Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth talks about the debate on restrictions to civil liberties in Hungary and the importance of democracy and the rule of law in Europe. The interview was published on www.welt.de on 7 November 2014.
Viktor Orbán just retracted his plans for an internet tax after hefty protests. Is this evidence of the power of Hungary’s streets?
These events show that restrictions on the internet are a sensitive subject for civil society right across Europe. And it’s always a good sign when the political world doesn’t demonstrate excessive stubbornness – but the problems in Hungary go deeper than that.
What’s your take on this climb‑down, though? Orbán’s conduct was always very populist until now – has he lost his touch for what the people want?
Hungary’s prime minister is only human; he can make a mistake just like the rest of us. Acknowledging that was an important step.
The Fidesz government has found it hard to admit mistakes in the past. The old European Commission had to try all sorts of reminders, warnings and threats before Orbán would back down. How do you think the new Commission will get on?
We are currently engaged in intensive debate about democracy, the rule of law and the importance of our values in the EU. After all, what we are first and foremost is not a single market but a community of shared values. I am really glad that the new Commission attaches so much importance to the rule of law as a topic. You can see that in the fact, for instance, that the new First Vice‑President of the Commission, Frans Timmermans of the Netherlands, is set to play a key role in the future. He has already made clear his intention to enhance the EU’s credibility in matters relating to the rule of law, in the context of the European Parliament hearing he had to face before being nominated.
Where does the European Union need to show more credibility, in your view?
The EU is rightly proud of its fundamental values, and we do stand up for them in our dealings with governments like China’s or Russia’s. However, we can only do that credibly if we leave no room for doubt about whether we really live by and absolutely respect those values within the EU. In some countries, there has been cause for concern on that front in recent years.
How should the EU respond to that?
At the moment, the EU’s only option would be to invoke Article 7, which means removing a member state’s voting rights – the political equivalent of a nuclear bomb. In many cases, that does not seem to me to be a suitable method. So we need a less momentous political mechanism to oblige us to uphold our values. I see them as including our civil liberties as individuals, the rule of law, opposition to corruption, and independence of the media and the judiciary. There is room for improvement on these matters, and not just in Hungary.
The idea you raise there is nothing new. Last year, then Foreign Minister Westerwelle called for a sort of fundamental-values MOT within the EU. Whatever became of that?
We have made good progress. A Communication on the subject from the Commission has been available since March. As the Commission’s new Vice-President Timmermans helped design a lot of that mechanism, you can be sure that we will be working determinedly to advance it alongside numerous partners. The subject is also top of the agenda for the Italian Presidency of the Council. I have talked about it often with my colleagues in Europe; we have a joint position with the Czech Republic, for example. It has been repeatedly and erroneously claimed that this values mechanism is a project run by the more established EU countries against the more recent members. That is definitely not the case. I am very glad, therefore, that we are continuing to work on developing this mechanism together with our colleagues in Central Europe. We’ll be talking about it at the Council in Brussels in November and hopefully reaching some positive conclusions in December. There is no doubt still work to be done to get everyone on board.
The United States is going a lot further than the EU and imposing travel bans on Hungarian officials. Does the EU have something to learn from the US on that score?
During my visit, I found disappointment among Hungary’s civil society at the EU’s cautious stance. That’s not something we are thinking about right now, though. There are good reasons why classic bilateral sanctions of that kind are not possible within the EU.
What do you expect of the EU’s new High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini when it comes to dealing with Hungary?
The new High Representative primarily needs to ensure that the EU speaks with one voice. Whether it’s Germany or Hungary, we are all small fish if we act alone. Only by standing together will we be noticed and taken seriously by larger states like Russia.
Orbán openly sympathises with Putin. He’s trying to soften the sanctions against Russia and is pushing the South Stream pipeline in Moscow’s favour. The EU’s stance isn’t very united, is it?
The EU has managed to find a common position vis‑à‑vis Moscow, despite some of its members being highly dependent on Russian energy supplies. All member states are upholding the economic sanctions. I understand the concerns of those experiencing tensions in their economic and social situations. It is understandable for those countries to question the duration and severity of the sanctions. Nonetheless, the sanctions against Russia remain necessary.
It’s not just on economic issues that Orbán is breaking rank; at the sociocultural level too, he sees his country as aligned with Russia. Does that development worry you?
I am deeply concerned to see the way the prime minister is seriously calling the liberal‑democratic model into question in Hungary. Democracy in Europe isn’t just about letting the public vote every four or five years! Our democracy is built on the capacity for free individuals to explore their potential.
But how do you explain Hungary’s alignment with Russia? After all, Hungary suffered under the Soviet Union. Soviet troops marched into Budapest in 1956...
I don’t understand that either, to be honest. For all its dependence on Russian energy supplies, Hungary is at its strongest and most influential when it places itself at the heart of the European Union. Political, cultural and economic isolation would be enormously damaging to Hungary, and it wouldn’t be in our interest either.
But Hungary is showing no inclination to be at the heart of Europe. Just look at the restrictive Media Act or the raids on non‑governmental organisations. What’s more effective, open criticism or admonishments behind closed doors?
We should always have the courage of our convictions and be prepared to speak openly when it comes to fundamental values, the rule of law and democracy within the EU. Hungary’s civil society expects that of Europe. I find it worrying that some Hungarian politicians take the position that “you’re either with me or you’re against me”. I recently met a number of Hungarian artists who have nothing to do with party politics – and yet are continuously suspected of opposing the government and the government-approved view of art. Everything is seen through the prism of party‑political dispute. This approach won’t do justice to Hungary and its social problems. The country needs reconciliation, not more division.
In Hungary, people keep pointing to the two‑thirds majority that the Fidesz party has in parliament. Some Hungarians are saying that your criticism of Orbán’s policies is disrespectful of their free democratic elections.
Nobody doubts the government’s democratic legitimacy. But with a large majority comes great responsibility more than anything else. In Berlin, for example, the coalition of Social Democrats and Christian Democrats began the legislative term by strengthening the rights of the minority and the opposition in parliament. That is vital for a healthy democracy. A strong government won’t be any less strong for having reached out to a weaker opposition and granted it more rights.
Orbán’s Fidesz party is part of the EPP family of parties in the European Parliament, of which Germany’s CDU is the biggest member. Should the leader of the CDU (Angela Merkel) be pushing for Fidesz to be dropped from the group?
Important representatives of the EPP assess the situation in Hungary much as I do. However, the EPP is not currently prepared to clarify such a position publicly. Loyalty within a political family is important, though it is trumped by fundamental European values. I, for example – a Social Democrat myself – criticise Romania’s Social Democrat government for its insufficient efforts to combat corruption. We can’t stand for that kind of thing if we don’t want to undermine our own credibility.
Hungary’s former Foreign Minister Tibor Navracsics is now the European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport. Is this another case of Commission President Juncker appointing a patently unsuitable candidate?
It was the Hungarian Government which had the right to propose someone. The Hungarian Commissioner underwent a rigorous hearing process and had to relinquish some of his responsibilities. Commission President Juncker has thus responded to the criticism from the European Parliament. It’s now up to Commissioner Navracsics to show that he is committed to European values and the EU’s laws.
The new High Representative Mogherini is also facing criticism for allegedly being too lenient towards Russia. What’s your assessment?
We’d be in a bad way if there was no open discussion about the people at the highest level in the EU. Debate and criticism are part of the deal. But I think Federica Mogherini has it in her to be a strong foreign minister for the EU. We intend to play our part to ensure her success.
Would public hearings in parliament to examine cabinet candidates’ suitability be a good model to apply at the national level?
Why not? A hearing process like that is a sign of a healthy democracy and a confident parliament. The EU and the US show how much good it does a democratic culture.
This interview was conducted by Silke Mülherr and Daniel Friedrich Sturm and is reproduced here by kind permission of Die Welt.