing smacked of a servile attitude. When you cast it as one of only three options to which you are limited by those governing you, even the “do what you want” is an order – not even close to the freedom to do what one wants.
But the point is that it is difficult to envision other modalities of feedback from those who hold power over you when all you can understand is that, in your relationship with others, being banned, being tolerated or being showered with favors are the only possibilities. This is one of the reasons why a civil society never sprung up within Hungary’s democratic institutional framework: people just do not know the gradations that exist in between these three extremes. This is the source of their with us or against us mentality; this is why going beyond this schematic understanding of the social world is proving to be extraordinarily difficult.
So Hungarians do have an understanding that tolerance lies right in the middle between forbidding and supporting. But what happens when we’re outside of a frame of mind in which “they” dictate and “we” obey? What happens in a society of equals, when people exercise power upon each other while also being subjected to other people’s subtle power games – how are we to navigate such nuances of this game we call democratic living? What happens when power comes to be exercised by us and for us, and yet power will still remain seemingly exercised against us?
I note here only as a side-remark that if you you have an inkling about how to answer these questions, that bodes well for your constitution, and both the Venice commission and the European Union will appreciate your efforts. If you understand how we go from the alienation of fundamental rights via a social contract to forming a political system called democracy, in which the people are rulers indirectly and ruled indirectly, then all power to you for writing a better constitution than what Hungary used to have. But instead of dwelling on these – clearly relevant issues – of popular sovereignty, Hungary’s new constitution reaches for what perhaps appears to be a less complex legitimacy of its government’s political powers: for some hazy doctrine connected to their ancient and sacred crown. Good lord, you might say, and yet not even that will make it untrue (and yet this is not among the problem areas under scrutiny by the European Council – like Viktor Orbán said, Brussels is not Moscow.)
The conservative bloggers and journalists in Hungary are now rushing to point out that the European Parliament has no power to annul Hungary’s constitution, or to force its legislature to change it. I am not sure whether the latter is true. If the Hungarian constitution fails to be in compliance with EU treaties and their Charter of Fundamental (read Human) Rights – and this is what the European Council was directed to make an investigation of – they have every right to demand changes.
But to cast any of this in terms of a violation of national sovereignty is becoming tiresome at this point. Because the point here is that nobody is forcing the Hungarians to do anything. If their constitution goes against EU law, then they will be asked to change their constitution or to leave their union. Even then, they will follow a course of action they will be free to choose for themselves. Not only that, they will also be faced with a dilemma they could very well anticipated on the basis of all that paperwork they signed at the time of joining the EU. Let’s please stop with this victim mentality already.
The reasoning in Hungary seems to be that, since the EP clearly does not support Hungary’s new constitution, and it clearly does not tolerate it, it must be trying to ban it. So if the European Council will not annul Hungary’s constitution, and is powerless to do, then why are they doing it. The answer, please excuse my informality here, is that it’s just messing with you. The European Parliament found a way to give the Hungarian government a hassle, and it availed itself to the opportunity. It is using its means of influence, which, as every single Hungarian news report of the resolution pointed out, is “not legally binding.” It is however important if the game we play is for mutual respect and for the recognition – of differences in values as well as of commonalities in goals.
When people don’t have a conceptual framework to go beyond three Ts (“yes,” “no,” and “carry on”), they not only find it difficult to act beyond the three Ts, but they will also be unable to avail themselves of opportunities extended to them through these messy games in their international community. Viktor Orbán’s remark is telling in this respect: he’s refusing what in general are opportunities extended to the Hungarian people, because, in his own mind, he is still fighting a Moscow-style political regime. It is true that, in this case, the opportunity behind this development is hard to see. But if the European Parliament’s resolution only goes as far as to induce a social dialogue about what Hungarian constitution that would best serve the interest of the people, it was an intervention for which Hungary should be grateful. It is this dialogue that is foisted, yet again, by the paranoid defenses to which Hungary’s responses are currently limited.