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Jul 03, 2019 - Zoltán Kovács

[Updated] Here’s my response to Timothy Garton Ash that The Guardian refused to publish

The liberal, internationalist writer (the moniker he has used for himself) Timothy Garton Ash has been on the war path in the European media recently against Hungary.

Note: I first published this blog post on Wednesday morning, July 3, because, after two weeks, The Guardian would not publish my response. That night, The Guardian quietly published an abbreviated version of my response. It was too little, too late. Read my full response below.

The liberal, internationalist writer (the moniker he has used for himself) Timothy Garton Ash has been on the war path in the European media recently against Hungary. In The Guardian a couple of weeks ago, on the day that the EU heads of state and government convened to talk names and priorities – conspicuous timing! – and again last Friday on Euronews just before the same group would re-convene to continue the haggling – again, conspicuous timing – he claimed that “Hungary is no longer a democracy” and has become a “tragedy in the heart of Europe.”

That’s more than biased and poorly informed – it’s insulting. I wrote a response to that first opinion piece he published in The Guardian and asked them to publish it – to give Hungary at least as much space on their page to respond to the extreme charges – but no. They wouldn’t publish it.

With all that we’ve witnessed from Berlin, Paris and Brussels in the last couple of days, it’s still relevant. So here it is, the response that The Guardian refused to publish:

The EU summit of heads of state and government convened on Thursday [June 20] to talk names and priorities, and the haggling over the EU’s top jobs has reached a fever pitch. As liberal political interests throw their elbows about and vie aggressively for those spots, they’ve taken their campaign to Europe’s media.

Behold Exhibit A: Timothy Garton Ash’s opinion article published in The Guardian on Thursday morning, “Europe must stop this disgrace: Viktor Orbán is dismantling democracy.”

Translated: Europe’s liberals, in this case through their cheerleader Garton Ash, want to exert maximum pressure in a desperate move to promote prospects for their liberal “Renew Europe” movement, warning of threats from Viktor Orbán, a name that makes the Brussels elite see red, to liberal democracy and a rising, so-called populist revolt.

I get it. We Hungarians get it. We Central Europeans get it. For the well-heeled, western European elite, we are the pre-modern, unenlightened populists. We have the gall to insist upon the preservation of Europe’s Christian culture, to say no to immigration and to dig in our heels on matters of national sovereignty. And, much to the chagrin of the liberal Garton Ash and Guy Verhofstadt and their cohort, we’ve governed well.

We’ve read hundreds of such articles over the last several years and we understand why TGA and The Guardian have cleverly orchestrated to publish this one on Thursday as the European Council convenes. But there’s nothing new in what this critic has to say, nothing that rises above the usual political pamphleteering. What TGA offers up to support his sensational claim that our country is no longer a democracy just doesn’t square with what is happening in today’s Hungary. I’ll tell you why.

These critics whinge about the freedom of the press, but I first read about Timothy Garton Ash’s latest claim that Hungary is no longer a democracy in the Hungarian press. I took in his dramatic lines about the “tragedy in the heart of Europe” online in Hungarian, at a popular opposition news outlet. It was soon picked up by other, popular news portals that are known as strident government critics. They attract a large, daily readership.

Indeed, who has the biggest online audience? Index.hu, a news platform staunchly critical of the Orbán Government that is also the most popular Hungarian site – not just news site but most popular Hungarian website – on the Internet. Among the top 100 Hungarian websites, according to the DKT council that measures audience share, media that could be considered as having conservative leanings and sympathetic to the government garner approximately 1.7 million pageviews daily. Online, liberal media critical of the government pull in 3.5 million per day – more than double.

Some 71 percent of Hungarians get their information from television, and the biggest television audience share by far belongs to RTL Klub. That channel could hardly be considered a government mouthpiece, and week after week, at least four out of the top five TV programs belong to RTL Klub.

Yet threats to press freedom remain a mantra of the international, liberal critics like Garton Ash.

The governing parties have “effectively demolished the independence of the judiciary,” TGA claims. In fact, Hungary’s reforms of the judiciary were thoroughly reviewed by the European Commission and the Venice Commission. We resolved all their questions, and the matter was put to rest. When Constitutional Court members were selected in 2016, Fidesz reached a compromise with the opposition. What’s more, the courts, including the Constitutional Court and the high court, the Kúria, have handed down many decisions that run contrary to what the government and the parliamentary majority wanted. If Prime Minister Orbán was trying to pack the courts and undermine judicial independence, he has not done a good job.

Hungary is no longer a democracy, according to The Guardian’s columnist, yet voter participation in Hungary has been going up, not down. Voter turnout was 70.2 per cent in last year’s general election, the highest since 2002, and 43.6 per cent in the most recent European Parliamentary election, up nearly 15 points over the 2014 turnout and the highest we’ve ever had for an EP election. That compares to a voter turnout in the UK that was only 36.9 percent. An opposition party barely two years old took nearly ten percent of the Hungarian vote, which is odd in a country that is no longer a democracy.

TGA does not disappoint his liberal readers, covering the stock points about NGOs – yes, Hungary has imposed rules on foreign-funded NGOs but so have many other countries looking to limit foreign influence on their domestic politics – and the CEU – yes, the law requires foreign universities in Hungary to be able to show that they deliver higher education in their home countries and the CEU cannot pass that test but it still operates in Hungary through its Hungarian-registered affiliate. But like the dozens of critics before him, TGA’s ideological convictions simply cannot explain what is happening in today’s Hungary. The facts defy them.

Not convinced? I’ll give you more.

Since 2010, the number of marriages increased by 43 percent in Hungary. In the same period, the number of divorces fell from 24 thousand to 18 thousand. The employment rate of women has reached an all-time high, and the number of abortions dropped by nearly a third. Hungarians reproduce at a rate of only 1.49 – too low – but that’s up from 1.25 in 2010 and rising.

Those are not the numbers you find in an Arthur Koestler-like land of Darkness at Noon. Those data reflect optimism and confidence.

Little wonder. Hungary’s GDP growth leads the EU today at over 5 percent. Unemployment has dropped to historic lows. Interest rates remain small, and real wages are growing.

Another favorite argument of Orbán Government critics: people are fleeing the country in droves. But it’s not true. Hungarians are returning to Hungary. Following the 2008 financial crisis and a period of high unemployment and low real wages relative to western European labor markets, Hungarian emigration is turning around. Statistics show that the upward trend in emigration of Hungarian citizens ended in 2015 and the number returning is now far outpacing those leaving.

Such a “disgrace” and so dire is TGA’s “tragedy in the heart of Europe” that Hungarians are returning home to the tragedy.

And they’re joined by record levels of foreign direct investment, many of Europe’s and Asia’s top names, the market voting with its feet for a skilled and educated work force and enjoying the EU’s lowest corporate tax rate.

For those that truly know today’s Hungary and possess a degree of intellectual honesty, there’s so much about this kind of Garton Ash, liberal diatribe that just doesn’t square with reality. But when the European liberals smell opportunity – despite a poor, third-place finish on May 26th – they’ll do just about anything for power.

Photo: The Slovak Spectator