Populism in times of uncertainty: interview with Zsuzsanna Szelényi

On Thursday, March 23rd, UNITEE had the privilege to participate to the Brussels Forum, the three-day high-level meeting organised every year by the German Marshall Fund and hosting the most popular political, corporate, and intellectual leaders from North America and Europe. The aim of the conference is to provide panelists and participants with a platform where they can address the current, most serious global issues.

Populism, Brexit and the implications for Europe, the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, instability in the Middle East and the threat of terrorism: these were just some of the topics tackled during Brussels Forum, that created a fertile ground for debate and that generated some questions which not always have an unanimous answer.

Nowadays, we are finding ourselves in a climate of uncertainty which is clearly manifest in the world economy, still affected by a financial crisis that cannot be considered resolved, yet, and by regional disorders with large-scale impacts.

As Professor Walter Russell Mead, Editor-at-Large of “The American Interest” magazine, said in his opening prologue, since the 1990s “the world was getting better and better” and was experiencing strong economic growth, steady job creation, rising productivity and improved conditions for all working classes in general. Yet this “rising tide lifting all boats” that benefited all participants in the economy at that time stopped during the first decade of the 21st century. Geopolitics was – and still is – back at the center and “the foundations of our social life started to change”, to erode, as Prof. Mead pointed out.

Instability in the Middle East, that was exacerbated in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, has quickly infected Western countries, particularly in Europe, and some of them have started to look inwards, too sceptical as to whether the European Union and, more in general, the supra-national institutions are capable of managing crises like the one we have been experiencing with the waves of migrants and refugees.

The general discontent has opened the doors to populism, an issue that Hon. Zsuzsanna Szelényi, Member of the Hungarian Parliament and of the social liberal political party “Together” (Együtt), knows very well.

Ms. Szelényi told the audience that populism can only flourish in a “politically-divided arena” and times of political and economic uncertainty represent, of course, a fertile ground for populist and nationalist movements to grow. In the specific case of Hungary, there is a Prime Minister who “thinks he is the only representative of the Hungarian people” and whose party is constantly “demonizing the opposition” – a common practice where populism dominates -, be it embodied by a political party, the media, NGOs, etc.

Quoting Hon. Szelényi, “Hungary is an anti-EU country in the EU”, whose Prime Minister has created a regime that is going against the European values – The United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT) is visiting the country from 20 to 31 March 2017 to assess the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty, including refugees – and which is distancing itself from the European community.

The New European had the opportunity to ask Ms. Szelényi a few questions on how we can ensure a more diverse, democratic political arena that can introduce political reforms and promote a political community open to all.

“First of all, in Hungary there is no public debate. When there are political elections, for example, there is no debate between the political parties. The government dominates the media, they cover like 80% of it, making people not able to hear other voices. What we do is that we use social media, since this is the most free tool in terms of political independence”.

“Of course, even the opposition uses social media”, she then added, “however, these are more open tools and they cannot restrict the use of it”.

Ms. Szelényi also pointed out that “a populist party will never change its way of acting, because what they want is more power through, first of all, the control of the media. This is what the Hungarian government did when they came to power. At the European level, we have to stand up for the media: something which is not that easy nowadays, since media relations have gotten more complex”.

On what could be done in order to change the perception of the majority of Hungarians towards the European Union, Zsuzsanna Szelényi told The New European that “more investments are needed in sharing what the EU is really about”.

Fortunately, the spreading of populism is nowadays limited to a small number of European countries. Some of the recent results of the elections – namely in the Netherlands and Bulgaria – leave some space to hope: they show that pro-European values are still at the core of many Member States wanting to retain democratic values, to preserve the sense of community and continue on the road of economic and social integration.


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