Days after US Ambassador Colleen Bell made a speech criticising – among other things – Hungary’s handling of migrants, the Paks nuclear power plant upgrade secrecy and widespread corruption, the diplomat and Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó met for a private talk on Monday.
Sources told news portal Index that the meeting was initiated by Bell but was held in the Foreign Ministry, and despite her speech being the toughest from the ambassador since she took office 10 months ago, the two had a “good-spirited” chat.
Since the departure of US Embassy Chargé d’affaires M. André Goodfriend shortly after Bell’s arrival at the start of the year, all had seemed quiet on the “American front”, but the unexpected speech by the ambassador at Corvinus University stirred up emotions of 2014 again, receiving applause from the opposition and prompting critical response from the government.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Minister Overseeing the Office of the Prime Minister János Lázár and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Szijjártó all rounded on the United States and Bell (see boxes).
Her condemnation of the democratic backsliding that has taken place in Hungary over the past five years, while reassuring Hungarians of the United States’ friendly intentions, apparently caught the Orbán government off guard.
She warned of the possible harmful consequences of Hungary’s energy dependence on Russia and advised the government to reveal the details of the agreement on the expansion of the Paks atomic power plant. Bell said the systemic corruption in Hungary is a serious concern and suggested that a more stable system of taxes and regulations would be desirable to encourage foreign investments.
She warned of the situation of democratic institutions, as checks and balances suffered from the increased power concentration during the Orbán governments since 2010. Also, the government measures that endangered the independence of civil society and NGOs were “extremely worrying”.
Bell disapproved of the government’s hostility towards refugees, because “while each sovereign state is entitled to protect its borders, as members of the international community they are obliged to help people seeking asylum”.
The ambassador said: “Our policy has not changed. As a friend of Hungary, we have raised issues in the past and we will do so today and into the future – in the same spirit – as friends and partners.”
Bell opened by saying that as she approaches her one-year anniversary in the position, she has done much thinking about where the bilateral relationship stands. “Looking at the broad scope of our engagement, I believe the state of US-Hungarian relations is strong. We are partners, allies and friends. I speak with you tonight in the spirit of co-operation and mutual respect. I speak tonight as a friend of Hungary.”
Bell said the US is strongly committed to supporting Hungary’s efforts to increase its energy security. Free, fair and open markets and a diversification of routes and sources were the best ways to achieve this goal – to level the playing field of the world’s hydrocarbon market, to ensure that countries that must import energy were not held politically or economically hostage over an issue that was so critical to the welfare of their people.
“An energy union could strengthen Europe’s energy security by integrating national energy markets. It would reduce European energy demands through increased efficiencies. It could even ‘de-carbonise’ the energy mix, and promote research and innovation.
“The United States understands that Russia is an important energy supplier – it will continue to be important in the future. But Russia and all suppliers – including the United States, by the way – should compete at market rates, on market terms. No nation should be kept dangerously dependent on any single source for its energy needs.
“We applaud Hungary for its focus on small infrastructure projects to reach its energy security goals – this is a pragmatic, pro-active step forward. We know the government of Hungary’s view that it is in your best interest to diversify and bolster energy independence and improve your negotiating power in the world market, and we will continue to support you in those efforts.”
Bell said the US shares an interest in improving the investment climate in Hungary. “American investors I’ve spoken with are attracted to Hungary’s high-quality infrastructure, its highly educated labour force and its central location. But some tell me that significant obstacles to investment remain.
“Foreign direct investment in Hungary has not reached its full potential in recent years. And some investors are concerned about stability in the tax and regulatory environment. I was in business for more than two decades, and I know from experience that the links between good governance and the prospects for economic growth are very clear.
“Companies will invest where there is transparency and predictability, where there are free, fair and transparent market conditions. Investors must be able to predict regulatory and tax effects on their businesses. Otherwise, the costs of uncertainty will price many potential investors out of a market.
“To maintain a bridge with solid foundations, we need to address the structural integrity of the bonds that link our two countries together and the shared values that undergird any strong democratic system.”
The ambassador said that as Hungary just celebrated the anniversary of the 1956 revolution, we are reminded that we are all motivated by the promise of democratic ideals. “In both Hungary and the United States, that means we must find inspiration in open debate, discussion and through the process of examining differences of opinion.
“We must reanimate in alienated citizens a passion for democracy and the spirit to take part in it. We can relegate nationalist, intolerant rhetoric to the dust heap, where it belongs.”
On corruption, Bell said it stalls growth, stifles investment, denies people their dignity and undermines national security. “Corruption in Hungary is a serious concern – quite clearly a top concern of average Hungarians, as I have heard, and as public polls consistently show. Wherever systemic corruption has effectively undermined fair governance, it creates an environment ripe for civil unrest, resistance to the government, and even violent extremism.
“How do we combat corruption? By reforming government procurement systems, by holding elected officials accountable, including requiring elected officials to disclose their assets. And by building trust with citizens by allowing open access to information that directly impacts them.
“In this light, the global fight against corruption means we take seriously what Hungary and others in this region do to prosecute corruption – and what they do to hold officials accountable. The best way to restore public confidence in the rule of law, and to show that the playing field is level, is to publicise those prosecutions: the names, the crimes, the indictments, the dollar amounts seized, and the convictions and penalties.”
Public knowledge would help build a bridge of trust with all citizens, across the political spectrum, from every walk of life. Just as it would change the game in the energy sector if members of the public could see the details of the Paks II nuclear deal. The US looked to the Hungarian government to increase transparency, starting with the details of this deal. A free, fair, and open energy market would make a difference. “Extreme secrecy within your government goes against the spirit of transparency laws.”
Bell said an independent civil society sector is a cornerstone of a functioning democracy. This was worldwide U.S. policy.
“A government crackdown on the freedom of several NGOs to operate in Hungary began in 2014, and it has continued this year as well – with persistent audits and investigations. Last year, government officials openly accused several human rights and watchdog NGOs of supporting the opposition and being foreign agents.
“At one point, there were more than 50 NGOs being audited by the government, including all of the most prominent human rights watchdog organizations and independent civil society advocates. Fortunately, the Hungarian justice system has provided some protection for the targeted NGOs.”
Yet the situation was not fully resolved. Four NGOs were still facing the threat of having their tax licences suspended; seven NGOs continued being subject to tax audits; and the police had not returned the equipment seized from the NGOs.
“The chilling effect of these governmental investigations is widespread, and it casts a long shadow on Hungary’s reputation in the international community. We urge an immediate end of heavy-handed tactics against civil society organisations.”
Linked directly to the ability of civil society organisations to breathe freely is the independence of the judiciary and a free press, Bell said. “An independent judiciary, particularly a constitutional court, is crucial to the healthy functioning of a democratic system. I have mentioned one positive example where the Hungarian judiciary played an important role in upholding Hungarian law with regard to civil society.
“Courts in every country play a decisive role in defending the rule of law and the separation of powers. They are the protectors of constitutional rights against the whims of short-term political interests. The amendments made to the Fundamental Law here over the last few years have diminished the independence of the Hungarian Constitutional Courts, which have played this critical role here in Hungary since the regime change.
“Just as one example, the process for appointing judges to the Constitutional Court used to require the agreement of political parties. But not any more. And Constitutional Court justices are constrained from ruling on the merits of amendments to the Fundamental Law – a restriction that overturns the very checks and balances necessary for an independent judiciary.”
As regards media freedom. Hungarian politicians, intellectuals, and members of civil society had spoken of a marked decline. This limited discourse and discussion of matters of importance to the Hungarian people. Freedom House now categorised Hungary as only partly free in the area of press freedom following a five-year decline.
“Let’s be clear – Hungary is not a place where journalists are jailed and tortured, and we are not suggesting this is the case. But rather, the concerns we have take the form of concentrated media ownership and pronounced subsidies to state media. These subsidies have the potential to profoundly distort the media business landscape, raising the barrier for any new voices to enter the media market and driving smaller outlets to the brink of insolvency.
“There is also further control exerted over print and television outlets through choices to channel advertising to specific entities. Individuals have taken advantage of the very low legal thresholds for filing civil – and criminal! – slander and libel lawsuits, which can further economically damage outlets that are perceived as critical of the government.
“The Media Council, which should be an ombudsman standing up for an independent press, is filled with appointees from just one political party.”
Bell said migration is on the mind of everyone in Hungary. In the past year, with record numbers of migrants and refugees seeking safety away from Syria and other areas of conflict, Hungary has faced difficult choices. “As I have said before: every sovereign nation has the right to protect its borders. But every nation, as a part of the international community, also has a fundamental obligation to help refugee populations seeking safety.
“Words of intolerance and xenophobic characterisations of refugees – some of the world’s most vulnerable people – as invaders and antagonists have no role in our efforts to find a solution. The choice of some to use this rhetoric is puzzling, because Hungary is better than this.”
Hungary should be strong enough to help to lead within the European Union, to come up with a comprehensive, practical, and compassionate solution to this crisis, Bell said.
The bridge the US and Hungary could build together already had a solid foundation. The two were already partners in fighting crime, in building collective defence, and in seeing that transatlantic trade was open and that it built prosperity.
“I’ve just talked about democratic ideals and the respect of rule of law. I want to acknowledge, unambiguously, that the United States faces challenges as well, and we in the United States experience, all too often, our own shortcomings, falling short of our own ideals – the best version of ourselves – as a nation…
“The bridge works both ways. We know this, and we more than accept this – we welcome it. Because we know that if we, as a people, stop striving to be good, we will stop being great.”
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said Bell’s criticism was tantamount to “naked national or imperial interest “. The US does not support Hungary’s immigration policies, because it is not against US interests if millions of immigrants arrive in Europe from war-torn regions. But I should like to see if anyone trying to enter the US without a visa would make it alive,” Orbán said. “Hardly.” He referred to the US’s border fence, walls and an order to fire (on illegal immigrants).
Government office chief János Lázár said Hungary “does not want to take in or allow anyone to pass through the country” even if the ambassador may so request. He said Hungary is a member of the EU and not the US and “would not tolerate interference by any non-EU Member State”. Hungary would not be a colony of either Russia, the EU or the US. “It is expressly irritating to me, as a Hungarian citizen, when an American citizen comes here and interferes in our lives. We tolerate this well because the Hungarians are a generous people, but the US needs to see how insulting the ambassador’s statements were to the Hungarian people.” Asked about Bell’s claim that corruption is endemic, Lázár said the question should be asked of her, as she offered no concrete proof.
Nothing new: Szijjártó
Hungary has already discussed Bell’s concerns with the European Union, Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó said, adding that the government “has heard many times” the concerns raised by the US ambassador and they “are nothing new”. He said that since Hungary is a Member State of the EU and not the United States, “the issues raised by the ambassador will be discussed with the European Union, in fact, we have already discussed them, and we consider the matter closed. We know that the US would like to see more and more migrants in Europe, clearly this was why they addressed the issue at this time. However, Hungary remains the only European country that was able to stop the flow of migrants on its border.”