Exclusive Interview: Hungarian civil rights activist speaks out about threat to democracy and Europe

Eszter Nagy
Eszter Nagy

Yannis Karamitsios
Yannis Karamitsios

Eszter Nagy is the Secretary General of the Union of European Federalists in Hungary. Between 1997 and 2009 she worked in the Hungarian foreign service.

Read more about Eszter Nagy's career here.

Yannis Karamitsios is a legal officer at the European Commisison and an activist for Alliance4Europe.

Read more about Yannis Karamitsios, here

YANNIS KARAMITSIOS: Please tell us a few words about yourself as an activist for Europe and European values in a country such as Hungary, as it is today.

ESZTER NAGY: First, thank you for the opportunity of talking about this topic.

In Hungary nowadays there is not much discussion about the EU and the European values in the media, and even if they are mentioned the EU is not described in a favorable way.

Besides being a committed European, that is maybe even an extra motivation for me and for most members of our association to still try to represent the European values and federalism in such a hostile environment.

I used to work for the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for 12 years, and I was lucky to be a diplomat in a period leading up to the EU-accession and during the first 5 years of EU-membership, when there was an internal political consensus about the main focus of the Hungarian diplomacy.

Then Hungary really tried to catch up to its European partners in every field and was considered a trustworthy partner, one of the most advanced from the former Eastern bloc. By now it has completely changed. 

I am ashamed of what has happened in the past 10 years in my country.

Democratic backsliding to the extent that Hungary is rated now a partly free country by the Freedom House.

I grew up in the last years of socialism, I still have personal memories of that system.

After the optimism about the changes, the liberalization and democratization process of the 90s it is painful to see what’s happening nowadays.

I want to work for the betterment of my country, and I have found a way to do it now in civil activism. I am convinced that the answer to the problems of Hungary is more Europe and more federalism.

YK: How do you see civic movements in Hungary? Are they motivated or effective enough to campaign for their values and connect with the broader society?

EM: I think that those people who are active in civic movements are really motivated.

They are trying hard to campaign for their values, and to reach out to the people.

But the challenge is huge, we must operate in a public sphere which is dominated by government propaganda, and fake narratives, amidst “Stop Brussels” and “Stop Soros” billboard campaigns.

From the outside these messages might even seem ridiculous, but if you get it daily in the streets, on state television, in the Hungarian News Agency’s news service, ministry websites, you get brainwashed.

There is a great part of society, who believe that George Soros is "an evil Jew" who wants to bring in millions of migrants to Europe.

And now even during the corona virus crises it was hinted by the government that migrants are bringing in the virus, so the authorities even expelled fast a couple Iranian students, who were by the way studying here legally with valid student visas.

The public opinion has been pushed in the direction of the extreme right, so it is getting more and more difficult to step up for human rights, tolerance and supporting marginalized groups of the society.

Somehow there are still active people in civic movements, even doing a great job, but their visibility and access to media is limited, not to speak of the lacking financial – or any kind of – support from government.

In many fields civil organizations are stepping in for duties that normally a government should do; helping homeless people, hotline for women suffering from aggression, helping migrants’ integration to the society, or supporting the education of marginalized poor children, just to name a few.

YK: Orban took advantage of the pandemic to suspend the parliament. What would be your message to the rest of Europe about this move? How could we help?

EM: I was glad to see the amount of international reactions to this action of the Hungarian government.

Nevertheless, you should see that Orbán will do whatever he wants, because he knows that there are no real red lines within the EU.

If he breaches some democratic principles or even international norms (e.g. during the refugee crises), he’ll get away with some condemning statements, maybe infringement procedures, but no real consequences.

Even if the Strasbourg court adjudicates in some cases against the Hungarian government, e.g. the forced retirement of chief judges, it came 2-3 years later when the situation was not reversible anymore, only financial compensation was possible.

After the approval of the Sargentini report it had to be obvious that we are in trouble. 

This suspension of the parliament for an unlimited (!) period under the pretext of the coronavirus only made it even clearer.

My message is that it must be taken seriously and there should be braver political decisions and real consequences.

I know that it is difficult in this time of major health and economic crisis, but hopefully the corona pandemic will be over one day, and the Orbán-problem will remain with us and with Europe.

I think that the rule of law conditionality for the EU subventions in general is a good direction.

It is crystal clear that Orbán is abusing the whole EU subvention system to the benefit of his family, oligarchs and his staying in power. Hungary finished on the top of the OLAF list unveiling the number of investigations in 2019.

Still nothing really happens as the Hungarian national prosecutor is an old time Fidesz member. This is not right.

We always hear and I also agree that Hungarians are responsible for the leader that they elect at the national elections.

But what can we do if huge amounts of financial aid from the EU is supporting the Orbán government without any real accountability?

In Hungary the system of democratic checks and balances have already been mostly eliminated by now, but the EU which should be safeguarding its basic democratic values, is still burying its head in the sand and keeps on financing his illiberal regime.

I think it is of utmost importance that the EU takes responsibility of how its funds are spent.

In the case of a serious democratic backsliding in a member state, we cannot count on the national prosecutor that there will be investigations.

I think that the government in those member states that are already under the article 7 procedure should not receive the EU-funds, just like before.

Instead there should be a mechanism to circumvent the governments in this case and open the possibility for direct application for other levels of self-governments, e.g. cities, regions, civil organizations, media outlets, etc. This way the EU could still support the citizens and the development of the member state without financing an authoritarian style government.

Another big problem is the unanimity in most of the decision-making process.

As a result, there is a blackmailing opportunity for maverick member states to block EU decisions in important fields. If majority decision making could be applied instead, there would be much less opportunity for blackmailing and blocking the functioning of the EU.

We can also experience it in the article 7 procedures, how the EU is becoming a toothless lion as a result of unanimity, even though the overwhelming majority of member states agree, there is no room for action, because the 2 countries – Hungary and Poland – under this procedure are supporting each other.

The EU must wake up and make the necessary measures for its efficient functioning.

YK: Fidesz party enjoys a big majority of votes in the general elections, as it also happened last year in the European Parliamentary elections. However urban people voted for mayors from the progressive opposition, the most notable example being Budapest. Do you see a kind of urban wave that could progressively reverse the populist tide?

EM: Something has moved last October. We could see a tiny hope that it is still worthy to campaign and try to win at the elections against Fidesz.

There is a consensus of independent international watchdog organizations that the Hungarian elections are free but not fair.

Nevertheless if the opposition keeps on uniting its forces, which is a necessity under the new election law introduced by Fidesz, there could be a chance for reversing the populist tide.

It is extremely difficult though, as the smaller dwellings and the lower strata of the society are vulnerable and, in many cases, find themselves locked in feudalistic style dependency structures, e.g. through the prevalence of public work.

Progressive, more educated city dwellers are better informed, and they are generally more critical of the ruling party. Whether they can outnumber the Orbán-fans at the ballot box in 2022 is the biggest question.

YK:Do you see Europe being in a critical situation due to the COVID-19 crisis, in terms of solidarity and cohesion? What should be the priorities of European civic movements in a time like this?

EM: The Covid-19 crisis has brought first the worst instinctive reactions of self-isolation and endeavors for self-sufficiency.

In a bit similar way, like people were running to the shops cornering the market of toilet paper in several countries. These strategies don’t work in either cases.

If we can talk about the “benefits” of the crisis, it is the fact that we are all affected by it, in slightly different times, and with different severity, but we are in it together, even globally.

There is no competition between the member states, as some nationalist leaders suggest.

Even if there are scarce resources, with better allocation, cooperation and exchange of information we can stand up against the virus with a better outcome.     

We should focus on highlighting the good examples for cross border cooperation, and in the meantime urge the European institutions, politicians, MEPs, etc. that there is a momentum now for braver political action.

The conference on the future of Europe should not be completely withdrawn from the agenda.

It should be rather postponed like the Olympic games, maybe for next year in order to incorporate the experiences gained from the Covid-19 crisis management.

We need a more federal Europe in order to become stronger and more resilient altogether.


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