An alternative for Hungary: The liberal way forward

Hungary, once a beacon of liberal hope in Central Europe, has since moved in the wrong direction. The government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has curtailed media freedom in the country, while also undermining opposition access to political advertisement in the course of political campaigns. Hungary is a country of enormous potential in the heart of Europe, and fortunately there are still Hungarian liberals willing to challenge the government for the sake of freedom.

Kesz
Zoltan Kész; Source: ALDE Party

In February 2015 one liberal, Zoltan Kész, broke the Fidesz supermajority by winning the rural municipality of Veszprém. In the Hungarian Parliament he is joined by two other self-confessed liberals, Gábor Fodor and Zsuzsanna Szelényi. The liberal scene in Hungary is still fractured, but in their commitment to freedom and belief in Europe they unite. As Kész pointed out, Hungarians are staunchly pro-European, and the rapprochement between Orbán and Putin frightens the Hungarian citizen.

19-21 November 2015 liberals from across Europe descended on Budapest for their annual congress. By convening in Hungary, the ALDE Party made it clear; European liberals stand on the side of liberty here as elsewhere in Europe. We invited the three liberal stalwarts of the Hungarian Parliament to join the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Anne Brasseur and the Deputy Chair of the ALDE Group in the European Parliament, Sophie in’t Veld to reflect on the liberal way forward for Hungary.

Politics is about solutions, not ideological labels
Our panel was clear, what was once a thriving liberal democracy has changed irrevocably since the rise of Orbán. Since then, liberals have re-grouped, and as Liberálisok leader Gábor Fodor pointed out, to be a liberal means standing up for economic as well as political and social freedoms. The wonderboy of Hungarian politics, Zoltan Kész was quick to interject his recipe for success – liberals need to work together and address issues without the use of confusing ideological labels. Kész stressed that he was elected not because of the political label he wore, but for the solutions he was able to offer his constituency.

Szusza
Zsuzsanna Szelényi, Source: ALDE Party

Szelényi agreed for the need to cooperate closer, pointing out that Orbán relies on a message of fear which can only be answered if liberals find common ground and persuasive answers to Orbán’s illiberal policies. These solutions must also be future oriented, especially since, as Kész stressed, “Hungary still looks into the past in order to find solutions for the future”. If liberals offer better answers for Hungary’s future, and if they do not allow in-fighting to keep them divided, Hungary has a bright future ahead.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js  What can Europe do? Both in’t Veld and Brasseur agreed that answers to the situation in Hungary have to come from within. They were both optimistic however, and in’t Veld was optimistic that the long-lived liberal tradition in Hungary would eventually return a strong liberal party to the political stage in Budapest. They did however also recognize that the EU must be vigilant in speaking out against abuses to freedom.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

 

While candidate countries need to strive for high standards in all arenas of freedom, once a country has become a member of the European Union, you will not be held to anything like the Copenhager Criteria for EU Membership. Liberals want to change this and ensure that once a member, EU Member States cannot lower their standards of freedom. European liberals will continue to criticize the Orbán Government’s illiberal policies and its impact on freedom in Hungary, in the European Parliament as well as in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

Hungary’s liberal future remains hopeful
The Hungarian people is mired by a bad government, but it is the job of liberal politicians to find answers to the everyday disappointments which come with living in a country where the Press is only deemed partially free by Freedom House. The cause is however far from lost in Hungary, and as Kész said; “…if Orbán is curtailing traditional media to stop having our views heard, we need to be creative. Come up with new channels, new forms of getting our message out there”. The panel showed that liberals in Hungary share the same goal of strengthening freedom in Hungary. It also demonstrated their ability to sit shoulder to shoulder in their criticism of Orbán’s government. That is a sign of hope for the future way of Hungary.

 

Håvard Sandvik, European Affairs Manager FNF

Håvard Sandvik, European Affairs Manager, Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom