Last weekend independent Hungarian television broadcasted an exclusive interview with former president of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso. Although the interview was conducted in English, it was overdubbed in Hungarian. Unfortunately, the original, undubbed version has yet to be published. The following is based on the Hungarian version.
Barroso, who currently teaches at Princeton University, told Krisztina Bombera that it is “immoral and dishonest” to claim that decisions collectively derived at or in place at the time of EU accession were somehow “imposed” on member states. The European People’s Party politician has a totally different standpoint regarding the issues of the death penalty and immigrants than Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
At the very beginning of the interview Barroso made it clear that any member state restoring the death penalty would have to leave the European Union. While he is not opposed to social debate on the matter, the restriction of the death penalty is a basic condition on which debate was closed long ago. “All member states know it and had a chance to think it over before joining the EU,” he said, adding that he does not think it is right if a politician says he favors the death penalty, referring to recent statements by János Lázár, the Minister in charge of the Prime Minister’s Office.
On whether the strengthening of Hungary’s radical right-wing party, Jobbik, may offer grounds for ruling party Fidesz to address issues such as immigrants or the death penalty, Barroso said that while he is not that familiar with Hungary’s domestic political situation, he is aware that political life is very divided. For this reason the basic principles had to be interpreted very clearly. He said responsible European leaders must be brave enough to stand up for common European values and resist adopting the arguments of “extremists”.
Regarding the so-called “national consultation” on immigration and the death penalty, Barroso said that while the government has the right to consult with its own citizens on any question, it is not acceptable to support xenophobic thought. “No responsible leader may incite the people against others just because they are not citizens of a given country. This is against the basic principle,” said the Social Democratic politician. Hungarians had the EU to thank for the fact that they could move and work freely. “Just as it would not be acceptable for the leader of a richer country to make derogatory remarks about Hungarians, Hungarians cannot discriminate against others just because they are poorer or coming from another part of the world,” he added.
Orbán has claimed that present EU regulation ties the hands of the member states on immigration issues. Barroso thinks this is not the case, saying that “the problem with the immigration policy of the EU is that it is not common enough”, and “we have to understand that those who tragically drown in the Mediterranean Sea were not heading to Italy but to Germany, to Sweden, so the issue of immigrants should not be handled as the problem of the Maltese, the Greek or the Italian people just because the immigrants arrive there first.”
According to Barroso the EU has no proper apparatus for guarding its borders and that is why it is not able to take the necessary steps. He says the recent tragedy in which hundreds of hopeful immigrants drowned at sea was caused by the twin problems of illegal immigration and human trafficking. As such it was not a failure of the EU “as some might state.”
He said a tripling of the budget for protecting borders and dealing with immigrants is not enough. Politicians must be leaders and not simply cater to public opinion for the sake of political expediency. He emphasized the need for cooperation between the member countries in finding a final solution.
Barroso told ATV that it was a rather common approach to blame everything bad on the EU, and for the leader of a member state to take credit for everything good. In his opinion the EU is not a foreign power, even if many say so. The Hungarian government participated in every important decision, and if there were something they disagreed with they could raise their voice. For this reason the former president believes it is “neither moral nor honest if someone interprets a decision in which he participated in Brussels as though it was imposed on us by others.”
“I stand for the free trade and I am pretty confident that the opponents are wrong, moreover they even have no clue what they are talking about,” said Barroso regarding the free trade agreement being negotiated between the United States and the European Union. In his opinion the most successful economies of the world are the most open ones as well. And the common market is more advantageous for the smaller countries than the bigger ones. He admits that the influence of the richer and poorer countries are different in the EU, but points out that, were these countries not members of the community, they would exert even less influence over European issues.
On the subject of the rule of law, Barroso told ATV that the mechanics of protecting this are better but certain member states scarcely accept criticism on the issue. He said the ultimate sanction, the suspension of a member state’s voting rights, is only needed if a country ceases to be democratic. However, he pointed out that there are ways for the EU to pressure member states that stray.
Regarding the suspension of development funds to Hungary, he said this may only happen in cases in which corruption has been objectively proven. EU funds should not be used as a means of applying political pressure. “It is impossible to protect the rule of law through blackmail … if someone thinks the government of Hungary is not good, just vote against it. Brussels will not make this decision, the Hungarians have to do so.”