Prime Minister of Hungary

Speech made to the Assembly

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

It is my privilege to be here and to have the opportunity to share my views on some very relevant European issues. First, however, I congratulate you, Mr President, on your recent election to what is a very prestigious and high-ranking job; in fact, it is a mission more than a job. We wish you and the Council of Europe every success over the coming period and hope that you will be able to fulfil your presidential programme. We are glad to see you, Minister Kubiš, joining us for the session.

I know that I have 50 minutes, more or less. I should like to offer to share those 50 minutes into two more or less equal parts. In the first 25 minutes, I would like to elaborate in a concentrated way my view on some European topics and issues. In the second half, I would be very glad to answer questions. Please be very tough with me.

I shall start with the basics. It is seemingly an easy job involving useless repetition, but all of us must be reminded that an integrated, democratic Europe is our most admirable and far-reaching historical achievement. It is therefore worth confirming our full commitment to that achievement, and our deep belief in it and in our capability to protect and develop it. Democratic values, especially freedom, democracy and human rights, as well as non-discrimination, are the starting point and our ultimate goal as well.

Talking about democracy can involve just empty slogans, but democracy is not only a value; it is a fine and well-balanced system of institutions and guarantees. Having a freely elected parliament in the shop window is not enough. The democratic system must have a well-developed structure of checks and balances. I would like to call everyone’s attention to our permanent duty to safeguard freedom of expression, freedom of speech and of the press and minority rights. I strongly believe in our freedom and right to choose identities. In this post-modern era, we have multi-faceted identities and cannot describe ourselves with just one adjective, by saying merely that we are Spaniards, Italians, Hungarians or Slovaks; sometimes we are Hungarians and Slovaks at the same time.

We have different ethnic, cultural, religious and sexual identities. Nobody has the right to say that, in a wider framework of freedom, they can dictate or even expect what another person should be. A very clear obligation derives from those principles: all states have the duty to protect the right of individuals and their communities to choose and sustain their identities, regardless of taste and ideology.

We have learned that freedom is not just an opportunity. It is also a challenging responsibility. Freedom creates a larger scope of movement for all of us in our desire to lead a complete life and to become who we can become, fulfilling our full personal capacities in terms of morality, intellect and cultural achievement. However, freedom also carries heavy obligations, including respecting others’ right to live in freedom, keeping to the rules and accepting that we are not alone but members of various communities such as families and our respective nations. We are all members of the European community as well.

At this point, I have to step back for a moment. In the past 18 years, the face of Europe has changed dramatically. Countries that used to live under communism have become independent and free, and all have turned themselves into parliamentary democracies with social market economies. They wanted to be free, but after almost two decades, a very sobering experience must be faced. Most ordinary people know the bitterness of the illusion that freedom and democracy equal community welfare, higher incomes, more protection and an increased standard of living in narrow terms of consumption. That illusion was unavoidable, and it has brought some dangerous consequences. We can believe in a commitment to democratic institutions, but the strength and presence of radical movements and extremist ideologies are clear, along with more visible nationalism, populism, social impatience, racism and at times even anti-Semitism. It would not be right to place all the blame on that process of illusion, but we politicians – I include myself in this – and other public players made some mistakes. In some cases, we even failed to share our difficulties with the wider public and involve them properly in changing our countries. So far, we have been speaking mainly about the necessity of representing democracy and freedom. That is the most important pillar of European co-operation and co-existence. It is not just a dream, it is our way of life. However, we have to concentrate also on the other two pillars – the prosperity and competitiveness of our economies and social justice. Those are the three main pillars of our European way of life.

My question is how difficult is it to instil that way of thinking and implement an effective institutional framework in a region that has never experienced that way of life – that has never experienced democracy or sovereignty. We also face a challenge in reconciling the sometimes conflicting requirements of improving the dynamism and competitiveness of our economies and improving social justice. I wish to quote briefly the very famous Mr Dahrendorf, who spoke of this dilemma as squaring the circle. He said, “The issue in most countries remains the same: how to provide a sustainable basis for economic growth in the harsh climate of the global marketplace while at the same time maintaining the solidarity and a sense of fairness throughout society. Whoever governs must try to square this circle.” Squaring the circle is an impossibility in mathematical terms, but the example of some European countries on human rights suggests that we can be more optimistic and, to stay with the metaphor, that it is possible to square the circle in terms of social and public life.

The history of the last few decades shows that countries can successfully build up new democratic institutions and rules, as well as provide an effective framework for a social market economy. However, institutions and regulations are not enough in themselves. As Karl Popper said, “Institutions alone are never sufficient if not tempered by traditions.”

Our main challenge is to create modern, democratic and open countries that are full of national pride, but capable of deep co-operation with others even where there is a lack of a longstanding democratic tradition and a common experience of sovereignty. We also need to reconcile the parallel issues of improving the competitiveness of our economies and of keeping our societies together.

I have shared with you my understanding and view of the controversies of the democratic transition of our region to emphasise the paramount importance and indispensable nature of the mission of the Council of Europe. The Council is not only one of the strongest ambassadors for the causes of freedom and democracy, but a strong guarantor of the protection and strengthening of those values. It is also a laboratory of ideas.

Let me clarify our view of the future role of the Council of Europe and its relations and shared responsibility with the European Union. Two years ago, at the Warsaw Summit, the heads of state and government restated the mission of the Council of Europe by reaffirming its role as the only pan-European structure for the defence of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The Council is a part of the complex system of European institutions and co-operates with the European Union on a wide range of issues. The importance of that co-operation is strategic. It is obvious to us, for example, that the Council played a significant role and had a great impact on the elaboration and final adoption of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. That could not have been achieved without the historic contribution of the Council of Europe in acknowledging the importance of fundamental rights. However, I must add that whatever developments the EU makes on human rights, the Council will remain the leading European human rights institution. On that point, I entirely agree with Prime Minister Juncker. The Council’s unique conventional system and its Europe-wide membership make it irreplaceable. The necessary link between monitoring and standard setting is better ensured here than anywhere else. The monitoring system, in certain areas such as the fight against cybercrime and corruption, has become so attractive that even countries outside Europe follow its example in developing their own control systems. There is no reason for competition between the European Union and the Council of Europe. Instead, the institutions should complement each other coherently.

I also wish to highlight another unique asset of the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights, which is the only supranational human rights protection institution to which individual European citizens can turn. Hungary supports the reform process which will enhance the performance of the Court. At the same time, Hungary acknowledges that it is primarily the responsibility of the member states to guarantee that their national legal systems comply with their human rights obligations.

I turn to the subject of the budget of the Council of Europe, and I guess that it is one of your favourite subjects. Prime ministers from many European countries come here to speak and they love to say how much they all support the Council of Europe, but is their political commitment supported by a financial commitment? You have been very critical of the restrictive attitude of member states to the budget of the Council of Europe, rightly pointing out that governments run the risk of jeopardising the Council’s political role if they fail to meet the financial needs of the Organisation and if they keep the budget policy based on strict adhesion to zero real growth. There is no doubt that promoting the values of the Council of Europe is expensive. Election observation missions, democratisation programmes, legal advice, the cyclical monitoring of commitments and confidence-building measures all cost a lot. Many member states, including Hungary, face budgetary constraints. However, my government’s position has always been, and will remain, that if the majority of member states are ready to increase budgetary means available to the Council, Hungary would support such a move.

One of the most enthusiastic developments in Europe in recent weeks concerns the enlargement of the Schengen zone. I visited some border villages a few days before Christmas, where I met 70 and 80-year-old women and men. They were very visibly crying, and telling stories about their lives. They had heard from their parents and grandparents about the inhuman way in which new borders had separated people. They never believed that reversing that process could happen in their lifetimes.

Hungary has been a member of the European Union for a couple of years, and it has had a much longer membership of the Council of Europe. We must be very critical. Most ordinary Hungarians do not see any tangible results to show the advantages of membership. It is always difficult to tell them why the integration of Europe and the pursuit of its common values is so important. To have experienced the disappearance of borders overnight is extremely significant. They saw that Europe is theirs. Europe is not just men and women talking in official terms. Europe makes their lives better, and can also sometimes be a remedy for historical pains. We have achieved that, and we have cause to be proud of that achievement.

The most important and sensitive question now is how to handle the very complicated situation in the western Balkans. We are also putting that question on the agenda, and I can summarise our view. My government considers the stability and development of the western Balkan nations to be a high priority for several obvious reasons. First, we must take account of its geographical proximity and consequent security implications; secondly, the presence of various ethnic minorities, including the significant Hungarian community in the area; and, thirdly, the fact that south-east Europe is a significant partner for the Hungarian economy.

Hungary has a vital interest in stabilising the western Balkans and creating peace, democracy and prosperity. We are fully aware that the settlement of the Kosovo issue is a high priority for the whole of Europe, and has a direct impact on global stability and security. We Europeans must play a key role and carry the lead responsibility for this process.

Today, the Assembly is debating developments regarding the future status of Kosovo. We regret that, despite the Troika’s utmost efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement, the parties to the Kosovo conflict were unable to reach a mutually acceptable agreement. The current situation in Kosovo is unsustainable. Independence, the precise details and consequences of which will be defined later, seems to be increasingly unavoidable. Countries of Europe must react to these developments in a closely co-ordinated and constructive manner. We must ensure that Kosovo is ready to accept the standards established in the Ahtisaari plan. We believe that it is crucial for the Pristina leadership unequivocally to be committed to full respect for democracy and the rule of law through legislative, executive and judicial institutions, and to full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the specific rights of the ethnic communities in Kosovo. The implementation of those commitments have to be closely followed and monitored by the international community, as only full compliance can guarantee a sustainable Kosovo and give the necessary assurances to the minorities living there.

Consideration of the future of Kosovo is not enough in itself. We are also responsible for the future of Serbia. We must assist Belgrade in preserving and strengthening its democracy and in developing clear and well-founded European perspectives. Serbian society should be strong enough not to choose the road of self-isolation and radicalisation. Moreover, such an attitude is needed to prevent an increase in tension between the majority and the national minorities.

To keep Serbia on the track of integration, the EU should offer it a package not only to reaffirm its European perspective but to make that perspective credible and tangible. The package should include a road map on the liberalisation of the visa regime and the granting of candidate status within a reasonable time frame, provided that the necessary criteria are met.

There can be no doubt that the Russian Federation is a key player in most of the issues that concern vital European interests or define the security and stability of our continent. Therefore, it is necessary to maintain dialogue with Russia that could lead to further positive interaction with that vast and important country. However, some of the recent developments in the Russian Federation, including Moscow’s stance on several questions at an international level, have raised concerns in many member countries of the Council of Europe and the European Union, and have cast a shadow on the dialogue with Russia. We have no sensible alternative to engagement. We should not let the temptation of confrontation, isolation or self-isolation prevail.

Although there are visible differences on certain values, especially our approach to strengthening democracy, we should not cease our efforts to identify areas where co-operation can be beneficial for both sides. Otherwise, a lack of trust in each other could easily drive us towards deepening mutual fears and self-fulfilling prophecies. We should learn the lesson of the 20th century: open dialogue and partnership are the key elements in maintaining European peace and stability, and avoiding serious confrontations and instability.

All of us are responsible for Europe. We carry different responsibilities but also have common targets. We want to make Europe stronger in terms of democracy, economy and social justice. We want to turn it into a region of prosperity and progress.

It takes courage to dream and to fulfil that dream. I am delighted to confirm that Hungary and myself are ready to go along this road with you. Thank you for your patience.

THE PRESIDENT (interpretation)

thanked Mr Gyurcsány for his most interesting address and said that members of the Assembly had expressed a wish to put questions. Mr Gyurcsány’s speech had been packed with material and had raised extremely important issues such as the identity and status of minority groups and co-operation with the European Union. He also welcomed Mr Gyurcsány’s remarks about the budget and finance of the Council of Europe.

He called Mr Grzyb to ask the first question.

Mr GRZYB (Poland)

Mr Prime Minister, thank you for your interesting presentation. My question is in connection with the operation in the European Community of common agriculture policy reform and of budget reform. What kind of position will you and your government take?

Mr Gyurcsány, Prime Minister of Hungary

Thank you for your question, Mr Grzyb. I have to start by sharing my view that there are new developments in the world market dealing with agricultural goods. We face many changes and fresh developments and we have to consider whether what we have so far done, focusing mainly on reducing production and financing farmers and other producers for limiting production, can be maintained. We have to decide whether that policy makes any sense within the new circumstances. For example, in the last year, the price of maize has doubled. In the past, we were faced with butter mountains. They have disappeared. We have to ask ourselves whether the traditional way of thinking is correct or whether we have to elaborate a new approach. These phenomena are fuelled by a new development – the permanently rising standard of living in China and India with a resulting increase in consumption of agricultural products coupled with an increase in biofuel production. These two element increase demand, with the result that we are facing not surpluses but shortages.

Reform has therefore to revise the foundations of our traditional way of thinking. We should no longer finance the limitation of production but instead reverse that process, accepting that it might have important consequences for our budget. Such a policy may well impact upon other areas such as education.

Mr GROSS (Switzerland)

You quoted your favourite philosopher, Mr Prime Minister. My favourite philosopher is Hanna Ahrendt. She wrote a book about truth in politics. How is it that so many Hungarians have the impression that you did not tell them the truth, that you lied? For a democracy, facing the truth and telling the truth to one’s friends is one of the biggest responsibilities that there is.

Mr Gyurcsány, Prime Minister of Hungary

What is the truth? It is without doubt that Europe and Hungary have changed. I said in my speech that if we made any mistake it was that we were not brave enough. I am not just talking about Hungarian politicians, I am talking about our co-responsibility to tell the people in Europe and Hungary in particular that the world has changed and the only way to be successful is not to try to protect the people in a traditional way from competition but to help them to be more competitive.

You are right, almost nobody – and I include myself here – was brave enough to shake up society and tell people. I know that sometimes telling the truth is painful but there is no free lunch. A change of regime is not just about changing the structure of institutions. It is about much more. It means that we have to be open about changing the mind-set. We are responsible for ourselves. If we carry out this responsibility, it brings consequences for society. It is extremely difficult. I believe that my government, and me personally, were hesitant about how this challenge could be shared with the ordinary people, about how we could make them accept that a time of change had arrived. Perhaps more courage would have been more advantageous. We decided to implement a number of deep structural reforms, opening the economy and making it much competitive not just in economic terms but in terms of social affairs. This is what we are trying to do, although we have learned a lesson. But you are right: the only way to go ahead and gain credibility is by telling the truth.

Mr CHELEMENDIK (Slovak Republic)

I want to ask you a question, Mr Prime Minister, about your attitude toward the “Hungarian Guard” organisation. Do you not think that, in tolerating such an organisation, which is extremely nationalist, Hungary is not showing the best example to the rest of Europe?

Mr Gyurcsány, Prime Minister of Hungary

Thank you for your question, sir. My government’s point of view is very clear. From the very first moment, I, my government and all the parties behind it have been fighting against the phenomenon that can be described, for example, by the name “Magyar Garda”, or the “Hungarian Guard”. For me and my government, from the very first point there was no question but that this organisation, which is represented by a couple of hundred people – at the maximum, a couple of thousand – is unacceptable not just for Hungary; commonly shared European values are also not being met at all. This organisation was set up as a non-governmental organisation. From the very first moment, we said that its real intention was not some kind of cultural activity, but to hurt our common democratic values. Rather than protecting human dignity, the reverse is the case – it is being offended.

In the past couple of weeks, the Hungarian state prosecutor initiated a legal procedure against these people. We welcome that, and I have to tell you that that was at least partly a response to the many Hungarian political players and others who demanded this legal procedure. I have shared my view on this issue many times. Legal institutions are not enough. We democrats have to fight against such movements, because they bring up the ugliest memories of the 20th century – anti-Semitism, racism and various other kinds of prejudice, xenophobia and so on. I am very proud that the overwhelming majority of Hungarian people share this view. You can be sure that while I and the parties to which I referred are in the government, we will never avoid saying clearly what we think about the “Hungarian Garda”.

Mr BERCEANU (Romania) (interpretation)

noted that the Hungarian Constitution contained a requirement that minorities were represented in its parliament but that the current Hungarian Government had done nothing to fulfil this obligation, unlike, for example, the Government of Romania. He asked what Mr Gyurcsány was going to do about this, and when the Romanian minority would be represented in the Hungarian Parliament.

Mr Gyurcsány, Prime Minister of Hungary

We are in debt regarding this issue – you are right, sir. To tell you the truth, we are suffering from an inability to some extent to change the Hungarian election system and how the Hungarian Parliament is structured. Very boring and long talks are taking place among the parties on how the Hungarian election system should be reformed, on decreasing the number of seats in the parliament, and, in parallel, on re-structuring the whole system. In this way, as a part of this reform, we can ensure that the different minorities – mainly, the ethnic minorities – can easily be represented in the Hungarian Parliament.

Although there are some challenges, we are not facing those in Romania, Slovakia and neighbouring countries. There, the number of national minorities is so high that forming an ordinary party is possible, because the support rate is sufficient to enable election and the crossing of the threshold required for the parliament.

On the other hand, I have to share with you the information that, according to the Hungarian Constitution, we need a two-thirds majority to amend the election law. In the given circumstances, there is sometimes fierce competition and fights between the parties on the two sides. Speaking honestly, in the short term we have just a small chance to reach an agreement. The representation of the minorities is sharing in the fate of the whole reform of the election system. I do not expect any understanding on this issue, because it is our duty to deal with it. It was also my duty to share with you the circumstances that are responsible for the insufficient response to this challenge.

Mr EÖRSI (Hungary)

Prime Minister, in your speech you spoke about a sobering experience and squaring the circle that has caught the eye of our President. This is true, but when the Berlin Wall came down, Hungary was a front-runner in the reforms – the No. 1 in the whole region. We all know that that is no longer the case. What is the challenge ahead of you and your Socialist-Liberal coalition government in once again becoming No. 1 front-runners in reform?

Mr Gyurcsány, Prime Minister of Hungary

This question is about the conflict that I mentioned previously. The people of our region used to accept a certain way of life. They were very protected by the state, and their personal responsibility was strictly limited. A new era came, and they suddenly realised that it is not merely a question of institutions and regulations. Democracy is not a pure, anti-institutional framework; rather, it involves a different attitude and behaviour – a capacity to care responsibly. The permanent dilemma, not only in the region but elsewhere in Europe, is whether politicians are brave enough to reform, and whether they have the social support to implement and execute their reforms. There are many experiences on which to draw. Think of Poland, for example. Think of the previous Prime Minister of Slovakia, who implemented fantastic reforms. None of them was able to gain sufficient popular support.

The challenge now for countries such as Hungary is whether they have enough support to implement reforms. We know each other well from the Hungarian Parliament, so I think I can say that it is our fault, as, since the mid-1990s, successive Hungarian Governments failed to be brave enough to tell the people that the old way of thinking – old structures of health care, education and higher education, and the traditional way of organising local government – was no longer effective. In a harsh domestic environment, it is almost impossible to create better understanding and command further suppor. We have discovered that there is no other way. We must just go ahead, although we must also listen to the voice of the public. That is what we have done in the first two years. It took away a lot of our popularity, but the fact remains that only by taking that course can Hungary again become the front-runner.

Reforms are about a better life. We are talking about a society that brings people together. Personally, I want to be viewed not as a reformer but as someone who was able to strengthen Hungary, which means its communities, families and people. That is the final aim of reform and that is what we are doing now.

Mrs TEVDORADZE (Georgia) (interpretation)

noted how radical opposition had recently taken to the streets in Georgia, and asked Mr Gyurcsány whether he could tell the Assembly what ways he had found of holding dialogue with the opposition.

Mr Gyurcsány, Prime Minister of Hungary

I would be so glad to know the secret. Let me make a couple of personal observations. The most important thing in any new democracy is to accept and understand that we are not each other’s’ enemies. Democracy is not just a system of free elections. It is a way of thinking: it is accepting that, while today I am supported by the majority, tomorrow I may be defeated, and that I do not have the right to rule the country, just the right to participate. In our region, that is a difficult lesson to learn. We are all committed to making our countries stronger, but we have different rules and different beliefs, and all of us believe that we are right and that our rules are right and those of our rivals are not. But, we must accept that ultimately, someone will come along and defeat us because that is a fact of democratic life.

There are many people in our region who believe that, if their opponents are leading the country, it might mean the end of their nation. I do not think that at all. The first step has to be taken in our souls and brain. Our institutions and laws come second to that. We have to take the first step. I am sure that that is the only way to learn democracy and to accept that democracy is the only way to bring together all citizens, regardless of their background, to participate in shaping our countries and making them a success.

THE PRESIDENT (translation)

That concludes the questions to Mr Gyurcsány. On behalf of the Assembly, I thank him most warmly for his address and for the answers he has given to questions.

(The speaker continued in French)

He thanked Mr Gyurcsány for the considered content of his address and for the frankness and clarity of his answers to the questions which had been put to him. He had taken due note of the things Mr Gyurcsány had said and hoped that the relationship between the Council of Europe and Hungary would continue to develop so that the issues that he had raised could be taken forward.