Viktor Orbán’s annual ‘keynote’ speeches at Băile Tușnad are always controversial. Kinga Korányi argues that this year’s speech, in contrast with all those going back to 2010, should outrage observers less for what he said than for what he omitted: the EU’s withholding of all structural funding to Hungary
The significance of the Tusnádfürdő Free Summer University Festival in the Fidesz-supporting Szeklerland town of Băile Tușnad (referred to by Orbán as Tusványos, the town’s popular Hungarian name), cannot be underestimated. Orbán himself has said that Tusnádfürdő offers a space where,
we can talk about difficult and complicated affairs in a light which is different from that of the other 364 days of the year, when we submit to the demands of politics as a professionXXVII Bálványosi Summer Free University and Student Camp, 23 July 2016
In these hour-long speeches, Orbán addresses his staunchest supporters about ‘grand’ topics like geopolitics and the future of European civilization. In 2014, he famously declared Hungary to be an ‘illiberal democracy'. Last year, he spoke of the ‘Hungarian desire to not want to become a people of mixed race’.
In a forthcoming publication, I trace the evolution of Orbán’s communication strategy regarding the EU in Tusványos speeches since his 2010 re-election. I argue that until 2017, Orbán advocated for ‘changing the EU from within’. Initially, he proposed doing so by suggesting his own solutions to the EU’s economic crisis. Next, he did so by advocating a Central European alliance. Eventually, he advocated for change by showcasing how Hungary was trying to reverse the negative effects on Hungarian sovereignty of an increasingly political European Commission.
Since then, however, Orbán's speeches have shifted focus away from engaging with concrete EU policies. Increasingly, Hungary portrays itself as an unwilling outside observer of a decaying federal Union.
This year’s speech was laden with the usual homophobic, xenophobic and anti-western barbs. However, unusually, these appear to have served the purposes of diversion, rather than direct confrontation with the EU. Indeed, the 2023 Tusványos speech stood out for what it omitted rather than what it included. There was no mention, for example, of the withholding of all EU structural funding, which has been tied to multiple rule-of-law budget conditionality mechanisms.
The EU has locked in €28.7 billion until Hungary fulfils 27 conditions. These include judicial independence, anti-LGBTQ legislation, academic freedom, and migration policies.
The total sum is equivalent to one fifth of Hungarian annual GDP, at a time when experts already project GDP to fall by 5% in the next few years. These funds are vital for the Hungarian economy. Yet Orbán only mentioned the matter in passing.
By contrast, in 2022, Orbán spent 8 billion forints (€20 million) on a publicity campaign to advertise the fact that EU sanctions against Russia were bankrupting Hungary:
In fact, Orbán rarely comments to his domestic audience about the withholding of EU structural funds. Recently, Hungary's Foreign Minister commented on the matter:
Something always comes up. There's always something more. It is clear that those Commissioners who constantly express new doubts about Hungary's commitment, always make new demands, they are simply biased against us for political reasons. And they are withholding our EU funds completely unfairly, without any legal basis or good reasonhungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szíjjártó, May 2023
However, the Fidesz administration clearly aims to shield the Hungarian public from the current negotiation process for these funds.
Perhaps even more puzzling is the fact that the independent and ‘opposition’ media rarely detail the rule-of-law budget conditionality proceedings.
I have interviewed numerous independent Hungarian experts on the matter. All believe that journalists face limitations in covering this story. The negotiation process is technically complicated and non-transparent. Moreover, the lack of attention from government sources, coupled with the dominance of Fidesz-aligned media outlets, seems to have diminished interest and engagement with the matter.
Avoiding a potential future economic recession could hinge on the disbursement of the EU structural funds. Yet, interestingly, independent news sources rarely discuss the issue. If nobody is talking about it, Orbán may not feel the need to concoct a victim cover-story.
The most prominent enemy in this year’s Tusványos speech was the LGBTQ+ community. A new Hungarian so-called ‘child protection law’ suggests links between homosexuality and child abuse. This law has taken a front seat in Orbán’s propaganda machinery in recent years. Rolling back this homophobic policy is part of the EU’s conditional requirement for obtaining funding. Regardless, Orbán has become even more vocally anti-LGBTQ.
Rolling back Hungary's homophobic 'child protection law' is part of the EU’s conditional funding requirement. Regardless, Orbán has become even more vocally anti-LGBTQ
This is a carefully calculated move. The EU budget’s horizontal enabling conditions, tied to the Charter of Fundamental Rights, are applicable only to funds directly concerned with the fundamental rights addressed by the funding programmes. For instance, €43 million concern supporting refugees’ integration. The EU can withhold these funds based on Hungary’s violation of refugee rights. Orbán is hoping that the EU withhold only some of the funds as a result of his party's violations of LGBTQ rights.
In an attempt to secure the EU funds, the Fidesz government has implemented legislative changes to strengthen the independence of the Hungarian judiciary. Despite this, to avoid losing face entirely, Orbán appears to be planning to stick to his anti-LGBTQ stance.
Orbán might be hoping that his judicial reforms will be sufficient to secure most of the EU funds. But he will have to let go of funding for operative programmes that are, for instance, concerned with early child education; this will remain blocked because of Hungary's homophobic ‘child protection law'. If Orbán does succeed in securing funds, the EU’s budget conditionality tools will need refining.
The combination of the 2023 Tusványos speech, withholding information on the budget bargaining, and propagating homophobic sentiments, is therefore likely a way for Orbán to manage expectations in relation to his failure to secure all EU funding.
Viktor Orbán needs to safeguard his strongman image. Appearing to cave in entirely to EU demands risks weakening his eminence among core Fidesz supporters.