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Hungary spokesman, MEPs clash at EP hearing

Thursday’s open hearing held by the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs on the topic of “NGOs, media freedom and EU role at the heart of Hungary” degenerated into a kind of verbal brawl, with MEPs exchanging recriminations with Hungary’s international spokesman Zoltán Kovács.  Hungarian civil society was represented at the hearing by Veronika Móra of the Okotars Foundation, Attila Mong of Atlatszo.hu and Babora Cernusakova of Amnesty International.

EPP tries to discredit the hearing but fails

Committee member Monika Hohlmeier, who, like Fidesz MEPs, is a member of the European Peoples Party, criticized committee proceedings as “one-sided” and claimed that “the rights of the EPP and the ECR [had] been breached.”

“We heard a few days ago that Mr. [pro-government Hungarian publicist and Civil Unity Forum spokesman Tamas] Fricz didn’t wish to come, not because he was unable to come but because he views the hearing as completely imbalanced. He would’ve liked another non-governmental organization to be invited, a research institute . . . but they weren’t given access to the hearing to the Parliament because of objections by the Greens, S&D and ALDE. . . . I think it is an intolerable way to select speakers for a hearing and a very one-sided way. I’ve got another problem.  There’s a legal action under way in Hungary regarding some of the invitees, meaning that we (the LIBE Committee) are interfering in legal proceedings [in Hungary].”

Committee chairman Claude Moraes reminded committee members of the preparations and consultations which took place leading up to the hearing.

Veronika Móra: Hungarian civil society under attack

Veronika Móra of the Okotars Foundation, which is presently being investigated by Hungarian authorities at the request of the Office of the Prime Minister, gave testimony on the state of civil society in Hungary, how legislation introduced under the Fidesz government has negatively impacted the operation of independent NGOs in Hungary, and the recent clampdown on civil society, including hostile audits of NGO beneficiaries of the Norway Civil Fund.

Attila Mong: Hungarian media unduly influenced by government

Attila Mong of Atlatszo.hu and Mertek Media Monitor discussed changes in the Hungarian media market since 2010, the transition from public media to “state media”, government advertising funds as a tool for intervention in the Hungarian media market, and the government’s biased treatment of media outlets that are not pro-government. Mong illustrated the later points by citing the Hungarian government’s advertising tax which unduly targets Hungary’s largest private television broadcaster, RTL Klub.

Barbora Cernusakova: human rights and EU law not respected in Hungary

After summarizing issues addressed by Móra and Mong, Amnesty International’s Barbora Cernusakova spoke about difficulties and stigmatization faced by independent non-governmental organizations in Hungary. Cernusakova reminded MEPs that despite the unwillingness of Hungary’s government to acknowledge it, numerous European Union institutions agreed that Hungary’s legal environment is not compliant with EU legal standards.

Cernusakova cited cases such as the law which criminalized the homeless in Hungary, the controversial church law, issues concerning access to abortion, life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, the media law of 2010, Hungary’s tax on advertisements, the ousting of Hungary’s data protection commissioner and the forced retirement of Hungarian judges. She called upon the Council of the European Union to show similar resolve in issues concerning human rights conditions in Member States.

“The Council of the EU is also committed to lead a dialogue with Member States and conduct a dialogue about the rule of law, but so far this hasn’t been used very much when it comes to addressing human rights concerns. It’s really important that the Council does so,” Cernusakova said.

Cernusakova urged MEPs to consider the gravity of the human rights concerns in Hungary, and said, “If you look at the picture as a whole, it’s drawn in grim colors. It seems that a patchwork approaching or dealing with individual issues may not be enough, and maybe there is a need for the EU to see the situation [in Hungary] in a broader context. The EU itself needs to have a bit more clarity with respect to what its own internal human rights strategy is, and whether or not it should have one.”

Cernusakova was followed by Anne Weber, adviser to Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižneks. Weber detailed the findings of Muižneks’ visit to Hungary in 2014. Her testimony outlined issues concerning media freedom, the fight against intolerance and discrimination, and the rights of immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees.

Kovács plays to the home crowd

Although he speaks near-fluent English, Hungarian international spokesman Zoltán Kovács opted to defend his employer in his native Hungarian. Kovács opened his testimony by stating, “Today’s hearing is starting to look like the same soap opera that we’ve continuously seen over the last five years, one in which it isn’t just the actors but also the screenwriters who don’t know what is what, or what this is actually about. It wants to be about everything, about nothing. There are few concrete facts but these are mostly allegations and opinions.”

Kovács went on to dismiss the testimony of his counterparts as “lies” and proceeded to praise the work of the Hungarian government.

“In 2010 Fidesz won the elections and promised that it would fix a lot of things around the country,” he said. “Since then, that’s exactly what they’ve been doing. It’s hard to talk about these accomplishments when in the company of people who don’t agree with the government. We haven’t been able to have a professional discussion with any of the affected organizations on anything.”

MEPs rise to the challege

The floor then opened up to LIBE Committee members, who, for want of a better description, rained their scorn and derision on Kovács.

MEP Cecilia Wikstrom cautioned Kovács on his assessment of the hearing, “You should really think of the way you are addressing us, elected members of the European Parliament in this committee, when you characterize the European Parliament and this committee as a soap opera. It is unacceptable.”  Wikstrom reminded Kovács of Hungary’s EU track record in recent years:

“Do you really want the European Parliament to give up on upholding human rights? Isn’t it difficult to find yourself at the center of a conspiracy in Hungary jointly run by the European Court of Justice, the European Parliament, the European Commission, the Council of Europe, the Venice Commission? Tell us now the truth in this setting, are we all liars to you? Or isn’t there a slight slight element of truth in all this? It would be fair of you to just give us your explanation on the substance. There must be some element of truth in the criticisms made jointly by all these European organizations.”

MEP Judith Sargentini spoke about “the Copenhagen dilemma” over what to do about EU Member States who, if applying for EU admission today, would not meet the Copenhagen Criteria.

Hungarian MEP Peter Niedelmuller (S&D) told Kovács “You have accused this esteemed committee hearing of the European Parliament as being a soap opera. In that case, I would like to inform you that you are the main character in this soap opera.” After referring to a recent Bloomberg interview in which Prime Minister Viktor Orbán criticized the system of checks and balance, Niedelmuller asked what Orbán preferred in its place in his “illiberal democracy?”  “In such a system, what provides protection for human rights and the rule of law?” asked Niedelmuller.

Hungarian MEP Kati Piri expressed her dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in Hungary, and raised the issue of Orbán’s recent statements on Europe needing a radical approach to immigration reform.

“I am also disgusted in the way that Hungary’s Prime Minister used the terror attack in Paris to call for a crackdown on immigration. At a time when it’s important that political leaders unite their citizens, the Hungarian prime minister manages to create new dividing lines, not between democratic citizens and extremists but between Hungarians and people with different cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds. This policy of ‘us against them’ which is constantly applied by this government, what kind of effect does it have on the situation of the most vulnerable in society, the Roma, the Jewish people, the LGBT community and immigrants?”

Piri also took a jab at European conservatives by asking the representatives of NGOs:

“How does it affect your message, your work, that the largest political family in Europe consisting of democratic conservative parties, including the party of German Chancellor Merkel, continues to defend the undemocratic politics of the Hungarian ruling party Fidesz? How important would it be, in your view, that all democratic forces in this parliament would unite and give a joint signal that we don’t accept such blatant violations of the rule of law within the European Union?”

MEP Ana Gomes asked Kovács to detail “in which way Hungary should follow Turkey, Russia and China as examples as outlined by Mr. Orbán when he made his speech in July about leaving the liberal democracy as a future for Hungary.”

Gomes continued by pointing out that Transparency International Hungary is also one of the organizations targeted by the Hungarian government’s crackdown on civil society. She made it clear that she would like to know more about the “corrupt business deals of Mr. Orbán and members of his government”.

Austrian MEP Josef Wiedenholzer recounted a recent trip to Hungary when he tried to meet with members of NGOs but was shocked to learn that the organizations were afraid to meet him because they knew he was a foreign politician. He reminded all those present that MEPs don’t just represent their constituents at home, but that together they represent all of Europe’s citizens and should seek opportunities to remind people of that. Responding to Kovacs’ dismissal of the criticisms against Hungary, Wiedenholzer rhetorically asked Kovacs, “Why is the whole world against Hungary? What’s happened to turn everyone suddenly against Hungary?”

Belgian MEP Louis Michel’s statements were so powerful that it drew applause from other MEPs.

“I feel that what is happening in Hungary is something that does lead to an emotional response for sincere democrats, sincere Europeans. I’ve rarely attended hearings in this committee with people representing a government who have shown such contemptuous cynicism toward this house.

Let me remind you Mr. Kovács, this house represents around 500 million citizens who want to live in a democracy, and an open democracy. Can you contest the fact that your government intimidates NGOs? Nobody here can doubt that obviously you do intimidate NGOs. Does your government intimidate the media? Would it go so far to intimidate the media that it actually changes the legislation to reduce its independence? Does your government stigmatize immigration and also use this traumatic event (referring to the Paris terror attacks) to actually re-launch this debate? It stigmatizes women, LGBTs. Your government also weakens and continuously attempts to weaken the independence of the judicial system. . . .

Your prime minister has said some things that run totally counter to the treaties that nonetheless your country has signed up to and is therefore called upon to respect both to the letter and spirit of the law. Is it possible to have a sincere dialogue between the Hungarian authorities and civil society particularly when civil society doesn’t agree with you?  This is the whole point of democracy, that such dialogue should be possible. I would like to just ask one question of you, a question that may seem trivial. 

But I see all of this and I had the opportunity of saying this before: I see [Hungary] as the exercise of the tyranny of the majority. You have a majority and therefore the majority can do with its majority anything it wants. The minority has nothing to say, doesn’t exist, doesn’t contribute and cannot contribute. So my question is very simple: do you believe that democracy can be reduced to an arithmetical majority? I have the impression that the answer is there, and I’m even more worried that you don’t do it deliberately, that is, not being democratic. You’re not doing it deliberately. You’re actually convinced that as a majority you have the right to exercise any kind of tyranny, whether it be the most cynical or vulgar kind.”

Swedish MEP Krisztina Winberg expressed the Swedes’ concern about the harassment of Jewish people and other minorities in Hungary.“We have observed that the anti-semitism that prevailed during the Second World War and during communism seems to continue to prevail” she said.

Winberg also cited a 2013 study which showed Hungary to be one of the most anti-semitic countries in Europe. She said “the Hungarian government should actually use the rule of law and democracy to crack down on the propaganda of Jobbik and try to do away with anti-semitism in Hungary”.

Dutch MEP Sophia in’t Veld stated she shares the observations made by MEP Louis Michel, but continued,

“I think that’s not very constructive and its a classic tactic to dismiss criticisms by your opponents as a conspiracy or as a soap opera, as you call it. I mean, is the Norwegian government part of that conspiracy or the soap opera? Is the Dutch government? Is Mrs. Merkel, Mr. Barroso, the OECD, some members of the EPP, the Council of Europe – of which incidentally the governments of Russia and Turkey are also members – so are they all part of this soap opera, Mr. Kovács?  That’s not very credible, is it? And I think, like Mr. Michel, that democracy is not about protecting the majority.  Democracy is precisely about safeguarding the rights of minorities. That is what sets democracy apart from authoritarian regimes.  And you’re not protecting the rights of minorities.”

Veld then turned to the issue of Fidesz’s parliamentary supermajority. “Speaking of minorities, Fidesz itself is actually a minority, because I would like to remind people that [Fidesz] got 45 percent of the vote! That’s not a majority. But you got two-thirds of the seats in parliament.”

Veld then expressed concern about Fidesz’s approach to democracy and how the EU handles such cases.

“I’m also a bit worried if I hear your approach to democracy. . . . I agree that we shouldn’t always be talking about Hungary, I prefer that we talk about something else, and I do think that we need an instrument in the EU to monitor and enforce the rule of law and fundamental rights and democratic governance in all countries . . . not only candidate countries but all member states.”

Spanish MEP Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar, who served as chairman of the LIBE Committee in the previous mandate, also criticized Kovacs for calling the legitimacy of the hearing into question. “We represent 500 million European citizens and we represent more than 10 million Hungarian citizens,” he said.  He continued by sharing his concerns regarding Hungary’s judicial system and the manner in which cases are reassigned due to “judicial overloads”.

Kovács strikes back

Kovács responded that all these issue all been addressed and the Hungarian government considers them closed. He pointed at Hungary having “undergone the most reviews” out of all EU Member States.  Underlying Kovacs’ spirited defense were the following three questions:

  • Why isn’t the EU investigating the rest of the EU countries?
  • Why doesn’t the LIBE Committee address the internal affairs of other EU Member States this strongly?
  • Why is the EU always picking on Hungary?

Kovács demanded respect for the fact that Fidesz won the last three elections which took place in 2014. Regarding the criticisms of the Hungarian government’s efforts to curb extremism in Hungary, Kovács said, “Hungary has a thousand years of experience when it comes to dealing with minorities, both the historical Hungary and the modern Hungary. Our law for minorities is the only one in Europe that allows ethnic minorities to be represented.”

MEPs began jeering Kovács when he said “The EU is wrong when it talks about anti-semitism and the treatment of Roma in Hungary.”

Upset that his response drew scorn from the committee members, he said, “It’s so typical of the European Parliament that they won’t let me say what I want to say”.

Kovács continued by saying “in 2011 our government banned uniformed paramilitary groups from marching. It’s just not true that in recent years there have been such things happening against the Roma in Hungary that you accuse us of.”

Thursday evening the following brief summary appeared on the website of Hungary’s Office of the Prime Minister:

EP’s LIBE Committee holds hearing on human rights in Hungary

The European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) held a public hearing on the human rights situation in Hungary on Thursday in Brussels.

The event was attended by Government Spokesperson Zoltán Kovács, who compared the event to a soap opera in which “not just the actors but even the scriptwriters have no idea what the piece should be about”.

He insisted that the majority of subjects at the hearing had been thoroughly discussed with the relevant EU bodies and had been closed from a legal perspective and are now being cited for purely political reasons. He underlined that Hungary is one of the countries most thoroughly supervised by the European Union.

The Spokesperson pointed out at the hearing that the Government cannot be regarded as authoritarian since it has won overwhelming support in three elections during the past year. With regard to civil society, he noted that out of the 80 thousand NGOs operating in Hungary, the Government has had disputes with perhaps a dozen organisations. In response to questions concerning the minorities living in Hungary, he said Hungarian legislation provides unparalleled support to these communities.

Referenced in this article:

Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, europarl.europa.eu; 22 January 2014.

Benjamin Novak :