Mos Maiorum - A politika íratlan szabályai

The European Debate on the Fourth Amendment 1.

Liberal dogma, German business lobby and discursive deficit. An interview with György Schöpflin

2013. április 13. - Fekete Balázs.

SCH.bmp“The power of the German business lobby cannot be underestimated and,seemingly, it does not care much for the sovereignty of the Hungarian people.”

In an interview with Mos Maioru
m’s Balázs Fekete, Hungarian MEP György Schöpflin (EPP) explains the recent European debate on Hungary from his own perspective.

MM: This is not the first time that the liberal political group of the European Parliament, led by Guy Vershofstadt, has seriously attacked the Hungarian government. Is it a simple ideological confrontation, or are there other reasons behind it?

Schöpflin: One can’t separate out ideology from other political considerations. There are, I would hazard a guess, several interconnected reasons why Guy Verhofstadt (and others) have adopted the very outspoken positions that they have regarding the Fidesz government in Hungary.

Some of this is, indeed, ideological. The current liberal consensus seems to have taken Fukuyama seriously, that liberal democracy, in their definition, is the sole acceptable and meaningful form of democracy. Anything that deviates from this is absurd, irrational and, to use slightly hyperbolic language, an abomination. Indeed, to take this line of thinking a stage further, I am inclined to believe that liberalism, as currently defined, has come adrift from its historical roots. Mill or Tocqueville certainly argued in favour of a liberalism that was constituted by a plurality of voices. Instead, what calls itself liberalism today has been captured by a kind of historical inevitability, not unlike that of the Marxists, that the liberal consensus is the only legitimate form of political thinking. In a word, it has become dogma.

More widely, the problem is that this dogmatic liberalism claims that it has a monopoly of what constitutes democracy. To my mind, this is undemocratic, because it excludes sizeable swathes of opinion from the concept of democracy, negates the idea of popular sovereignty and imposes a political exclusion on those in disagreement with the newly-minted liberal canon. A moment’s thought will show that non-liberal currents – conservatism, Christian Democracy, democratic socialism, even what is written off as “populism” – all accept democratic norms, like changing governments by election, rule of law, self-limitation, feedback, accountability and transparency. The key values of dogmatic liberalism are universalism, human rights, gender mainstreaming, citizenship replacing ethnicity, a democracy agenda for the rest of the world. These cannot be converted into a necessary condition of democracy, at best they are helpful conditions.

From this perspective, the very fact that a centre-right party should not only have been elected by a two-thirds majority, but should actually have the impertinence to use it to effect a transformation is flying in the face of history and must, logically, be eliminated from the political field as a dire threat to the liberal mindset. Not least, the fact that a government with a two-thirds majority has the right to initiate constitutional changes is interpreted as a thoroughgoing threat precisely because of the transformation itself.

To this may be added the real and symbolic significance of a two-thirds parliamentary majority. This is very rare if not actually unique in the history of European democracy and outsiders have no idea what to make of it. Above all, they are quite incapable of seeing its very specific historical context, the complete collapse of an incompetent and corrupt left-wing government, which then leads the left in Hungary and abroad to use all the discursive, political, legal, economic instruments at their disposal to delegitimate the Fidesz government and preferably expel it from the spectrum of European democracy.

Then, there are somewhat more practical considerations. The liberal project of free markets and individualism is in very serious trouble in the light of the crisis, the growing inequality, the hollowing out of the middle classes, the rise of intergenerational inequality and the rise of new political actors that reject the liberal dogma.

These new forces may be dismissed as populism (5 Star Movement, Geert Wilders, Marine le Pen et al), but they are making serious inroads into the voter base of the left. Targeting Hungary is a way of mobilising support and reassuring the doubters that, yes, while there may be problems at home, there are things to be done – must be done – in protecting liberal values from the Hungarian danger (disease?). After all, if the Hungarian experiment is successful, then, who knows what might become of the liberal consensus?

Then, at a guess (and it’s no more than that), it could well be that the liberal left has read the Hungarian tea leaves and has concluded that Fidesz is likely to be returned to power in 2014, meaning that there is precious little point in supporting Bajnai and his cohorts. Hence, there is an open season on Hungary and the collateral damage, the rise of anti-liberal ressentiment in Hungarian society, is of no consequence to the wider liberal project. I would add here that there is no direct evidence that the Western liberals have written off Bajnai, and, furthermore, his endeavours continue to receive solid support from the US.

Hungary bashing, then, is the rallying call.

MM: One can hear critical voices even within the European People’s Party concerning the fourth amendment, for instance President Barroso has also emphasized his doubts. Is it possible that the Hungarian government could not properly explain for the international audience the essence of this amendment?

Schöpflin: I don’t think that many people (pace Kim Lane Scheppele) are really, truly, deeply interested in the actual contents of the Fourth Amendment package. The attacks on it have become a pretext and are no more than instrumental.

But I have the sense that the left-liberal reading of the package that has become current – that it is yet another nefarious Fidesz power grab (that’s the kind of language used by the left) – is now so strongly entrenched in the minds of the left that the actual facts, the actual text of the package no longer matters. It is in this sense that the left has constructed an imagined Hungary. The beauty of this is that an imagined construct can be shaped in any way that the constructor likes. That phenomenon is regularly condemned by the left as “othering” and as “stereotyping”, but that condemnation does not apply in this case for the reasons suggested – the left needs a scapegoat country, an imagined site of negativity, on which one’s own guilt feelings can be loaded.

As far as the EPP is concerned, the steady diet of one-sided reporting by the media and the constant repetition of the condemnations of Hungary have had some effect, There are doubters, and that is understandable. The EPP is not a communist party and there is no democratic centralism. A particular problem is the approach of some of the German MEPs, who are resentful or at least uneasy with the extra taxes on German-owned business. The power of the German business lobby cannot be underestimated and, seemingly, it does not care much for the sovereignty of the Hungarian people. But let that pass.

MM: It seems that the Western media – mostly the German – rely on the internal political critics of the government without reservations. However, the communication of the Hungarian government seems to be not simply impotent but perhaps even makes the situation worse in certain cases. Why do you think has the government been unable to explain and defend its position?

Schöpflin: Hungary, in common with other small language communities, suffers from a discursive deficit. It is much harder to make your voice heard in Hungarian (Czech, Estonian, Lithuanian etc.) than in English or German. The government’s communication almost certainly never took into consideration the sheer ill-will that the media are capable of, of the speed with which a media avalanche can emerge, of the groupthink phenomenon, the utter refusal of journalists to admit a mistake or to engage in a dialogue, to recognise that they exercise power for which they are unaccountable or their leftwing political commitment.

From this perspective, a significant part of the media has abandoned democratic norms and behaves pretty much in the way that it accuses Fidesz of behaving, pursuing a power grab. And despite the analysis of social processes offered by post-modern thinkers, neither the media nor the liberal left has any sense of their own contingency. The insights of the double hermeneutic, furthermore, make it clear that the supporters and enemies of the Fidesz government are involved in a dynamic reciprocal potentiation. Whatever either does impacts on the other and intensifies the polarisation between the two. It’s a vicious circle.

All this means that the Fidesz government’s communication has to work against the grain not just of expectations, but of convictions. I am sure that many of the journalists who routinely denounce Fidesz as the prime source of authoritarianism in Europe are perfectly sincere, which only goes to show that sincerity is not necessarily a virtue.

In these conditions, the chances of rational discourse, of arguing one’s case and expecting a degree of give and take are slim. Habermas’s theory of communicative rationality in the public sphere evidently does not apply to the imagined Hungary that the left has brought into being. This is, as far as I’m concerned, a fine irony that it is the left, the putative heirs of Enlightenment rationality, that has abandoned rational discourse.

My own experience with EUobserver, a news site, is suggestive. Not long ago, EUobserver published a fairly strongly worded attack on Hungary by the aforementioned Guy Verhofstadt. I offered to write a response, the offer was accepted, but the EUobserver editors refused to publish it, saying that what I had written, viz. that Verhofstadt was entirely mistaken as far as the content the Amendment package was concerned, could not be true. “Can’t they read?” was their response.

I then rewrote the piece in its entirety, quoting chunks of the package verbatim. After a considerable time lapse on EUobserver’s part, it was posted on their website, but not on their opening page, on a Saturday when few people read it, and it was not included in their daily newsletter. Verhofstadt’s original opinion piece, on the other hand, was posted on their opening page and was included in the newsletter. This story, recounted here in some detail, nicely illustrates the kind of obstacles not otherwise visible, that one faces when one is going against the mainstream.

It amounts to semi-censorship.

MM: What do you think of those critics who are pointing out that the fourth amendment was seemingly inelegant when it forced certain important questions into the Basic Law – ie. the rules of using public places, the contract of future state-funded university students, or the assessment of the one-party system prior to 1989 – simply by using the parliamentary majority, the language of pure political power? Don't you think that the regulation of these problems on a constitutional level may make their democratic discussion more difficult, too?

Schöpflin: No government is perfect, and no doubt in the light of history, there will be many criticisms of the Fidesz government. The “language of power” argument, however, neglects the scale and extent of the task faced by the government when it was elected and thereafter – the urgent reconstruction of the country and the need to do so fast. In 2010, Hungary was a basket case, in need of a far-reaching bail-out. The Fidesz government has turned this situation round.

MM: Is it possible to improve the image of Hungary in the short run? If so, how?

Schöpflin: In the short run, no. One has to think of the medium term. My sense of it is, however, that the Fourth Amendment storm will soon be overtaken by other, far more serious crises (Cyprus, Italy, Spain, Slovenia to mention only four).

In the longer term, it is vital that the government elaborate a strategic communication and image-building policy, which focuses on soft power, not just fire-fighting. This means thinking ahead, thinking through the impact of domestic policy decisions on the international environment (the extra Hungariam dimension) and, crucially, taking soft power seriously.

This means the steady promotion of Hungary by the wide variety of instruments that soft power requires. And that is a task that goes beyond the government. It applies to all sources of information, argument, analysis and to all actors involved. And that, by the way, does mean communicating in languages other than Hungarian (to overcome the discursive deficit) and that is why I am glad that this interview was conducted in English.

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