On April 4, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban scored a victory in his campaign against Western-backed institutions and companies when the parliament gave him the O.K. to shutter Central European University (CEU) in Budapest.
The move helps Orban tighten his grip on power and may well spell the end for CEU, a prestigious and financially independent institution funded by Hungarian-born George Soros, a U.S. financier who has given heavily to liberal causes around the globe.
In Budapest, tens of thousands of people, mainly students, marched in protest at the treatment of CEU on consecutive weekends in April. But Orban won’t be inclined to back down. His growing control of Hungary’s traditional media ensures favorable coverage for the government and few opportunities for the fragmented opposition to make its case.
When European Parliament member Bernd Posselt failed to get reelected last year, he simply decided to ignore the election results. One week after his defeat, the 59-year-old entered the European Union’s legislative building in Strasbourg as if nothing had happened — and has done so, ever since.
The member of Germany’s CSU party, a powerful local party which is aligned with Angela Merkel’s governing CDU, still participates in parliamentary debates and refuses to lay off his bureau chief.
Back at home in German Bavaria, he holds weekly roundtables with citizens to discuss their concerns. Posselt says that he pays privately for nearly all of his expenses.
“I often jokingly say that I’m an honorary European member of Parliament, but of course I know that I’m not,” the politician told WorldViews in a phone interview on Thursday.
As a former MP, Posselt is allowed access to the parliamentary building in Strasbourg and its committees. However, nobody besides Posselt makes such frequent use of this rule.
“Whereas others go to Mallorca and sit down beneath a palm tree, I travel to the European Parliament on my own costs,” Posselt told Spiegel Online, referring to other former MPs who lost their seats. “Europe is the task of my life … and the European unification is way too important to leave it only to career politicians,” he added.
Some online commentators have applauded Posselt for his determination; whereas others have ridiculed him for his inability to accept his defeat. His party defends his enthusiasm and has refuted claims that such behavior undermines the outcome of the 2014 election.
“I don’t understand why this is such a big deal,” Posselt said on Thursday, responding to the criticism. “Why should I be prohibited from engaging voluntarily? I’m not primarily interested in my career, but in pursuing political goals. Voters still come to me to share their concerns and it is my responsibility to represent their voices,” he said.
Posselt does not have voting rights in the E.U. Parliament and can only indirectly impact decisions.
Asked why he did not simply accept his electoral defeat, Posselt answered:
“It wasn’t me who lost the election. I simply had an unfortunate place on my party’s list of candidates which seemed safe, but turned out not to be.”
Since 1994, Posselt had worked as an MP in the E.U. Parliament. According to himself, he hasn’t been sick a single day. A reporter for the Oberbayerisches Volksblatt newspaper, who visited Posselt in Strasbourg, recently described the oddness of the former MP’s regular visits to the parliament.
“One has to see it in order to believe it: With the utmost naturalness, happily winking, he takes his spot in the first row. Employees hurry toward him and press a yellow folder filled with documents into his hand. After 10 minutes, the conference leader passes the floor onto Bernd Posselt who holds a passionate speech about Russia’s foreign policy. Applause, pats on his back.”
Other daily duties of the former MP include sneaking into official E.U. photo shoots or sitting in his parliamentary office which does not actually belong to him, according to the paper.
That’s why many still treat Posselt as if he were an actual parliament member. Earlier this year, for instance, the Russian government put him on a sanctions list and barred him from future entry into Russia. After months as a shadow MP, Posselt suddenly found himself in the spotlight again.
Posselt quickly gave an interview to Germany’s Muenchner Merkur newspaper, saying: “I think this (travel ban) is a dubbing for my decades-long support for human rights, not only in Russia.”
Referring to the Russian government, Posselt continued to say that he was happy that the opposing site had taken notice of his work.
Posselt, however, is interested in something else.”I would rather work as the doorman of the European Parliament, than as the president of a country,” Posselt told The Post, echoing a statement he had previously made in German media outlets.
In 2019, Posselt wants to try again and attempt to win a seat in the European Parliament. For the next four years, though, he will simply continue to act as if he had never lost it.
Last week, the EU also had to contend with its Hungary problem—one that hinges on similarly tricky questions of where the boundary lies between the powers of the EU and the sovereign rights of its member states.
At a specially convened session of the European Parliament to discuss the situation in Hungary—the fifth such session since Prime Minister Viktor Orban returned to office in 2010—a senior European Commission official threatened to suspend Hungary’s EU voting rights if Budapest pursued policies the Commission considers contrary to “European values.” Mr. Orban’s crime?
To have floated the idea that Hungary might restore the death penalty, and to have commissioned a public consultation on immigration that many say is divisive and discriminatory.
This isn’t the first time that Mr. Orban has fallen foul of Brussels over his allegedly cavalier attitude toward European values, as defined in the EU Treaties, which includes respect for democracy, human rights and the rule of law. In 2012, the EU started infringement proceedings against Budapest for limiting the independence of the Central Bank and the data protection authority, and for compulsorily retiring 274 judges.
He has also been criticized for attempts to control the media, including via a controversial Internet tax, and his replacement of officials at state institutions with supporters of his Fidesz party.
Many Europeans are also alarmed by Mr. Orban’s attempts to promote a nationalistic version of Hungarian history that glosses over inconvenient episodes, including the cooperation of Hungarian authorities in the Nazi genocide. Neighboring countries have been unsettled by his talk of “communal rights” for ethnic Hungarian minorities.
He has been critical of the EU response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the crisis in Ukraine. At a summit last week, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was overheard jokingly calling Mr. Orban “the dictator.”
Of course, Budapest rejects the charge that it is flouting European values. Instead, it accuses Brussels of adopting narrowly defined one-size-fits-all rules that take insufficient account of the challenges faced by a country still confronting the legacy of communist dictatorship.
The EU model of a liberal market economy can’t simply be supplanted into a society with no tradition of independent institutions, and in which the state has always played a leading role. Hungary was initially very successful in attracting foreign investment after the collapse of communism, but many citizens are disillusioned that, after 25 years, gross domestic product per capita remains less than 40% of the EU average.
Mr. Orban’s own conversion from young leader of the anticommunist movement to enthusiast for the “illiberal state” was in part shaped by Hungary’s experiences during the global financial crisis. This exposed deep vulnerabilities in its economic model, including an over-reliance on foreign capital to fund large budget and current account deficits and a banking system recklessly over-exposed to Swiss-franc denominated mortgages.
When the crisis hit, the Socialist Party was forced to turn to the International Monetary Fund for aid and a caretaker government embarked on deeply unpopular cuts to pensions and benefits and a public-sector wage freeze. In the 2010 elections, Mr. Orban won by a landslide.
The lesson Mr. Orban drew from the crisis is that Hungary needed to make itself more self-reliant. His program has focused on addressing the imbalances, reducing the budget and current-account deficits and reducing the reliance on foreign capital.
A flat tax of 16% was introduced on income and capital with the aim of generating higher domestic savings to fund the government debt. He also forced banks to convert Swiss Franc mortgages into Hungarian Forint mortgages to remove a key element of exchange risk from the economy, thereby paving the way for the forint to fall and allowing the central bank to cut interest rates.
At the same time, he has pursued controversial policies aimed at bringing key parts of the economy back under domestic ownership, including the banks, utilities and media.
At one level, Mr. Orban’s policies have proved remarkably successful. The imbalances have been substantially reduced. Hungarian officials point out that the country is closer to fulfilling the criteria for eurozone membership than most current members. The mortgage conversions averted disaster after Swiss National Bank abandoned the franc’s peg to the euro this year.
More recently, the Hungarian National Bank has been able to cut interest rates, providing a welcome stimulus to the economy, which grew by 3.6% in the year to March, assisted by the recovery in Hungary’s key eurozone export markets.
Nonetheless, critics say Mr. Orban’s unpredictability is damaging the economy, driving away foreign investment. Foreign banks, hit hard by heavy losses on the mortgage conversions, are scaling back exposure to Hungary. The long and deep recession has also increased the number of Hungarians living below the poverty line to four million out of a population of 10 million.
Although unemployment is officially 7.8%, this partly reflects Mr. Orban’s creation of a government jobs program that has taken 400,000 off the dole queues while a further 500,000 Hungarians have emigrated. That is fuelling support for the right-wing Jobbik party, which has been gaining sharply in the polls and emerging as the main opposition ahead of a fragmented left.
Does that mean the EU’s Hungary problem is doomed to descend into a Greek or U.K.-style stand-off? Not necessarily. Even Mr. Orban’s opponents acknowledge that while milking his disputes with the EU for domestic advantage he knows when to back down. Meanwhile support for EU membership remains high.
Even Jobbik now claims to be a pro-EU party. That may have something to do with the €5 billion-€6 billion of EU funds—equivalent to 5% of GDP—that flowed from Brussels to Budapest last year. After all, that’s one European value that is universally recognized.
Ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative UMP and its allies led voting in the first round of French local elections, exit polls suggest.
They pushed the far-right National Front into second, with President Francois Hollande’s ruling Socialists in third.
Voters are electing representatives in 101 departments, or counties, charged with issues like schools and welfare.
A second round of voting will take place in a week’s time.
Mr Hollande’s third place in the estimated results, released after polling closed on Sunday, follow on from defeats in municipal and EU elections last year.
Various exit polls put the UMP and its partners in first place – ahead of Marine Le Pen’s National Front (FN).
Some polls ahead of the vote had indicated that the far-right, anti-immigration FN could come top in the first round.
Ms Le Pen had been hoping the elections would build momentum ahead of her expected bid for the presidency in 2017.
Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls welcomed the news that the FN had scored less that some had predicted, saying the results showed it was not the strongest force in French politics.
However, Ms Le Pen called for Mr Valls to resign, celebrating what she said was a “massive vote” for her party, exceeding its performance in the European Parliament elections.
Analysis: Hugh Schofield, BBC News, Paris
It’s another big vote for the French far-right, following the municipal and European elections last year. In this first round of departmental or county council elections, nationwide 24.5% of voters chose the National Front, according to one poll.
It is a figure that shows yet again how Marine Le Pen’s strategy of building a system of local organisation and shutting down the party’s overtly racist elements is paying off.
However, opinion polls had suggested the far-right could have done better – even emerging as the most popular party in the election.
That didn’t happen, which has given some cheer to the mainstream opposition here, led by former President Sarkozy.
The results mean the second round of voting on 29 March will see a run-off between the UMP and the FN in many counties.
In the past, voters for rival parties have combined in the second round to keep the far-right out.
By late afternoon on Sunday, turnout stood at almost 43%, higher than in the last local election in 2011.
For the first time, voters in these elections are not choosing single candidates – but pairs of candidates – one man and one woman – in order to enforce strict gender equality in local politics.
The European Parliament has rejected Hungary’s EU commissioner-designate as unsuitable for the education and culture post.
Tibor Navracsics could still be given a different role in the new European Commission team, MEPs said.
He is the first candidate to be rejected at the hearings, though MEPs have blocked appointments in the past.
He has been in a right-wing government criticised in the EU for allegedly undermining civil liberties.
The vote in the parliament’s education and culture committee went 14-12 against him.
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban amended constitutional reforms after sharp criticism from the outgoing European Commission and MEPs.
There were fears that changes to the judiciary, media and minority rights would hand too much power to his ruling Fidesz party.
The new Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, may have to reshuffle his new team in order to get MEPs’ approval. The parliament is set to vote on the whole team on 22 October.
The French nominee Pierre Moscovici, the UK’s Jonathan Hill and Spain’s Miguel Arias Canete have also been grilled by MEPs who doubt their suitability for their designated posts – economic affairs, financial services and climate and environment, respectively.
Bela Kovacs, a member of the European Parliament (MEP) and Hungarian far-right Jobbik party, addresses a news conference in Budapest May 15, 2014
The Hungarian government is requesting the right to lift immunity from a member of the European Parliament so that it can investigate accusations he has been acting as a spy for Russia.
Béla Kovács, who is a member of Hungarian far-right party Jobbik and a vocal advocate of pro-Russian politics, is suspected of having ties with the Russian intelligence dating back to the late 1970s.
“The case is currently in front of the European Parliament, after the Hungarian prosecutor general’s office turned to its President requesting the suspension of MEP Béla Kovács’ immunity,” Hungary’s Prime Ministerial office confirmed.
“At the moment Hungary is waiting for a decision on that by Brussels,” the PM’s office said.
When contacted by Newsweek, the European Parliament acknowledged that the Hungarian government has requested the revocation of on Béla Kovács’ immunity status and an enquiry of his possible illicit activities is underway.
“MEP Kovács will be heard, and the JURI committee [the European Parliament’s legal affairs committee] will examine the case and then vote on whether to suggest lifting or keeping the immunity of the MEP to the plenary,” a spokesperson for the European Parliament said.
The Hungarian prosecutor general has said all aspect of the investigation are “classified”, however if found guilty Kovács could face a sentence of up to eight years in prison.
On Tuesday, Hungarian newspaper Index revealed that Kovács’s wife, Russian Svetlana Izstosina was also legally married to two other men, one of whom was a nuclear scientist from Moscow’s state university.
In the decades prior to Kovács’s emergence into Hungarian politics in the 2000s he and his wife had travelled unhindered by the USSR’s strict border laws.
Index alleges Izstosina was employed or at least backed financially by the KGB to act as a messenger for the Soviet government, with Kovács as a suspected accomplice.
Hungarian and international intelligence services are also believed to be in possession of recordings of “conspiratorial” meetings Kovács had with Russian diplomats dating back to 2009, Index said.
Kovács has denied the claims and insisted media reports alleging he spied for Russia are “manipulative”.
Jobbik have defended their MEP, with a spokesperson for the party calling the prosecutor general’s office’s actions “intolerable” on Wednesday.
Jobbik has called for Hungary to quit the EU and instead join Russia’s alternate Eurasian Union. It advocates the use of labour camps for Roma “deviants” and has referred to Jews as a “national security risk”. The party was described as “the strongest radical party in the EU” by its leader Gabor Vona, after it won 20% of the vote in Hungary’s last parliamentary election.