The outspoken Fidesz MEP Gyorgy Schöpflin told DW's Jo Harper that the EU is using double standards in its treatment of Hungary. The "liberal narrative" of "democratic backsliding" in Central Europe is wrong, he said.
Thousands have demonstrated against what they see as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's repressive policies
DW: Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orban, is often lumped together with Poland's de facto ruler, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and even sometimes Russian President Vladimir Putin as a new proponent of illiberalism. How do you answer such accusations, for example, that the ruling party, Fidesz, is undermining democracy, limiting a free press and attacking academic freedoms in Hungary?
Gyorgy Schopflin: Undermining democracy is very much a question of what one means by "democracy": Is it rule by the consent of the governed or domination by the values of the liberal elite, regardless of consent?
Contrary to the widespread liberal narrative of "democratic backsliding" in Central Europe, the institutional order in Hungary works well. The Constitutional Court regularly quashes draft laws passed by parliament and the EU's Justice Scoreboard places Hungary in the top third of EU member states.
As far as the media are concerned, even a casual sampling of what is published will show that there is very wide-ranging, often very harsh, criticism of the government, of Fidesz and of Orban personally. In summary form, there are three media spaces – that of the left, that of Jobbik and that of Fidesz. No journalist has been arrested, so parallels with Turkey or Russia are nonsense.
Academic freedom is intact. Again, a sampling of what is published will demonstrate this. Much of academia lean to the liberal left and remain in their posts.
April protests in Budapest focused on criticizing PM Orban's policies and the controversy surrounding his attacks on the Central European University and its founder, Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros
What will happen with the Central European University?
As far as the CEU is concerned, it enjoys a privileged position in as much as it grants both Hungarian and American diplomas, but without its having an American mother university, hence American academic oversight. The higher education law is about regulating this. Whether the CEU will want to regularize this is their decision. There is no commitment on the part of the Hungarian government to expel the CEU.
Is there a new illiberalism emerging in Central and Eastern Europe? Is this not just an old illiberalism in new clothes? Is this a fair description or would you put it another way? I am thinking of attitudes toward immigrants, among other things.
"Illiberalism" in the Hungarian case applies only to the economy, the word as used by Orban applies only to the inequalities of power generated by the free market. The rest is an accumulation of attributes made by liberals, who have found a negative polarity in what they define as "illiberalism" and can attack it in order to show their own virtue.
They perform this virtue signaling in order to deflect attention from equivalent problems at home, along the lines of: "Yes, there may be difficulties here, but look how much worse things are in illiberal, authoritarian, autocratic Hungary." This is an old rhetorical trick.
The EU has been vocal in its criticisms of Orban's domestic politics. But Brussels attacks seem to embolden him more. How do you see this Brussels-Budapest spat playing out?
"Spat" is the wrong word. The relationship between the EU Commission and the Fidesz government has been marked by the application of significantly harsher conditions by the former than is applied to other member states.
When Fidesz came to power in 2010, they discovered that the budget deficit left behind by the left-wing government was far worse than expected. Orban asked the Commission for an easing of the rules; this was rejected. Some years later, when Spain and Portugal asked for a similar easing, it was granted.
There have been numerous other cases when the commission followed a much harder line towards Hungary than was warranted, as over the media law - after scrutiny, there was little to object to.
Equally, there was severe preliminary criticism of the new Basic Law. Then, after looking at the details, the Commission climbed down. The Western press fuelled the criticism, claiming falsely, for example, that Hungary was banning abortion – untrue. And so on.
Much of this criticism can be derived from a political and journalistic suspicion that a center-right government that has embarked on a program of reform must inherently be in the wrong. Journalism has long ago abandoned any pretence of objectivity.
Disclosure: Schopflin advised the interviewer's PhD thesis at the London School of Economics in the years 1994-96.