Dear MEPs, Do Not Play Your Part in Orbán’s Game

“Orbán all too easily poses as a leader with global weight. It’s all a farce. A short guide to his corrupt, authoritarian system, and what MEPs can do to stop him.”

Open letter from a concerned Hungarian citizen.

Dear Members of European Parliament,

You will soon vote at the European Parliament’s plenary session on the report of its Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) on the erosion of rule of law, social rights, and democratic backsliding in Hungary. Viktor Orbán himself will go to Brussels and put on a spectacular show aimed mostly at domestic audiences, but also at like-minded, far-right politicians and voters across Europe. He will frame the whole issue around migration. He will tell you that Hungary is singled out because the country does not want to take in migrants and will keep its ethnic and religious composition the way it is. He might even amuse European audiences with the conspiracy theories his government propagates at home about George Soros and his allies wanting to swarm the continent with millions of Muslims and replace its “indigenous” (that is, white) population with people of colour, of Middle Eastern and African origin. He will surely remind you that his government had been recently re-elected with a landslide and that the Hungarians stand firmly behind him and his policies on migration. He will tell you that the Sargentini-report is biased and full of lies.

Orbán, as always, did his homework. Last Tuesday he teamed up with Matteo Salvini, the Italian far-right minister of interior, and provoked Emmanuel Macron, the French president into taking their bait and elevate them into his polar opposite (the pro-EU liberal vs the Eurosceptic, unashamed far-right). He made it look like an almost cosmic struggle about the visions for Europe. Thus, everything is ready for Orbán to score easy points, to talk about what he wants to, to listen smilingly – as he always does – at the outrage he causes and walk away without any consequences for his actions. He is sure that he will have his big moment he has been building for months.

Please, do not let him have it.

Orbán all too easily poses as some kind of an “enfent terrible” of European politics. He positions himself as a leader with global weight.

“Since 2015 Orbán has almost entirely stopped talking about policy except for his militarized border regime,

…and of course sport (particularly football). Instead, he talks about the clash between the leftist, liberal globalists and those, who believe in the real values of the nation, Christianity, and ethnic purity. He bashes “the West” and praises “the East”, he meets Vladimir Putin at least once a year, and generally, he has no criticism for dictators, whom he is always eager to meet. But it is all a farce.

If one cares to look closer, it becomes clear that Viktor Orbán is not a global leader of anything. He is a prime minister of one of the poorest and worst run member states of the EU.

“Four out of the seven Hungarian regions belong to the 20 most deprived regions of the EU, where the GDP/capita (based on PPP) does not reach 50% of the EU average.

Hungary was among the better run countries of post-Communist Europe and was always among the top 5 Central and Eastern European countries in the run up to EU accession. Hungary already suffered from mismanagement under the socialist-liberal coalition before 2010, but after Orbán took over with a 2/3 majority the mismanagement became chronic.

Look at public education for example, where Orán’s successive governments introduced sweeping changes, completely changing the system. The school system was centralised, the autonomy of teachers constrained. Public education is now chronically underfunded. Despite effectively muzzling educators (as all positions in public education is decided centrally), there are reports of schools on the verge of collapse, or parents having to provide even toilet papers. Although the government tried to conceal the real scale of teacher shortage, it was published by an independent news portal that a whopping 4325 teachers are missing from public education this school year. It is not surprising that

“…in the PISA tests of the OECD, measuring the effectiveness of public education systems the Hungarian results are deteriorating at an unprecedented rate.

Lowering the age of compulsory education from 18 to 16 resulted in thousands of children falling out of the education system every year without any adequate skills.

The healthcare system is another case in point. Although suffering from systemic problems since the end of the Communist regime, Orbán seems not to be bothered at all. Patients have to bring medicine, and even toilet papers themselves, the waiting lists are increasingly longer, the shortage of doctors and nurses is chronic. According to a government study every second death among those under 65 could have been prevented with a more efficient healthcare system. All in all, 26% of all deaths could have been avoided, that is,

“…32.000 lives could have been saved in 2014 alone if it were not for the shortcomings of the healthcare system.

This is the third worst rate in the EU. Those, who have the means are escaping the national healthcare system go to private healthcare providers.

The Hungarian welfare state, which was among the more generous and more efficient ones by Central and Eastern European standards, has also been changed since 2010. The Sargentini-report accurately lists these changes, which resulted in leaving those most in need of help worse off than before 2010. The duration the unemployment benefit is the shortest in the EU and the base on which social allowances (including old-age pension) are calculated has not been changed since 2008. Many important social benefits – e.g. the central normative housing allowance – have simply been abolished. At the same time, with a flat tax and a family tax benefit system, both of which are most advantageous for high earners,

“…the government redistributes from the poor and the middle classes to the rich.

The policy making process of the successive Orbán-governments is completely opaque, meaningful social dialogue is avoided and decisions are often made on a whim in the superministries Orbán lumped together, covering vastly different areas (e.g. healthcare, public education, culture, environmental protection is in one ministry since 2010). There are several administrations (ministries, secretariats, offices, authorities) with poorly defined and parallel jurisdictions, which ensures that Orbán has a power over them and most importantly over those running them.

“The most important guiding principle of Orbán’s rule is that the different strongmen in and around his party must be kept in a limbo and constant competition, so that no one can get strong enough to challenge him.

Although falling in international rankings even before Orbán,

Hungary under Orbán has become arguably the most corrupt country in the EU. The executive director of Transparency International Hungary, the Hungarian organisation of the world’s largest anti-corruption watchdog

“…characterised Orbán’s reign as a centralised system of legalised corruption.

In the 2017 Transparency International Corruption Index, Hungary had a score of 45 on a scale of 100, the worst in the EU, three points down from 2016, and 10 points down compared with 2012. Hungary is now in the same league with Senegal (45) and Belarus (44).

Hungary is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the EU’s structural funds.

“Between 2007 and 2020 Hungary receives 3,5% of its annual GDP from the EU on average.

A study on the Corruption Research Centre Budapest found on 2013 data that 12% of EU funds went to the cronies of Orbán (including his son in law). According to the Transparency International

“…Hungarian public contracts are overpriced by 25% on average compared to the market.

Orbán made sure that there is no real public debate about any of these issues in Hungary anymore.

“The National Assembly was degraded to a law factory rubber stamping whatever the government throws at it.

Even if there would be an opportunity for MPs to carry out their job in checking the government, Fidesz MPs are making it impossible. E.g before this year’s general elections, Fidesz sabotaged the functioning of the National Security Committee to save the government the embarrassment of having to admit that their witch hunt against George Soros and NGOs are based on lies.

Often using loans from state owned banks, cronies of Orbán purchased most of the Hungarian media.

“With the sole exception of online media every media type is dominated by government-friendly publications,

…including the complete print media outside of Budapest (every county paper, that is). Not to mention the public media, which is practically a government mouthpiece. Government-friendly publications are showered with overpriced advertisements from state-owned enterprises. But even private companies know where they should place their advertisements if they want to be on good terms with the government. Although most of these publications were already streamlined to systematically propagate the same messages and news, according to independent reports this summer Orbán personally ordered his “media czars” to concentrate most of them into a single, centrally organised media conglomerate.

While Orbán’s self-declared global leadership is a farce, the consequences of his rule for Hungarian citizens and refugees at the Hungarian border is all too real.

Although every piece of his political ideology is based on lies and deception, it does not mean that it would not be an effective means of political legitimacy of his rule. Bereft of a lively and open democratic public debate and a healthy media landscape, many voters believe just enough of it to work.

It was shocking to see how in a village last year people hysterically shouted down an entrepreneur, who wanted to welcome a couple of refugee families in his house for a few weeks to give them the possibility of a vacation. People were genuinely afraid of these families with small children, who would have spent only a few weeks there (rape, Islamisation, murder). The man was threatened with violence, his car was vandalized. Mr. Orbán publicly welcomed all of this as a legitimate means of democratic debate. Others find solace in Orbán’s vision of a truly sovereign, strong Hungary, which – together with his leadership – will right the wrongs of history that Hungary had to endure. By successfully feeding the Hungarian public with a vision of the world in turmoil and decline, he is able to offer fake stability.

“If you think that there is a consolidation to his politics, you are mistaken.

It is never enough, it can be never enough, he will always push it as far as he is allowed to. If you think about it, he cannot turn back. He started his anti-migration, anti-NGO, fearmongering campaign in 2015 as the popularity of his party was rapidly shrinking. Without this, he would have to answer for his mismanagement of the country, for the corruption of his government, for the failures of his social and tax policies. He needs to push further and shut down any check on his power to keep the system running. Moreover, should the system crumble, he would almost certainly have to face severe charges of corruption, not to mention what could be revealed about his secret dealings with Putin and other dictators.

What can you do?

First of all, vote yes for the Sargentini-report and with it for the Article 7(1) procedure against Hungary. As an MEP you have direct legitimacy conferred upon you by the citizens of the European Union. You have a responsibility to protect their rights. Moreover, Orbán’s power rests in a large part on the allocation of EU funds.

“It is a failure of institutional design that authoritarian governments are effectively helped by the EU in subjugating their citizens.

You have the opportunity to finally do something about it.

Secondly, in the debate over the Article 7(1) procedure do not play into Orbán’s hand.

“Treat him for what he really is, a bully.

Talk about his victims: his citizens, who live in poverty, who receive abysmal public services for their taxes and social security contributions, who are deprived of opportunities and development because of endemic corruption and mismanagement, whose basic human and civil rights are systematically constrained and taken away. Talk about the brave women and men, journalists, community organizers, policy experts, employees and members of NGOs, teachers, university and high school students, doctors, artists, every sorts of ordinary citizens, who still dare to speak up, to stand up against his rule and who are threatened, fired, and persecuted by his authorities and propagandists. Do not dignify his conspiracy theories reminiscent of the darkest era our continent has ever experienced by debating them. Instead, talk about the people, men, women and children of all ages, who are starved, beaten, and detained on the Hungarian border.

“Thirdly, if you are a member of the European People’s Party, you have to stand up to Fidesz and finally kick them out of your party.

Enough is enough. Values and the rights of EU citizens must come before party.

Finally, push for institutional reform. Allocation of EU structural funds must be conditional on the adherence to the EU’s basic principles and the rule of law.

“The European Public Prosecutor’s Office must have a jurisdiction over everything where EU funds are concerned. If a member state does not want to co-operate it should not receive EU funds.

The EU must also provide funds directly to civil society organizations and the free press in a transparent manner without the interference of national governments.

Yours sincerely,

A concerned Hungarian citizen

Rafael Labanino, Research Fellow, Institute of Political Science, Goethe University Frankfurt am Main

One thought on “Dear MEPs, Do Not Play Your Part in Orbán’s Game

  1. Let everyone who can put pressure on the MEPs to vote yes on the Sargentini Report. If they don’t they will be accomplice in the decline of democracy in the whole of Europe and beyond


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