Hungary is under the spotlight as never before. The country took over the rotating presidency of the European Union in January and walked into a firestorm.
The right-wing Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Union) government, which last year won an unprecedented two-thirds majority, has been heavily criticised over its controversial new media law and its centralisation of power. A new media authority, all of whose members were appointed by Fidesz, has unprecedented powers over print, online and broadcast media. A former Fidesz MEP has been appointed president and a former MP as head of the State Audit Office. The Constitutional Court can no longer rule over budgetary issues and crisis taxes have infuriated foreign investors.
But this central European nation of 10 million, which boasts a proud history and rich culture, is giving as good as it gets. Positioned in the heart of Europe, Hungary has ambitious plans to revitalise the Danube, launch a continent-wide strategy to support Europe’s Roma minority, many of whom live in abject poverty, accelerate Croatia’s accession to the European Union and steer the EU through its most troubled times yet. Monocle meets János Martonyi, the Hungarian foreign minister, in his grandiose office overlooking the Danube.
Monocle: What can Hungary achieve as EU president?
János Martonyi: The formal answer is that we want to contribute to a stronger Europe. The informal answer is that we want to do a good job and prove that we can. A major benefit would be that we could improve our image, our reputation and perhaps dispel some of the mistrust, the concerns that are lingering around not only Hungary but also the region.
M: What are those misconceptions?
JM: The level of knowledge about the region has room for improvement. When we were conducting accession negotiations, people knew very little about us.
M: “The Washington Post” wrote about the “Putinisation of Hungary” and “Die Welt” that Hungary is a “Führerstaat”. How do you respond?
JM: It is absurd. I can have a reasonable dialogue about legislation such as the media law. I can listen to any kind of argument. I cannot have a dialogue or reasonable discussion with insults, absurdities or hysterical political statements, but these are part of reality; what can I do? Those who say there is no freedom of press in Hungary, have they ever read a Hungarian newspaper? Can anyone seriously imagine that this is a ‘Führerstaat’?
M: The government has passed bills to ease the path to citizenship for ethnic Hungarians who live outside the borders and also declared 4 June a day of “national unity”. Why did you make this decision?
JM: Because we have these minorities in other countries. We fully accepted the situation as created by the peace treaties, we fully accept the borders – but our neighbours have to accept that they still have important Hungarian national minorities in their countries.
M: How important is the process of European Union enlargement, especially for Croatia, now that enlargement fatigue is spreading through western Europe?
JM: If the whole of what we now call the western Balkans is integrated into the European Union, and with the western-isation process in the East, we will really be in the middle. With a prosperous, stable Balkans we will feel much safer.
M: What are Hungary’s plans for improving the image of central Europe?
JM: Developing a regional identity and assertiveness. The Danube strategy is symbolic, with plans for infrastructure, energy, transport, the environment, tourism, cultural heritage and education. It brings together eight EU members and six non-members, and sends a message about the role of central Europe.
János Martonyi’s CV
Born in present-day Cluj-Napoca, Romania, in April 1944, Martonyi is a former corporate lawyer. He held several senior posts at the Hungarian Foreign Ministry before serving as foreign affairs minister from 1998 to 2002, during the first Fidesz government (a post he returned to in 2010). He has written extensively on integration and cooperation in central Europe.