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“Excuses aren’t enough”

09.05.2011 - Interview

published in the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel on 9 May 2011

During his visit to Berlin last week, the Hungarian Head of Government Viktor Orban rejected all interference in his country’s internal affairs.Should this be accepted?

No. Hungary has, like all other EU member states, undertaken to guarantee certain human rights standards. And friends are allowed to ask questions, even pointed questions. That’s what we will do at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Wednesday.

What questions are you talking about?

The questions relate to the media law, the new constitution and the protection of the Roma. We expect Hungary to answer these questions clearly and satisfactorily.

Excuses are not enough. What is needed are specific political strategies to eliminate the shortcomings. The issues are by no means trivial. The very foundations of the European political consensus are affected if freedom of expression, the separation of powers or the protection of minorities is put in doubt.

The Hungarian Government amended the media law following severe criticism from the EU.Isn’t that enough?

The media law still contains provisions that do not meet international standards, as was stated by Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression. To be specific, the media council established by the law to regulate media content is comprised entirely of close allies of the Prime Minister’s ruling party. It is also highly questionable that the public broadcasting company has to base all its news on information from the state news agency and that journalists are forced to disclose their sources. All these issues give us reason for concern and a reason to ask questions.

What don’t you like about the new constitution?

It is vital that the constitution guarantees a genuine and effective separation of powers. We are concerned by the fact that the constitutional court’s powers have been limited and it can no longer review certain fundamental rights. The fact that sweeping powers have been given to the Fiscal Council – likewise filled with close allies of the Prime Minister’s party on a nine-year term – is also hard to reconcile with democratic principles.

The third issue is the protection of the Roma.The EU Commission has criticized the Hungarian Government for not providing the Roma with sufficient protection from attack. Was it right to do so?

I should speak up for the Government in Budapest on this point. It was slow to react. But now it is facing the problem, and as EU Presidency advocates the adoption of European rules on protection. It is also taking steps at national level to deal with discrimination against the Roma. It responded fast and soundly when right-wing vigilantes terrorized a Roma community in mid-April. I very much welcome the fact that paramilitary organizations are to be banned by law. That makes it clear that it’s the state that protects its citizens.

So far the Hungarian Government has been unmoved by the tide of criticism from the EU.Why are you so confident that the Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva could change this?

The debate on the media law showed us that a parliamentary majority in Hungary did respond to the criticism. It is my impression that the Hungarians are listening to what their partners have to say.

Before coming to Germany, however, the Head of Government Viktor Orban published an essay rejecting any notion of discussion and stressing the irreversibility of the nationalist reform agenda in his country.Is that in the European spirit?

Hungarian politics suffers from the fact that the country is divided into two camps. Bridging the gap between the governing party Fidesz and its allies, on the one side, and the Socialists and Liberals on the other, seems almost impossible. Seeking dialogue across the divide would be a way forward. The Prime Minister’s comments do not help in this regard. It is a sign of a living democracy when all political groups participate in dialogue, above all groups at the centre of the political spectrum. Only if one listens to and grapples with other opinions can one genuinely lead a country democratically in the long term.

The interview was conducted by Hans Monath

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