Every Hungarian will be worse off if the EU should get weaker
“We should work to forge unity at the EU level in a way that is most favourable to Hungarian national interests. Each hour spent in a different way is a waste of time” – says foreign policy expert and deputy director of the Brussels-based Jesuit European Social Centre (JESC) Botond Feledy when asked about recent vetoes cast by the Hungarian government in the European Council. Why does he say that several countries wish to become China’s rich Trojan horse in the EU? Why does Ursula von der Leyen, a devout Catholic, stay silent when Christian values are under attack? Why is it difficult to run the Visegrad group smoothly and how is it related to political culture in Hungary? One-on-one interview. (This interview was originally published in Hungarian.)
– You work for a Catholic centre in Brussels, for an organization also involved in lobbying. Don’t you think that it is similar to a job of guarding ruins? In the first place, Europe has not been Christian for a long time now and, secondly, a number of organizations are far more influential than the Catholic network: ever since the inauguration of the European Commission headed by Ursula Von der Leyen in December 2019 Commission leaders have met with Open Society lobbyists eleven times altogether, while only twice with the representatives of the European bishops’ conferences.
– It was exactly at the weekend of Pentecost that Ursula von der Leyen travelled to the Vatican for an audience with the Pope, which ultimately reflects a different weight class, as she went to see the Pope and not the other way around. The institution I work for now, the Brussels-based Jesuit European Social Centre (JESC), is an officially registered interest representation organization itself, working to present decision-makers with our vision and values, namely social justice and the care for the planet, our common home. The forerunner of the Jesuit centre was established, notably, in 1956, and it once had Hungarian leadership as well.
– Are Jesuits the most „EU-conscious” brotherhood? Yours is not the only organization that is active in the capital of the EU, and the coordination centre of the Jesuit European provinces is not in Rome either, but in Brussels.
– Indeed, the Jesuits realized quite early that their presence at the centre of the European Union was important. It is also probably not accidental that the order is responsible for Catholic education in the schools run by European institutions in Brussels. This means that the children of eurocrats attending these schools are taught by Jesuits or Jesuit-affiliated people. Our mission at JESC also covers the identification of Jesuit alumni amongst fresh arrivals in Brussels, wherever in Europe they have graduated from. Since the order runs educational institutions from Southern Europe, to Sweden, and many places in between, the numbers are surprisingly high.
Whenever we search for Jesuit alumni in the spiderweb of Brussels, we come to a remarkable list of names, mirroring a multi-coloured Europe in a single city.
There are quite a lot of people who show openness to the Jesuit world, from the Chief of Staff of a former President of the European Parliament. to the members of Commissioners’ offices. Consequently, in reference to your previous question, high-level meetings are nonetheless important, but at the same time it is worth measuring the efficiency of lobbying through a number of variables and at many different levels.
– An alumni-network is a nice thing, but it is indifference and impatience that seems to be an overall sentiment towards Christianity in Brussels. In our impression, Christianity has become a sub-culture in EU decision-making circles, and not even the strongest thereof.
– This is a 2000-year-old, extremely multi-faceted organization with a myriad of branches, where the aforementioned bishops’ conference is only one of several actors. Besides the Jesuits, other religious orders also have representations in Brussels, as well as alumni and schools. It is therefore difficult to coordinate among these many branches, and it is not part of everyday practice that ”Catholics” come together and check in with the President of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen to pursue lobbying activities. All these players added together, however, would make up a significant platform. Another challenge is a uniform narrative. Up to the present day, the Catholic Church has been a vast and characteristically wide organization, from charismatic movements to traditionalists wings . In contrast, well focused NGOs, like human rights organizations mentioned before, have evolved in recent decades, and they are smaller and more flexible, working along a set narrative, which make them seem more efficient.
– The fore-runner of the European Union was contrived by a number of French, German and Italian statesmen of faith after World War II. At the same time, despite the fact that Ursula von der Leyen is a Catholic politician and she has seven children, her comments fail to mirror that.
– Seventy years have passed and the trend of secularization has accelerated. Except for the Belgian socialist Paul-Henri Spaak, all of the founding fathers were regular church-goers. Indeed, the twelve stars of the European Union were originally a reference to the twelve apostles in Mary’s Wreath, a well-known symbol in art history (to be seen, as it happens, also in the Brussels Cathedral). Therefore, Christianity is a fundamental part of core EU values, though societies, especially in Western Europe, have apparently shifted away from religion. As a result, it would be difficult to hold Ursula von der Leyen to account in this issue because such leaders are picked by making sure they have the necessary political flexibility – in other words, they should be the least divisive figures. Already with Jean-Claude Juncker it was clear that it is always the principle of the lowest common denominator which governs the appointment of the President of the Commission.
Another important aspect of power politics is that the heads of states and governments making the decision on the right person will not wish to appoint a leader who would stand up firmly against them later on.
Perhaps the last such leader of the European Union, who could be likened in Hungarian domestics politics to László Sólyom, a former President of the Republic of Hungary and a staunch statesman, was Herman van Rompuy, elected in 2009 as the first permanent president of the European Council, which is made up of the heads of member states and governments. Not incidentally, he is a Jesuit alumnus and a Belgian Christian democrat politician.
Van Rompuy was distinguished for making decisions expressly based on values. However, politics in the member states is accelerating and is increasingly centred around personalities, and it tends to prevent charismatic politicians from getting into EU decision-making positions. This is also true for Ursula von der Leyen. In 2019 the main issue for Angela Merkel was not to pick the best person for the job. She wanted a politician who was acceptable for the French and met several further criteria. It is way beyond reality to expect the President of the Commission to stand up for Christian values, but it is worth working on the issue at lower levels.
– Now, after the Christian lobby let us speak about the Hungarian one. What is your view as a local observer: does the Hungarian government’s ”freedom fight” help or hamper lobbying for the national interests?
– The indirect impact is crystal clear. European-level decision-making is built on compromise. This fact cannot be overemphasized – it is a political culture that is entirely different from national-level politics in Hungary. The more often it happens that a government is left alone or in minority when decisions are made, the fewer chances it will have to make deals with other member states to influence these decisions, including the decisions on persons. If a member state frequently positions itself outside the scope of these decisions, it will have a limited room for manoeuvre to reach diplomatic compromises. Other member states also regularly struggle and fight for positions, we should have no illusions about that. A historic achievement of the European Union is that the methods used in these ‘fights’ are discussions in hallways and over white tablecloths, and not tanks. The diplomatic bodies of older member states have been socialized to work this way for generations. In any debated issue they are well equipped with a counter-proposal and have a number of allies to support the new direction. As a result, an open veto is scarce, and the system is less prepared to cope with it.
– In recent times Hungary has been left alone in two instances, with the EU statements on China’s Hong Kong policy and on the Gaza conflict. Even our brothers-in-arms from the Visegrad Group have deserted us and shunned the veto. Can we say that Hungarian diplomacy is facing a shrinking room for manoeuvre?
– At meetings, whenever the participants get to know that I am Hungarian, they often mention the name of the Hungarian Prime Minister right away. Thus, the concentration on the Hungarian government’s “freedom fight” is clearly present in Brussels. Now, the question for both the supporters and rivals is what action follows the fight of narratives. For example, is there going to be a new critical right-wing group in the European Parliament?
– What is the reaction of your negotiating partners to your nationality, do they acknowledge it with a snap of the finger or do they offer you asylum instead?
– As you would expect in a polarized environment, there are a few instances, in the minority of cases though, where the acknowledgement is there, for example in relation to the Hungarian family policy or how the question of migration is dealt with. Nevertheless, the majority is critical of the actions of the Hungarian government, and I have very few colleagues who receive the same amount of attention because of their country that I do. Hungary is way beyond its own weight class when political topics are defined, the question is what comes out of this. For the time being we can see that the Polish and the Hungarian governments have managed to get away with last year’s budget veto quite well, though the termination of the membership of Fidesz, the Hungarian governing party, in the European People’s Party has worsened relations. Anyway, it must be added that currently the Hungarian issue is not the largest flashing red light in Europe. Unemployment in Spain, the risk of government insolvency in Italy, or the general elections in Germany are far more important topics. What is more, the geopolitical reality shows that survival for Hungary, or even for Europe, is not possible without unity. A determination is needed to put up with one another and to build an even deeper integration in critical areas. Otherwise, we will not be able to deliver a joint response to climate change or to the challenge posed by China.
We should work to forge unity at the EU level in a way that is most favourable to Hungarian national interests. Each hour spent in a different way is a waste of time.
In certain situations, behind closed doors, there is room for being tough and for making deals. It is all right, this is what the EU is all about. Others do it in the same way, but maybe without much of a brawl.
– In your words, the Polish and the Hungarian governments have managed to get away with last year’s budget veto quite well. Due to a developing conflict with the Commission – partly because of a perverted privatization of state universities – Hungary has declined to accept as much as HUF 3.400 billion (approximately EUR 9.4 billion) from the Recovery and Resilience Facility. May this fact suggest that whatever happens, sooner or later „Brussels” will pay back for everything?
– Personally, I do not think that the loan part of the RRF package is a critical issue, it can still be claimed later on. The important issue here is how Heiko Maas, the German Minister of Foreign Affairs showed his teeth after the veto which blocked the EU-level statement condemning China’s Hong Kong policy. Mr. Maas implied that, if necessary, the other twenty-six member states will carry on anyway.
This is a point of inflection that the Hungarian government should be wary of. Hungarian national interests could be threatened already in the short term in any case where Hungary is left out of an EU-level joint action.
On top of that, another significant issue is how the position of the Fidesz-delegation in the European Parliament will have changed by January 2022, the mid-term of the parliamentary cycle, if a new, grand political group could be formulated as an alliance positioned to the right of the European People’s Party. In fact, because of the exclusion from the European People’s Party, the Hungarian governing party has lost important positions – and, hence, information channels – in one of the influential arenas of EU-level decision-making.
– Up to now, the only common ground between the presidency of Donald Trump and Joe Biden has been stepping up against China. It is detrimental to our fundamental national interests if our most important allies identify Hungary as Beijing’s Trojan horse in the EU.
– It is by far not a problem for Hungary alone. Only in Germany nearly three-thousand Chinese researchers are employed, and thirty-thousand students pursue studies in various German universities. This figure is tenfold in the United States. Great Britain, France and Germany attracted three quarters of the Chinese capital investments in Europe, while the smaller EU member states are fighting for the rest. Even the Polish have had joint construction projects with the Chinese, despite that later they arrested one of the local leaders of the telecommunication giant Huawei on charges of spying. In Germany, the Green Party’s chancellor candidate, Annalena Baerbock, a known critic of Beijing, has promised to sustain trade with China, although with the exclusion of products manufactured in Uyghur forced labour camps.
In other words, it is unfortunate that now everybody wishes to become a rich Trojan horse – and exactly this is the development that is so tragic.
Without the bigger member states the others will never be able to step up against Beijing in a unified way. As long as the smaller member states can see a green light, each will go for their own benefit. And this is exactly why Beijing may not be bothered to respect the common interest, only the interests of the individual member states. From a legal point of view the EU has a significant array of tools at its disposal and it has recently started to deploy these tools. For the EU to get out of this pitfall, Paris and Berlin would both need a leadership that is less inclined to serve short-term industrial interests.
– Does it mean that Hungary has used the veto of the EU statement to excel in the fight for winning China’s favour?
– Bargaining is only possible over what you have at your disposal. Hungary has limited opportunities for trading, we have no strategic seaport, no raw materials, or thousands of engineers graduating annually.
– Then, similarly to the EU statement on the Gaza conflict, was Hungary’s move merely about blocking decision-making in this issue as well?
– Exactly. One school of thought in Hungarian foreign policy says that the next century will be China’s century, therefore one must prepare for that. Consequently, it is worth trying to win Beijing’s favour. From my own part, I would believe in a different school of thought which says that we should work to retain the 21st century as a Euro-Atlantic century. Some signs of awakening are already observable. In the near future, non-European companies will also be checked by the European Commission for compliance with state aid rules. This is because up to now we have allowed heavily subsidized Chinese companies to win countless European tenders. The fact that we have started to talk about this only now reflects that so far we have severely neglected our own self-interests and let Chinese companies overwhelm a range of critical segments in the European market, gain strategic investment, and buy up a significant amount of intellectual property.
As a matter of fact, it is hard to grasp why we have tolerated that our own, big – European – companies suffered losses in their homeland. In the long run, this will also undermine their opportunities in the Chinese market, for the sake of which we have kept our markets open.
Decision-makers are often blinded by possible short-term gains. In the same way, we have done hardly anything to protect intellectual property. It is only recently that the conference of German rectors have issued a statement on how to cooperate with foreign – including Chinese – researchers, in order to respect the protection of research projects and patents. The US has started to screen Chinese researchers scrupulously, and in many places the Confucius Institutes which proved to be platforms for Beijing’s intelligence services have been closed down. From the viewpoint of common interests, EU decision-making is progressing slowly, but in the right direction. What makes it an urgent issue is that European companies are much more limited in their freedom of movement and investment in China, than Chinese companies have been in the EU up to now.
– In the meanwhile, with the decision on building a campus for the Fudan University in Budapest, Hungary has given China an expensive engagement ring…
– Hungary, and even the whole of Central Europe, is very small for China. Fudan University has already established cooperation with German, Norwegian and other European universities, as well as with the British network of researchers and quite a number of American institutions. This is exactly why the Chinese would hardly establish a campus in Budapest unless the Hungarian government accepted the conditions for the loan and the construction of a campus in China’s favour. Though it is quite obvious that the Chinese credit policy is a means of exerting political influence, as we have experienced in recent years across the globe, from Malaysia, through Africa to the Balkans. No data is available publicly on how this risk was considered when the government decision was made.
– Are you hoping that the EU will pull itself together? We are vulnerable in a number of fields beyond joint decision-making, from the economy to demography.
– The bad news is that it is always easier the stay on the well-trodden path, even if it is a failure, than searching for something new. This is the risk of path dependence. If we fail to move the EU in a new direction, a superpower, the US and a great power, China, will toss the EU again, as during the cold war, to a secondary position. The alarm clock has been ringing for ten years, and several steps should be taken so that we can stay in the league of the globally influential powers. The circumstances are good, the EU’s population is still significantly larger than that of the US, the industrial and scientific potential is vast, the big powers of Europe still have a global influence. It is exactly the risk of losing leverage that should trigger both political sides to use their energies to protect the European Union, by means of common compromises. Mutual concessions require extra effort in the short run, otherwise a disaster will loom ahead in the long run. In this question the next generation has much more definite pro-EU notions. One should keep in mind that Europe and its political leadership has failed twice – with World Wars I and II. – and as a consequence, European leadership in global issues have decreased significantly.
Botond Feledy is a foreign policy expert and deputy director of the Brussels-based Jesuit European Social Centre (JESC). He pursued studies of law at Hungarian, French and German universities and he was a lecturer at a number of higher education institutions in Hungary and abroad. He worked in the European Parliament, from 2011 to 2012 he was the foreign policy editorial manager of the Hungarian News Agency, then he worked as the rector of the Saint Ignatius Jesuit College in Budapest. He was also a leader of the Jesuit-affiliated Institute of Social Reflection. Currently he lives in the Belgian capital with his wife, the writer Katarina Durica, who is from Slovakia, and their three children. His mother is recently deceased Sarolta Monspart, a decorated Sportswoman of Hungary, his father is Péter Feledy, a television journalist.
– Are you also telling this to the inner circles of the Hungarian government? They dislike the EU and consider it too progressive, over-federalist and overly bureaucratic.
– Then let us avoid political narratives. A mere 6 to 8 per cent of the EU’s budget is spent on bureaucracy and the European Commission has fewer employees than the port of Antwerp or the municipality of Paris. In fact, the community’s institutional set-up is not wide enough to implement decisions efficiently and tasks are assigned to member states instead. But national-level authorities have a much different approach to implement – or to ignore – joint decisions. Let us refrain from being persuaded by the brainwashing of political propaganda and look at the facts. Is the federal capital, Washington, popular in the US? It has not been so ever since the establishment of the United States, even though the country has been a superpower for nearly the past one hundred years. Still, the model exists for making a multi-national entity successful by a uniform foreign, defence and financial policy, see for example the Habsburg Empire – for a long time.
Without the EU, or even with the weakening of the EU, Hungary would get into an increasingly peripheral position that would be disadvantageous from the political, economic, and financial point of view for every Hungarian citizen.
At the same time we must cope with the climate crisis as well, and we do not know what is going to happen to the agricultural land, the wine-producing regions, energy supply and tourism in Hungary. It is for sure, though, that these challenges are much more difficult to tackle by ourselves. An astonishing transformation of the labour market is underway, the next generation will certainly have jobs that are different from ours, and we cannot forecast the impact of automation yet. Regular attacks on Hungarian government websites are just a tiny example of the on-going cyber war in the global cyber space. The way forward should be the strengthening of the European-level climate objectives, a European umbrella of protection over the European cyber space, as it has kicked off with the GDPR. Until then, the EU should somehow stay adrift on the surface of the water, where interests are fragmented among the member states which still have the final word in decision-making. You are not forced to like your allies night and day, but you must get to know and respect them. This is a long-term game with them.
– Respect is important for the very reason that we also expect that from others.
– It should be accepted that everybody represents a different culture. Last week I asked an important former Belgian diplomat the question whether Belgium can be described as a country. He laughed. He said it was evident that there are severe tensions, but disintegration is not an option. Flanders and Wallonia get on with each other quite well, the fruit of their relationship is an extremely successful culture of making compromises, which then catapults Belgian officials to EU institutions. Belgians tend to learn the painstaking culture of building alliances already at home, which makes them especially efficient in the EU.
Debates, exerting influence, and lobbying are not contradictory to the idea of respect unless these induce durable harm to the community. However, as long as bigger member states apparently violate the rules, it is difficult to expect smaller member states to abide by them.
Actually, we could mention the case of Nord Stream 2, which is being built as a German-Russian pipeline. In other words, it remained a bilateral issue instead of a community-level solution. How much cheaper the Russian gas could be, if we struck a single deal instead of a series of individual deals with each capital, which is favourable for the Russians only. As long as Berlin makes its own deal, what could smaller member states do, other than follow their own path with more or less success? Similarly, we can still remember the vast effort needed to prevent the French from selling a helicopter carrier to the Russians a few months after the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine, and one could list further examples. Now, this should be the moment to put an end to this developing tragedy of the commons, and instead, look to the upcoming politically active generation which can create a completely different trajectory.
– How are we, Hungarians, supposed to build alliances abroad, if its prerequisite, an agreement on fundamental national issues at home seems to be farther away than Mars?
– Ever since Hungary joined the EU in 2004, successive governments and their oppositions have all regarded the European stage as a place where domestic politics can be continued by different means. Other countries also objectify the EU, but not so much from the side of governing parties. Nonetheless, an important lesson learnt from Hungarian history is that having allies is a must; to this end, it is not important to fall in love with the European institutions, but to know the rules of their game.
– What about the Visegrad Group, is it insufficient to serve as a hinterland of allies?
– The V4 initiative is not a bad one, but its members have not managed to set up its institutional background. It is worth learning from the Scandinavian and the Benelux states, whose cooperation was underpinned by an efficient institutional set-up, and even their Members of Parliament are in regular contact. What happens in our case is that from time to time the Polish, Hungarian, Czech and Slovakian heads of government have a meeting in some mansion, or all the better, a working group is formed. In Brussels the ambassadors frequently convene, but, for instance, a V4 secretariat is non-existent, even if the leaders of the Permanent Representations of the V4 manage to meet before important EU decisions where joint interest exists. To my knowledge, a former proposal to institutionalize the V4, initiated by the Hungarians, was not followed up by the Polish side because they want to qualify for playing in a more superior league – while they could just get there straight by the backing of a stronger V4 group. Such clogs in the wheel are due to the same reason why we Hungarians are still facing cooperation with Brussels as a big challenge: we are reluctant to make compromises and any concession from our side is considered as equal to failure. Actually, this is the kind of attitude that generates most of the difficulties in the parliament in Budapest, in the Visegrad Group, or in Brussels. It would be worth changing this. It is not possible to live constantly in the whirlwind of a freedom fight.
Cover photo: Adrien Köő