The 2019 elections for the European Parliament have intensified the debate in Europe between those who seek a common solution to problems and those who would like to follow their own path. Due to the policies of the Orbán government, which have taken the country ever further from Europe, Hungary has recently become an oft-mentioned player in this conflict. For a prolonged period after 1989, Hungary had been, together with Poland, at the vanguard of fast convergence with the more advanced part of Europe. Both countries were seen as models of successful modernization in the face of inherited historical disadvantages. But the transition was to prove more painful than hoped. Hungary was particularly heavily affected by the international financial crisis of 2008. Many Hungarians became disappointed in the transition itself, even in democracy and the market economy; others turned towards different, as yet untested solutions.
In the aftermath of the financial crisis, the Fidesz party, nominally on the centre-right, gained extraordinary parliamentary power in the 2010 elections with 52 % of the popular vote. This resulted in a 67% ‘supermajority’ in Parliament. It provided an exceptional opportunity – once the financial crisis was over, and European Union funds were flowing in – to establish a viable civic society with a greater level of solidarity. However, successive Orbán governments have forged a path that distances Hungary from Europe – a path that we believe is doomed to failure. We are not alone with our worries: the European Union, other international organisations, and a number of EU member states have expressed their concerns about measures taken by the Hungarian government that endanger Western values and are alien to accepted principles. These warnings have repeatedly fallen on deaf ears.
On 20 March 2019, the European People’s Party (EPP) voted by a huge margin to suspend the membership of Fidesz because its policies deviate so severely from shared democratic norms. The V21 Group was founded by former public office holders in governments of both centre-left and centre-right leanings covering the period of 1990 to 2012. We will not comment on inter-EP issues; but we take European values and principles – our shared values and principles – seriously and thus wish to assess the present Hungarian situation accordingly. It is in Hungary’s interests to be represented in each of the large and influential political families in the European Parliament – conservatives, social democrats, greens, and liberals – by Hungarian parties that authentically embody the interests of Hungarian voters.
The juncture of three key events makes 2019 a critical year for the European Union: office holders of the European Parliament and the European Commission are elected and given a mandate for the next five years; the strategic objectives and distribution of the long-term EU budget (2021-2027) are determined; meanwhile, negotiations continue on the United Kingdom’s departure from the bloc. These events will shape the medium-term prospects for European cooperation. A slew of historical anniversaries also acts as a reminder of the significance of international developments for Hungary and the Hungarian nation: we joined the EU 15 years ago; became a member of NATO 20 years ago; the peaceful change of regime took place 30 years ago; the Second World War broke out 80 years ago; and most especially, the Treaty of Trianon, which defined the modern borders of Hungary, will be 100 years old next year.
For Hungary, it is crucial how the representatives of the country’s parliament and government have a voice in decisions which will determine Europe’s future. To achieve this, instead of the offended, knee-jerk reactions to foreign (or domestic) criticism so typical of the Orbán administration, we have to assess and understand the reasons behind any external censuring of the Hungarian government. The V21 as a Group is open to see what should be taken to heart and what serves the good of the country as a whole. Yet, on a list of crucial issues, Hungarian society remains silent. Some perhaps have given up hope; others, probably a majority, are just not adequately informed.
In these circumstances the V21 Group, utilising the extensive government experience of its members, has undertaken to study why and how Hungary has deviated to such a degree from the path of European development that our nation had freely chosen, and which the great majority of the citizenry continues to support. This ‘diagnosis’, a succinct appraisal of the situation facing the country, is an assessment meant to generate public debate. We publish this in the hope that political parties, trade unions and civic groups and institutions in Hungary will discuss this Position Paper, and add to it. We are confident that a broad-ranging exchange of ideas on the reality of the country’s public affairs can contribute to Hungary making as quick a return as possible to the European path of civic progress, the path it chose to follow in 1990. In autumn 2019, we intend to publish the full report, complemented and enriched by the outcome of these debates, for the benefit of both Hungarian and international audiences.