Norwegian ambassador calls unacceptable Hungary’s plan to class NGOs as foreign agents

May 3, 2017

“It is unacceptable that NGOs we support should be classed as foreign agents.” – Olav Berstad, Norwegian ambassador to Hungary

Translation of József Barát’s interview with Norwegian diplomat Olav Berstad appearing in the April 27th, 2017 edition of print weekly 168 óra under the title “This could be the end of the Norway program.”

Oslo finds it unacceptable that organisations supported by the Norwegian Civil Support Fund  should be classified as foreign agents. Norway’s ambassador to Budapest, Olav Berstad, said at a conference to evaluate the recently closed second phase of the support programme. A consortium led by the Ökotars Foundation [Hungarian Environmental Partnership Foundation] bore the brunt of a full-scale assault in 2014 – under, it later turned out, Viktor Orbán’s personal direction. There were displays of police force, the suspension of tax numbers, and a smear campaign in the press. The charges were found to be baseless. Despite the attacks, Norway judged its programme a success, with direct and indirect support improving the lives of some half a million Hungarians. Bulgaria, Malta, Romania and Slovakia have already wrapped up talks over the next phase, while in Hungary the negotiations are ongoing. We asked Olav Berstad about them.

The Hungarian government wants to stop Brussels. What do you think of that?

I don’t really understand what that slogan means. Clearly they don’t want to stop a town. Naturally, we are trying to work out what it means, and the conclusion we have come to is that the government wants to halt the process of European integration. If this is the case, then we consider it regrettable, even dangerous.

Dangerous?

Yes. I am old enough to interpret this challenge as a call to bring progress to a halt: let’s abandon the integration that has guaranteed an unprecedented 70 years of peace in Europe. What we need is unity and cooperation so our continent can face up to the challenges posed by its economic competitors.

I understand, but Norway is not even an EU member. The people have rejected the Norwegian governments proposal to join in two referendums. Was this not a case of them wanting to stop Brussels?

It is true that opponents of accession secured a majority in both 1972 and 1994. We know that the public mood is often defined by slogans, but the world of political reality is different. All Norwegian governments since the 1960s, regardless of their political stripe, have supported the country’s participation in deeper integration. Although there are disagreements, I am convinced that the overwhelming majority are aware that the union is a project for peaceful development in Europe. Cooperation and the harmonisation of laws has reached a point under the European Economic Area agreement where in real terms we are little different from EU member states. It is important to add that we believe effective integration needs strong institutions in Brussels.

The current campaign is not the Hungarian government’s only unorthodox political initiative. There are also the laws on the CEU and non-governmental organizations. What do you think of this? Can it really be that the target is a single Hungarian citizen, György Soros?

It is often difficult for diplomats to ascertain what motivation lies behind one statement or another, or particular measures taken. I get the impression that these developments have more to do with day-to-day domestic politics than European or international politics, or even any ideological considerations. At the same time, their effects are propagated, and no one can guarantee that we will be able in the future to safeguard Europe’s achievements. There are forces both within and surrounding us that have a strong negative effect. One of these is migration, and more generally the great challenges posed by war in the Middle East, Africa and Ukraine. If European unity collapses, we all lose. In that case, it is small countries such as Norway and Hungary that will surely be the victims of the great power games. The effects will be negative for all European countries if the tightly woven tapestry of cooperation were to unravel.

Let’s talk about the Norwegian Civil Support Fund. The two governments came to a more or less confidential agreement in 2015. Norway let it be known that the Hungarian government had promised to abandon its attack on the civil sphere, and that the Ökotars Foundation could continue its work. However, the then deputy state secretary Nándor Csepreghy said Norway had agreed that the Hungarian government should have the right to veto the implementing foundation’s decisions. Is this summary correct?

This is not in line with our position. We also expressed our view that we consider it absolutely essential that the operator of the civil fund should be entirely independent of any government influence. There is nothing extraordinary in this, given that our Brussels office oversees the financial operations of similar funds in 16 countries. But the public tenders are carried out by the appropriate NGOs, those who know the sector and have experience of this kind of work, and are independent of the government. For us, this is the essence of it.

Did you agree to the Hungarian government having the right to veto the fund manager’s decisions?

I cannot imagine that the Hungarian government would be given the right of veto.

In January,  the minister in charge of the prime minister’s office, János Lázár, told this newspaper that Norway had accepted the Hungarian government’s position. Did you accept it or not?

We read similar assertions on the part of the Hungarian prime minister’s office in December 2015. They do not reflect our position. However, the dialogue is ongoing, and the issue of the civil fund manager is a central question. I do not believe that we would be prepared to break with the general practice over previous years just in the case of Hungary.

Do you see a possibility for compromise if the Hungarian government insists on the right of veto?

There is room for agreement as long as the discussions are ongoing. However, it is my personal belief that if we fail to agree on as simple a question as support for the civil sphere, then the whole programme could come to an end in Hungary. The two things are interdependent.

So what we are saying is that Hungary could lose the whole 65 billion forints in support?

That is a legal question that nobody has looked into in depth, and I am not qualified to answer it. As far as I remember, the contracts that we have with European Union countries hold that the donors make these funds available to the recipients. In my personal opinion, it follows from this that if a country cannot agree on the use of the funding, then the money cannot be used in that country.

There is currently a new legislative bill on NGOs before the Hungarian parliament. In your opinion, is it a correct interpretation that organizations which secure support from the civil fund would be agents of Oslo?

For us, it is unacceptable that the non-governmental organisations we support should be classified as foreign agents in Hungary, or any other country. The fact is, however, that the word ‘agent’ does not feature in the legislation.

True, the law only speaks of ‘organizations supported from abroad’. Do you find this formulation acceptable?

I find any suggestion that these organizations are foreign agents to be unacceptable.

Of course, even if the word ‘agent’ is not in the legislation, it could still be part of the governing party’s media campaign, and Fidesz politicians could use it.

Is this a question?

Only if I add: what do you think of this?

I think you could be right. We can see that the Hungarian government is rushing to adopt the law, and the NGO issue features in the national consultation. So this issue forms part of a broader political agenda. Of course it is not only the text of the legislation that is important, but also the context of the system in which it is embedded. We have to think this through and discuss it with the Hungarian government.

Is it conceivable that the earmarked 65 billion forints could be used to finance programmes overseen by the government, while only the fate of the money aimed at NGOs should be dependent on the law?

My interpretation is that the fund is a unified package. It is part of the cooperation agreement that at least 10 per cent of the support from the fund must be made available to the civil sector. Consequently, the program cannot be operated in a way that would omit this part.

Olav Berstad

The Norwegian diplomat was born in 1953 and studied Russian literature and history, along with archaeology, at Oslo University.

He began his diplomatic career in 1979 as an interpreter and assistant at Norway’s border post with the Soviet Union in Kirkenes, and went on to become an attaché in Turkey then vice-consul in the US. He has been an adviser in Russia and deputy department chief at the foreign ministry in Oslo. As an ambassador, he was previously posted to Azerbaijan and Ukraine, and he has been representing Norway in Budapest for half a year. Berstad is father to four children.