Hungarian PM: Much to say about nothing

Hungarian Prime Minister visits London and delivers address to Chatham House think tank but fails to address concerns over rule of law which have dogged his international reputation

Mention the names of European political leaders in Brussels right now and few elicit such a negative response as Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister. Since being elected in April 2010, his Government has speedily embarked on a programme of legislative reform which has come under fire from EU officials on repeated occasions for dismantling the rule of law and trampling over individual liberties.

Looking through the list of the 600-plus new laws that have been introduced, it is not difficult to understand why Mr Orban’s reforms have provoked such strong emotions. The Government has curtailed the independence of the central bank, politicised the judiciary and ridden roughshod over media freedoms as part of a broader agenda to strengthen the grip of the ruling Fidesz party. Most strikingly, when the Government’s reforming impluses were obstructed by the Constitutional Court, new changes were forced through in May to withdraw the court’s remit to review amendments to the constitution, disabling its capacity for future misbehaviour.

All of which explains why Mr Orban’s address to Chatham House last week promised to be such an interesting event. It offered a political leader who has been stalked by controversy an opportunity to tell his version of events and directly rebuff many of the allegations which have been leveled at him. Unfortunately, however, Mr Orban failed to grasp the nettle with both hands because of an unmistakable reticence to tackle the key issues head on. It was almost as though an elephant in the room was staring at him at all times – and not once did he blink. As a result, the event largely failed to live up to expectations.

To a packed audience, Mr Orban argued that the EU is in the throes of a deep and systemic crisis, which can only be overcome by learning lessons from past mistakes. He said that each individual EU member state – particularly those outside the Eurozone – should be allowed to determine its own policies to find a way out of the current economic morass. He called Hungary a “real laboratory” in which answers based on traditional values are sought to meet challenges of the modern world and endorsed this policy approach as a viable blueprint for the rest of the EU.

But Mr Orban’s address was far from convincing, as it spawned more questions than it answered. Not only did it misfire by placing an emphasis on traditional values and then neglecting to define what this meant in practice. He also singularly failed to explain how many of his Government’s reforms – especially those that have prompted widespread alarm – are consistent with the traditional values he spoke about in such admiring terms.

To make matters worse, when faced with difficult questions in the subsequent question and answer session, Mr Orban chose to give curt and evasive answers, electing to humour members of the audience rather than engage with them properly. For example, despite ominous signs pointing to a spike in anti-immigration sentiment in the country, he dismissed concerns about the rise of the far-right Jobbik Party in Hungary and praised nationalist sentiment as a positive force for good. Similarly, when asked to give assurances about the rights of gypsies and ethnic minorities, his half-baked and muddled answer served to do quite the opposite.

It could be said that I ask too much of a European leader delivering an address to Chatham House. Surely the fact that Mr Orban was not speaking in his mother tongue should be taken into account? Is it not also true that political leaders are bound by convention and political correctness to eschew controversy at events such as these?

To those arguments I would respond that while Mr Orban was admittedly not speaking in his first language, his level of fluency would not have impeded him from elaborating further on many of the fundamental domestic issues he skirted over. His decision to overlook them was manifestly intentional. As such, I would argue that his address sold short the traditions of Chatham House, a globally respected international relations think tank. It is should not be satisfactory for leaders to turn up, deliver a pre-prepared speech that deliberately sidesteps the main debate, and then shun proper scrutiny at the end.

On this showing, there are too many holes in Mr Orban’s vision for restoring traditional values for it to persuade other European leaders that the Hungarian Government’s example should be followed by other EU member states. If Hungary really is a laboratory for developing ideas, then those being piloted by the Hungarian Government are in need of further testing.

Though Mr Orban’s address was not lacking the polish one would expect of an experienced statesman, one suspects that it won’t take long for the gloss to wear off.

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Categories: International politics

Author:Keir Ferguson

Labour Party member and public affairs consultant blogging about UK and international politics and whatever else moves me to pick up a quill

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