Europa DIALOG with ORF Hungary Correspondent, Mag. Ernst Gelegs


Event data

29. 11. 2016
Haus der Europäischen Union, Wipplingerstraße 35, 1010 Wien
Mag. Ernst Gelegs, ORF Ungarn-Korrespondent
Benedikt Weingartner, Moderator

On the occasion of the Europa DIALOG in the House of the European Union on 29th November 2016, the ORF correspondent for Hungary, Mag. Ernst Gelegs, was interviewed on the current situation in Budapest.

Moderator: Benedikt Weingartner

Ernst Gelegs’ brief, personal statement on Europe:

For me, Europe is: unfortunately not a continent which is worth living in everywhere, with a, sadly, disoriented and in many areas divided political union, which wants to find worldwide recognition, but regrettably only finds less recognition!


How do you justify your statement regarding the EU?

In Eastern Europe, the quality of life is very poor: in a district in Bucharest, for example, or in the prefab estate in Luník IX in Kosice with 6,000 people, there are contaminated canals, desolate windows and balconies, no electricity or gas; and no tradesmen to do the repairs. Furthermore one cannot expect infrastructure or good schools there.

If you were born there, then you have lost already. There are areas where you do not believe that we are in the year 2016. It is just not worth living there.

And then the disagreements within Europe:

As a part of the EU, Hungary boycotts decisions, also majority decisions; on the one hand, many eastern European states cannot relate to the word “solidarity” and, on the other hand, they do their own thing. One does not want a “federal state of Europe”, i.e. a political convergence, rather the European Union is seen as a purely economic community, which should indeed invest billions in aid, but should leave the government in Budapest in peace.

Further, any criticism of the EU is seen as an insult, as an undesired interference, although Hungary has the most infringement procedures brought against it. Hungary likes to make laws which totally violate EU law and thereby only follows its own interests. And via politics and propaganda, also within the population, Hungary defends itself as long as the EU either yields and merely makes changes, or, if this does not happen, the Orbán government simply has to withdraw the law.

As I hear, there are also a few Hungarians who work in the EU Commission, some civil servants, consultants, who act in line with the government. So there are a few cases, which just disappear in a drawer and which are not processed, or are not processed for a long time… 

The main difficulty of this policy is that the Hungarians, who, “as glowing Europeans” who were initially truly EU-friendly, had false expectations, which were not fulfilled, and further that the constant EU criticism has led to the Hungarian people becoming hostile towards the EU. 

As the newest Member States, the eastern European countries probably hoped for much; does a state of frustration now prevail there?

For the most part the target was to reach the living standards of western Europe as quickly as possible.

However, the disappointment of the population was a great opportunity for demagogues and right-wing populists, who offered themselves as the solution for all problems and created enemy images and scapegoats – above all, concerning refugee issues. With slogans like: “They are to blame”, “They take away your living standards”, “Vote for me, I will prevent this”, they much more sought to sell themselves to their own advantage.

Are there actually still refugees in Hungary?

A few; the borders are closed, at least to Serbia and Croatia, where it is hardly possible to cross. If I remember correctly, there were approx. 18,000 people in 2016 who tried to overcome the fences illegally. In the same year there was a total 28,000 asylum applications in Hungary – from which only 250 were positively decided on. 

According to the Dublin Agreement, Greece is responsible for the refugees and not Hungary; therefore Hungary did not feel responsible for the processing of the asylum applications and did not want to take back any asylum applications from Austria.

In legal terms, the refugee regime is currently so: whoever illegally enters the country will immediately be thrown out. Along the fences and on the Serbian-Hungarian border, there are two checkpoints at which the refugees collect; Hungary allows only 15 people per day to enter the country at each checkpoint – in particular, women and children and only they are entitled to submit an application for asylum and are then sent to a refugee camp.

If they do not submit an application for asylum, they are quite simply thrown out and this is, according to EU law, also legal.

The majority of these 30 refugees per day, who are allowed to enter the country, disappear somewhere within the country, because in reality nobody wants asylum in Hungary: the true destinations are Austria, Germany and Sweden.

Gelegs criticises the fact that the Hungarians do not select correctly at the external borders and question whether or not the people really have a claim to asylum, rather they are a priori rejected. The correspondent would really like to know how these 250 people who ultimately were granted asylum in Hungary managed to have a claim to this. 

What happens on the borders to Slovenia and Croatia?

There are almost no border fences but as a result of the heightened surveillance, the Croatians and Slovenians would prevent all transfers. To Austria and the Ukraine, there are no fortifications at all and on the Romanian border these are not present everywhere

The waves of refugees are, as before, not coming via Romania: the Balkan route is currently the standard escape route. The alternative route from Turkey via Bulgaria and Romania to Hungary is not used at the moment by smugglers: but if this gets around, it would definitely become problematic.

How do the people in Hungary actually stand by the refugees and Viktor Orbán?

There is no welcoming culture in Hungary. With approval rates between 85% and 90%, the overwhelming majority of the Hungarian population are clearly behind the head of the government, Viktor Orbán as regards the refugee issue.

Attempts are not even being made at integration – above all with people from Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan – because it is thought that these people can hardly be integrated in Europe and one fears the development of parallel societies. Orbán likes to make comparisons with examples from poor districts in Belgium and France. There are already more than enough poor districts in Hungary, above all in the east and north. And as a “defender of the Christian Occident”, he sees the country threatened by the “not so peaceful” Islam. 

Christianity was even written into the Constitution, and it is Orbán’s goal to maintain Hungary as a Christian country. But the influx of thousands of refugees almost shook this image and a head of government, who thinks as he does, could actually do nothing other than to build fences, to keep these people away or further transport them to Austria.

When one wanted to resolve the refugee issue in the EU by introducing a quota – which was calculated depending on the size and economic power of a country – Orbán was profoundly averse to this idea: he sought support from the Visegrád countries (Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic) and, with them, massively protested  against the quota system in order to prevent “parallel societies through the back door”.

He did not accept the quota of 1,300 refugees, insofar as he believed that it would not only be 1,300 at the introduction; if the news spread, more people would arrive, and in the following year the quota would increase to 2,300, in the year after to 4,300 – on an unlimited scale. This is why there was a “total stop” from his side and this corresponded to the majority opinion of the Hungarians.

In May 2014 Orbán received 43% of the votes in the parliamentary elections and, due to the very special Hungarian electoral law, accomplished a two-thirds majority. Incidentally, the OSCE is of the opinion that Hungary does indeed have free elections, but does not carry out fair elections.

In autumn of 2014 things looked bad for Orbán: his popularity decreased to 20%-25%. At this time the country needed much money and the idea of a new tax was born (against the promise made during the election campaign not to introduce new taxes): the internet tax. The results were mass protests – a shock for Orbán, the “saviour of the country”, the “great Magyar”. Orbán even withdrew the plan to introduce the internet tax and claimed that the taxation was not viable at the time. 

Another reason for his decreasing popularity: the Obama administration accused the Hungarian government of corruption and put six top government officials on the watchlist, including the head of the tax authority. After a shock-induced paralysis of two months Orbán managed to convince her to “voluntarily” step down.

In January 2015 Orbán’s downfall began: one noticed that, due to the “glorious Fidesz government”, nothing was moving, the education as well as the health system remained desolate. 

In this downfall of Orbán, the refugees came – and this was the salvation of the Hungarian head of government.

Orbán’s referendum took place, and suggestive questions such as, “Are you also not of the opinion that, with the refugees, terrorism enters the country? Yes/No“, caused headshaking in the EU. The result of this referendum was ultimately never communicated by the government, and no statistics were ever published.

As a result,  Orbán’s tone became dramatically tougher, and when tens of thousands of people crossed the borders, it was finally enough for him: fences and walls were built to keep away the refugees and to isolate Hungary.

Thus he was not wrong; by now it is the opinion of the majority in the EU that tens of thousands of people should not be able to come into the country uncontrolled: “They will be good and somehow integrate themselves.” The “somehow” is the problem here. But with all our interests and understanding for the people who leave or have to leave the war zones, it is unacceptable that people who are fleeing and who have already been in many safe countries then say: “No, not here, rather asylum there – please in Sweden, not here.” This is certainly a problem.

He demonstrated political intuition with this tactic and his attitudes corresponded to the majority opinion within the EU; at that time there was nobody who said this openly. Orbán was also the first head of government to not only congratulate Trump, but also the first who openly prevented tens of thousands from crossing the Hungarian border. He repeatedly stresses that the masterminds behind the attacks in Paris were among those who travelled to France in September/October 2015 via Hungary.

We Austrians like to think about the Hungarian Uprising in 1956, when the Hungarians themselves experienced what it is like to be a refugee. They therefore should feel sympathetic to the refugees today…

The Hungarians do not wish to start a discussion on a comparison as they believe that, at that time, they did not cross the Austrian border unregistered in masses, but rather they came into a closed refugee camp which they were not allowed to leave. There they were taken care of by Austria and then distributed to those countries which wanted to take the Hungarian citizens. Furthermore they saw neither a cultural nor a religious problem and they returned to their homeland again as soon as the situation there had improved.

What is Orbán’s position to Europe? He certainly does not want to leave the EU…

Although the left-liberal opposition accuses Orbán again and again of wanting to see Hungary leave the EU, he would be foolish to do so:

after all, Hungary lives from the billions of aid money.

In the European Parliament, there are 18 Hungarian members – what is their position towards the Europe?

It depends on which party they belong to. The Fidesz people are fervent, loyal Orbán fans and they say nothing negative about their own government.

The Jobbik party also rather toe the government line, and the left are very critical of the government on the EU level and time and again organise meetings, in which the Hungarian government is examined.

A contradiction exists: the EU is seen as evil, but the fact that the Hungarian members sit on the committees and also contribute to the decisions is not communicated.

Who does Orbán actually like in the EU, with the exception of Hungary?

He dislikes Merkel and Karas. He likes Kern. Kern was in Budapest in July 20016, and the fact that they liked each other was immediately evident. (…) Both are not afraid of having contact with the right-wing populists. (…) I think that the left fraction in the SPÖ will soon experience massive difficulties and that they will lose this fight for power under Kern.

The media is actually in the hands of the Hungarian head of government. What has changed since Orbán?

Point 1: The Hungarians have thought of a legal means to crack down on journalists; the laws here are not clearly formulated at all and could be stretched in all directions as true “rubber paragraphs” thereby giving judges an opportunity to sentence the problematic journalists or caricaturists.

Point 2: The attack on public service broadcasting. In Hungary the public service broadcasting is financed from the state budget – the amount is decided anew every year, with the tendency: “The one who pays the piper calls the tune.”

MTV looks like this as well: it has by now degenerated to the mouthpiece of the government, the quota says everything. The main news programme of MTV, which is broadcast at 7:30 pm just as in Austria, has a market share of 4%.

Similar happened as regards personnel: from 2010 to 2012 a total of 2,500 employees were dismissed. One can imagine who lost their jobs and who got them…

In 2012, for example, a demonstration of thousands of journalists was not aired on television; the camera was positioned in such a way that only the reporter in front of the State Opera, who reported how the heads of Government celebrated their own constitution in the Opera, was visible. “A few demonstrators” were mentioned, but the overall picture was not recognisable for the TV audience…

You showed how it really was – what was the consequence of this?

ORF (the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation) showed it and still does, and the Hungarian government was not indifferent. ORF and the correspondents’ bureau in Budapest were very quickly regarded as the “enemy” and consequently the reports of the correspondent were simply classified as “false”.

As a result, Gelegs was no longer invited to press conferences and he was also not allowed to conduct certain interviews.

I then wrote a letter to Orbán’s chief press officer and said that refusing all discussion would not prevent us from reporting and that we would continue to do so, but they did not respond to this.

Orbán, however, soon recognised the necessity of coming to terms with ORF as the west Hungarians, who were brought up with the ZIB, can speak German well and could, via television, get a different image of Hungary than that which was desired.

We have now found an agreement. I can conduct interviews, even with Orbán, but subject to some conditions: 15-minute interviews in ZIB 1, 20 minutes on the radio and uncut on ORF-On. I had to make clear to the chief press officer that the ZIB only lasts 17 minutes and that we cannot show a 15-minute long interview with Orbán, but rather only 1:30 minutes.

Only after ORF had the idea of including Orbán in the programme, “Im Zentrum” for 7 to 10 minutes – in a report on the issue of refugees – did he agree to an interview. The uncut version then was accessible on ORF-On for 7 days as proof that nothing had been manipulated or cut out.

What does Orbán actually want to achieve with his policy?

To retain power. He is convinced of his concept of how Hungary should be. He sees his way and his view of the world as the only right thing for the people. In his opinion, anyone who opposes this betrays the homeland and is not a “true Hungarian”. He sees himself as the “homeland”.

What is the character of a classical “Hungarian”?

The Hungarian is proud, but also a person who suffers. The Hungarian heart has always had to suffer much, stands in a corner, modestly; Hungarians always feel disadvantaged and unfairly treated, and that is why it was good for the Hungarian soul when they defeated Austria by 2:0 in the European Championship.

What perspectives do young people in Hungary have?

The situation is similar to that in Greece: it is very difficult to find a job that also pays well; there is an increasing number of “working poor”, and even a graduate only earns approx. 500 EUR per month – how can one get by in Budapest with this amount? Hardly.

Does culture play a big role in Hungary?

The cultural level is very high:

the few young people who have the possibility to play in one of the few musical ensembles, give everything. You can feel and notice this, and there is nothing more pleasurable than to listen to a concert, in which many young people who have studied at the conservatory in the country, play. But they want to use their talent to also leave the country sometime and to gain a foothold in the metropolises of Europe.

What role do minorities in Hungary play?

This government is not anti-Semitic. Everything is done in order to protect the Jewish community, also on the part of the population.

Orbán values the Jewish manner and education – all of his children attend Jewish schools and his oldest daughter is called Rachel.

The Roma people are, in contrast, defenceless and they can count on little support from the population. Segregation in Hungarian schools may be forbidden, but it nevertheless occurs…

Question from the audience: Does the EU Commission take the easy way out with Hungary?

I believe that the EU Commission should be called to adopt a tougher line in a much harder, much more intense and more resolute way against all of these tendencies, which are alarming for democracy; but this does not happen due to ideological considerations, but rather to have some peace. On the other hand, it is not possible to control Orbán from the outside – in the meantime it is he who actually controls the EU.

Question from the audience: What has to happen in Europe so that people again turn away from the right /extreme right-wing parties?

Extreme right-wing parties first of all have to rule – they cannot be stopped anyway. They will have to be allowed to govern and they will achieve power democratically. And when they govern, the people will quickly see that these easy solutions, which were propagated, will actually not work out in the end.

In closing: How does the EU have to develop in order to improve this general situation?

Resolving disagreements and the lack of orientation within the EU would be the easier task. Everyone has to work together. It would also not be a bad idea to give up the unanimity principle and to make decisions based on a majority because there will always be a country somewhere which feels that its rights have been violated – and that obviously blocks. And in this way we will not make any progress.


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