Anna Júlia Donáth on the value of civil society, fighting back against Hungary’s “propaganda machine”, and the EU’s eastern neighbourhood

MEP Anna Júlia Donáth talks to The Parliament Magazine about her upbringing in a family of prominent politicians, making the switch from grassroots activism to politics to effect change in Hungary, and her hopes for Europe and her home country.
Anna Júlia Donáth. All photos by David Malatinszky

By Andreas Rogal

Andreas Rogal is a senior journalist at the Parliament Magazine

08 Jun 2022

Going into politics was not something MEP Anna Júlia Donáth had envisaged for herself. 

The youngest of three siblings, she grew up in a household that was dominated by political and pastoral work in a newly democratic Hungary. While her father, László, represented the Hungarian Socialist Party in the national parliament between 1994 and 2010, he is first and foremost a Lutheran pastor; his own father was also involved in politics, having been a close associate of Imre Nagy, national hero and leader of the 1956 uprising. 

Due to her father’s pastoral work she encountered “less privileged people, people whose voice had never been heard” up close from an early age, and it gave her a sense of responsibility “towards public issues and society,” she says.  

But while she realised that she, too, wanted to help those most in need, it was equally clear in her mind that she preferred grassroots activity rather than politics to achieve this.

“I used to think that I never wanted to be a politician; I would never put my family through this. I was really proud of my dad, but growing up with politicians, going abroad to Slovakia, to Greece and even in the middle of the forest, somebody would recognise him. I said, no.”

Having studied sociology in Budapest and migration studies in Amsterdam – mainly because the discipline was not offered at Hungarian universities – her residence in the Dutch capital ended up lasting rather longer than her course: “It was a typical story,” she says with a laugh. “You fall in love abroad and you stay longer than a year. So I stayed seven years in the Netherlands and I started to work in the areas of civil society, culture and human rights.”

But then the migration crisis of 2015 happened. Donáth realised that the knowledge she had gained at the University of Amsterdam was now needed in her home country. Returning to Budapest, she joined Menedék, an NGO working on migrant and refugee integration, as a project manager.

Shortly afterwards, Hungarian government policy triggered her switch from grassroots activism to politics when, in 2017, a law was passed that severely restricted the activities of NGOs with foreign funding, a category that included the organisation Donáth was working for. (Three years later the law was ruled to be in contravention of EU law by the European Court of Justice.)

I used to think that I never wanted to be a politician. I would never put my family through this. I was really proud of my dad but growing up with politicians, going abroad, and even in the middle of the forest somebody would recognise him. I said, no

“This was the moment when I realised that it’s not about you helping people in need anymore. It’s about fighting for the survival of your organisation, and this is a fight that you can’t wage at civil society level,” she says. “I just thought, OK, I have to get involved on a political level to fight for organisations that actually want to help. Our government doesn’t help those in need.”

Having joined Momentum Mozgalom, or the Momentum Movement, then a loosely organised student protest movement, upon her return to Budapest, Donáth now helped transform it into a political party. She became its vice-president in 2018 and was elected on her party’s list to the European Parliament, together with Katalin Cseh, a young medical doctor, in 2019. 

In November 2021, she was chosen as Momentum’s president. The new party did well in this year’s national elections, entering the Hungarian parliament for the first time with 10 deputies. But would a president not be expected to lead the national parliamentary delegation? 

Donáth explains that the electoral list had already been drawn up by the time she became president, and also points to Momentum’s general philosophy when it comes to representation: “Whether the president is sitting in the national parliament or the European Parliament, the aim is to build a bridge, a holistic bridge between the different levels to make change finally [happen] for Hungary.”

To illustrate how such a holistic approach can work in practice, Donáth tells the story of Hajdúhadház, a town in eastern Hungary where it transpired in May last year that the mayor, a member of the ruling Fidesz party, wanted to use EU money to evict 12 Roma families from their social housing homes.

She contacted the European Commission, the municipality, local government and central government, the secretary of state in Budapest, and prevented the evictions. Donáth and her team continue to monitor the situation in Hajdúhadház closely.

And, as a politician, she says it doesn’t matter on which level you are active: anyone opposing the government line can be targeted by government-friendly media in heinous ways, as one example Donáth has experienced goes to show.

During the 2019 election campaign, a website known for its affinity to the government, Origo.hu, alleged that she had sexually harassed a teenage girl. Donáth took the site to court in what is known in Hungary as a “press correction” lawsuit, but during the protracted legal process the false claim was brought up again and again by what Donáth calls the “propaganda machine”. 

“It doesn’t matter what kind of press conference I’m holding. It doesn’t matter what kind of political events I’m holding or when I’m posting on Facebook, I’m getting government supporters’ reaction that I’m a molester.”

Fellow MEPs less familiar with Hungarian political culture often express shock and disbelief at what they hear from her and other politicians critical of the government, Donáth tells me, but “in Hungary, this is completely normal when you do opposition politics. They attack your family. They try to embarrass you and try to blackmail you emotionally [so that you] withdraw yourself because they are hurting the closest people you love. And in my case, there’s nothing in the past they can use, no corruption, nothing. I’m way too young for them. So, they need to attack mostly my family.”

She finally won the case in 2020, with the court declaring that Origo.hu had spread lies about her. A personality rights lawsuit connected to the affair is still ongoing. Just the day before our interview Donáth had to attend a hearing in Budapest.

Her biggest contribution in Parliament so far has related to an issue close to her heart and reflecting her experiences in her home country. Her report on ‘The shrinking space for civil society in Europe’ received broad cross-party support in the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) and was adopted in plenary in March.

“There have always been discussions about the threats to civil society, its shrinking space,” she says, “within the LIBE Committee, with the Commission, with the international civil society network. But it was always just mentioned, never really [directly addressed].”

Donáth enjoyed and continues to enjoy good cooperation on the issue with the Commission, citing its decision to include a chapter on civic space in the next annual Rule of Law report.  

She was the Renew Europe Group’s shadow rapporteur on the 2021 report and will again be involved in the current one from Parliament’s side, if perhaps not necessarily as a shadow. “Because rule of law is one of the top priorities for my group”, she explains, the Renew Europe LIBE team members take these roles in turns. “It’s going to be a part of the work anyway,” she says. “I think it’s just a matter of details. Who is the shadow rapporteur? I’ve heard so many issues, when I was not the shadow rapporteur. But I could also put my input in.”

Whether the president is sitting in the national parliament or the European Parliament, the aim is to build a bridge, a holistic bridge between the different levels to make change finally [happen] for Hungary

Apart from her work in LIBE, the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs (EMPL) and the Committee of Inquiry to investigate the use of Pegasus and equivalent surveillance spyware (PEGA) – which she, together with her two Renew Group colleagues Sophie in ‘t Veld and Róża Thun und Hohenstein, has been instrumental in creating – Donáth is also involved in The Parliament Magazine’s main topic in May: the eastern neighbourhood.

As a member of the Delegation to the EU-Albania Stabilisation and Association Parliamentary Committee, she believes that, despite all the difficulties – particularly, from her point of view, the problems the Union currently faces with what she terms the entrenched and systemic corruption in her home country – the EU must stay on course:

“Never forget that [EU accession is] not just about laws, economic standards and criteria, because behind those structures and behind those political discussions there are actual people living and going about their lives. The [eastern neighbourhood] needs hope, and the European Union must show that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that there is something to fight for.”

The most powerful national leader affiliated with her political group, France’s President Emmanuel Macron, recently suggested a two-tier structure for the EU’s neighbourhood, as a means of facilitating security, political and economic cooperation.

While acknowledging Macron’s “really inclusive and really solid vision” for Europe in general, and declaring herself aligned with his goals of “more solidarity in Europe, more unity within Europe”, an explicit two-tier system is a no-go for Donáth:

“I can’t support this because first of all, we are already living in a [multi-tier] European Union, because of the Eurozone. I’m coming from a country which is not a part of the Eurozone.”

And when it comes to the integration of accession candidates, “we can’t do that”, she says. “[The] solution is not to create more categories.” 

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