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Discussing Hungary's democratic deficit

Sophie Claudet talks to MEPs György Schöpflin and Judith Sargentini over whether Hungary is in breach of fundamental EU rights and the rule of law.

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Discussing Hungary's democratic deficit

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Hungary is increasingly at loggerheads with several European countries and Brussels. The country has refused to take in its share of refugees to ease the pressure on Greece and Italy. Its detractors say it is also backsliding on fundamental democratic values. Namely, they accuse Hungary of curbing the freedom of the press and that of civil society institutions, while letting far-right movements prosper on its territory.

In this week’s Insiders Euronews’ Sophie Claudet speaks to Hungarian MEP György Schöpflin a member of the ruling Fidesz party in Hungary and Judith Sargentini, a Dutch MEP and Rapporteur for the European Parliament’s investigation into whether Hungary is in breach of the European Union’s values.

Sophie Claudet : “Mr Schöpflin first to you: we’ve seen in our report that refugees are not welcome in Hungary. We’ve heard Prime Minister Orbán whether in this report, or before, talking about refugees like they are poison, talking of a Muslim invasion, equating immigration with terrorism. Now we’ve seen that Force and Determination which openly embraces Nazi ideology, is by and large using the same lingo. So does it mean that the line is getting blurred between the far-right and Fidesz ?”

Mr György Schöpflin : “No, it does not mean that at all. That’s what his opponents say, as a matter of fact that’s what his opponents have been saying, oh, for the last 25 years, there is nothing new under the sun. And of course the western media pick up on this, just as you have done.”

Sophie Claudet : “But Sir, when you equate migrants with poison, with an invasion, with threatening you know the heritage of Christian Europe.”

Mr György Schöpflin : “Mmmm, well you weren’t there in the middle of 2015 when it really did feel like an invasion. It was a form of structural violence.”

Sophie Claudet: “But it is over now, I mean you guys are taking like very few asylum seekers and he still talks you know about migrants…”

György Schöpflin : “Why is it over ? Because Hungary has built the fence. The idea of having sizeable Muslim communities settling in Hungary – there are some already by the way, not in very great number – is not acceptable either to my party or indeed to the overwhelming majority of the Hungarian opinion, and I think at that point it becomes a matter of democratic choice, doesn’t it ? Do you want to be multicultural or do you not want to be multicultural?”

Sophie Claudet: “Ok so that’s the name of the game, you guys do not want to be a multicultural society?”

György Schöpflin: “It’s not the only game but I’ll say yes to that.”

Sophie Claudet: ‘‘Ok. Mrs Sargentini, the fact that Hungary is shifting to the right, with all that it entails such as curbing basic freedoms, discriminating against minorities whether they be sexual, ethnic, and so on. Is it something that you are looking into in the course of your work?”

Judith Sargentini: “What we are looking into is various cases that suggest deterioration of the rule of law. And that can be the higher education law, the way that Hungary does not respect European legislation on migration, what happens with freedom of expression, closing down of newspapers. Do we see a systemic change for the worse in Hungary when it comes to rule of law and democracy?”

Sophie Claudet: “Mr Schöpflin how do you feel about these multiple investigations?”

György Schöpflin: “Content. I am quite happy about it, I think the report will be voted through, it will be very radical. Perfect campaigning for next spring’s parliamentary elections in Hungary. It will then go to Council which has to look at whatever it wants to look at under Article 7 and it will probably die at some point because it is just too painful, Council is not going to do anything about it, and I think it will actually demonstrate that Article 7 is pretty useless.”

Sophie Claudet: “For our viewers, Article 7 would deprive Hungary of its voting rights basically?”

György Schöpflin: “Or less than that, I mean for example notionally if Article 7 goes through but I doubt it myself. For example Hungary could be expelled from Schengen, things of this kind. So I’m not particularly concerned about it. As a member of the Fidesz party I’m very happy with it….

Sophie Claudet: “You seem almost amused by this on-going….

György Schöpflin: “Well, I am actually amused.”

Sophie Claudet: …….could you share with us why?”

György Schöpflin: …….with great pleasure, delighted. This government came to power in 2010. Ever since then it has been the target of repeated attacks from the hegemonic liberalism that determines opinion in the West.”

Judith Sargentini: “Well, I think there is a duty for the European Parliament to stand strong on rule of law and fundamental rights. We’re in this European project together and I think a country like Hungary is a clear European country. Shares a lot of European history. Fits into the European Union. We share values with each other and we have to protect each other there.”

Sophie Claudet: “When Hungary decided to join the EU in 2004, you joined a family of like-minded states, I believe. And if we hear what Mr Orbán has to say about Brussels, it seems that he can’t stand it. So why stay in Europe if you can’t stand, Europe and its institutions?”

György Schöpflin: “Why stay? It’s a question of being inside a security and other organisation, which I think is to the benefit of Hungary, even though in my view there are serious differences in this European family of ours, which the West doesn’t recognise. We will never convert Central Europe into being western countries and the West doesn’t accept our very different European past. What I crucially have in mind is that all the western countries, maybe not Switzerland, colonial countries. We were part of three empires, that’s never recognised. So we don’t actually have a deposed colonial guilt. Wasn’t us, we didn’t rule over India.”

Sophie Claudet: “Ok, so would you say that the values Miss Sargentini is looking into are essentially western European values.”

György Schöpflin: “No, I’m not saying that, I’m saying that every country has its own interpretation. You can’t homogenize them without imposing a Leninist style system on Europe which is not going to happen.”

Judith Sargentini: “Well this is where I think we differ in opinion. And you could have this debate also on universal human rights. Are they a western invented thing or are they there for everybody? And I do think that looking into the individual, at the person, the citizen, and there rights is a universal value and that goes with the European fundamental rights that goes for everybody, and I find it problematic, also for citizens in Hungary, or Central European countries to suggest that those are not values that would also apply to them.”

György Schöpflin: “Some values will always be in conflict. Which means they have to be interpreted and applied locally. Justice and mercy for example.”

Judith Sargentini: “Which one?”

György Schöpflin: “Justice and mercy for example. They are not the same.

Sophie Claudet: ““How about the rights of minorities?”

György Schöpflin: “The rights of minorities, absolutely fine. What kind of support, for example…

Judith Sargentini: “How do you think the rights of minorities are absolutely fine?’‘

György Schöpflin: “I’m just about to explain…..

Judith Sargentini: …please.”

György Schöpflin: “Rights of minorities are absolutely fine. Mmmm, but not all minorities have the same recognition. So, clearly LGBT have a lot of recognition, linguistic minorities don’t. There is picking a choosing. Look, have you been following the Ukrainian education law. Hungary has been left on its own. The Hungarian minority in Ukraine is basically having its basic right to education in the mother tongue taken away from it. Nobody is saying anything, apart from Romania, they have a similar problem……And I think that if they want, if western liberals wanted to be taken seriously on this…

Judith Sargentini: “The thing is, two wrongs do not make a right.

György Schöpflin: “Exactly, then why don’t you do something about making that one right and say to the Ukrainians you can’t do this.”

Judith Sargentini: “Why don’t you and I do that together then? And we still also look at what is going wrong in other countries. I don’t mind putting the problems of my own country on the table. To be self-critical, also allows you to be critical towards somebody else as Europe is a process of peers, friends, that tell each other the truth.”

Sophie Claudet: “Well friends that are investigating on another member country…

Judith Sargentini: “That’s called peer pressure, yes….

Sophie Claudet: “Yes, and so It means somehow dialogue has failed. Happily we can have this dialogue here.”

György Schöpflin: “The problem is that the central European voice is not heard. In order to be able to make sense of what is going on you’ve got to listen to what people you don’t like are saying.”

Judith Sargentini: “If we suggest that when a party becomes big, it has to be taken seriously, yes it does. But taking a party seriously, also means looking into their policies. Checking their policies with laws and fundamental rights and then criticising if they do not stick to that what we together decided is a democratic society with rule of law.”

György Schöpflin: “Then the rule of law has to be applied even-handedly throughout the European Union. Let me give you an example. There has been serious problems, nothing to do with Catalonia, between the Constitutional Court in Spain and the Supreme Court. Really major battles. You know, something similar in the Czech Republic, very similar in Slovenia. Decisions of the Constitutional Court are basically ignored. Where’s the rule of law? I’ve said this to your countrymen Timmermans and he says we don’t have the capacity to deal with these things. So there is no single rule of law. It is whatever happens to be decided politically. Rule of law not good in Hungary – well we’ll have a go at that! Rule of law might be bad in the Czech Republic, we’ll ignore it. Look at the Constitutional Court in Slovakia. It’s barely functional. Did you know this?”

Judith Sargentini: “Well, I don’t mind looking with you at all those countries. In fact, I would invite us to do that. Media law in Italy under Berlusconi, the situation in Poland, the problems with the murdered journalist in Malta. It needs to be on the table. We need to take the freedom to talk with each other of what’s going wrong in your own country and elsewhere. But it is not enough of an excuse to point at somebody else because there mistakes would outweigh your issues.”

György Schöpflin: “You misunderstood me. What I’m saying is this. If we’re going to take for example your report seriously, then there has to be an acceptance of there being a single European legal space. No double standards. I’m saying there are double standards. So don’t be surprised if people are going to say this is a political decision to have a go at Hungary, not a legal one, not a judicial one, not to do with the rule of law. The rule of law is being used as an instrument to get at the Fidesz government.”