Embassies must not Partner in Undermining Democracy
War on Ukraine represents a conflict between democratic, independent and sovereign country and autocratic aggressor brutally violating international law. We must be sensitive on protection of democratic traditions and processes in European countries. When diplomatic missions act to involve themselves in the domestic politics of their host, this step crosses the line of interference and places embassy officials in the realm of political actors. When this is done at the behest of anti-government NGOs in a European democracy, it displays deformed and divisive behaviors that undermine principals of mutual respect for the democratic process.
This exact behaviour has been revealed to have taken place in Hungary, where NGOs pursuing to change the government enlisted Western embassies to act in their interest. Whether to apply pressure on the Hungarian government from the embassies themselves, or to apply pressure from abroad, the diplomatic missions became a tool through which government regulations or legislation could be challenged.
The recorded and broadly published statements of two former directors at the Open Society Foundation (OSF) as well as a former director at Amnesty International (AI) reveal that officials from the Dutch, British, and US Embassies in Budapest have been willing to pressure the Hungarian government directly, while the Belgian, French, Spanish, and German Embassies would engage in politicized stunts or be used as cover for media attacks. OSF would even go up the ladder to the European Commission to attempt to achieve its goals in Hungary. Perhaps the best public example of the diplomatic corps acting as biased political agents is when the former Dutch Ambassador to Hungary compared the country’s methods to those of the Islamic State terrorist organisation.
Such politicized foreign involvement in the affairs of a sovereign democracy like Hungary undermines the role of voters to decide upon their parliamentary representation and the direction of policy. In Europe, and specifically between democracies, it is critical that space is allowed for differing electoral outcomes, and indeed divergent worldviews to win at the ballot box.
Of course, foreign embassies are tasked with communicating the position of their government to the government of Hungary, particularly on any issue affecting the bilateral relationship. Yet the pattern in Budapest has been markedly different, with the embassies using combinations of public and private pressure to affect the country’s domestic affairs and Hungarian government policy, pushed to do so by NGOs unrepresentative of the Hungarian electorate.
When OSF and AI enlist foreign embassies to apply pressure and use top-down approaches to affect the politics of Hungary, it is largely a reflection of the fact that the Hungarian population has not voted their interests and ideology into power. Financially motivated and interested parties, OSF and AI’s Hungarian operations get funding to reflect the wishes of wealthy donors outside the country, over the political aspirations of those living there. With OSF and AI preferences for Hungarian governance not seeing electoral success, their activities to affect policy behind foreign embassies can bring similar results, just less democratically.
The issue with these activities is that they engender mistrust and division between countries that, otherwise, are deeply embedded within the Western sphere and European community. As tragic weeks of war in Ukraine show, pan-European unity is the essential ingredient needed to confront crises on the continent and defend democracy in our broader region. The former Communist members of the European Union have not wavered in commitment to upholding European values and to countering the aggression from Moscow – Hungary included.
We risk losing this spirit of pan-European unity if some governments are undermined by their own allies, no matter if policy proscriptions differ and worldviews diverge. The embassies in Budapest must be cognizant that to do the bidding of OSF or AI for a short-term political gain ultimately hurts Hungarian democracy and can damage pan-European trust and unity which has been critical in recent weeks. Europe can have its debates and political differences, but mutual respect must still reign when these differences emerge out of the democratic process. This must be the principle. So that when military aggression and invasions threaten the European continent, our differences come into focus as minor when compared to the threats we face in our current hours.