“As an opposition MP, I need to show Europe that there is a Hungary outside Orbán’s regime”
We contacted Jobbik’s executive vice president and newly-elected MEP Márton Gyöngyösi via e-mail and asked him about his work in Brussels, the challenges for Jobbik in the next EP term as well as how the party’s reputation changed in Western Europe over the past few years. We also asked him about Jobbik’s prospects in the Hungarian political arena.
What are your first impressions of the European Parliament? How is it different from the Hungarian legislative body and is the job like what you expected?
Perhaps the most fundamental difference is that, unlike in the Hungarian National Assembly, the European Parliament doesn’t take away the floor from you if you say something that the presiding chair doesn’t like. All joking aside, the governing party has unfortunately very much reduced Hungarian parliamentarism to empty talk while the EP now has serious debates on issues determining Europe’s future rather than such matters as the curvature of cucumbers. I believe that the EP’s role will be even more appreciated in the future because we are facing more and more issues that cannot be solved at national level. These matters include global warming or migration, which is closely related to climate change, as well the wage gap because Eastern Europe cannot achieve better wages without an all-European cooperation.
So my first impressions of the European Parliament are good; I got what I expected. However, it’s much more important that voters should also get what they expected or even better. As far as I can see, the means and opportunities are there and that’s the most important thing.
You delivered your EP virgin speech in relation with Ursula von der Leyen’s election as European Commission president, and you warned of the “growing Euro-scepticism”. What was the reaction to such a speech from a representative of a party which is typically considered as Euro-sceptic in the west?
When I got the chance to deliver a one-minute speech, I never expected to get so much applause and cheer from across the aisle when I said that backdoor deals made behind the people’s back would further incite Euro-scepticism. I seem to have touched on a topic that is very important for many European politicians, regardless of political sides.
It should come as no surprise since everybody has been talking about how Europe should be brought closer to the people and how the EU should operate more democratically, but then the most important HR decision is made behind closed doors, contrary to all promises. A leader like Viktor Orbán may prefer such a deal but the people and the MEPs who participated in a real election race don’t like it at all. This feeling was obviously reflected in the result and Ursula von der Leyen could only win with a very narrow majority. Since it was a secret vote, some MEPs of her own party family might not have supported her... Except for Fidesz, which loudly applauded this widely and heavily criticized decision. I believe it clearly shows who is Euro-sceptic. Jobbik’s position was that we should trust the people and accept their decision. Contrary to that, some politicians took the decision out of the people’s hands because they couldn’t accept the outcome. This issue clearly demonstrates the positions of the various parties, including Jobbik, the reputation of which is partly shaped by such votes as well.
You also voiced your concerns in the social media, saying that von der Leyen’s election was the result of a backdoor deal rather than the will of European citizens. After a start like this, what future do you expect for the EU and how do you think it will affect Hungary?
I pointed out that my concern was not related to Ursula von der Leyen as a person, or her ideas. I was opposed to the manner in which she was elected. We wouldn’t have considered Manfred Weber as an ideal candidate, let alone the Socialist Frans Timmermans. But you can’t deny that both of them ran a full campaign as lead candidates before the election. Unfortunately, some key European politicians don’t seem to have reached a point where they could conduct straightforward policies, so Angela Merkel’s confidante von der Leyen became the head of the European Commission. We’ll see how it goes from here. I felt her programme speech was good, and she has several important and relatable ideas, such as her proposed measures to protect the rule of law or her climate policies. I hope that von der Leyen will be able to overcome the scandal associated with her election and become a successful leader of the European Commission. It is the common interest for all of us.
As far as Hungary is concerned, we have reason to be pessimistic, unfortunately. The Orbán government’s hysterio-politics have completely isolated our country by now. He can conceal it from the people with his success propaganda as long as the EU monies keep coming but the biggest risk right now is that EU funds may be tied to conditions related to the rule of law and anti-corruption measures. Although we’d shed few tears over the Orbán government’s failure, the problem is that the “withdrawal of EU funds would financially hit the people of Hungary rather than Lőrinc Mészáros. Back home, they keep trying to sell us the idea that Viktor Orbán is a politician on a European scale, but they eat humble pie in Brussels to bargain for a little more leeway. If they can’t achieve this goal, you can’t exclude the possibility that they might start preparing Hungary’s exit from the European Union. Such a move could have dire consequences for our country. That’s why Hungarian opposition MEPs have such a major responsibility nowadays.
Do you consider it a success that you got in the EP’s Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET) as a non-attached MEP? What decisions are made by this body? What impact can you have on these decisions and what weight does such a position have in terms of the other Hungarian parties?
The AFET has perhaps the greatest prestige in the European Parliament, and it often takes a very influential MEP to get in the committee even if they enjoy the backing of a major political group. Today the committee has members who used to be foreign affairs ministers or even prime ministers of their country. It’s a major success for even a member of a large parliamentary group to make it there.
The fact that I could get in the committee as a non-attached MEP is the result of substantial lobbying and a certain amount of luck. Unlike in the previous terms, this parliament has very many non-attached MEPs so sometimes you have more leverage if you’re independent than if you are a member of a party family. It was reflected in the allocation of the committee seats: other Hungarian opposition MEPs were unable to get in the AFET because the more senior members of their respective party families took those seats, so they had to make do with other professional areas.
As far as the committee’s decisions are concerned, there is a good reason why this body is so prestigious. Most of their meetings have always been characterized by a very high level of professionalism. Such committees sometimes conduct hearings of prime ministers about the situation in their country. The decisions made here greatly influence the EU’s foreign policy, which is especially important for Hungary as our border forms the external border of the Union.
Does this committee membership have any significance for Jobbik, which is stigmatized in Western Europe in several different ways, or personally for you, who has been accused unfairly even in the latest campaign for a slip of the tongue dating back to many years ago? Can it be interpreted as a sign that the party’s reputation may be changing in European political and diplomatic circles?
Politicians must never get offended, even when they are accused unfairly because it comes with the freedom of speech. So the reason why it’s important for us to get key positions is to represent Jobbik’s supporters rather than to get some kind of recompense for any unfair treatment. European politicians are quite aware of what is going on in Hungary right now and even though we might feel they are very slow to react, we do get some feedback on how dissatisfied they are with what’s going on in our country. It has become commonplace that Fidesz is an intolerable far-right force which is making more and more obvious efforts to establish an Asian-type authoritarian regime. In the meantime, Jobbik is also being watched, and we are considered as a rightist-conservative force that can be reasoned with. We’ve seen the signs of this process for 1-2 years and our achievements in the EP fit this picture, too.
Before the EP elections, you emphasized that the EU was going to be key for Jobbik in terms of political networking. Have your hopes been fulfilled, have you found partners in Brussels?
Networking is like building a house. It needs time and of course it’s never really completed, there’s always something you can work on. I believe the first month was a success, with results that speak for themselves, but the the real work starts in September. Fortunately, we have a good programme which makes our job easier.
You’ve also stated several times that Jobbik wanted to join the European conservative right’s parliamentary group but you’ve failed to do it so far. How much does it change your party’s European strategy and how does it affect your leverage or your potential alliances?
I would only say we’ve failed if we hadn’t made any progress for five years, but that doesn’t apply to our situation today. Part of the reason why we didn’t force the issue of joining a parliamentary group in the past few weeks was because our experience showed that it was easier to make a move as a non-attached MEP at first. Another part of the reason is that there are very many non-attached MEPs at this point, so we can get the positions or speech times we are entitled to, since we are not blocked by the larger parties of the larger countries. Nevertheless, being in a parliamentary group is the best alternative in the long run, and that’s what we are aiming for.
What is your and Jobbik’s most important goal for the next EP session, what issues do you want to call attention to?
The priority lies with the issues we described in our programme. The most important one of them is to promote the European Wage Union, which would help us remedy the increasingly critical brain-and-hand drain from Eastern Europe. As far as I can see, this issue is more in focus than ever before, and the attention is expected to increase in the future. When we first raised the question of eliminating the east-west wage gap, we were often shrugged off, and many people remained sceptical even when we started collecting statements of support from citizens across Europe. But things have changed and now there is a wide discussion of a common European minimum wage, which could be the first step in the right direction. However, we don’t want to stop there: we want to create the economic conditions so that Eastern Central Europe’s wages could converge to those of Western Europe. Other equally important issues are environment protection and the fight against global warming, and Jobbik has already released its five-point manifesto on these matters.
We must also address the issue of the rule of law because Hungary’s situation is getting worse and worse in this regard. As an opposition MEP, I must show Europe that there is a Hungary outside the Orbán regime and the people of Hungary are not responsible for what Fidesz is doing. This message especially needs to be emphasized now when the government’s irresponsible policies are more and more likely to lead to some financial sanctions against Hungary. Joining the European Public Prosecutor’s Office could help us clean the slate by identifying the real culprits.
Do you expect the other Hungarian MEPs to support you? If so, in which of these issues?
Obviously, we can’t expect any support from Fidesz MEPs in any of these matters because their policies are based on keeping Hungarian wages low, denying the climate change that we all feel, stealing the EU funds and dismantling democracy. On the other hand, I do feel that we may be able to cooperate with most Hungarian opposition MEPs in several areas. I’m trying to convince them that we could go beyond the European minimum wage in order to fully eliminate wage inequalities, and I think we’ve already reached common ground in terms of joining the European Public Prosecutor’s Office as this idea is now supported by all Hungarian opposition parties.
As we reported earlier, Hungarian opposition MEPs established a roundtable to promote cooperation. How much does it help you in your work and how do you relate to the politicians involved in this roundtable? Do you think the operation of this organization might exclude any possibility to cooperate with the governing party’s MEPs, even on specific issues?
In luckier countries it’s quite common that national delegations rise above partisanship and coordinate their efforts across the aisle because they believe that national interests override ideological differences. Unfortunately, Hungary is not one of those lucky countries as Fidesz aims to completely deprive you of your rights, your means or to drive you out of the country if you’re not a government supporter. This attitude prevents us from talking about any common goals in Brussels or Strasbourg, not to mention that such individuals as Tamás Deutsch, whose career is more like that of a B-list celebrity or Balázs Hidvéghi, who climbed the political ladder on the back of the anti-Soros campaign, could hardly provide relevant input in any important matter.
I find this whole situation quite sad but now that we’re here, I think at least the opposition MEPs should coordinate with each other. This is not a real roundtable and there’s no obligation to agree on anything. We just keep each other informed about our movements and if we have a common understanding in a particular issue, then we help each other. Of course, this also means that we set aside our ideological differences in our personal relations. The Hungarian workers’ wages or the protection of the environment can never be a right or left issue, obviously. However, there are some matters where we will never come to an agreement and that’s why it’s so important for Jobbik to represent a right-leaning opinion beside the three left-liberal parties. This is how we can fully represent the Hungarian people.
You’ve promised not to withdraw from Hungarian domestic politics or from Jobbik’s community. Do you think you can remain active in Brussels and Budapest at the same time? How can you perform your duties as the party’s executive vice president?
Not only won’t I withdraw, but I will go an a series of political rallies in Hungary in September, and I will be personally involved in the municipal election campaign. Today I’m in Budapest so I participated in Jobbik’s parliamentary faction meeting but even if I were abroad I would still be able to join them through a secret video communication channel, thanks to our IT experts. The technology had its debut in last week’s board meeting which I attended in 2D form while sitting in an office a thousand miles from Budapest.
For many years, our approach to the European parliamentary work tended to be based on the MEP’s convenience: since it’s not quite a relaxed lifestyle to commute from Hungary to Brussels and Strasbourg, we thought that once the MEPs were transferred abroad they could stay out of Hungary’s domestic politics. Also, the EP was not nearly as an important institution as it is now, of course. However, just like provincial MPs cannot disappear from their constituencies just because they were elected as a Member of Parliament, MEPs mustn’t disappear from Hungary just because they spend a part of their week abroad. How could I present the Hungarian people’s problems to the European Parliament if I had no first-hand experience of them? I will certainly stay present in the Hungarian political arena and in Jobbik’s life, too. I have many plans for the future which are associated with Hungary and Jobbik.
As we reported earlier, Péter Jakab succeeded you as the head of Jobbik’s parliamentary faction. What is your relationship like with your successor and can you help him in his work?
I believe Péter is by far the best person we could’ve found to lead the parliamentary faction. I was greatly reassured that I could hand over the faction to him and I’m certain that he will do an excellent job as its leader. We keep in touch with him on a daily basis and coordinate on all major decisions. I do my best to share the experience of the past years with him while his energetic approach means a huge inspiration for me. Although MEPs are not members of the parliamentary faction formally, the Brussels and Budapest activities complement each other; neither is complete without the other. Moreover, MEPs have the right to address the Hungarian Parliament in certain cases.
Talking about domestic politics, how do you see Jobbik’s future? What conditions need to be met so that the party could once again become the leading opposition force and/or Fidesz’ potential challenger? Do you think the autumn election of leaders may be a step ahead?
Back under Gábor Vona’s leadership, Jobbik already set out on a path but it wasn’t able to go all the way. The reasons included our own mistakes, such as over-emphasizing the results of the 2018 elections, and certain tensions generated by external forces, such as the noisy unmasking and forced exodus of the Fidesz agents working in our party, or the unlawful fines imposed on us by the State Audit Office. Although the party was already characterized by a future-forward, optimistic stance in the spring of 2019, we didn’t seem to have conveyed this attitude to the voters. The next presidency’s job will be to carry the halted process to the end and complete Jobbik’s transition, so that we could be a renewed, credible party offering the alternative of modern conservativism with national and European values. I believe most Hungarian people can identify with this programme. Of course, our members will have a major role in communicating this message to the growing circle of intellectuals supporting us. It’s no secret that I want to be actively involved in that work, too.
Tamás Tari / Alfahír.hu - Jobbik.com