Hungarians abroad dominate Hungarian EP campaign

The governing Fidesz party has been successful in placing the issue of Hungarians living in neighbouring countries, especially in Ukraine and Serbia, into the focus of the EP elections. Surprisingly, the Roma minority is being ignored, and unsurprisingly, so is the issue of immigrants. With the exceptions of the inclusivist Greens and the autonomist far right, other parties have been rather reactive and vague on minority questions.

Foto: Archive RM

In Hungary, interest in the European Parliamentary elections has always been low. Opinion polls published so far in May have forecast a relatively low willingness to vote. Research published by the Nézőpont Institute predicts a 44% participation rate, but allows that the participation rate may be lower than 40%, while a survey by Medián forecasts a 46% participation rate. Although both surveys predict higher voter participation than in the previous two European Parliamentary elections, political parties are mostly talking about domestic political topics. One major headline grabber is the issue of Jobbik MEP Béla Kovács, whom the Hungarian State Prosecutor’s Office has indicted for allegedly spying on behalf of Russia.

Although only the Greens had a programme prior to the late start of the EP campaign, several other parties have since come forward with manifestos.

Immigration important at EU level but not in Hungary

In this year’s EP elections on a community level, the issue of minorities is mostly being emphasised in Western European countries, where it is chiefly the extreme right that focuses on the issue of immigration in their political agendas. This is a serious concern, as the 2012 Eurobarometer survey, among others, pointed out that 65% of discriminative attitudes among EU residents are of ethnic origin. However, it is not only extremists who speak out against immigrants; for instance, conservative right-wing UK Prime Minister David Cameron would also curb immigration, he said. For those whose average income does not reach a certain level, employment in another EU member state should not be possible.

In Hungary, however, the question of immigration scarcely appears in the political discourse. Only one party, Politics Can Be Different (the Greens), puts emphasis on this issue, as will be discussed later. This lack of emphasis is attributed to the fact that the number of immigrants is relatively low in Hungary, and for the majority of immigrants who do arrive in Hungary, the country is only a transit point on the way to Western European countries. Therefore, this topic is not present in everyday political discourse. In the past few years, the question has mostly been discussed due to the opening of the refugee camp at Vámosszabadi, and only indirectly, as the settlement’s residents protested against the camp but not immigration. The majority of parties did not even respond to the incident; only the candidate of the radical nationalist party Jobbik in Győr promised to close down the camp. However, he did not talk about taking any steps against immigrants and did not offer any alternative to place the immigrants, which, together with the relevant questions of Gábor Vona to MSZP and Fidesz, would imply that the problem is the presence of immigrants itself.

Hungarian plan for European Roma Strategy criticised

One of the priorities of the Hungarian EU presidency in 2011 was to create a European Roma strategy. Although the EU has so far obliged member states to take measures against discrimination, in everyday life we have not seen many actual results. This has adversely affected the 10-12 million Roma who live in Europe, as they cannot fully take advantage of their minority rights and the majority continues to live in very difficult social circumstances. In order to change this, the governments of member states had to create their own national Roma strategy in which they summarised their ideas on how to integrate the Roma. The Hungarian programme, the “National Social Integration Strategy”, has been widely criticised by NGOs as it does not facilitate social integration, but stigmatises the Roma instead.

In spite of all the criticism, the government parties approved the proposition. However, it was not received by unanimous enthusiasm by the opposition. On behalf of the socialists, Kinga Göncz declared that the involvement of civic organizations would be essential to implement the programmes and that a stronger contribution from the elite was expected. On behalf of Jobbik, MP Zsolt Baráth stated that he thought the strategy was not a real solution as it only provided further advantages for the Roma against Hungarians, and positive discrimination does not constitute a real solution to Roma integration. On behalf of Politics Can Be Different, Ágnes Osztolykán said the government has to advertise the Roma programmes very well, because if the Roma do not pay attention to them, the existing tension will increase.

Hungarians in neighbouring countries still the focus

The question of the autonomy of Hungarians outside the borders of Hungary is a recurring issue in Hungarian politics. During the current campaign, the statement causing the biggest uproar came from the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, who said in his inauguration speech on May 10th that “The issue of Hungarians is a European issue. Hungarians in the Carpathian basin are entitled to dual citizenship, community rights and autonomy.” This caused a huge uproar in neighbouring countries. For instance, the entire Slovakian political elite, independent of political sides, criticised this statement, and László Sólymos, a HÍD-MOST representative of Hungarian origin, had to emphasise that his party’s ideas did not include claiming regional autonomy.

The Fidesz EPP campaign focuses on Hungarians outside the borders of Hungary. One sign of this is that there are several Hungarian politicians from outside Hungary on their joint list, of whom László Tőkés might be the best known. After party chair Orbán’s controversial announcement, we might think that the party alliance of Fidesz-KDNP would stand up for the autonomy of Hungarians outside the country’s borders. However, in the previous parliamentary cycle, Jobbik representative István Szávay’s amendment to the decision on the national heritage, which would have listed the cultural autonomy of Hungarian communities outside the borders as part of the country’s cultural heritage, was rejected by the majority. 310 MPs voted against it, which means that, based on numbers, the majority of the governing party’s representatives opposed it as well.

Of the government party’s representatives in the past cycle, Kinga Gál, born in Cluj/Kolozsvár, was the most active in the issue of Hungarians outside the borders. Her most important achievement in Brussels, completed in the previous cycle, was probably the extension of the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency’s mandate to include minorities. In a 2013 interview with Mandiner, she said that for the European Union, due to varying assessments of the issue in different member states, the question of national minorities is controversial. This is true, as there is still no uniform, established community standpoint concerning the issue. The European Citizens’ Initiative to protect minorities, initiated by the working group comprising the members of the Federal Union of European Minorities, the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania, the People’s Party of South Tirol and the Youth Organization of European Minorities, had the aim to promote positive changes in the situation of minorities in the areas of language, educational and cultural issues, regional politics, EP representation, anti-discrimination, media regulation and subsidisation policies. However, the registration of the initiative was rejected by the European Commission, which claimed that the issue was out of its legislative scope. MEP Gál stated when the initiative first began that it offered a good opportunity to protect language rights. However, she warned that defining minorities causes difficulties and therefore may render the initiative impossible, as eventually happened. On behalf of the socialists, MEP Csaba Tabajdi criticised the European Commission’s decision, accusing them of applying double standards where minorities were concerned by rejecting the initiative on the grounds that minority protection is not within the scope of the EU, and then expecting states wishing to join the EU to meet established criteria on the issue.

Concerning the autonomy of the Voivodina region in Serbia, MEP Gál said that it does not improve but rather prevents the separatist initiatives of minorities. She added that “Voivodina can be the key to Serbia’s EU accession; it may accelerate and strengthen it”, which is very difficult to assess in an objective manner, as the EU accession of Romania was not hindered by the fact that the government in Bucharest ignores autonomy initiatives from Transylvania. Concerning the tense situation in Ukraine, she gave speeches in the EP several times, calling attention to the local extreme right elements’ discrimination against Hungarian ethnic minorities there. For instance, on the extreme right-wing groups’ initiative, the Kiev parliament withdrew a law regulating the language rights of minorities.

Socialists vague on minorities

The Hungarian Socialist Party did not issue a separate EP election programme, only the document published on May 6th, “What does the Hungarian Socialist Party want in Europe?” informing us about their promises if they are elected. This document does not mention anything concerning minorities. However, a separate document accessible on the party website in Hungarian, issued by the European Socialist Party with the title “On the way towards a renewing Europe”, discusses this question to the effect that the integration and social status of immigrants should be improved. The party would initiate the allocation of more funds to cover policies in this area.

On the party’s election list, there is only one representative who would like to obtain a mandate again: Zita Gurmai. She has been mostly engaged in the question of women’s equal opportunities; however, in the debate concerning the expansion of right-wing extremists in Europe, she said social cohesion has to be strengthened to fight discrimination.

National radicals for the autonomy of Hungarians outside the borders

The radical Jobbik party is focusing on Hungarian communities outside the borders in its EP elections programme, too. According to the party, in their view there has not been any improvement on the EU level, as the problems of Hungarian minorities have not been solved in Brussels. Therefore, they would support these minority groups with the explicit goal of facilitating their autonomy initiatives. The party would make it a requirement of Serbia and Ukraine’s EU accession to guarantee the widest possible opportunity for Hungarian national communities in those countries to practice self-governance. This mostly relates to autonomy, which is a goal stated in the programmes of several Hungarian organizations outside the borders of Hungary and backed by Jobbik. Jobbik MEP Krisztina Morvai spoke in the EP debates on several occasions about the need to protect Hungarian minorities from the current situation in Ukraine, proposing either autonomy or armed intervention on behalf of the European Union to protect them.

The cohabitation of Hungarians and Roma was given a separate chapter in the party’s parliamentary elections programme; however, in this programme it is not mentioned. In that document, they primarily emphasised their own merits in putting this question into the limelight, claiming that nobody had dealt with the issue for decades, despite it being an important social problem according to the party. So-called “Gypsy crime” is an existing concept according to Jobbik, and eliminating it is in the basic interest of Hungarian society. They emphasise this is not a collective stigmatisation of Roma people, as the phenomenon has a socio-cultural background. They would eliminate the positive discrimination towards the Roma that they claim exists. They would also end development funds, which they claim do not reach the target persons and therefore are of no real help to anyone.

In the European Parliamentary debate on the topic of “The situation of the Roma” on October 9th, 2013, Krisztina Morvai said, “It is well known that a significant part of funds intended to be spent on Roma integration ends up in the pockets of corrupt politicians”. This allegation is misleading as, though corruption can never be prevented completely, these funds have to be reported on so that their expenditure can be tracked. Another option for Morvai would have been to say that, in general, the majority of these sums go to the wrong places, as it can never be conclusively known beforehand what the best solution is to a given problem.

 Greens for the social integration of immigrants

In the EP election programme of Politics Can Be Different (LMP, the Greens), the question of the integration of immigrants is primarily mentioned in connection with minorities. They think it is not possible to talk about European solidarity until social integration of immigrants and refugees is a goal. Therefore, they urge the revision of EU regulations relevant to asylum-seekers, and they would urge EU decision-makers to stop applying the policy of alien detention. They believe an ageing Europe needs immigrants for economic purposes, and therefore the bureaucratic burden on immigrants should be decreased. They would also support programmes facilitating the integration of immigrants and establishing a new form of citizenship.

LMP has emphasised on various occasions that they support the regional autonomy of Transylvania, joining with the European Green group on the issue, and this topic is once again present in their election programme. They believe the various forms of autonomy (cultural and regional) do not threaten Europe, but provide diversity.

Short-spoken liberal declarations with scarce specific information

In its declaration issued for the EP elections, the liberal Együtt-PM party alliance’s views on minority issues are not elaborated. They believe that the best chance for Hungarians in and outside of Hungary to unite is the eliminated borders of the European Union. They consider the growing strength of nationalism and populism throughout Europe to be a threat to human rights. The programme of former PM Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Democratic Coalition Party, on the other hand, does not mention minorities at all. Therefore, it can only be assumed that for them, this question is not a priority.

András Bakó

András Bakó

is a researcher at