Georgia’s Balancing Act Between Russia and the West
24 November 2022
In the long term, neither the Hungarian nor the Polish governments can ignore the results of the Conference on the Future of Europe, where European citizens clearly stated that they want a more united and democratic Europe.
Two days after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Ukrainian Nataliya Ableyeva reported for entry at the border crossing of Beregsurány, a Hungarian village of just 600 inhabitants. But the woman fleeing the bombardments had brought more than just her own suitcase: she had two young children with her, whom she had met just hours earlier. Not far from the Hungarian/European Union border, their father stopped her and asked to take his kids with her to Hungary, where their mother would meet and pick them up. A few hours later, both children were safely in the back of their mother’s car.
Since 24 February, countless stories like Nataliya’s have proven that solidarity is far from being an empty phrase, uttered only by European politicians at protocol events. Whether it was Beregsurány in Hungary, Przemyśl in Poland or Vyšné Nemecké in Slovakia, hundreds of volunteers flocked to the border to help the millions fleeing Ukraine with clothes, food, shelter, transport or even just a kind word. They did so even in countries that in 2015 had a very different approach to the masses fleeing Syria and Afghanistan.
In parallel with this amount of European solidarity in action, another event was taking place on the continent. In the shadow of the Russian offensive, the Conference on the Future of Europe had been taking place for almost a year, giving all Europeans the opportunity to express their views on the direction Europe should take and the main priorities for Europeans.
The fact that the ‘European citizen’ is not just an abstract concept was clearly demonstrated by the fact that more than 50,000 people have done so in online platforms and forums, and even in joint European citizens’ discussion groups. As participants were randomly drawn from the Member States, the results represent the views of society as a whole, not just those who are enthusiastic about the EU.
It is interesting to note that among the online respondents, residents of the Visegrad Four, including Hungary and Poland, were particularly active, demonstrating that — contrary to the ambitions of the Warsaw and Budapest governments — Hungarians and Poles have also actively contributed to the European project. Indeed, in terms of population, Hungary came second behind Luxembourg in the list of nations with the most contributors.
The conference’s 49-point package of proposals was symbolically presented to the leaders of the European institutions on Europe Day this year. And they clearly showed that the people of Europe want closer European unity, democracy, environmental protection, better healthcare, and equality.
Although for many, the Conference on the Future of Europe appeared to be little more than a PR stunt, it was in fact the first set of proposals in a very long time that reflected the will of the European people, rather than the European Commission, the European Parliament, or the Council. This is a big step in an institutional system that has long been accused of having a democratic deficit and in particular, of not listening to the voices of the continent’s citizens in Brussels. The importance of the package of proposals is also reflected in the fact that it was received by the President of the European Parliament, Roberta Metsola, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the French President Emmanuel Macron, representing the French Presidency of the Council of the European Union.
But for Central and Eastern Europe, a question remains: what the Visegrad Four countries — including Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary — think of the proposals, which could set the political course of Europe for a long time to come. The results have shown that citizens want more drastic action to protect democracy and the rule of law than any EU proposal so far, and they want much closer European integration. This suggests that Warsaw, and especially Budapest, are moving in the opposite direction.
In the case of the Visegrad countries, the conference is not, of course, the first survey to show that their citizens do not necessarily see the fight for freedom against the EU as the most important problem. According to the latest Eurobarometer survey, Hungarians, Czechs, Poles, and Slovaks all consider rising prices and inflation as the number one threat — problems that affect their personal lives. All four countries’ citizens ranked the state of health care second, while the state of the economy, unemployment, energy supply and — with the exception of the Hungarians — climate change, also came top of the list.
At the same time, immigration, terrorism and even the rule of law and the relationship with the European Union institutions are at the bottom of the list, meaning these are not the priorities for V4 citizens. Such results are quite different from what some national governments would like to claim. In Hungary, for example, where Viktor Orbán was able to form his fifth government with the highest number of votes ever, polls show that the constant battle against Brussels has not dented public confidence in the EU. Hungarians have a higher level of trust in both the EU and its institutions than the EU average, and just over half (54 per cent) of them are satisfied with the way democracy works in Hungary, according to their responses to Eurobarometer.
Moreover, 86 per cent of Hungarian respondents agreed with the statement that all EU Member States should respect the EU’s core values of fundamental rights, the rule of law and democracy.
As the Slovak and Czech governments move ever closer to the European mainstream, the Hungarian and Polish leadership may be puzzled not only by the Eurobarometer but also by the results of the Conference. Take migration and the rule of law, for example.
When the war in Ukraine broke out, memories of how the Visegrad countries viewed the EU’s 2015 mandatory quota system were still vivid. Many remember when Slovakia and Hungary went straight to the EU Court of Justice to challenge the implementation of the EU mechanism for distributing refugees between Member States, and although they lost, the case dominated social discourse for a long time. By contrast, in the conference package of proposals, European citizens — including Hungarians and Slovaks — are calling for the EU to take the exact opposite action. Not only would they standardise the conditions under which member states should receive migrants, but they would also improve the quality of reception facilities, thus protecting vulnerable people, children and women. They would also introduce a uniform system of assessment for obtaining refugee status. This would ensure that refugees would receive the same treatment no matter which country they apply in.
This is light years away from the current Hungarian system, where official refugee applications can currently only be lodged at Hungary’s diplomatic missions in Belgrade and Kyiv.
It is no surprise that conference participants shared a completely opposite view the rule of law and European values than the Polish and Hungarian governments. The European Commission and the European Parliament launched Article 7 proceedings against Poland and Hungary respectively over their rule of law issues, and Brussels recently invoked the rule of law mechanism against Hungary — which could even lead to the loss of some EU funds. It seems European citizens are in full agreement with this: the conference proposals state that it must ensure that the values and principles enshrined in the EU’s founding treaties and the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights are non-negotiable, irrevocable, and inescapable conditions for EU membership and accession.
It is perhaps no coincidence that both the Hungarian and the Polish governments are rather silent when it comes to the outcome of the Conference. In Hungary, the pro-government media prefer to talk about the US Conservative Conference (CPAC) to be held in Hungary in May.
Judit Varga, Hungary’s Minister of Justice, was the only one to evaluate the conference on public radio, presenting it as a battle between the Brussels elite and the Hungarian people.
‘The Commission’s series of conferences has been taken hostage by the hegemony of liberal opinion, which is trying to use the opinion of European citizens as a democratic will to present its own ideological ambitions and to blackmail Member States,’ she said.
The Hungarian and Polish governments must also face up to the fact that, according to the conference and Eurobarometer surveys, they have little appeal to anyone other than their own voters with their narratives. In recent years, both countries have sought to turn the debate on the Future of Europe to their own advantage. On the day of the parliamentary elections, the Hungarian government held a referendum on issues raised in the homophobic ‘child protection’ law, which caused an outcry across the EU. The results were deemed invalid. The ruling party in Warsaw went as far as to launch its own online forum on the issue in December 2020, entitled “The Future of Europe: a New Hope”, but this does not seem to have divided the participants or influenced the outcome of the conference.
There is perhaps one piece of good news for Warsaw and Budapest: the proposals made at the conference are not decisions. In the long term, however, the two countries cannot ignore the positions expressed therein, if only for the sake of their own international legitimacy.
The war in Ukraine has already shown that in times of trouble, these countries are also committed to solidarity, helping the victims and to European values. Whether it is welcoming refugees or joint action against Russia, there is no better opportunity for governments of Hungary and Poland to show that they are united with their citizens’ wishes for European values than now.
Co-financed by the European Parliament this article is part of an ongoing project organised by Visegrad Insight, involving Hospodářské noviny, Res Publica Nowa, SME, and HVG, and discussing the Conference on the Future of Europe. The European Parliament was not involved in the preparation of the materials and shall not be liable for information or positions expressed by the authors. To see more articles from this project, click here.
The article was also published in Polish here.
Picture: European Parlament
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