Katalin Cseh: Orbán's presidency is a warning for the founding values of the European Union

Cristina Giudici has interviewed the Hungarian MEP, Vice-President of Renew Europe

As part of Gariwo’s recent trip to the European Parliament to promote the revamping of the European Day of the Righteous, which will hopefully take place in the next legislature, we met with Katalin Cseh, born in 1988, a Hungarian politician who was one of the vice-presidents of Renew Europe group in the legislature that has just ended. Born in Montreal, she graduated from the University of Rotterdam and describes herself as an activist, a feminist, an idealist on social media. She comes from civil society and was a co-founder of the Momentum movement, which gained 10 per cent support at the last European elections in 2019 and has over time become one of the main opposition parties to Viktor Orbán. In her office, in the European Parliament building dedicated to Willy Brandt where we met her, one could breathe a dynamic atmosphere of a generation willing to represent the challenge of liberal democracy also in the coming legislature, which will start with the six-month Hungarian presidency led by Prime Minister Orbán she has been fighting for years. As a candidate in the European elections of next June, at the end of the interview she also suggested the name of a Hungarian Righteous to be honoured: pastor of the Evangelical Church Gábor Ivány, to whom the European Parliament awarded the European Citizen’s Prize in 2020.

How did Momentum’s adventure begin?

Like many other Hungarians, I lost any hope for the system to change. In 2014, I moved abroad to study in the Netherlands and I wanted to live in a European country with a democracy that respects human rights, but then I felt that I would have to fight to turn my country into a place people do not have to leave if they want to belong to Europe. I felt that a progressive European force should be built to represent new generations. And this is why I founded Momentum with some friends. We fought under extremely difficult circumstances to build one of the largest opposition parties. We can try to make a difference through our representation in the European Parliament, in the Hungarian Parliament and in municipalities.

What changes do you aspire to?

We want to show that there can be hope for a different Hungary. And now, in this election campaign, we can also prove we have achieved something significant.

For example?

I negotiated a mechanism to make European funding conditional on compliance with the rule of law. Furthermore, we fought for women’s rights and environmental protection. I fought for greater protection of rights in member States by the EU, in that populism and backwardness on human rights have becoming increasingly entrenched everywhere, no matter which member State you live in.

What is the current situation in Hungary?

I said at the European Parliament that for many years Orbán has been maintaining a hypocritical façade of nefarious ideologies, of traditional pro-family values, but the whole system is rotten behind this rhetoric. A huge protest started on the streets of Hungary when the head of State pardoned a criminal who had been convicted for covering up sexual abuse against minors. This episode revealed the hypocrisy and impunity enjoyed by the upper echelons of the system. It is now clear that you can manipulate justice, distort the media to your liking, sell false narratives, if you have good connections in Hungary. And this is in stark contrast, I believe, to the way all those in my country live, who are persecuted for their political views, to companies that are pushed out of business if they are not subjugated by the government and to many women who are not protected.

Please explain what you mean when you say that there are many women who are not protected.

Hungary is one of those countries that clearly and blatantly deprives women of their rights. Under the pretext of fighting feminism, for instance, the government led by Viktor Orbán refuses to ratify the Istanbul Convention. Hungary is one of the European countries having the highest number of cases of domestic violence. Every week a woman dies while sex education is not permitted in schools either by the State or civil society. Furthermore, Hungary is one of those countries, perhaps the only one now in Europe, where emergency contraception (the morning-after pill – Ed.) cannot be obtained without a doctor’s prescription. You have to see a doctor and be ashamed of your choices. This is false narrative about family tradition because we obviously all want to support family, but it should not be an alibi for not supporting women who want to enjoy their rights. Sometimes it seems to me that Hungary is still trapped in a distant past.

Tell us about the change you would like to achieve for the new generations you represent.

I think we need a dramatic change in the whole system. We need a completely new approach to politics, to rights, to values, to our role in the world. We need to build a modern Hungary that responds to contemporary challenges. And this is why I think there needs to be a new generation in politics. Our battles are not just about young people, they are about all those who want to see their children and grandchildren grow up in Hungary instead of fleeing abroad. We must move away from imaginary enemies, from narratives of hatred and division and build together a Hungary aspiring to equality of people. We want to face the challenges of the future, fighting for our democracies, both nationally and in the European Union.

How many supporters does Momentum have?

At the last European elections we obtained 10% and two elected MEPs. We have Members of Parliament, municipal councillors and mayors in local constituencies. We are planting the seeds of radical change. When I look at the rest of the world, I realize how dangerous Viktor Orbán’s policy is. If we do not recognise current challenges, from ecological transition to the new geopolitical order, to the need for proper regulation in the digital sector and the cooperation of member States, then we are harming our people and damaging our economy.

In the next legislature, which will take office in July, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán will lead the first six months of the European Union. (The presidency of the Council of the European Union - the body consisting of the ministers of the governments of EU Member States - is assumed in turn by individual Member States, for six months. At the beginning of next legislature it will be Orbán’s Hungary to have this role, Ed.).

It will be the first time in European history that the presidency will be assumed by a country that has been sanctioned for violating the fundamental principles of Europe (as provided for in the regulation approved in 2020, Ed.). This is a very problematic issue. Just imagine the fallouts on the laws we will have to vote on, including those on the values of free expression and the media. We will see President Orbán wearing a helmet at a delicate juncture and half the world will go to the polls. We should make sure that his presidency is unbiased and does not endorse Trump holding the European flag in his hand, for example. We should not give him institutional room that he can abuse. I hope that the Hungarian presidency is a wake-up call for everyone because things could get really bad.

What could happen?

We know how vulnerable we are to outer influence. Just think, for instance, of unanimity on war: a Trojan horse of Vladimir Putin can hold the whole Union hostage. We live in a crucial moment when member States have to decide whether to cooperate more or to be weak and fragmented, becoming irrelevant at a global level. Therefore, we need a stronger European framework to protect women and minority rights, diversity and impose conditions that bind Member States to the promise they made when they joined the EU. The European Parliament must be constantly present and push for better laws and changes. It will be a difficult task, but I am optimistic as I really want to talk about conditionality once again.

Your sensitivity for human rights is what inspires the mission of Gariwo Foundation, which has honoured moral individuals who were crucial in affirming the founding values of European democracy, including Altiero Spinelli or Lech Walesa. Do you believe that honouring the Righteous in Europe may be a way to counter autocracies and illiberal regimes?

Of course, it is a very powerful way to remember those who fought difficult battles, but also to remember that the democracy we enjoy did not come without sacrifice. Many people fought for our rights, for women’s right to vote, to live freely, to have free elections and to be part of Europe.

Can you suggest any Hungarian Righteous?

Education on remembrance is pivotal: we can fight not to lose what we have conquered only if we know it. Pastor Gábor Ivány comes to mind. He leads a small evangelical church that carries out several activities to help poor people, women who are extremely proactive for human rights. Today this church is persecuted by the government of Viktor Orbán. In 2020, the European Parliament awarded him the European Citizen’s Prize. Gábor Ivány fought against communism, he has fought for democracy for over 40 years. Orbán, who used to be a liberal, belonged to his church. He is the priest who celebrated the wedding of Orbán and his wife, he also christened their children. When Orbán moved away from his original values, Ivány became a great opponent of Orbán. His church is strongly committed to helping the poor all over the country and has also hosted several Ukrainian refugees. We could honour him together in the future, why not?

Cover photo from the Facebook profile of MEP Katalin Cseh (Credits: Facebook/Katalin Cseh)

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