“The EU is a community of shared values”
The Minister of State for Europe at the Federal Foreign Office, Michael Roth, gave an interview to the Tagesspiegel newspaper on the EU infringement procedures against Hungary, Czechia and Poland and on Germany’s role in the EU.
Mr Roth, the Hungarian Parliament is currently debating a legislative package which could drastically curtail the rights of refugee organisations. Is Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban in the process of leaving the path of democracy once and for all?
Viktor Orban is a Prime Minister who was, of course, democratically elected. Nevertheless, I am very concerned that his perception of majority-based democracy leads him to believe he does not need to pay due regard to minorities and differing views. The “Stop Soros” legislation with which Orban wants to restrict support of US millionaire George Soros for Hungarian civil society and the work of refugee organisations is disconcerting. We have the impression that, with its anti-Soros campaign in Budapest, the state is helping fuel dangerous stereotypes. Soros is being demonised as a “Jewish financial capitalist” and illegal refugee worker. Everyone is free to criticise George Soros. But demonising him as we are seeing currently in Hungary is something I consider to be highly dangerous and unacceptable.
Is Orban overdoing it in his efforts to be re-elected in April’s parliamentary election?
All election campaigns try to position their candidate favourably. Nevertheless, a few principles need to be respected. It is not acceptable for an EU member state to make such disparaging comments about our basic European values as the Hungarian Government has sometimes done. After all, the EU is more than an internal market. The EU is a community of shared values which is binding for all members. The Federal Government has absolutely no interest in picking a fight or starting a bilateral conflict with Hungary. On the contrary! But when the basic values of the European Union are being disrespected on EU soil, then we must not simply turn a blind eye.
Given the violations of European fundamental rights, should proceedings also be launched against Hungary under Article 7 of the EU Treaty leading to the suspension of voting rights as the Commission has already done in the case of Poland?
The European Commission is already using a range of instruments in its dealings with Hungary. These include several infringement procedures. The Commission has our full support here. I cannot say at the current time whether Article 7 would be an option here.
In Brussels, infringement procedures were launched against Hungary, Czechia and Poland because the three countries are rejecting the EU decision to take in refugees. Orban maintains migration is dangerous for security, for our way of life and for Christian culture.
We would make serious progress if Budapest were to stop peddling this kind of propaganda. There are currently about 400 refugees in Hungary. It is a travesty to maintain the country is overrun by refugees. Just like Hungary, we, too, believe that EU external borders must be better protected. But we are not talking about building a “Fortress Europe”. Rather, all EU citizens have the right to know who is entering the EU.
But if nonetheless Orban sticks to his guns in rejecting refugee quotas, should the EU interior ministers take a majority decision in favour of refugee quotas and overrule Hungary as they did in autumn 2015?
Time will tell. But in the EU we certainly don’t need to apologise for using conventional legislative procedures. If we use majority decisions, that is certainly no violation of the law. In some countries, the question of integration and migration is still relatively new. People have less experience of it than we do, for example, in Germany. I appreciate that. That is why it is so important for countries like Germany to set an example and make clear that while different religions, cultures and ethnic groups are of course challenging from time to time, they also enrich us and make us stronger.
Chancellor Merkel has spoken of the option of linking the payment of EU subsidies for structurally weak regions in future to the taking in of refugees. What do you think of that?
We should completely decouple the debate on the EU budget as of 2021 from developments in Hungary and Poland. What we want to agree for the future EU budget is for all 27 EU member states. There are two ideas we support. Firstly, it has financial implications whether or not individual member states implement the structural reforms expected of them. Secondly, we want as a matter of principle to make the payment of EU funding dependent on the respect of rule of law principles. But we should not only be talking about sanctions and funding cuts. I advocate setting up a separate EU fund for basic values and the rule of law. This fund could be used to help civil society in places where the rule of law is under pressure. One option would be attaching such a fund to the European Fund for Strategic Investments.
Coming back to Poland, what’s the next step in the procedure under Article 7 of the EU Treaty?
First of all, I would like to point out that this is not a disagreement between Germany and Poland but a discussion which is needed between the European Union and Poland. I still hope that our Polish partners will agree to meet the conditions set by the European Commission. However, it must also be clear that there will be no concessions when it comes to the rule of law.
How do you see Germany’s role in the EU? Is Berlin a mediator between the “old” and the “new” member states?
We have to be self-critical and admit that even almost 14 years after the EU’s Eastern enlargement, considerable distance remains between the “old” and “new” members. What truly belongs together has not yet really grown together. We pay far too little attention to the situation in Central and Eastern Europe. I am very impressed by the theses presented by the Bulgarian intellectual Ivan Krastev. He is right when he accuses the Western Europeans about not really being interested in Central and Eastern Europe. In the West, we often underestimate the dramatic process of economic and social transformation experienced by the people in Central and Eastern Europe since 1989. That is, if they have actually stayed there. Since 2010 some 600,000 mainly young people have left Hungary alone. Above all mobile and European-minded people have left Central and Eastern Europe in their millions since 1989. This is a painful loss for our neighbours which we must not forget.
Interview: Gerd Appenzeller and Albrecht Meier.