Hungary has been reprimanded by the European Commission on several occasions in recent weeks. Most recently, the Commission pronounced that Hungary should forgo €495 million in EU funds for meeting its budget-deficit targets via measures that it regarded unsustainable. Other member states, including the Spanish government, missed their targets altogether but escaped punishment.
Why has Hungary been singled out? Perhaps because of the tensions within the EU between ever closer political union and the notion of national sovereignty.
Many of the founders of the European project viewed nationalism as the cause of the world wars, and a hostility to nationalism has made some of Europe’s current political elite suspicious of the nation state. That suspicion is at times openly expressed and targeted at Hungary.
Hungary, though, believes it is possible to be a proud defender of the nation state and of the right to decide one’s own affairs, and, at the same time, to be an enthusiastic participant in Europe’s institutional and political life when it is in its interests to be so.
National identity is distinct from belligerent nationalism. Indeed, national sentiment is the pre-condition of our independence. Without national sentiment, it is difficult to maintain the democratic process and the rule of law: both depend upon people recognising their togetherness and their duties to each other. In particular, after the collapse of communism, the peoples of central Europe have needed a chance to redefine their identities.
That is why, in 2010, Hungarians voted for a centre-right government and gave it a mandate to produce a new constitution establishing Hungary’s identity and independence.
There is a threat of belligerent nationalism in Hungary, expressed in parliament through the Jobbik Party. But, in Fidesz, Hungary has a governing party that can combine national identity with an allegiance to a liberal jurisdiction and a rule of law that offers constitutional protection to all ethnic, religious and linguistic groups.
We therefore make no apologies for our strong attachment to national sentiment. But, at the same time, we will remain a dedicated and active member of the EU, and for the following very good reasons.
First and foremost, we have no geopolitical alternative. We experienced decades of subjugation. So, when asked whether Hungary should remain part of an integrated Europe, the question we implicitly ask ourselves is: “would it be better once again to be part of the Russian sphere of political, economic and cultural influence?”
As a result, there is no real cleavage in Hungarian politics over EU membership. Only Jobbik has begun to articulate an anti-EU position. In fact, support for membership is one of very few issues that have consistently enjoyed genuine cross-party support.
Secondly, membership serves Hungary’s national interests. Within Hungary, it is widely acknowledged that the tragic consequences for central Europe of the world wars can be fully and finally resolved only within a common European political framework.
Thirdly, EU funds remain crucial to our economic development. Hungary’s farmers, builders and researchers rely heavily on the EU’s support. EU-funded projects contribute to the modernisation of our public administration, and speed up the inclusion into society of minorities and marginalised groups. These are reasons why this government stresses the need to accelerate implementation of EU-backed projects.
Fourth, the advantages of being part of the decision-making process are immeasurable. During the communist era, Hungary had the misfortune of being decided for; now, we have a say in international decisions.
We are a proud people. We believe that, just as Europe is an asset to us, so we are an asset to Europe. In many fields of artistic and intellectual endeavour we have made a disproportionately large contribution.
Hence our indignation when European institutions retail some of the left’s lies and exaggerations. We are not happy with the increasing tendency towards standardisation within the EU. Nor are we happy with the double standards exemplified by European commissioners who criticise our democratic practices while remaining far removed from European voters themselves.
But our calculation is clear: we have our frustrations, but we remain committed to the values and goals of an integrated Europe.
Tibor Navracsics is Hungary’s deputy prime minister.
Loyal, methodical and almost always punctual, Tibor Navracsics, Hungary’s deputy prime minister, was hailed on his appointment last year as a competent administrator and adept technocrat who would ensure the smooth implementation of a radical government programme.
It was a sign of the confidence placed in him by Viktor Orbán, the prime minister, that Navracsics was given a vast portfolio, combining elements of the old justice ministry and prime minister’s office, was also entrusted with civil-service reform and government communication. It was said that Orbán had learned during his previous stint in office, between 1998 and 2002, that his own strengths were as a strategic thinker and leader. Navracsics, sitting at the apex of government in his ministry for public administration and justice, was to take care of the day-to-day operation of government, leaving the prime minister to do what he does best.
The appointment was a huge coup for a man who joined Orbán’s Fidesz party long after it first took shape in the late 1980s as an almost counter-cultural student opposition group centred in a university dormitory. It was a mark not just of Navracsics’s standing, but also of changes in the party’s politics and in its praetorian guard. Other than Orbán, few of the original dissidents have a central role in the current government: several have been dispatched to the European Parliament, another serves on the constitutional court.
Navracsics’s rise through the ranks since he joined Fidesz in 1994 has been unbroken, but it owes much to the ruptures caused by a sequence of catastrophic defeats for the party. He was brought into the party by János Áder, a party founder who is now an MEP, to help identify the causes of the party’s unexpected rout in the 1994 elections. When Orbán took office in 1998, the young political scientist became the prime minister’s press chief. After Fidesz unexpectedly lost the 2002 elections, his unflappable, methodical style once again made him the natural choice to analyse the causes of Fidesz’s defeat, and Orbán made him his chief of staff. When Fidesz once again lost, unexpectedly, to a resurgent Socialist Party in 2006, he was made head of Fidesz’s parliamentary group, becoming the face of the party during its increasingly rancorous campaign against Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Socialist government.
“In 2006, I was the only one who wanted the job,” he recalls of the moment of unrelieved gloom for a party that had, once again, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. That willingness to step into the breach turned Navracsics from a backroom player into a politician with a national profile.
The son of a teacher and a librarian, Navracsics was born in the western city of Veszprém in 1966. His family was apolitical. “It may seem strange today, but that was normal in the [János] Kádár era,” he says of the period between the 1956 revolution and the collapse of communism in eastern Europe. A self-professed moderate, he attributes a carefully cultivated non-confrontational style and his belief in a “civic Hungary with a strong middle class and market economy” to the influence of his staid but pretty hometown, an ancient and prosperous city near the shores of Lake Balaton. “Western Hungary has always been less radical than the east,” he says, adding that the populist, conservative party that Fidesz became from the mid-1990s onwards was more appealing to him than the liberal student movement was at its inception.
It was while studying law in Budapest in the late 1980s that he first came into contact with Orbán and Fidesz. “It was partly a generational thing, and that they were from the provinces too. They were the most appealing party for me at the time,” he says. “But they were doing very well without me, and I didn’t think I had anything extra to bring to the table.” Already a politics junkie, he busied himself sampling the many new political groupings that were emerging during the “exciting time of the regime change”. Acquaintances from that era remember him leafleting enthusiastically for a Trotskyite cell, though he says it was just one of many different political groupings at the time.
“I read all the samizdat,” he says, describing the development of his political convictions. “I knew about the UK Conservatives and the German Christian Democrats.”
1966: Born, Veszprém
1985-90: Studied law in Budapest
1990-92: Legal work at Veszprém City Court
1993: Civil servant at Veszprém County Council
1993-97: Assistant professor in political science, Budapest University of Economics
1996: Visiting scholar, University of Sussex
1997-: Lecturer, then professor in political science, ELTE University, Budapest
1998-2002: Press officer, Fidesz
1999: Doctorate in political science
2002-03: Head of Fidesz’s political analysis department
2006: Elected to parliament 2006-10: Leader of Fidesz parliamentary group 2010-: Deputy prime minister, minister of public administration and justice
He was briefly a judge, but soon returned to teach political science in Budapest, spending a year at the UK’s University of Sussex in what he describes as a formative encounter with Anglo-Saxon political thinking. Famously popular with his students in Budapest, many of whom now work for him in government, he taught right up until his appointment as a minister.
He is widely regarded as a well-briefed technocrat, able to prepare himself for a meeting during a short car journey. His excellent English and businesslike tones have made him popular abroad. But he showed a more pugnacious face as parliamentary leader. For several years after Gyurcsány’s admission that his party had lied about the state of the economy to win the 2006 elections, Fidesz MPs would leave the parliamentary chamber whenever the prime minister spoke, leaving only Navracsics there alone to respond: it was his searing attacks on the government that sealed his reputation as a loyal and effective political operator. But the clashes were often absurdly personal and bitter: when Gyurcsány’s wife implied that the anger was theatrical, recalling that Navracsics had once dined at their house, Navracsics responded with a blog post describing the prime minister as a “poor host” and an “aggressive” personality.
“It was a very confrontational period, and Gyurcsány himself was very confrontational,” Navracsics says of that time.
Despite the steady hand that Navracsics is famed for, Fidesz’s year in office has been stormy, with clashes over windfall taxes on multinationals and, most recently, with the European Commission over the media law. “Of course there are things we could have done more elegantly,” he says, “but cabinet loyalty prevents me from being specific.”
His rise to date may have seemed effortless, but he is adamant that he will not try to take the final step to the top job. “Politicians burn out, and my colleagues will tell me when that happens. When it comes, I’ll go back to the university.”