Portfolio blogger

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Is it a saga or a soap opera? How far can the Hungarian opposition play with the trust of its prospective voters?

There are a number of topics in my head to write about but the developments in the latest days have overwritten all. The question of the last moves of the opposition movements was always, how they can win the hesitating voters without losing their faithful ones. And this is getting hmmm... - but judge yourselves On the proposal of Gyurcsány, the most controversial figure in the opposition, a common festive mass meeting/demonstration has been organised to commemorate the anniversary of the 1956 revolution (which is at the moment one of the constitutive elements of Hungarian political identity). This with the background that the Hungarian Socialist Party (the main governing party between 2002 and 2010, suffering a grave defeat in 2010 and whose prime minister Gyurcsány was till Bajnai took over for the last year or so just to put the budget and the economy in order - which he did - without further political ambitions) and the movement of Bajnai signed their co-operation agreement, leaving Gyurcsány's party (called Democratic Coalition) out, citing overblown demands of the latter. Since support for Gyurcsány is growing fast. They even said that the Gyurcsány-fans will want to remove Orbán and the FIDESZ and therefore will vote for whoever has a realistic chance to do it. Gossip and speculation was abound that this is all tactics and they will agree with Gyurcsány at the end. Gyurcsány actually hinted strongly that the party finances of the MSzP were coming from dubious sources during their government years. And a fake video was apparently made by a Democratic Coalition "footsoldier" and given to an MSzP middle-level "officer" on which roma were discussing voting for FIDESZ in exchange of money and other perks on an intermediate election. Meanwhile, liberal movements with no real following that mushroomed in the years since the demise of SzDSz, the "official" liberal party, which was the junior partner in Gyurcsány's government and totally disintegrated after the - for them totally lost - 2010 elections. A conservative party also emerged under Bokros, the finance minister in the 1994-98 socialist-liberal governments two.year period when they followed austerity policies, economically very successful but politically disastrous. So, the speakers on the demonstration were the following: Bajnai first, then two ex-liberals - one of the Kuncze, who was minister and head of SzDSz for most of its heyday and declared before not having political ambitions but having a programme on Klubrádió, the emblematic radio of the opposition, mainly MSzP-leaning. Aftern them, Bokros, Gyurcsány and finally Attila Mesterházy, the president of the MSzP. Bajnai is not a charismatic leader and a dull speaker but has good thoughts and is speaking in earnest. So he was no surprise. The three following speakers all mentioned the need to co-operate to oust Orbán and then Gyurcsány showed his best form - he is charismatic,clever but some fear that his reputation as prime minister (he failed in getting through his plans and was always very outspoken but a Josephinist politician, not able to win support for his policies in his party's own ranks which may be the mistake of the "ranks" also) and the result of the propaganda against him in all FIDESZ media - which now includes the public media also - he scares away more uncertain voters than he brings. He was passionately arguing for and alliance of all opposition forces. And then, during the speech of Mesterházy, the audience started to shout demanding the alliance. Mesterházy did not give in, he calmed the crowd and finished his speech while people were leaving and he earned a scant applause only. After the event, explanations were raised and insults exchanged, I spare you this. The question was still there: what will those people do, who want Orbán and the FIDESZ to go but would like to have a wider front. And whether this narrower front - Bajnai's unifying reputation being tarnished by the events - will get sufficient votes to win. A little explanation to Bajnai: he wanted to form an umbrella organisation which would be neutral enough to enable that all opposition parties and movements can join in without having to lose their character. But then FIDESZ changed the election law to make such a solution impossible. Then Bajnai started a party from three different parts and started negotiating the alliance with the other parties. To add insult to injury (and thus cutting short a lot of the afterthoughts of the events on the demonstration) The party of Bajnai declared its support for and participation on the "March of the Székelys" for autonomy of Transylvania. Without going into the details on Hungarians in Romania, I can only say that the decision made huge waves - almost a tsunami - in Hungary. The main organisers of this march are the extreme right parties and movements and FIDESZ is also participating. So joining them is a great blow to those, who think that Hungary should not interfere this way with the neighbouring countries. Rational arguments are also there: Orbán gave Hungarian nationality to Hungarians living abroad and voting rights (although only half, but this can be extended if found as discriminatory by the Constitutional Court) to them (a slight simplification was inevitable here). Now, the Romanian State is asked to give autonomy to an area where foreign citizens also voting in their second country are concentrated. And already a number of high-profile members left Bajnai's movement for that. MSzP, however, voiced its support. These moves are also diametrical to Gyurcsány's point of view - that Hungarians should not interfere with state affairs of Romania but they support autonomy and reject double citizenship in its form given by Hungary and the voting rights of citizens outside Hungary. Heated discussion is going on on different fora about the decision of Bajnai. Many followers reject it, even saying they will not vote for them. On the other hand, the choice of those who want change in Hungary, is not easy if Gyurcsány remains separate. There is a chance that his support grows. But it will not reach the support of Bajnai and the MSzP together. And therefore the latter two have a greater chance to send Orbán away. Will voters vote for them and abandon Gyurcsány out of tactics? Or will voters rather vote for Gyurcsány? How much are voters bound to accept? Is the support of Bajnai and the MSzP for the nationalist movement bring new votes at all? It may, as voters who have national ideas but see the tragic direction in which Orbán leads the country, can be lured. But till now, they were told that the opposition is ant-national. Is it easy to change their perception? An explanatory note: the Hungarian elections will be decided in the individual constituencies, where the one who has the most votes will immediately win the mandate, however low the participation is.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Some lessons from Tocqeville: Democratic despotism

Quotes from: Democratic despotism – Tocqueville: Democracy in America FOURTH BOOK INFLUENCE OF DEMOCRATIC IDEAS AND FEELINGS ON POLITICAL SOCIETY
 My remarks in italics 
Any resemblance to the present situation is just the game of fantasy.

"For the principle of equality begets two tendencies: the one leads men straight to independence and may suddenly drive them into anarchy; the other conducts them by a longer, more secret, but more certain road to servitude. Nations readily discern the former tendency and are prepared to resist it; they are led away by the latter, without perceiving its drift; hence it is peculiarly important to point it out.

This never dying, ever kindling hatred which sets a democratic people against the smallest privileges is peculiarly favorable to the gradual concentration of all political rights in the hands of the representative of the state alone. The sovereign, being necessarily and incontestably above all the citizens, does not excite their envy, and each of them thinks that he strips his equals of the prerogative that he concedes to the crown. The man of a democratic age is extremely reluctant to obey his neighbor, who is his equal; he refuses to acknowledge superior ability in such a person; he mistrusts his justice and is jealous of his power; he fears and he despises him; and he loves continually to remind him of the common dependence in which both of them stand to the same master."

 The extension of powers of government to areas never experienced before, overzealous regulation, interference with economy, morals, everyday life of people is the consequence
After having shown how equality leads to loss of freedom, it is explained how and why they accept it and what is the illusion which makes it seem still democratic (what we have heard saying: politicians want us to go and vote every four years and let dem do what they want inbetween - an extreme form of this was the recent idea of the president of the Hungarian Parliament, László Kövér that even the Parliament should give a four years blank cheque to the government.

 "Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions: they want to be led, and they wish to remain free. As they cannot destroy either the one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large who hold the end of his chain.
By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master and then relapse into it again. A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large.

I admit that, by this means, room is left for the intervention of individuals in the more important affairs; but it is not the less suppressed in the smaller and more privates ones. It must not be forgotten that it is especially dangerous to enslave men in the minor details of life. For my own part, I should be inclined to think freedom less necessary in great things than in little ones, if it were possible to be secure of the one without possessing the other.
Subjection in minor affairs breaks out every day and is felt by the whole community indiscriminately. It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their own will. Thus their spirit is gradually broken and their character enervated; whereas that obedience which is exacted on a few important but rare occasions only exhibits servitude at certain intervals and throws the burden of it upon a small number of men. It is in vain to summon a people who have been rendered so dependent on the central power to choose from time to time the representatives of that power; this rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves, and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity.
I add that they will soon become incapable of exercising the great and only privilege which remains to them."

And a false remedy of this is to debate whether a certain election result really reflects the will of the people (see: two-thirds majority with 53% of the votes).

"After having exhausted all the different modes of election without finding one to suit their purpose, they are still amazed and still bent on seeking further; as if the evil they notice did not originate in the constitution of the country far more than in that of the electoral body.
It is indeed difficult to conceive how men who have entirely given up the habit of self-government should succeed in making a proper choice of those by whom they are to be governed; and no one will ever believe that a liberal, wise, and energetic government can spring from the suffrages of a subservient people."

But Tocqueville also explains how this trend can be avoided, how we can prevent that "democratic despotism" develops: Freedom of press and independence of the judiciary, transfer of power to elected local bodies, importance of civil society.
And here again a point which may be surprising: adhering to forms, not just stepping over them as things which do not influence the essence.

"Men living in democratic ages do not readily comprehend the utility of forms: they feel an instinctive contempt for them, I have elsewhere shown for what reasons. Forms excite their contempt and often their hatred; as they commonly aspire to none but easy and present gratifications, they rush onwards to the object of their desires, and the slightest delay exasperates them. This same temper, carried with them into political life, renders them hostile to forms, which perpetually retard or arrest them in some of their projects.
Yet this objection which the men of democracies make to forms is the very thing which renders forms so useful to freedom; for their chief merit is to serve as a barrier between the strong and the weak, the ruler and the people, to retard the one and give the other time to look about him. Forms become more necessary in proportion as the government becomes more active and more powerful, while private persons are becoming more indolent and more feeble. Thus democratic nations naturally stand more in need of forms than other nations, and they naturally respect them less. This deserves most serious attention. "

Not by chance, the limitation of the independence of the data protection authority, the ombudsman (ombudsmen) is clearly shown here as a way to undermine freedom and thus at the end of the day, real democracy (remember: people who are only free to vote, will l to judge correctly for whom to vote is in their real interest).

"Another tendency which is extremely natural to democratic nations and extremely dangerous is that which leads them to despise and undervalue the rights of private persons. The attachment that men feel to a right and the respect that they display for it are generally proportioned to its importance or to the length of time during which they have enjoyed it. The rights of private persons among democratic nations are commonly of small importance, of recent growth, and extremely precarious; the consequence is that they are often sacrificed without regret and almost always violated without remorse.
But it happens that, at the same period and among the same nations in which men conceive a natural contempt for the rights of private persons, the rights of society at large are naturally extended and consolidated; in other words, men become less attached to private rights just when it is most necessary to retain and defend what little remains of them. It is therefore most especially in the present democratic times, that the true friends of the liberty and the greatness of man ought constantly to be on the alert to prevent the power of government from lightly sacrificing the private rights of individuals to the general execution of its designs. At such times no citizen is so obscure that it is not very dangerous to allow him to be oppressed; no private rights are so unimportant that they can be surrendered with impunity to the caprices of a government. The reason is plain: if the private right of an individual is violated at a time when the human mind is fully impressed with the importance and the sanctity of such rights, the injury done is confined to the individual whose right is infringed; but to violate such a right at the present day is deeply to corrupt the manners of the nation and to put the whole community in jeopardy, because the very notion of this kind of right constantly tends among us to be impaired and lost. "

And about the relationship between the common good and the rights of individuals, where it is tempting to put the common good before that of the individuals:

"When any nation has, within a short space of time, repeatedly varied its rulers, its opinions, and its laws, the men of whom it is composed eventually contract a taste for change and grow accustomed to see all changes effected by sudden violence. Thus they naturally conceive a contempt for forms which daily prove ineffectual; and they do not support without impatience the dominion of rules which they have so often seen infringed.
As the ordinary notions of equity and morality no longer suffice to explain and justify all the innovations daily begotten by a revolution, the principle of public utility is called in, the doctrine of political necessity is conjured up, and men accustom themselves to sacrifice private interests without scruple and to trample on the rights of individuals in order more speedily to accomplish any public purpose. "

So, what about a revolution?

"...revolutionary tendencies, becoming more gentle and more regular, without entirely disappearing from society, will be gradually transformed into habits of subjection to the administrative authority of the government. I know of no countries in which revolutions are more dangerous than in democratic countries, because, independently of the accidental and transient evils that must always attend them, they may always create some evils that are permanent and unending.
I believe that there are such things as justifiable resistance and legitimate rebellion; I do not therefore assert as an absolute proposition that the men of democratic ages ought never to make revolutions; but I think that they have especial reason to hesitate before they embark on them and that it is far better to endure many grievances in their present condition than to have recourse to so perilous a remedy. "

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Minimum wages in Europe

The Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaftliches Institut of the Hans Böckler Foundation published its 2013 report on minimum wages. 21 of the 28 member states of the EU have them set by law (in Germany no general minimum wage exists, it is set only in some professions). The report compares the hourly minimum wages of EU and also third countries. Of course an average would not make sense (even when the number of people earning minimum wage would be known and used for weighting. Comparison and developments are worth looking at, however. 12 EU member states increased the minimum wage the 1st January 2013 (and two others late 2012) while Greece cut it by 23 percent. Portugal, Ireland, Romania and the Czech Republic froze their minimum wage. In Western Europe is the hourly minimum wage between 8.65 and 10.83 Euro, while in the Mediterranean countries between 3 and 4.06 Euro. Eastern European countries are the only ones paying below 2 Euro, while Slovenia is higher than the Mediterranean bunch, with 4.53. The lowest is the minimum earning in the two countries joining in 2007 (the newest member, Croatia has no minimum wage set) and in the three Baltic countries. Hungary precedes Slovakia and the Czech republic, just below 2 EUR (1.95 in Hungary, 1.94 in Slovakia and 1.91 in the Czech Republic. Of course the comparison has to be adjusted to purchasing power parity. Hungary's price level is 61.9 percent of the EU in 2012 (compared to 74.6 of the Czech Republic and 71.6 of Slovakia (see: http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/tgm/table.do?tab=table&init=1&plugin=1&language=en&pcode=tec00120). This will give 3.15 EUR in PPP for Hungary, while 2.60 for Slovakia and 2.67 for the Czech Republic, i.e. the Hungarian real minimum wage is higher. It is said by many economists and apparently data show that they are right, that increasing it in Hungary is not a good idea. In other cases, the order did not change by using purchasing power parities. It is worth mentioning Greece: 3.60 EUR compared to 3,36 in Portugal. but lower than Spain (4.09). So despite the strong cut in Greece, and that it fell behind Malta and Spain with this cut, it is still within the range of similar countries. The foundation also keeps a Database of minimum wages. Another interesting page summarising information and opinions about the minimum wage.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

A strategy for the Hungarian opposition?

First of all a fast summary of what happened recently on the opposition landscape: - Talks are slowly starting between MSzP and Együtt 2014 - Mesterházy, president of the MSzP was more diplomatic concerning his candidacy for prime minister in an interview - The hassle around the name of the Party of Bajnai, Együtt-2014 continues - New attacks were launched against Bajnai - LMP received the right to keep its faction in the Parliament. Some main events in Hungarian politics and the economy: - The tobacconist saga continues with new leaks about who from friends and relations (in the Hungarian translation of "Winnie the Pooh": "Friends, relations and business partners") - well, not of Rabbit but of the FIDESZ notabilities won tobacconist concessions - The new land law has been voted and Ángyán, one of the main agricultural eminences in FIDESZ, who became outrightly critical to the land policy and the distribution of rental rights on state-owned land to "friends, relations and business partners" who have nothing to do with agriculture, left FIDESZ in response - The merger of the National Bank and the Financial Supervision is progressing and the head of the latter -who is set to lose his job or at least his power even when he was the most faithful executioner during the first FIDESZ government of foreign banks who helped companies in transactions the government didn't like - wrote an open letter to the president of the Supreme Court (recently renamed to Kuria to be able to get rid of the previous president) calling the attention of the judges to the danger to the economy if the loan contracts tied to foreign currency would be declared "en masse" invalid. It is a little strange that the basis of this invalidation would be the laws on financial services he helped to forge. - The minister of the national economy (also fulfilling the tasks of the finance minister) announced a new round of austerity measures (forgetting to announce one of them) in spite that the EU liberated Hungary from the excessive deficit procedure under which it was since it joined the EU. Debates started immediately whether this is to enable the government to relax spending and start "bribing" voters with spending - some bribes were already distributed in the form of cutting utility prices but the extent is small till now - or just to cover the losses to the budget coming from bad planing and delay of some revenues (like e-toll for trucks and the tax revenue expected from connecting the cash tellers of all shops electronically to the computers of the Tax Office). What is the context? About the actors: Everybody knows probably that FIDESZ is the governing party (having and utilising, one may say abusing 2/3 majority in the Hungarian Parliament). - MSzP is the main opposition party if we look at the number of members of Parliament or at the results of surveys. It is also the party which was in government for the 8 years before the 2010 elections, in coalition with the liberals, whose SzDSz party practically disappeared and no measurable successor has appeared yet on the stage. - Együtt 2014 is a new formation, which was intended to be an NGO as an umbrella organisation for the alliance of opposition parties who want to defeat FIDESZ in the 2014 elections. They have foreseen to nominate the unique opposition candidate in the "first past the post" individual constituencies while the parties could go independently for the votes in the proportional part of the elections (as all voters have two votes, an individual for a candidate of their constituency and one for party lists - there are some other details which I will ignore for the moment). Immediately the election law was changed to exclude the possibility of NGOs nominating candidates. The organisation is lead by Gordon Bajnai, short-time prime minister of Hungary for about a year before the 2010 elections, who took over without long-term ambitions, i.e. he was not going to be a candidate in the elections 2010. He put the budget and the economy back on track after the combined devastating effect of the 2008 crisis and the spending spree between 2002 and 2006 and the aborted attempts by Gyurcsány for austerity and reform at the same time from 2006. These attempts triggered an unprecedented series of demonstrations which peaked in the months-long occupation of Kossuth square, the square in front of the Parliament which was also scene of emblematic demonstrations during the 1956 revolution. Another climax was when the 23rd of October, the anniversary of the 1956 revolution, police had to dissipate forceful demonstrations, which (it is debated, by whose fault) mingled with the masses of the anniversary celebration of FIDESZ (set in a place which had no relationship to the revolution at all but was dangerously close to the place where the forceful demonstrators were stopped in order not to be able to get to the Parliament). As a consequence, participants of the FIDESZ-organised event were also attacked and hurt by police. - LMP, a grassroots green - left - liberal party, which surprisingly won seats in the Parliament in 2010 (their name is the abbreviation of the slogan: Politics can be different), split along the line whether to co-operate with Együtt 2014. Those who favoured co-operation, left the party and were denied the right to form a faction in Parliament (just like the faction who left MSzP with Gyurcsány at their helm) while those who wanted to go alone into the elections 2014 kept the name LMP. Why all this? The election law modified by FIDESZ (and introducing a smaller Parliament which was already a promise by Gyurcsány but he couldn't assemble a 2/3 majority behind his propositions) foresees a higher proportion of individual constituency seats but even in the previous system, individual constituencies were the key to success. Before, however, if no candidate attained absolute majority, the candidates with the most votes had to face each-other in a second round, and also here, an absolute majority was needed. If less than 50% of the voters voted in a constituency, the round was invalid. Now, there is no such limit, and the candidate with a relative majority wins the seat, there is no second round. Before, votes cast in a constituency for the losing candidates were counted towards a compensating list, thus they had, if only a lower, value. Now, this system has been complemented with one where the votes cast for the winning candidate in a constituency, also count toward this compensation which also increases the importance of individual constituencies. Given that according to surveys, most of the voters have no party preferences, or do not intend to vote, in case of a low turnout and several opposition candidates, FIDESZ (who amalgamated all parties on the "right" (at least for: MDF, KDMP, FKGP, MDNP - no importance who they WERE - except the extreme right Jobbik) can win a huge parliamentary majority even with a low proportion of the votes (if there are three opposition parties including Jobbik, with 25%), not to talk about the proportion to voters overall. Therefore unity of opposition is crucial. OK, if this is trivial for everybody, why no opposition unity? In my opinion, there are two main reasons (apart from personal controversies), one of principle and one of tactics. As Orbán put his party practically outside the normal political spectrum, the opposition covers all political streams. Classical right wing (i.e. pro-market, libertarian which build on individual incentive and the responsibility of the individual) have no great popularity in Hungary. But still, the co-operation of parties from the most various ideologies and social models is necessary. And a close co operation, meaning even possibly (see the second reason below) uniting in one party. And they have to formulate a programme in common. A programme which is reasonable, coherent, acceptable for the opinion leaders and experts and at the same time one with which they can win elections against a populist propaganda - and deeds - of the governing party, in a media space which is outright unfavourable for them (I will return to that in another post soon - talking about the Tavares-report and Viviane Reding). On the other hand, FIDESZ has the possibility to change any law it wants, within days (and has done so, if necessary, see above). So if the way the opposition wants to shape its co-operation gets known, this way of co-operation will immediately forbidden or strongly disadvantaged. AS parties who have joint candidates in individual constituencies already are in distribution of the "compensation" votes (explained above). I mentioned personal controversies. It is taken for granted, that the opposition has to have one candidate for prime minister (who would believe in co-operation if they had more? I think even more sophisticated voters than the Hungarians would not be able to follow this - even I was stuck now when I tried to spell out this solution although I just raised it) and of course both the president of MSzP as Bajnai announced their ambition (what would an opposition leader without a PM ambition be like?). So that's why the flexibility shown by Mesterházy is important. Although no one precisely knows how the voters think (there is talk about this or that politician or party causing voters of another one in alliance with him/her/it not to vote for the common candidates), and there are undoubtedly risks in naming a candidate, the politically conscious population on the Internet (Facebook and commenters on blogs) mostly trust Bajnai most. His movement organises meetings al over the country, has a Facebook presence and is (just like MSzP, of course) an unavoidable component of the opposition co-operation. So it is not easy, but if opposition politicians and voters will look for what joins them, and not what separates, they may be able to get to a solution.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Other conflicts between the EU and Hungary

The excessive deficit procedure was not the only point of conflict – in fact not even the main one – between the EU and Hungary. And although some people in Hungary complain that the EU has lost leverage on Hungary by letting it out of the procedure, I would not support measures designed for economic purposes to be used on political disagreements. First of all, this would further fuel anti-EU propaganda, but probably also anti-EU sentiment in Hungary and could also lead to a legal defeat of the EU which would harm its prestige even more. I also doubt whether the EU is the right institution to be judge and even less one fighting party in political conflicts in Hungary. There are, however other pending questions – the fourth amendment of the fundamental law (ex constitution) and also the general questions around the measures limiting democracy and political freedoms, the Tavares-report (or in Hungarian ) and the article 7 procedure it proposes (working documents can also be found here ). The Commission on its part indicated that infringement procedure may be launched because of the fourth amendment (which in Hungary has a totally different connotation than the fourth amendment of the U.S. constitution). Of course to launch of the article 7 procedure is not so simple. It can be initiated by one third of the Member States, the Parliament or the Commission. The Council will most probably not initiate it, the Commission is reluctant to apply the „nuclear option”, in particular as this – and the Romanian – case supports strongly the quest for a less drastic but more flexible tool for the Commission to sanction a breach of European values (mentioned in Article 2 of the Treaty on the European Union). (The Commission also wants a framework be created to analyse the conditions for applying Article 7 .) Rui Tavares proposes this step to be taken by the Parliament. There are in fact three phases: Phase 1: The Council, acting by a majority of four fifths of its members after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, may determine that there is a clear risk of a serious breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2. Phase 2: The European Council, acting by unanimity on a proposal by one third of the Member States or by the Commission and after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, may determine the existence of a serious and persistent breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2, and Phase 3: The Council, acting by a qualified majority, may decide to suspend certain of the rights deriving from the application of the Treaties to the Member State in question, including the voting rights of the representative of the government of that Member State in the Council. Phase 2 can only be proposed by one third of the member states of by the Commission, i.e. the Parliament has no right of initiative in this phase. Phase 3 requires no specific initiative, it can be (but is not automatically) a consequence of phase 2. See: here So a majority in the Parliament and a four fifth majority in the Council is necessary even for the first phase (and unanimity in the European Council to start the second phase). This is not possible without consent of at least part of the members of the EPP to which FIDESZ belongs. Several analyses has appeared in the Hungarian press, in particular following the leak of a purported discussion on the Dubrovnik meeting of EPP leaders (where FIDESZ was not present) about extraditing the FIDESZ from the EPP. This was vehemently denied afterwards. In the following EP debate on Hungary – while in previous debates Joseph Daul, the leader of the EPP faction forcefully defended the Hungarian government – the EPP was represented only by Frank Engel, who resorted to general statements and was very lukewarm. (His contribution is only published in French ) It is, however, very doubtful whether ever the necessary majority will be achieved. The amendments to the Tavares report are arriving, so let’s wait what will be the final text. I retort from details of diplomatic and less diplomatic exchanges between Orbán and other conservative European leaders, as it is totally unforeseeable when they will decide to take steps and whether this will not be attributed to personal sensitivity rather than to political differences by FIDESZ propaganda.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

End of the excessive deficit procedure and publicity tax

The European Commission is proposing to the Council to release Hungary from the excessive deficit procedure. This is good news as the procedure has already lasted so long that remaining in it would mean loss of cohesion funds for the country. Given that 95% of public investments are financed partially from EU funds, this would have meant a grave blow to the Hungarian economy and also food for further “liberty fight” demagogy against the EU. On the other hand, it is a triumph for the Orbán government and some fear that by that the EU is losing leverage in constraining the Hungarian government in its economic and political actions which are harming the country and going against European democratic principles. The dilemma is not easy to resolve, almost impossible, like most of the dilemmas which are caused by - the contradiction that whenever the government is sanctioned, it is the people who pay the price and - the communication tricks which make the EU a scapegoat if it is acting and a weakling if not. Whoever followed the developments can, however, see through these tricks. As if to help this, the European Commission reiterated again the need – in the form of concrete measures proposed – for a more sustainable public finance. Nevertheless, it could not deny that with the latest measures (actually with the latest but one package of measures – let’s return to that below) the deficit will be under 3% of GDP for the rest of the term of this government. And this is what counts when deciding about the procedure. The latest measures are already the second tranche since the new Minister of the Economy, old-time FIDESZ economic heavyweight Mihály Varga took over – saying in his inauguration address that no further measures are necessary. But a third tranche was also in preparation. This included a tax on publicity revenues of media. Varga said yesterday that it will be introduced only when measures announced before are not sufficient. Today András Giró-Szász, the government spokesman announced that “in the interest of common burden-sharing” it will still be introduced. The statement of Varga – taken into account that the European Commission has initiated infringement proceedings against the sectorial extra taxes already – could be seen as a clever blackmail: if the Commission does not release Hungary, they can be blamed for that tax, if they do, they gave in to save the multinationals from this tax and by threatening them, the government cleverly got out the country from the excessive deficit procedure. The tax will in fact cut further into the profits of the two commercial television channels, one of which, already making losses, is under negotiation to be purchased by the strongest company group which wins almost all public procurements in Hungary and whose owner is the main financial expert around FIDESZ – more exactly, he was treasurer of the party and is expert in party and campaign financing and also owns most of the poster sites in town – which may not be without link to the fact that election publicity is enabled on these posters while prohibited in a number of other commercial media, including commercial tv. No further comment is needed, I assume.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Voting patterns again

Votewatch published the voting patterns in the European Parliament on the mandate for the EU-US trade agreement: The Hungarian EPP delegation casted the most abstentions, some French and German MEP-s from the EPP voted against see here There were some more votes against by members of the ESD group, also French and Germans. Another vote on an amendment showed the following: German and Estonian EPP members cast against votes and also most ECR and ALDE MEPs (except for French, Italian and Bulgarian delegations) opposed the exclusion of cultural and audiovisual services from the mandate, as did a minority of Members of the EPP (German and Spanish delegations, while most of the Italian delegation didn’t vote) and S&D (UK and Danish delegations in their entirety).

Sunday, March 17, 2013


Demonstration near to the National Museum in Budapest two days after the day of independence when - according to legend - the national poet of Hungary (Petőfi, born Petrovics) declamated the National song on the stairs of the Museum, Snowstorm on the roads (that's wha the demonstration was postponed), storms all over Europe and the U.S. around the fourth amendment (how classical this sounds) of the Basic Law of Hungary, The forint plunging in response to - not the nomination but the first measures of the new president of the Hungarian National Bank -. ANd the European Peoples Party invites Frigide Barjot (no typo) to perform before the press conference of Commission vice president Viviane Reding (who, by chance, belongs to the same grouping) ti express herself against the marriage of homosexuals which is just being admitted in France. These storms on the surface hide undercurrents which have more importance for the future. The European Parliament - including the majority of EPP MEP's votes against the compromise long term budget agreed between the member states (but fails to request an increase). Good news: a compulsory mid-term review with qualified majority voting which could mean that a minority of member states cannot stop the EU adjusting its budget to the - hopefully - favourable future economic conditions. Greater flexibility, real own resources are the two further demands and a fourth one, which is in fact an increase in the amount: settling the backlog between commitments (promises to pay) and payments, which grew every year as payment budgets were always lower that commitment budgets. In a time of continuous growth of the budget, this difference would cause no trouble as payments are also later than commitments and thus the increase automatically means that payments - coming partially from commitments in previous years - can be somewhat lower that commitments in any given year. But if the difference is bigger than covered by growth, or there is no growth, the situation aggravates. Meanwhile, a bail-out is agreed for Cyprus. 10bn EUR instead of 17bn, a further 6bn is to be covered by the depositors of Cypriot banks vie a tax on deposits which averages about 6,5%. The European Federalists Party and the blogger of Reuters are enraged. The Parliament did not have a say (well, the national Parliament of Cyprus will have, and Cypriots already staged a run on their banks), they complain. It must be admitted, it is an unorthodox move. But if we think about the methods other governments (whether bailed out by the EU or not) put their budgets right, it is a song. In Hungary, inflation is 6% per year - the same toll on the value of deposits, just to talk about us. Of course, this tax is just a one-off solution (or will it be annual? I doubt). But it soothes to some extent the "northern" citizens who are already very sour about "their money" bailing out "irresponsible" southern states. And, given the composition of Cyprus deposits, it may be well targeted to some who hid their fortunes there.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Youth guarantees

There are two European countries, Austria and Finland which guarantee, that if a young person is unemployed for four months, he/she should get a job, traineeship or re-training offer. This is basically different from the public work which is now the favourite job-creating tool of the Hungarian government. On proposal of László Andor , the commissioner for employment, social affairs and inclusion, the new Multiannual Financial Framework will contain a new youth employment initiative (this was the only addition to the proposal of the Commission on the European Council meeting which approved the Council position on the MFF the 8th February (see criticism about the deal and its enthusiastic reception in a Hungarian article ). And these 6 bn euros can also be used to establish this guarantee as the Council agreed the 28th February (see here . It will be used in the regions where youth unemployment is the highest. The youth guarantee initiative also has a Twitter stream. According to estimates by Andor, the programme would cost 20 billion Euros in Europe. This would mean proportionally 50 billion HUF in Hungary. Thus roughly the amount which has been just taken from the universities or less than half of the interest difference between market financing and an IMF loan (by the most conservative estimates). Further information about the Council negotiations on the MFF is available here while the European Parliaments position can be followed here . A third-party report about the presentation of Mr Van Rompuy and the responses to it shows the main controversies.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

National sentiment and European Myth(s)

In a previous post I already talked about national sentiment. In the European Voice Tim King argues that the big disadvantage of Europe to the U.S. is the lack of common myths. His point is that even the rise of Europe from the second World War which he likens to the rise of the U.S. from the Civil War, is interpreted differently by different groups of European people. Nothing illustrates his point more than the debate (or I could rather call it non-debate) about the pre-war years in Hungary. In the Basic Law (replacing the Constitution) the ruling FIDESZ fixed that Hungary was not independent (using a term which suggests the exclusion of all responsibility) from the 19th March 1944 till the first democratic elections in 1990. The time before the German occupation is depicted as the ideal world. I.e. all responsibility for what happened to the Jews, the Roma, the political enemies, is declined. On the other hand, squares and streets are named after Horthy and statues are erected. In the abbey of Pannonhalma a bust of prime minister Teleki, the promoter of the first "Jews' law", the "numerus clausus" in universities, was erected. Horthy and the system is even credited with protecting the Jews and introducing the limitations, their expropriation as necessary to protect their lives. Some simply only talk about the period under the prime ministership of István Bethlen, who consolidated the country by taking a loan from the League of Nations (as the IMF is a specialised organ of the U.N., practically the legal predecessor of IMF), although the scandal of a large-scale French franc forgery also was in this period. The centre operating the schools now, a huge administrative organisation, is named after Kuno Klebelsberg, whose ambition was to overtake the neighbouring nations by educating the people better. He had a concept but this is somewhat antiquated in the 21st century. And these are the softer variations. However, these are the really dangerous ones as it is more difficult to counter their half-truths. In particular as these false myths are set up to feed national pride while it is much more difficult to present the complex reality in a way that it should also be emotionally appealing. A balanced narrative about what happened, how the treaties closing the first World War contributed to the second and how Europe was able to get over its divisions, would already be a big achievement. Maybe this could over time give rise also to a myth...

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Salaries of officials

The fight around the EU budget and the salaries of eurocrats continues. It has yielded some very interesting side-branches. A huge proportion of the EU budget is going back to the member states, although not to those who pay them in (The Guardian tried to set up a flowchart showing where the money goes but of course the euros (and pounds and kronas) are not earmarked. However, there are net payers (the richer countries) ant net recipients (who actually spend a significant part of the money received in the richer states), as one aim of the EU is to equalise the level of development in its members - out of solidarity but also out of plain self-interest. No one of the states will openly tell another one "I do not want to pay for you" although citizens and some journalists - in particular in the context of the debt crisis - do say things like that.

So what remains is the administration. Without echoing the allegations of the staff unions who see an intention to weaken the European public service, and without denying that efficiencies can be gained (where can't they?), this endeavour is not well placed in the eyes of an impartial observer (which I am not). The 2004 reform brought huge savings and the Commission is now proposing a further cut of 5% in staff numbers (and to reallocate staff internally to fulfil new tasks coming from accession, the economic governance package and a number of other projects aiming at competitiveness for Europe, research, etc.) as part of a wider package to cut other benefits of the officials (which are fixed in a regulation voted by the Council and the European Parliament). Negotiations on this proposal stalled as the member states did not accept the proposals. The EU budget is about 1.3% of the total GDP of Europe and administration is less than 6% within this. So big savings cannot be expected.

Salaries of eurocrats seem to be a stumbling block. In 2004, a special levy (starting at 2.5% and increasing every year till 5.5%/ was introduced on top of the taxes and social security contributions paid by the officials. This was tied to a method of calculating the annual salary adjustments. This method tied the increase of the salaries to the increase of salaries of public servants in the richer member states (to avoid that the increases in the member states due to higher inflation and the catch-up effect, as salaries there were lower than in Western Europe, should result in a higher increase). Of course the data have first to be available and so the changes take effect a year later. So after the crisis, there was still one year where the salary increase fell out higher than the member states thought justified (surprisingly, not in 2008 but in 2009) and then the member states did not want to apply the algorithm, referring to an exception clause in the regulation, for the case of an unexpected and serious crisis. The Court of Justice later found that that year the crisis was not sudden and not severe enough in its consequences to justify the application of the exception clause. The year after the cut in national public salaries had its effect on the calculation and the 0.1% increase was approved by the member states. The year after, they refused to apply the method again, and similarly in 2012.

Meanwhile, the method of salary adjustment and the special levy expired (they were tied to each other). The Commission proposed to extend these two elements of the staff regulations for another year, independently from the status of the negotiations on the budget and the Staff Regulations. The Council refused that which meant that the special levy (which gradually increased to 5.5%) also expired and all officials of the European institutions got a salary increase of about 5.5%. This was pinpointed in a number of articles in the press. One of them got a surprising reaction from a European Official who stated that he/she is a secretary and earns 700 euros a month. As the salary table of the officials is public, it is easy to establish that this means at least a grade 8 official. Given that secretaries start at grade 1 and the average time to jump a grade is 3-5 years (in reality, it can be longer), this means that this person works in the EU since 20-30 years and is still a secretary. Draw your own conclusion. If you want to see the Staff Regulations, you can find it here

By the way when member states - and in particular David Cameron, outraged about EU salaries compared to his own - complain about 1-2% of salary increases and "perks" of EU officials, Commonwealth officials received a 3.8% salary increase and have much more sumptuous perks - but this is Britain's favourite child, as opposed to the EU.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The UK and the EU

I cannot let the week-end go without commenting on the speech of David Cameron on the EU. He wants to reform the EU or at least negotiate an "extrawurst" , special conditions, namely participating in the common market but have no other obligations, in particular repatriation of powers, mainly on areas where the U.K. has different traditions from the continental ones. A more flexible, more competitive and more democratic EU - who wouldn't agree? But there is a contradiction: if powers have to be repatriated because the EU is not democratic enough, is this necessary if the reforms succeed and it will be democratic? The powers the EU acquired were delegated by unanimous vote of the member states. It seems most states see the reason of today's problems in insufficient co-operation and not in too much power in the hands of the EU (which is not a bodiless monster in Brussels but the elected governments and also elected MEP-s), Cameron may have an uphill struggle. But he promised a referendum only after he will have agreed on a new type of membership of the UK. What can this new type of membership be: a two-speed Europe where Britain is in the slow lane (and then revenges by leaving the EU for being left in the slow lane? Oh no!). What is the new, more democratic EU going to be? Cameron mentions that the main role should go to national parliaments (not instead of the Council where he and his colleagues have the say, but instead of the European Parliament) as there is no united "European Demos" As there is a united UK demos (don't forget, it is not Britain as not only Scots and Welsh, but also Irish from Northern Ireland constitute its "nation". This model deserves some thought, maybe next week. What is the more flexible EU going to be: "cherry picking" was already refused and is also due to create a total chaos. My favourite scenario: A democratisation, cost cutting and competitivity actions - and maybe also some more flexibility can come out of the negotiations about economic governance and banking union, at least the conclusions of the December European Council point to a direction where serious limitations and tailor-made solutions will replace the "one size fits all" approach initially planned - are already in progress. The UK can keep its opt-outs and maybe generalise them or put them in a nicer light. And then he can say: I have succeeded in reforming Europe and our relation to it so we can stay. By the way: The UKIP wants a referendum now. What would be of the party if the UK would exit the EU? Not just Nigel Farage would lose his well-paying seat in the EP (where, as we have heard , he is also paid for a committee membership where he never works, but the party itself would use his whole basis of existence. Whom would they defend the independence of the UK from? There is a party in Luxembourg which remained a party after its program has gone by keeping to the ideological (populist) base, but I doubt the UKIP could find a similar agenda.

Tidbits about Hungary

Hungarian members of the European Parliament, accompanied by some Slovaks and Romanians (the list is not available, I wonder which group they belong to and whether they are all of Hungarian origin) and a Belgian submitted a request to present three Hungarian dog species on the "Solidarnosc" esplanade which is between two lines of buildings of the European Parliament, a pedestrian area, featuring huge screens and posters for the Parlamentarium , the EP's neew visitors' centre and other European events like the Sacharov prize and also demonstrations (last time against the Common Agricultural Policy by Belgian Dairy farmers). According to European Voice (see reference above) which reported about the request, there are strict standards for events on the Esplanade, so it is not sure, the show will take place. By the way: due to the revamping of the numbers of MP's for each member state due to the Lisbon Treaty (the number of MEP's has to be decreased), Hungary, with a little less than 10Mn inhabitants has 21 seats, while Sweden, with 9.5, has 19. So what about powerless new member states and colonies?

Friday, January 18, 2013

An "example" of press freedom

One of the important opposition on line portals has exhausted its resources and announced that it will suspend and eventually finish its activities. Galamus announced that they are only producing debt since two months and the support received since their first call mid-December was not enough. The portal was radically left-leaning liberal and some associated it with Ferenc Gyurcsány, the ex-prime minister who tried to stop indebtedness with austerity against the resistance from its own party and also the forceful actions of allegedly right-wing FIDESZ, who wanted to explain the people that no austerity is necessary and torpedoed healthcare reform and study fees for universities through a referendum. It is not subject of this post to evaluate his activities and views, but the portal Galamus was not associated with his person and did not operate as the "house media" of his tiny party (he parted the Socialists). An important piece of media freedom is breaking down. This is the second time the portal is in difficulties, readers saved it the first time, and they also introduced a sort of "subscription" although the portal remained open. Thus, apparently, the subscription system did not work. I also sent them a subscription like I am subscribed to another paper, Élet és Irodalom, or in short "ÉS" Life and Literature in English, a clearly liberal, intelligentsia-oriented, high level paper, which offers subscription to its electronic edition (saving paper and being also more affordable), but as there only some articles can be read without subscription, I do not forget to renew it. Back to Galamus: a reader opened the space for "12 angry men" by sending himself 1Mn HUF (about 3 600EUR) - 12 times this amount would cover one year of operation. But smaller amounts from more people can also help. So maybe we will succeed again. I sent some money again and I also call my readers if they can afford to do it: IBAN: HU25-1070-0419-6649-3934-5000-0005 Galamus csoport. There was another magazine, more for the young and cheeky free-thinkers: Magyar Narancs , Hungarian orange. For readers who do not understand Hungarian, as a consolation that they cannot read these papers I explain at least the title. It is clear that in Hungary it is not possible to grow oranges in the open air. The Communist system in the fifties tried this, of course without success. A film A Tanú (The Witness) - made in 1969 but screened onlyn a decade later - has as one of the adventures of the hero to lead the farm where they succeed in producing an orange. Just before presenting it to the big party boss, however, his children ate up this rare delicacy (I think I don't have to explain the political importance of this - Cuba produced oranges which were only good to squeeze out their juice but not to eat directly.) Nad thy put a lemon in its place. When the big boss tried the "orange", the hero could not otherwise but say: this is the Hungarian orange - "a little yellow, a little sour, but ours". Have a nice week-end!