Hungary has had a jittery start as the new president of the European Union, with domestic and international criticism of a controversial media law. Geza Jeszenszky was foreign minister of Hungary between 1990 and 1994 and Hungarian ambassador to the United States between 1998 and 2002.
He is a writer and teacher who under communism contributed articles critical of Marxism to underground publications and is a founding member of the conservative Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF). He is currently chairman of the Carpathian Association of Hungary and a member of the editorial board of the bi-monthly "Hungarian Review."
RFE/RL's Executive Editor John O'Sullivan spoke to Jeszenszky by e-mail about Hungary's plans for its EU presidency and the new media law.
RFE/RL: Hungary is about to assume the presidency of the European Union. It has become an established tradition for countries taking over the presidency to embark on an ambitious program of reforms. Is Hungary entering the presidency in this spirit? And if so, what are the main points of the Hungarian government’s program?
Geza Jeszenszky: Hungary has an ambitious program for the presidency. We want to contribute to the strengthening of Europe, especially by working for a common energy policy, by improving infrastructure in the north-south direction, by completing the admission of Croatia, and by including Romania and Bulgaria in the Schengen area.
We plan to launch the Danube Region Strategy, which covers transportation, water management, flood control, ecology, and tourism, including water sports. Hungary has a strong interest also in the EU’s Eastern Partnership, a common policy towards Russia and Ukraine.
RFE/RL: But does this program resonate with ordinary Hungarians? Do they feel committed to it? Or is the Hungarian population -- to use the British term -- Euroskeptic?
Jeszenszky: In the early 1990s Hungary and practically all the formerly communist-dominated countries had very high expectations concerning eventual membership. But if an engagement period drags on for many years, the bliss of the marriage is likely to be weaker. People expected more from membership, not only economically -- i.e. receiving substantial funds for development -- but also spiritually. We thought it would provide mutual benefits and appreciation.
Central Europe has great cultural and intellectual traditions; we feel we are not merely on the receiving end of Europe, we can give new insights and a fresh attitude. “Euroskepticism” will grow only if the “old” Europe neglects the new members or looks down at us.
RFE/RL: What does that mean in practical terms? Will Hungary join the euro -- as Estonia has just done? And if so, when?
Jeszenszky: In 2002, before the Socialist government took over, Hungary was planning to switch over to the euro in 2008. Due to the mismanagement of our economy in the last eight years, we can hardly expect to qualify for that before 2018.
RFE/RL: One foreign policy priority for Budapest is EU membership for Croatia. Do you think that an EU entry deal with Croatia will be concluded during the Hungarian presidency?
Jeszenszky: That could -- indeed, that should -- have been possible. With all respect for Bulgaria and Romania, who can seriously state that they were more fit for membership than Croatia? Ask the millions of tourists visiting Croatia about that. But I fear that even with our dedication and all the goodwill by Brussels, entry might be delayed until Poland takes over the presidency.
RFE/RL: There have been tensions in recent years between Budapest and those of its neighbors with ethnic Hungarian minorities. Will settling these tensions be part of Hungary’s policy during the EU presidency? Will EU membership make them easier to solve?
Jeszenszky: Tensions between Hungary and its neighbors with large Hungarian minorities are exactly 90 years old, when the borders were redrawn so that one-third of all Hungarians -- 3.5 million -- were cut off and transferred to new or enlarged states. But today there are no border disputes between this country and its neighbors; Hungary respects the present borders while consistently supporting the rights and long-term survival of the Hungarian communities in our neighborhood.
EU membership, open borders, common economic space can remove much of the tensions, while the adoption of the norms and conventions of the Council of Europe, or models like South Tyrol, offer perfect solutions to the problem of all the minorities in Europe. Hungary expects more concern and involvement by the EU in the issue, but that is not linked to our presidency.
RFE/RL: Another important topic for Hungary is the EU’s Eastern Partnership. Is it still a going concern? And in the light of what has just happened in Belarus and what is happening in Ukraine, should Hungary and the EU treat these countries differently from the relatively well-behaved Moldova?
Jeszenszky: Here I can speak only of my personal views. I like the idea of a stick-and-carrot policy, but let me add the qualification: if the carrot is administered in a principled way, there might be no need for the stick. Countries which “behave” should be rewarded by visa-free travel, and eventually by EU membership [if they want it].
The Baltic states provide the best and most convincing example of this progress. Their conduct has brought excellent results. Foreign investments are essential in all the former command economies. But if there is law and order and no corruption, all European states should have a place in the EU.
RFE/RL: Overall, does Hungary have the wider ambition of being a regional leader within and/or outside the EU? And what would that mean in practical terms? What kind of Europe does Hungary want to see?
Jeszenszky: All Central European states tend to see themselves being the very heart of Europe. But none of us can become a regional leader ahead of the others. The “Visegrad” idea, born just 20 years ago, placed cooperation before rivalry. We want to see a Europe in which Central Europe, an “enhanced Visegrad,” is not a poor relation who just came in from the cold but a valued partner whose views are worthy of consideration.
RFE/RL: An issue that has both domestic and foreign implications is that of Roma integration. The Roma issue is acute in Hungary itself. There was a wave of hate crimes some years ago. Recently, a frankly anti-Roma party, Jobbik, entered parliament. What can European Roma expect from the Hungarian EU presidency?
Jeszenszky: It is a mistaken and complacent view that the root of the problems concerning the Roma ethnic group is prejudice and discrimination. Such feelings exist, resulting sometimes in hate crimes, even killings, sadly in both directions. In all the cases, the Hungarian authorities found the guilty and the courts have given due punishments. Some trials are ongoing.
There is a widespread conviction in Hungary that the Roma population can and must be helped and integrated. The first two Roma members in the European Parliament came from Hungary. One of them, Ms. Jaroka, has drawn up a very realistic program for them in the first issue of a new magazine, "The Hungarian Review." Just as Western European governments do their best to facilitate the integration of Muslim and other non-European immigrants, so do the governments of the new EU members with their native Roma citizens.
The solution requires goodwill and determination on behalf of both the majority and the minority. Better education is clearly a precondition, but jobs -- employment -- offer the only lasting solution. Hungary has made the elaboration of a common European Roma strategy one of the priorities of our presidency.
RFE/RL: So what explains the rise of Jobbik? And how significant is it? Some observers see the party as evidence that there is a deep-seated anti-Semitism in the Hungarian polity? Your view?
Jeszenszky: Jobbik was born out of misguided nationalism, incompetent government policies after 2002, unemployment in our rust-belt in northeastern Hungary, growing crime (committed often but far from exclusively by Roma) and the inability of the police to deal with it. I was one of the first to see Jobbik as a serious political danger. But the danger they present is political in nature. They are less prone to violence than radical extremists in Western Europe.
Since the April elections, however, support for Jobbik has gone down significantly. This was already evident in the October local elections. As for anti-Semitism, that (verbal, not physical) can be found both inside and outside that party. Regrettably so. But I do not see it as deep-seated in Hungarian society today.
Since 1990, all Hungarian governments have taken an unequivocal stand against racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism. The school curriculum reflects that. Unfortunately, there is much incitement of prejudice through the Internet, very often from sources outside Hungary.
RFE/RL: Hungary provoked an international outcry with a proposed new media law. This creates a national media and communications board with the power to impose large fines for news coverage that is unbalanced or "offensive to human dignity.” What reasons lie behind this law? What “excesses” is it designed to cure?
Jeszenszky: First, let me list the excesses it is designed to cure: racism, anti-Semitism, hostility towards various minorities, denial of the Holocaust or of the crimes committed by the communists, excessive violence and improper language on the screens, etc. The new law has nothing to do with political censorship as such. It is intended more to protect decency -- social and political.
On the other hand, the wording of the law leaves much to be desired. The offenses mentioned are too general, not specific enough, and the supervising authority represents only one wing of politics. My preference would be an entirely nonpartisan body to supervise how the media observes a better law. All in all, the outcry against the law is exaggerated, but it is not entirely out of place. Prime Minister [Viktor] Orban has just said that the law might have to be revised. I concur.
RFE/RL: Some critics have drawn wider lessons from the media controversy. Articles in "The Washington Post" and elsewhere have suggested that the Fidesz government headed by Prime Minister Orban is sliding into authoritarianism, even Putinism? On the other hand, Adam LeBor of "The Times" of London suggests that Orban’s model is not Putin but Margaret Thatcher. Do you think Orban has a model? And if so, who?
Jeszenszky: If Prime Minister Viktor Orban has any political model in mind, it is Hungarian political leaders like the stern Istvan Tisza (prime minister in 1904-05 and 1913-17), who was too liberal, too philo-Semite, and too much of a Hungarian patriot for the Austrian diehards and too conservative for the Hungarian progressives. Or maybe Istvan Bethlen (prime minister in 1921-31) who restored stability in a country devastated by war and revolutions. Both were true statesmen, strongly patriotic, admired or disliked even after their death, but constructive beyond any doubt.
It is really an affront to compare Orban and his policies to those of [Belarusian President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka or [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin. But I don’t think he would mind being compared to Margaret Thatcher. Actually, it would not be a bad idea for Orban to emulate the “Iron Lady,” who was and is a much respected person in Hungary and who always showed a lot of sympathy towards us.
RFE/RL: You know Orban well. In the early years of postcommunism, when you were foreign minister in the conservative government of Jozsef Antall, he was a political opponent in a different party. Later, he appointed you ambassador to Washington. Can you give us a brief summary of the character of the prime minister -- and tell Europe what to expect of him?
Jeszenszky: I have known Orban since we met at the reburial of the martyrs of 1956 on the anniversary of the execution in 1989. He and his party were in the opposition when I served as a minister, but Orban came to respect the late Prime Minister [Jozsef] Antall greatly, and the sympathy was mutual. Already in 1995 I saw Orban as a leader who could defeat the Socialist-led government.
He has remained a radical in many respects -- sure of himself. His ambition is not political power and even less the monopoly of political power for its own sake. Orban’s ambition is to rebuild Hungary into a proud, successful, and prosperous nation (as it was in the past), committed to traditional European values, including Christianity.
He is committed to rebuild the ties to Hungarians severed from the main body of the nation by history, but in cooperation and harmony with all the neighbors. There is nothing to be afraid of in his aims. As to his methods -- well, history will judge them.