Katalin Cseh interview: Generation Europe

Katalin Cseh was drawn to politics having witnessed the deterioration of rule of law in her native Hungary. She talks to Lorna Hutchinson about what it means to be European, the power of sanctions on China and that SofaGate incident.
Katalin Cseh | Photo credit: office of Katalin Cseh

By Lorna Hutchinson

Lorna Hutchinson is Deputy Editor of The Parliament Magazine

27 Apr 2021

Katalin Cseh is a dyed-in-the-wool European. A medical doctor by training, the Renew Europe deputy entered politics because she says her native Hungary had “lost its way”. Part of the first Hungarian generation to grow up after the transition from Communism to democracy, Cseh says she and her peers can never again be locked in a regime that tries to drag the Member State back in time.

She explains, “Europe is our most important ally in this fight, that is why I was drawn to European politics. We are the Erasmus and InterRail generation, we are European natives. Our common European values of the rule of law, solidarity and openness are in our DNA.”

“The rule of law crisis is intensifying and the EU’s actions have been timid and slow, even though critics warned that doing too little, too late would only embolden autocrats. We now see worrying trends developing not only in Poland, but also in Bulgaria and Slovenia”

Cseh says many young people are leaving Hungary because they are sick of the fact that careers are decided based on political loyalty, sick of hateful propaganda and sick of the fact that universities or newspapers can be shut down from one day to the next.

“I was actually one of these people, I also moved abroad. What made me return and enter politics is that I realised we have the power to fight back. That is why we founded our party, Momentum.”

While most of us have experienced the COVID-19 pandemic in the comfort of our own homes, Cseh experienced the crisis on the healthcare frontlines, having returned to medicine in the midst of the emergency in Europe.

Asked how the experience has impacted her work as a policymaker, she says it has strengthened her commitment to help those who help the rest of us. “I was deeply moved by the heroism and dedication I witnessed day after day. We have to make sure that those workers, who keep our societies going by risking their health and safety, will get the help and appreciation they deserve, even after the COVID storm subsides.”

“We are stuck in a special kind of Groundhog Day in Hungary. You open the news, there’s a corruption scandal. EU funds never arrive in our poorest communities, ending up instead with the spouse of a Fidesz politician or Mr Orbán’s son-in-law”

“Clapping is great, but it won’t get food on the table. Doctors, nurses, cleaners, shop clerks, delivery workers, bus drivers and other essential workers are the cornerstones of our societies; it’s horrifying to think that so many who put themselves on the frontline to help the rest of us do not even earn a living wage.” She says that her experience on the pandemic frontline also gave her a deeper appreciation of gestures of European solidarity.

She explains, “Reports about neighbouring Member States sharing intensive care capacity with France’s overwhelmed Grande Est region, or photos circulating of the first patients being airlifted from Bergamo to Leipzig. This really made many of us question why on Earth we don’t have an EU-level mechanism that monitors the possibilities of EU-wide burden-sharing in intensive care capacity? If there are beds just kilometres away on the other side of the border, why do patients need to die? It is clear we need more European cooperation in healthcare.”

As an MEP for the Momentum Movement in Hungary, Cseh has been vocal in her opposition to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. She explains that she and fellow Momentum deputy Anna Júlia Donáth were elected by their constituents to raise Europe’s awareness to what she calls “this existential crisis”, to show Europe that Hungary does not just mean Orbán, and to be the voice of European citizens whose rights are being trampled on.

She says, “The rule of law crisis is intensifying and the EU’s actions have been timid and slow, even though critics warned that doing too little, too late would only embolden autocrats. We now see worrying trends developing not only in Poland, but also in Bulgaria and Slovenia.” She says that to truly grasp the depth of the crisis, one only has to look at the events that transpired in Hungary last year.

“A fellow member of my party was detained by police because of a Facebook post criticising the Orbán government. Meanwhile Index, the largest Hungarian news portal, was muzzled by pro-government oligarchs while municipal governments were stripped of their revenues because they elected opposition mayors in 2019. It is staggering; no one would have believed ten years ago that we could ever get to this point in Hungary.”

She described the plight of Hungarians, saying, “We are stuck in a special kind of Groundhog Day in Hungary. You open the news, there’s a corruption scandal. EU funds never arrive in our poorest communities, ending up instead with the spouse of a Fidesz politician or Mr Orbán’s son-in-law. But since Hungary’s top public prosecutor is a former Fidesz member, there is no investigation.”

“Without exaggeration, there’s a scandal like this every two weeks, uncovered by the tireless work of investigative journalists who are themselves under enormous pressure. With the rule of law mechanism, we now have a clear and straightforward tool to put an end to this. We can protect not only the Union’s financial interests, but also the interests of struggling small businesses, local governments or public servants in underdeveloped parts of our Member States, who should be the beneficiaries of these funds.”

“Index, the largest Hungarian news portal, was muzzled by pro-government oligarchs while municipal governments were stripped of their revenues because they elected opposition mayors in 2019. It is staggering; no one would have believed ten years ago that we could ever get to this point in Hungary”

“I am proud of this mechanism and the fact that our Renew Europe group was at the forefront of this fight. But our work is not done. Now we need to keep up the pressure and we won’t back down until the mechanism is properly implemented by the European Commission.”

András Fekete-Győr, the President and founder of Momentum Movement, Cseh’s political party, recently tweeted that Viktor Orbán’s choice to bring a Chinese university to Hungary after expelling the Central European University from Budapest are “clear signals that the values of an Eastern Communist dictatorship are more important to the Hungarian government than the values of Hungary’s Western allies.”

Cseh says, “I couldn’t agree more with András. It is appalling that the Fidesz government forces a private university that is committed to Western values out of the country, while a Chinese public institution is invited to take part in a project that costs more than what the government spends on the entire higher education system in a year. This is a choice of values and Fidesz once again chose to be on the wrong side of history.”

She points out that in December 2019, changes to the charters of Fudan University - the university which is building a campus in Budapest - dropped the phrase ‘freedom of thought’ and included a pledge to follow the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, adding, “this might result in Chinese propaganda enjoying primacy over free speech at a university campus inside the EU.”

Cseh says that there are also a number of credible reports about how the Chinese state uses its public institutions to further Beijing’s geopolitical agenda abroad, for example through Confucius Institutes or universities, which represent an easy target to organise and recruit actors who then perform malign interference activities within the EU and in other western democracies. She says that the new Chinese university campus in Budapest will be built by a Chinese state-owned company, the same firm that constructed the headquarters of the African Union (AU) in Ethiopia.

“The AU later reported that all of its server data was being transmitted to servers in Shanghai, while they found voice recording devices behind the building’s walls as well as built into its furniture. I don’t think any more evidence is needed to prove why this project is a mistake even before its inception.”

Increasingly the subject of criticism and concern in the EU, China recently imposed sanctions on EU entities and individuals. Renew Europe colleague Hilde Vautmans described the subsequent lack of official reaction to the move by EU institutions as “a real shame and a slap in the face of all those targeted.”

Asked what the EU can realistically do to stand up to China and more specifically take action on the human rights abuses being committed in Uyghur forced labour camps in Xinjiang, Cseh says, “As a member of our human rights subcommittee, I am also banned from entering China, so this issue has a personal impact on me, though I consider it a badge of honour. I am a firm believer in constructive dialogue and diplomatic efforts, but sanctioning mechanisms are a legitimate tool when other avenues do not yield the desired result.”

She says that as China’s largest trading partner, the EU has considerable economic leverage that can, and should, be used to further the bloc’s foreign policy interests. “In this context, a comprehensive import ban on products from Xinjiang is one possible step, but we should discover other possibilities as well, including expanded asset freezing and targeted sanctions against top Communist Party officials who control events in Xinjiang.”

Cseh says that the EU will always defend those who are vulnerable and oppressed and points out that the Chinese reaction came after the EU first imposed sanctions on a number of Chinese officials. She adds, “Admittedly, our tools are imperfect, but the Parliament has the power to convince the Council to move ahead with tougher sanctions, even though some Member States continue to act as if they are more loyal to Beijing than to their own European community. This is why we are staunch supporters of scrapping the unanimity principle in the Council when it comes to foreign affairs matters.”

“The ‘SofaGate’ incident was the worst kind of diplomatic gaffe. Not only was it awkward and outrageous, but the image of the EU as a fighter for gender equality can be undone in an instant, and sadly, this is exactly what happened in Turkey”

Asked about the recent “SofaGate” incident in Ankara, which saw Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission’s first female President, relegated to a sofa while European Council President Charles Michel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took the two main chairs, Cseh says, “The ‘SofaGate’ incident was the worst kind of diplomatic gaffe. Not only was it awkward and outrageous, but the image of the EU as a fighter for gender equality can be undone in an instant, and sadly, this is exactly what happened in Turkey.”

“We may never know what really happened behind the scenes - perhaps Erdoğan was not acting in bad faith, and probably Michel did not know there would only be two chairs, but this hardly justifies what transpired. Apart from its obvious negative effects on the cause of fighting for women’s rights, this incident eroded trust between two EU institutions as well, all the while weakening the EU on the global geopolitical stage, a sphere already besieged by countering narratives.” She points out, however, that while the Council has taken most of the heat for the SofaGate incident, “the Commission is hardly beyond reproach.”

She explains, “We all vividly remember how the Commission started out with a pledge of being more geopolitical. I wonder where this geopolitical savviness was during High Representative Josep Borrell’s visit to Moscow? Where was it when a report on Chinese disinformation was watered down reportedly due to pressure from Beijing? Where is it now when there are nearly 100,000 Russian troops at the Ukrainian border, a country with an EU association agreement?”

Cseh says there is a lot of room for improvement in this regard. “First, in order to make our geopolitical presence more impactful, the Council should drop the unanimity principle when voting on foreign policy issues. Once we achieve that, it will be a whole lot easier to take a stand and achieve our strategic goals and fight for our foreign policy interests. In a nutshell, the EU must balance its geopolitical weight with its trade gravitas - until then, absurd situations will continue to occur, slowly eating away at our global influence.”

Read the most recent articles written by Lorna Hutchinson - The glass ceiling: Cracked, but not broken

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