Meet EC Commissioner Tibor Navracsics

March 25, 2015

Hungarian EC Commissioner Tibor Navracsics / Photo: MTI
Hungarian EC Commissioner Tibor Navracsics / Photo: MTI

Translation of an interview by András Pungor made with Tibor Navracsics, former Hungarian minister responsible for justice and public administration, later for foreign affairs. Presently he is the EC Commissioner responsible for Education, Youth, Culture and Sport. The interview appeared in weekly print 168 Óra, on March 19, 2015. pp. 8-11.

He has no ambitions about which Viktor Orbán should worry, EC Commissioner Tibor Navracsics told us. According to him the role of Hungarian national politics in Fidesz’s by-election defeat in Veszprém should be carefully examined. He claims the many scandals and cases uncovered by journalists is good to educate the government.

András Pungor: Earlier, you said that as a member of the government you had to comply with strong rules of loyalty. It seems as though you would have more liberty to express yourself now as an EC Commissioner.

Tibor Navracsics: Ministerial work is mostly about loyalty, and your duties prescribed for you according to the constitution. As a minister I had a limited opportunity to talk my mind. Now my primary duty is to represent the interests of the community, and to supervise the EU affairs for which I am responsible. Although it is not my duty, I can allow myself commentaries about Hungarian political events.

AP: And this is what you did. You told Heti Válasz, that you see ruptures developing within Fidesz and that they are also becoming visible at this point. Looking at conflicts between Orbán and Simicska, Pokorni and Lázár, Mária Schmidt and Lázár, Varga and Matolcsy and sometimes the very lowly quarrels that are going on, can we still say that this is one political camp?

TN: When I talk about topics of domestic policy, I always pay attention not to mention specific stories. The above mentioned statement is in connection with the fact that I have recently articulated on multiple forums that the notion of “polgári Magyarország” (that roughly translates as a democratic middle class Hungary – ed.) is increasingly being sidelined. Since then many have confirmed that this continues to be the fundamental value of Fidesz. If this is the case,  and many think it is, than the camp is still united.

AP: According to Gábor G. Fodor, this call-word was nothing else but a political marketing tool.

TN: I do not agree with him.

AP: Nobody would have noticed the remark if G. Fodor were a simple political analyst, but he is a government-advisor as well.

TN: I do not think that his opinion signifies a dangerous tendency. Debates within Fidesz can occur. Let’s not denigrate the opinion of others, but discuss them to find out whether they are right or not.

AP: Ferenc Gyurcsány [Socialist prime minister of Hungary between 2003 and 2009-ed.] also said that he wants to recover the long lost dream of “polgári Magyarország.”

TN: It seems that this could become a national minimum.

AP: But what does this term even mean?

TN: It is hard to describe. It is also possible that different people will ascribe different meanings to the expression. For me, a “polgári Magyarország” means a sober public thinking characteristic of the middle-class and bourgeoisie, as well as respect towards values. If somebody works hard and honestly and in addition is even talented, then he or she should be able to achieve upward mobility. A lot of commonplaces come to my mind, but all in all I would like to live in a country where all these commonplaces become reality.

AP: Simicska showers Orbán with swearwords, others fervently attack the flamboyant lifestyle of certain Fidesz politicians: government politics can hardly be characterized as sober. This debate is not at all about “polgári Magyarország.”

TN: I am an optimist. I think that Fidesz does everything it can to realize this idea. Many among us, including mysef, commit many mistakes, doing things that are beyond other people’s tolerance. We are living in a democracy, public pressure, scandals, and cases exposed by critical journalism all educate the government.

AP: We are sort of avoiding the point here: aren’t you uncomfortable with what is presently going on at Fidesz? Flamboyant lifestyles, the Simicska-Orbán battle?

TN: I would be happy to tell you what I think about all this, but then (Hungarian opposition MEP) István Ujhelyi would report me to EC president Jean-Claude Juncker.

AP: So you are hiding behind an opposition politician?

TN: He is the constantly reporting me.  Government MEPs usually don’t do that.

AP: But you must have an opinion about all this.

TN: I have. But as a commissioner I am not allowed to meddle with the inner processes of Fidesz, and with questions of government policy.

AP: You must remain loyal then.

TN: Yes. In part to the European Commission and in part to Fidesz. I am an EU Commissioner. I cannot speak like a Fidesz politician. And the EC does not form opinions about internal party issues.

AP: But you are giving advice to your fellow party members concerning scandals, aren’t you?

TN: No. But if they ask me, I will answer them.

AP: Magyar Narancs wrote that in Orbán’s circles, they are afraid of you to this day. They say that releasing you to the EC was a mistake, as you can return from there in 2018, clear-handed.

TN: Yes, and according to others, I have been exiled.

AP: You are laughing now, but my question was serious.

TN: I do not believe that Viktor Orbán is afraid of me. I have given no reason to that.  Furthermore, I hold no ambitions that he should be afraid of.

AP: Lajos Simicska asserted that Orbán was forced to report to the secret services as a soldier. Founding the Committee for National Memory was your idea.  It was established based on your proposal. Was dismissing the overall publicity of secret service archival files a good decision?

TN: I was always arguing for the greatest possible publicity of all files. We can see that this question has not been resolved, resurfacing from time to time. We should conclude this issue to everyone’s satisfaction.

AP: They just established a new workshop analyzing the crimes of the past. With this they glossed over the matter.

TN: I would not rule out that this workshop will present a solution some day.

AP: What was missing for you to solve it yourselves so far

TN: The will to solve it.

AP: Very diplomatic. We are standing between two general by-elections, after Veszprém, and before Taploca. It seems as though it is not clear for Orbán why Fidesz was defeated last time. You said that voters were right and Fidesz needs a new strategy. What kind of new strategy?

TN: This was the statement triggering a complaint by István Ujhelyi last time.

AP: Have you been disciplined in the EC following that?

TN: No, I have not been. I have never exceeded the boundaries set out for me in the code of conduct. I am in a continuous consultation with the EC president’s cabinet. I even have to authorize patron proposals with the office. I am a careful gambler. This is why many accuse me of avoiding conflicts.

AP: So, what kind of strategy were you talking about?

TN: Because of what I have already mentioned, I can offer you an oblique answer. It is always better if we admit that defeats are not without reason. It should be examined why a lot of people did not show up at the ballot boxes, and on the other hand why actions to mobilize the opposition electorate were successful. Veszprém local surveys show that the Fidesz municipal administration is popular and people are content with the job they are doing. We should think through what national-level politics had to do with this defeat. There is time for that.

AP: Opposition candidate Zoltán Kész was running an anti-establishment, and anti-corruption themed campaign. According to analysts, this is why he won.

TN: This surely is one way to look at it.

AP: Does Orbán really not understand what happened?

TN: I think he does.

AP: Then why is he defending his people no matter what? Why does not he call out party members gaining a fortune in dubious ways? Why doesn’t he do something?

TN: You should ask him.

AP: Then I should ask you about how the police was called on Népszabadság journalists trying to interview Fidesz party director Gábor Kubatov in a Veszprém street. You were treating these journalists unfairly.

TN: It was a grave misunderstanding. After I cast my ballot, these journalists asked me to say a few words about the election. Following that Népszabadság journalists asked what I thought about the police asking for their identity papers just for interviewing? I told them that I have no idea what they are talking about, but their papers were all in order, I see no problem.

AP: It was a cynical remark.

TN: I was not aware of what happened. Believe me, it was not my intention to be cynical.

AP: Ok, let’s move on. The government needed a little more than a year to realize that the politics of the Eastern Opening was a mistake. Now we are turning to the South, and this seems like the next scene of the peacock-dance. We are getting off the Eastbound train without being obliged to admit it.

TN: As a former foreign minsiter, I always emphasized that an Eastern opening should never mean a Western closure. We were always aiming to belong to Europe. This desire is fulfilled by our diplomatic corps even today.  We are members of the EU and NATO, and voted in favor of the sanctions against Russia. Every country should stay open to every direction, We should seek new markets, and diplomacy should help us in this. We need as many friends in the world as we can if we want to be successful.

AP: But the precise problem with the Eastern opening is that we keep losing friends. The EU never stood by us, and what is more, we recently have lost Poland.

TN: I am confident that this is not the case, and we are still very good friends.

AP: Am I decoding this right?  Do you deem the policy of Eastern opening a mistake or not?

TN: This is a simplification. Eastern opening per se is not bad, but not enough.

AP: Now we are opening up towards Africa and South America. Angolan natural gas, Ethiopian coffee, Ghanaian cocoa or the Chilean cherries much preferred by József Torgyán [former nationalist Smallholders president and coalition partner of Orbán during the first government – ed.] could then bring about our development?

TN: Let’s give it a try! I, however, would hold the development of our relations with the Balkans as much more important. If besides that, some Angolan, Ghanaian, Chilean stuff drops by…what else did you mention exactly?

AP: Ethiopian

TN: Well, ok, let’s assume an Ethiopian bargain is at the doorstep, this is not exactly a bad thing. And we should work towards this. But Hungary fundamentally can do most of its successful businesses in Central and Southeastern European region. Even among diplomats you seldom encounter people speaking perfect Bulgarian, Albanian or Macedonian. If we want to take the Southern opening seriously, than we should invest in teaching these languages.

AP: Aren’t you bitter seeing the present state of the Foreign Ministry?

TN: As a Commissioner I am first and foremost interested in Hungary’s strong relationship with the EU. I therefore cannot comment on issues of domestic politics.

AP: According to the news, the ministry was taken over by lobbyists.

TN: I understand your implication as having background motives.

AP: And I did not even mention the scandal of Szilárd Kiss, yet.

TN: I do not know him.

AP: If you say so. As a commissioner from Hungary, isn’t it awkward for you that more and more domestic issues are being discussed at the EC: Paks II development, advertisement tax, the one-sided tenders for church-sustained schools?

TN: The primary topic in the EC is still Greece. It is characteristic that during professional work, questions in connection with Hungary are usually not raised. When for example, I am discussing Hungarian domestic issues with the Swedish commissioner I don’t feel like being disadvantaged for being Hungarian.

AP: But it should still be really hard to look at matters of education as a commissioner responsible for that field, for example when you encounter with the issue of why only churches are eligible for sustaining certain schools, why didn’t seculars have equal opportunities?

TN: This is an ongoing examination. The directorate responsible for Culture and Education is looking into this matter and I have no way to manipulate the process. I should respect whatever findings they publish, and I should represent them in Hungary.

AP: It is a loss of prestige for the Hungarian government that it imposed the advertisement tax over the objections of the EC. Recently an examination was initiated, and until its conclusion the tax cannot be collected.

TN: The government notified after the initiation of the examination that they have reached a compromise, and they will amend the ad-tax. EC reacted to this by saying that they will look into the amendments and will decide if they will carry on with the probe afterwards. So the government took a serious step towards settling this debate.

AP: We cannot clearly see all facts concerning the Paks block case as of the time of filing this report. The government requested a retraction from the Financial Times, as according to them the paper falsely claimed that the EC had blocked the Paks development. Your statement on the matter, however ,suggested that the paper was right.

TN: I never said this. The EC upheld an earlier decision by Euratom that forbid the implementation of Russian-Hungarian contract on fuel rod alimentation. Many mistake this for an overall halt. Multiple examinations are ongoing concerning this case.

AP: Ad-tax, Paks, church schools. All three stories show how the government is unable to show temperance. The cabinet continuously aims to shove its decisions down everyone’s throat.

TN: Doubtless, the government is showing force to push its will through. The traditional decision making process of the EU, however, builds upon dialogue. Clashes between the two styles have been visible in the politics of the past four or five years. But other member states often use the method of international lobbying as well. Some believe in conflicts, others in compromises. I am a person seeking compromises. This is why I often get scolded for giving up much from my original point of view.