Interview with Benedek Jávor about the blackmailing attempt of Viktor Orbán and Mateusz Morawiecki, the importance of the rule of law in the EU and the responsibility of the German government.
Eva van de Rakt: Benedek, the Hungarian and Polish Prime Ministers have threatened to veto the EU budget and the “Next Generation EU” recovery instrument because of the rule of law conditionality compromise reached in November. For those who have been following, analysing and criticising Viktor Orbán´s authoritarian leadership for several years now, this does not come as a surprise at all. However, the fact that Orbán has managed to take the entire EU hostage amidst a pandemic is unbelievable and frustrating at the same time. Legal experts stress that it is time to call Hungary and Poland’s bluff. Why is it possible that Orbán – after a decade of dismantling the rule of law in Hungary, after a decade of disinformation and hate campaigns against the democratic opposition, civil society actors, George Soros and EU institutions – can play his cynical power game within the EU? Why is the EU so incapable and helpless vis-à-vis Orbán?
Benedek Jávor: I wish we had a simple answer to this question, but the situation is rather complicated. Of course, we have the institutional and legal shortcomings of the EU system. Simply put there are no proper, effective measures, procedures and competencies of the EU institutions to warn against in time, procedurally manage and sanction democratic backsliding and systemic breaches of the rule of law. What we have, the Article 7 procedure, has been proven entirely inadequate.
This was already made clear by the Tavares report in 2013, raising the idea of a new ‘Copenhagen Mechanism’ to scrutinise and control the democratic performance of the Member States, similar to that of the accession countries.
But here comes the next difficulty: rule of law discourse has always been a victim of political power games. The European People’s Party (EPP), due to tactical considerations of its political force in the European Parliament (EP) and the Council, successfully blocked any meaningful measure against the anti-democratic actions of the Hungarian government. Party fights against the progressive, green-left-liberal groups in the EP seemed more important for the EPP than a principled reaction to the clear and systemic breaches of the rule of law in Hungary. The EPP has provided a protective shield and the Hungarian government successfully dismantled democracy in the country behind this cover.
The third problem is the general underestimation of the importance of the rule of law. Theoretically, of course, this is the very fundament of the architecture of European integration, but in fact many decision-makers and politicians regarded – or still regard – it as nothing but a beautiful concept. In their view, real politics is about money, business, power and specific policies.
What we have to learn now from the latest developments is that if you leave Member States to turn their back on this wonderful dream, you find yourself very soon in a situation in which it is impossible to operate the basic functions of the EU. It’s a cheap, but highly dangerous misbelief that you can run EU integration by concentrating on business, market needs and political interests. Of course, there is a long tradition of dealing and doing business with ugly, autocratic countries, whether we like it or not. But once we let the plague of autocracy into the EU, it will eat up the essential organs of its organisation very soon.
At the beginning of the German EU Presidency, Angela Merkel stressed the importance of the rule of law. How do you evaluate the role of the German EU Presidency in this regard?
It’s a huge disappointment. Of course, no one expected too much from the German government, which has played an important role in the fatally misguided appeasement policy towards Viktor Orbán in the past ten years. But what we have experienced from Germany in these months is way below than what we could have imagined. The German Presidency’s proposal for the rule of law mechanism in September was a disaster, and we needed the Parliament to save the mechanism from becoming a simple fig leaf to hide the inability of the EU to act.
In the Article 7 procedure, there was a single hearing in September without any conclusions or steps forwards, and as far as we know, the next round has been removed from the agenda of the December meeting. Meanwhile in Hungary, the major independent online news portal Index has been occupied, the government has continued its attacks against academic freedom, the Fundamental Law has been amended to make the spending of public money completely non-transparent and to further limit the rights of LGBTQI people and the Hungarian government is threatening to veto the EU budget and the recovery package because of the adoption of the rule of law mechanism.
There are concerns that in order to reach a deal with Orbán and Morawiecki, the Article 7 proceedings against the governments of Poland and Hungary launched in 2017 and 2018 could be dropped. What would this mean for democratic actors in Hungary, and what would it mean for the future of the EU?
The cancellation of the hearings in December strongly suggests that this option is on the table. But, in spite of the inability of the Article 7 procedure to manage the situation, this would be an enormous mistake. Not so much because we expect strong results from the proceedings, but because of the message such a decision would send out. It would mean that Orbán and Morawiecki had been successful in blackmailing the EU, that once again they had won against the inexpedient Union. This would give massive impulse to them and to any other leader in the EU flirting with similar political ideas – and there is a fair number of them – to intensify their efforts. “Come on guys, nothing can go wrong!” – that’s the message.
To say nothing of its effect on democratic, pro-European forces in our countries. There is already an emerging disillusion among those watching the EU’s lame duck being unable to do anything against the clear backsliding of our democratic systems. The demoralising consequences of dropping the proceedings can hardly be overestimated. The conclusion would be that the EU is also part of the problem along with the Hungarian government, and not part of the solution.
Legal experts rightly argue that in order to build up pressure on Orbán and Morawiecki, a credible plan B is needed. They mention the following options: enhanced cooperation, a variable Euro/non-Euro setting and an intergovernmental solution. What is your opinion? What should a credible plan B look like, also considering how little time is left? What are the options and next steps the German EU Presidency should take into consideration in this regard?
There are many potential solutions out in the public domain, many of them articulated by experts I respect very much. Still, none of them seems to be a comfortable ride. Significant delays of the Next Generation EU package and of the next MFF are essential parts of each of them, and sometimes they are technically very complicated and unprecedented. But we need those plan Bs to stand firmly behind our plan A: adoption of the budget and the rule of law mechanism together.
I believe that Orbán and Morawiecki are playing a perilous game. In fact, Hungary and Poland need the EU sources from the recovery facility and the seven-year budget very much. Their economies are in ruins, the pandemic is still in its accelerating phase, their deficits are already high and the level of sovereign debt has jumped by about four per cent. Time is not on Hungary and Poland’s side. That’s all about the strength of nerves. I know how the EU works, there must be a compromise at the end of the day that can be sold as a victory by everyone, but I still believe that the whole story is very much a bluff game, and the price – in form of concessions to the two illiberal governments – shouldn’t be high.
What is your biggest fear when thinking of the upcoming weeks, and what is your biggest hope?
The biggest fear is that the EU will give in and offer major concessions to the two countries. This wouldn’t solve the problem; in fact, it would further aggravate it. With this victory in his pocket, what would there be to stop Orbán playing the same game, again and again, whenever there is a decision in the EU he didn’t like? This could become an incredibly destructive precedent for the EU, profoundly undermining its functioning and stability. Even postponing the decision on the rule of law mechanism would be a mistake. That’s exactly what Orbán wants: from January, we have the Portuguese Presidency and behind closed doors, Portugal is highly receptive towards Orbán’s rule of law criticism.
As for the possibility that the final conclusion be pushed into the second half of the year, this will be under the Slovenian Presidency, and with Janez Janša, it is a little bit like Orbán making a deal with himself. The final hope is the European Parliament. It appears to be much more committed to insisting on the rule of law mechanism as it was agreed in November. Once again, the EP represents principled European politics against the Council’s opportunism.
How can EU Member States and EU institutions support democratic actors inside and outside the Hungarian Parliament? What are the needs of politicians, journalists and civil society organisations critical of the Hungarian government?
The most they can do is stand firmly behind the rule of law mechanism. Then to move ahead with the Article 7 procedure, to take seriously ongoing infringement cases, concluding with investigations into my two complaints related to media freedom in Hungary submitted two and five years ago, or better controlling and sanctioning misuse of EU funds in the country. And beyond that, to create funding schemes directly available to municipalities, NGOs, SMEs in the MFF and the NGEU frameworks, and to ensure that the final recipients still receive EU funding in the event of the suspension of EU financing due to rule of law deficiencies.
Budapest and many cities in the countryside are led by the opposition, we are trying to survive under extremely strong governmental pressure and our difficulties with COVID-19 are being topped by hostile governmental actions to cut city funding and our own resources. EU institutions must build up a strategic partnership with the cities in Hungary and Poland where public opinion and the political leadership are much more pro-European, progressive and aligned with the EU priorities than those of their national governments. Most of the EU goals, including the post-COVID recovery and climate targets, can be delivered mostly by the cities, but they need help and cooperation.
How do you see the responsibility and role of the German government in tackling the anti-democratic developments in Hungary?
No doubt this democratic backsliding happened in Hungary because of the Hungarian government, so the final and main responsibility remains in Hungary. But Germany, and especially the CDU/CSU, played an extremely catastrophic role in these developments. The European People’s Party and Manfred Weber personally blocked any meaningful EU actions against the Hungarian government for years.
If it wasn’t about all of us and the EU as a whole I would say that Mr Weber cooked this meal of political crisis and I’d be interested to see him eating it now. But for the German government in general and for Angela Merkel as well, a beneficial legal and taxation environment, hundreds of millions of euros of direct subsidies to German companies by the Hungarian government and billion-euro military contracts were always much more important than any fundamental rights, rule of law or democracy considerations. Contributing to the worsening of the situation in Hungary by turning a blind eye while holding this protective umbrella over the Hungarian government does not belong to the shiniest pages of German history.
Benedek, thank you very much for the interview.
Benedek Jávor is Head of the Representation of the City of Budapest to the EU and former Member of the European Parliament (Greens/EFA).
The interview was conducted by Eva van de Rakt, Director of Heinrich Böll Foundation European Union in Brussels.