Hungary Monthly Digest: Hungary is “Partly Free”, and government launches campaign against the European Commission5 min read

 In Central Europe, News, Politics

– On January 30th, workers of the Audi factory in Győr, Northwest Hungary, won an 18% wage increase, ending a six-day strike. The factory is one of the biggest industrial hubs of the country, with more than 13,000 employees, of whom 9,000 are union members – a huge number in comparison to the average 9% of Hungarian workers.

– On February 5th, the American NGO Freedom House published its annual “Freedom in the World” report. As many commentators have pointed out (here or here), Hungary this year became the only EU country to be classified as “partly free”, rated 70 out of 100 (0 = least free; 100 = most free).

– On February 6th, CNN published an overview of the new Hungarian children’s textbooks. If you want to know more about what Hungarian kids will learn at school, look here.

– The long-established newspaper Magyar Nemzet, which had been shut down a year ago, was resurrected, albeit in name only, on February 8th. Prior to its closure, the media outlet belonged to Lajos Simicska, a Hungarian olicharch close to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who, in 2015, changed his tune and started attacking the government through his media empire. After three years of battle, the businessman gave in and shuttered Magyar Nemzet in April 2018 for “financial problems” (the whole story can be found here). The press publication was eventually rebooted at the beginning on the month, as the new name of the ultra-conservative newspaper Magyar Idők.

– On February 10th, Orbán gave his traditional State of the Nation speech, which kick-started European Parliamentary campaign of Fidesz, his right-wing populist party. Orbán began his address with a positive picture of Hungary under his rule, and soon started attacking the nascent Hungarian opposition as “an assemblage of pro-immigration politicians”, “the definition of political pornography”, and even “a betrothal between the communist tradition and the Nazi tradition” (referring to the alliance between the far-right Jobbik and the left). The Prime Minister did not spare Brussels either: “they seek to transform the whole of Europe into an immigrant continent”, before embarking upon the now-familiar topic of immigration: “Migration boosts crime – in particular, crimes against women – and spreads the disease of terrorism among us.” Orbán also announced a set of natalist policies aimed at reversing the current demographic decline of the Hungarian population, leading to a shortage in workforce. The details of this family package can be found at the end of this article.

– US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid Hungary a visit on February 11th, to meet Viktor Orbán, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó, Minister of Defence Tibor Benkő, and representatives of various Hungarian NGOs. This was the first official visit from the US to Hungary since 2011. The American statesman pointed out that his country had neglected Central Europe in recent years, and promised increased engagement. While human rights and rule of law had been put on the agenda, it seems that the talks revolved mainly around defence cooperation, energy matters, and regional stability. On the Hungarian side, Szijjártó hastened to downplay the burgeoning relationship between Hungary and Russia.

– On February 12th, between 2,000 and 3,000 people formed a human chain around the Hungarian Academy of Science building in Budapest to protest against the government’s attempts to control it by carrying out a structural and financial reorganisation of the academic institution, founded in 1825. An important part of its budget henceforth may depend on calls for tenders from the Ministry for Innovation and Technology, while the research laboratories may be headed up by government-appointed administrators, thereby threatening the academic independence of the institution.

–The V4 (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) summit scheduled in Israel on February 18th-19th was cancelled a few days beforehand, due to tensions between the leaders of Poland and Israel over Poland’s role in the Holocaust (read more in the February edition of What’s up Poland?). However, Hungarian officials maintained their visit to Israel without the other V4 members, the second in less than one year (read more about their first visit in the July, 2018 edition of What’s up Hungary?). The reasons behind this political rapprochement are manyfold: while Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu is looking for a breach in the EU to influence its position on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict or the recognition of Jerusalem as capital, the Hungarian government sees Israel as a way to improve their relations with the United States, and to clear the accusations of antisemitism hanging over Viktor Orbán.

– On February 20th, the government’s new “information” campaign was released in the form of posters on the streets, targeting, as usual, George Soros, but this time also Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, and leader of the European People’s Party (EPP), which is also Fidesz’s political family in European politics. The personal attack was immediately condemned by several political actors, including the European Commission, which published a counter-poster on its FB page, but also the usually less vocal President of the EPP Joseph Daul, on Twitter. One can wonder what Orbán may be up to when he decides to attack his own political camp three months before the EP elections.

– Near the end of the month, news broke that Hungary had secretly accepted around 300 Venezuelan refugees over the past year or so. However, as ironically notes, “the government created the immigration special tax [voted through last July] precisely to sanction such activities”. The whole story, worth reading, is available here.

Main sources: CNN (EN), Le Courrier d’Europe Centrale (FR), Hungarian Free Press (EN), Hungarian Spectrum (EN), Index (EN), Le Monde (FR)

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