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Sensemaker: Can the EU handle Hungary?

Monday 15 February 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The UK government achieved its aim of vaccinating 15 million people against Covid by mid-February (see also Matthew d’Ancona below).
  • Donald Trump was acquitted of instigating the 6 January insurrection even though the US Senate’s senior Republican said Trump caused it. 
  • Egypt, keen to attract tourists, announced the discovery of a 5,000 year-old brewery 300 miles south of Cairo.

Can the EU handle Hungary?

At midnight last night Hungary’s last independent radio station ceased broadcasting. This is not 1956. It’s 2021 and Hungary has been an EU member for sixteen years.

The station is called Klubradio. Its content is mainly liberal or left-leaning and as of last night it could only be heard online. 

Is this a blip? Alas, no. Klubradio has been fighting for the right to be heard ever since Viktor Orban became prime minister for the second time in 2010. First it lost revenue when public sector agencies were banned from advertising on it. Then it won an early battle to retain its broadcast licence. Last week it lost the war. 

“In Russia they kill journalists,” the station’s head of news told the FT. “In Hungary they kill radio.”

The broader context is not uplifting either. In Hungary most of the media universe has been subsumed within a pro-government foundation run by one Orban friend and largely owned by another (a former gas fitter named Lorinc Meszaros who is now one of the richest people in the country). In Poland, whose ruling Law and Justice party is not to be outdone by Orban’s Fidesz in populist dog-whistling and sepia-tinted nationalism, independent TV and radio stations are fighting a new “solidarity fee” that they say would put many of them out of business.

Two months ago a state-controlled oil refiner bought 20 of Poland’s 24 regional newspapers.

Replacing a free press with thinly-disguised state propaganda is against the core European values that EU members are meant to defend, and the EU isn’t powerless to enforce them. It can sue, withhold funding and use Article 7 of its treaty to suspend a member’s voting rights. 

The trouble is, none of this is working. 

  • Poland and Hungary have found they can stymie EU action to bring them into line by opposing moves against the other in the Council of Ministers. 
  • They both have an ally in Janez Jansa, Slovenia’s populist PM, who takes over the Council’s six-month presidency in July.
  • Jansa has let it be known that instead of Article 7 he would prefer to use an evolving system of peer review of members’ rule-of-law records – a system with no power of sanction.

EU members are supposed to uphold democracy, free markets and the rule of law. In the 15 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall these requirements served as incentives for eastern European countries to seek membership, not deterrents. Sustaining democracy turns out to be as hard as winning it. Shouldn’t this be the EU’s core mission?

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

The Foxconn of EVs?
Geely’s share price has been on an impressive tear since last July. It’s trebled in value. The company is China’s biggest private car maker, but that is not enough for its chairman, Li Shufu, who looks across the Pacific at Tesla’s $800 billion valuation and yearns for that sort of approval. He didn’t get it by buying Volvo or the London Taxi Company or a stake in Daimler – all tainted one way or another by diesel. So now he wants to become the world’s go-to contract manufacturer for battery electric cars, as Foxconn is for mobiles. And Reuters reports that a big part of his plan is not just to be like Foxconn, but in business with Foxconn. If proof were needed that the way to think of EVs is as your next plug-in gadget with a service contract, this may be it.

New things technology, science, engineering

In office vs out
Last week we mentioned a Twitter thread about trends in working from home (WFH). It was gung-ho. We were all going to be WFH most of the time even after Covid. So now, the reality check. The FT’s Pilita Clark has had a chat with Stanford’s Nicholas Bloom, who in turn has surveyed thousands of people on the pluses and minuses of WFH and two minuses stand out. First, “mixed mode” doesn’t work. You can’t split teams between home and office because those at home miss crucial gossip round the water-cooler. Second, there’s an inevitable bias towards those most visible in the office when it comes to promotions, and that will disadvantage women with young children if they take more advantage of new WFH provisions – as they “almost certainly” will, Clark writes. At any rate, that was the finding of a Chinese case study which Bloom cited. More case studies needed.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Cold in Texas and Moscow
It’s freezing in Texas and snowing like crazy in Moscow. You could just write this off as winter, but it’s more interesting than that. Some of the coldest temperatures in Texas in 30 years are a result of what the US National Weather Service is calling an “Arctic outbreak”. The usual low pressure systems that keep the northern hemisphere’s coldest winter air over the North Pole are breaking down because of the warming Arctic, and letting more cold air than usual drift south. Meanwhile more snow fell on Moscow than in any single day since 1973. The dump was 1cm shy of the city’s 24-hour record – but not surprising. As Russia’s winters warm, snow comes later and leaves earlier, but right in the middle blizzards will be bigger because warmer air holds more moisture. You heard it here: that record will be broken.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Bhutan’s non-pandemic
Bhutan by the numbers: Population – 760,000. Per capita GDP – $3,412. Doctors – 337. Health workers – 3,000. Covid deaths – one. That’s one in total, since the start of the pandemic, and that number is the starting point for a report in the Atlantic on resilience in low-income countries, enhanced in Bhutan – Madeline Drexler argues – by a strong sense of national identity that derives in part from never having been a colony. Vietnam, Rwanda and Senegal are also listed as remarkably resilient, but Bhutan stands out for having kept a lid on the virus despite a long and porous border with India, where Covid has been rampant. The secrets of its success have not been expensive ICUs, but face masks, hygiene, distancing, quarantining and rigorous test and trace – right from the start.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Inside the NYT
The New York Times is famous for many things, including obsessive navel-gazing when it screws up. Its newish media editor, Ben Smith, has now doubled down on the navel-gazing, with a long and fascinating piece on the paper’s obsession with itself. In fairness that’s only part of it. He also tells the highly involved story of how one of its senior reporters, Donald McNeil Jr, got the sack two years after using the N-word in a discussion about race during a trip to Peru with a group of paying (and mostly highly privileged) high school students. You can’t help feeling by the end that the paper is better off without him. As for when the time will come when a sacking by the NYT isn’t a news story, don’t hold your breath.

The week ahead

15/2 – England hotel quarantine for 33 “red list” countries begins; vaccination deadline for top four target groups; High Court judgement published after ruling on Alex Salmond contempt order; ONS analysis on impact of Covid-19 on UK travel and tourism industry, 16/2 – culture minister Caroline Dinenage appears before select committee meeting on EU visa arrangements for creative workers; European Court of Human Rights ruling on allegedly trafficked Vietnamese nationals prosecuted in UK for work on cannabis farms, 17/2 – UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab chairs UN session on Covid-19 vaccines access; Handforth Parish Council set to hold no-confidence vote in local mayor Barry Burkhill, 18/2 – Labour leader Keir Starmer to deliver speech on the economy; health secretary Matt Hancock hosts virtual meeting of G7 health ministers; ONS statistics on outcomes for disabled people in the UK in 2020; Barclays reports full-year results, 19/2 – Supreme Court judgement on Uber drivers seeking worker status; ONS quarterly analysis of labour redundancies 

15/2 – detention of former Myanmar state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi due to expire; Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala confirmed as new World Trade Organization director-general; virtual meeting of eurozone finance ministers, 16/2 – Shrove Tuesday; removal of Yemen’s Houthi from US foreign terrorist list takes effect; votes of confidence in new Italian government expected, 17/2 – Lent begins; NATO defence ministers meet; Tory donor Crispin Odey appears in court charged with indecent assault, 18/2 – Wall Street hedge fund managers set to testify with CEOs of Reddit and Robinhood at US congressional hearing on GameStop; NASA Mars Rover due to land on Mars, 19/2 – US re-entry into Paris Climate Agreement takes effect; trial of Hong Kong democratic activists set to begin; US president Joe Biden delivers first international address since taking office, at Munich Security Conference, 20/2 – NASA mission to study the sun makes fourth flyby of Venus, 21/2 – deadline set by Iran for European oil and banking sanctions to be lifted; Niger presidential election run-off

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell

Xavier Greenwood

Photographs by Getty Images