‘Hungary must get the European cents it is entitled to’

Gergely Karácsony, the Green Mayor of Budapest, is considered the main opponent of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. He is struggling with the finances of the Hungarian capital and calls for a speedy European agreement to tackle corruption. “That’s how we can not continue for a long time.”

Since Viktor Orbán came to power in Hungary in 2010, his conservative Fidesz party has enjoyed one election victory after another. But in Budapest, the Fidesz mayor had to pack up in October 2019. Gergely Karácsony, the candidate for a green progressive platform, took the escape in the Hungarian capital with 1.7 million inhabitants.

An event on green cities, organized by Groen, brought Karácsony to Vilvoorde. His three priorities in the election – more green areas, better and greener public transport and tackling the social housing crisis – did not materialize, he says in the margin of the event. “Other European cities received extra funding from the government in the fight against the corona. We do not. The government even took taxes and revenue from us using the pandemic as an excuse.”

Hungary is not a democracy. As the country is today, it could never become a member of the EU.

Opposition cities in Hungary are worse off than Fidesz-led cities. “Budapest’s economic situation is critical,” Karácsony said. “So much so that we are in danger of not being able to pay the daily operating costs and salaries. Our public transport community is bigger than the national railways. Funding is limited. We can not continue like this for much longer. “

Karácsony is Orbán’s main opponent. In the parliamentary elections a month ago, he supported Péter Marki-Zay as a galleon figure for the opposition, a liberal who shares many values ​​with Orbán and is therefore harder to mock. Still, Fidesz wiped the opposition off the tables with ease.


Gergely Karacsony (46) started his career as a political scientist. Between 2002 and 2008, he worked for two Hungarian prime ministers, economist Péter Medgyessy and businessman Ferenc Gyurcsány. In 2009, he became a member of the new green LMP party and sat in the Hungarian parliament between 2010 and 2018. In October 2019, he was elected mayor of Budapest, as leader of a green progressive front.

He was one of three united opposition prime ministerial candidates in last month’s parliamentary elections. After Fidesz’s slander campaign – ‘Stop Karacsony’ – he sided with the more liberal Péter Marki-Zay.

Where did it go wrong?

Gergely Karacsony: ‘The Russian invasion of Ukraine played a crucial role in the outcome. The Hungarian government’s propaganda machine is very reminiscent of Russian President Vladimir Putin. She presented Fidesz as the party of peace and opposition as belligerent, to hide Orbán’s pro-Putin past. But that is not the only explanation. The front of six parties, which differ very ideologically, did not get the support that the parties individually received for the election. ‘

What about the opposition?

Karacsony: ‘Since Orbán came to power in 2010, hundreds of thousands of people have fled Hungary. The day after the election, ‘work abroad’ was googled en masse. But my city remains a stronghold of the opposition. Orbán won only one of the 18 constituencies in my city last month, the other 17 went to the opposition. We need to rethink the strategy and work towards an overall vision for the future. We must also create a perception that the opposition is capable of governing and good governance. ‘

As mayor of the country’s largest city, do you think that argument holds?

Karacsony: ‘That is precisely why I have incurred Orbán’s hostility and anger. But beware: Orbán won the election, but his room to move is smaller than ever. ‘

Internationally, the Hungarian government is increasingly isolated due to its close ties with Moscow. The Eastern European neighbors draw the map of Ukraine. In addition, the Hungarian leader is sitting on black seed. Up until the election, he spread money lavishly. He distributed about 5 billion euros in pension bonuses and tax breaks. Gas subsidies are unsustainable: the Hungarian energy provider’s payments to Gazprom are currently five to six times higher than what citizens pay. A European oil embargo will also cut deep. “Orbán has already spent part of the 7.2 billion expected grant from the European Recovery Fund,” says Karácsony. Only the Hungarian recovery plan has not yet been approved.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
© Photo news

The European Commission has meanwhile launched the procedure to withhold subsidies to Hungary due to the lack of rule of law and the towering corruption. Do you think this is a good thing, or do you fear the consequences?

Karacsony: ‘If the government imposes further restrictions, it will only exacerbate the economic crisis. The government is considering raising money from the financial markets to pay off the debt. But if Budapest were to go bankrupt, it would reflect the government negatively. Just at a time when the same government wants to convince Europe to take the plunge. ‘

‘It is also important for Budapest that Hungary receives European support. I am arguing for a sensible agreement between the Hungarian Government and the European Union on the use of these funds. Local authorities must be involved in using this money: expenditure must be in line with European criteria of transparency, avoidance of bureaucracy and the social consequences of new measures. I’m not saying a deal should be made at any cost. But the pressure on the government is so great that it will make concessions and try to make an agreement. “

Are you not offended by the many problems with the rule of law in Hungary?

Karacsony: ‘We must separate access to EU money from the broader debate on the rule of law, democracy, freedom of the press, pluralism and justice. Hungary is not a democracy. Today’s Hungary could never become a member of the European Union. That debate on the rule of law and democracy must therefore continue. Blocking money or not requires a commitment from the government against corruption. That deal should be here soon. Hungarian society is suffering, and so is the economy. ‘

Is corruption not ingrained in the entire economy?

Karacsony: ‘The vast majority of European money goes to companies close to the government. This often involves mega-construction projects for sports stadiums or renovation of historic castles. In real public procurement, the oligarchs are much less competitive. Hungary needs decentralization, local and sustainable investment. Government laundering: Plans to improve the course remain untouched. The infamous freight railway between Belgrade and Budapest, built with an obscure Chinese loan to ship Chinese goods to the Balkans via Budapest, is now in place. But it does not help citizens or greens. “

Can Hungary ever become a normal democracy again?

Karacsony: ‘Orbán would under no circumstances be Prime Minister if this country had a liberal democracy and a balanced media landscape. But all of Orbán’s rules have been there for over ten years. It is good that the EU is now responding to the problems. But a lot of time has been lost. The Hungarian people do not have to pay the price for Europe’s slow response to Orbán. ‘

Why did Europe wait so long?

Karacsony: ‘The European machine is geared to consensus. It is a slow process. Europe also had no rules or sanctions for countries that were democratic when they joined, but which then went the other way. The concept of union and European thinking was completely in line with Francis Fukuyama’s idea: democracy as a one-way street. Meanwhile, Hungary proved that a country can take the path of democracy and then turn around. ‘

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