22nd Apr 2019

New Hungarian commissioner: 'Everyone says I'm an unusual choice'

Even in a season of surprising EU appointments, the person who has been nominated as Hungary's next commissioner is something of an outlier. An economics professor and member of the board of directors of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, but also an author of 11 books in English and Hungarian and the editor-in-chief of Hungary's main left-wing academic journal, Laszlo Andor is more the donnish intellectual than the seasoned political operative.

Sitting down for his first interview in Brussels outside the European Parliament canteen in brown pinstripes that match the lounge's designer brown leather chairs, the professor at Budapest's Corvinus University grinned widely at the suggestion that his appointment is something of a surprise. "Mmm. Yes. Everyone says I'm an unusual choice."

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  • Hungary's commissioner-designate has been a strong critic of the Maastricht criteria

Mr Andor conceded that apart from his fluency in English - a product of his studies at George Washington University and the University of Manchester, as well as four years on the EBRD board representing Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Croatia - he does not fit the usual mould for a commissioner. "But isn't that a good thing these days?" he said.

The Hungarian right-wing opposition, Fidesz, which is all but certain to win the spring general election, does not seem to think so. Miklos Panyi, spokesperson for Fidesz in the European Parliament, told this website that its MEPs consider him to be a "weak candidate," and that his experience is not sufficiently political or administrative.

Mr Andor is an ardent Keynesian, a school of economics which advocates government intervention in the economy, or "post-Keynesian" (the term he prefers) and a strong critic of those he calls the "Market Maoists" or "market fundamentalists" of eastern Europe since 1989.

He was an opponent of the Iraq war and regularly rubs shoulders with the "galacticos" of the left-liberal universe. His quarterly journal, Eszmelet (Consciousness) - essentially a Hungarian Le Monde Diplomatique - publishes texts by the likes of Ignacio Ramonet, Noam Chomsky, Slavoj Zizek and Arundhati Roy. He believes the Maastricht criteria are misguided, that Europe suffers from a democratic deficit and blames the financial crisis on the "anglo-American" economic model.

Yet in a post-crash world, where leaders from left to right paraphrase Republican Richard Nixon's 1971 epigram, "We're all Keynesians now," with interventionist policies that scream "We're all Keynesians - again," isn't the nomination of a translator of Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and a friend of James Galbraith, another noted critic of neo-classical economics, as new employment and social affairs commissioner actually in keeping with the spirit of the times?

While amused at the heterodoxy of his appointment, the 43-year-old's smile drops at mention of the accusation that he was ever a member of the Communist Party. For an anti-Stalinist leftist like Mr Andor, there are few terms that could be more offensive.

A flint in his voice appears when he mentions that the Financial Times had to issue a correction to an article that said he had been associated with Budapest's former Communist regime. EUobserver had also been told by a Hungarian diplomat that he had been close to the Communist Party, although never a member. The truth is that he had never been a member of the party. He has never even been a member of its democratic successor, the Hungarian Socialist Party.

"I don't like the distractions of subjects that are not part of the political agenda. Accusations that I'm linked to the Communist Party. There was one phrase that somebody coined that I was the 'Communist Banker' which was a funny term," he says. "If it were not in a very serious political environment in the European Union, I would find it amusing. I've never been a Communist. I've never been a banker."

Mr Andor said that some on the right deliberately try to confuse progressive ideas with Stalinism and that there is a dark undercurrent to such terms as "Communist banker."

"There is a kind of political sub-culture in Hungary that is to name anyone of the left as a Communist and I don't particularly like this culture of inappropriate political labelling."

Boosting the portfolio's profile

Across the EU, unemployment climbed to 9.3 percent in October, according to the latest figures issued on Tuesday. Analysts believe this will climb to 11 percent next year. Young people and women are some of the worst hit. In Spain, particularly struck by the crisis, unemployment for people under 25 stands at 42.9 percent.

This is precisely what Mr Andor will is to tackle, if the European Parliament approves him and the rest of the college of commissioners. But social legislation and measures to tackle unemployment are jealously guarded by the member states. The commission has very little room for manoeuvre in this department.

Mr Andor, who according to early leaks of the division of commission duties, had originally been tipped for a stand-alone financial services portfolio, argues that this may be true, but that the scale of the coming unemployment problem requires at the very least European-level co-ordination and that European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso has said that it is one of his uppermost priorities.

"If you look at the paper written by President Barroso in September - the new guidelines for the new commission, he identified five key objectives and the second was the fight against unemployment and addressing social problems," he said. "It's obvious that the crisis has aggravated the situation in labour markets, with unemployment growing everywhere and next year is going to be extremely hard again. Even if in certain countries there will be a recovery, it doesn't mean that jobs come back automatically. From this angle, we have to try to make the employment and social affairs portfolio more prominent."

Cuts unfair but there's little choice

Giving voice to the frustration in many quarters that bankers seem to have gotten away from the crisis with their bonuses intact while it is the public sector that is slated for swingeing cuts, he laments that the situation is unfair but, distancing himself from the civil servants who have taken to the streets in opposition to cuts in some countries, says there is little else that can be done.

"In the short term, the burden of the crisis can only be distributed in an unjust way because quite a few social groups, including public sector employees, who are not responsible for creating this crisis, have to make a sacrifice.

"There is very little alternative even if it's not their overconsumption, their overborrowing, it's not their own inflexibity that is responsible."

And in the long-term? It is clear he is no fan of talk at this stage of early "exit strategies" to government stimulus plans.

"It's time to clarify that the short-term task is fighting the crisis, restoring economic growth, and generating jobs. Once we see the actual and solid signs of convincing growth in terms of employment, then the fiscal side can be sorted out," the commissioner designate said.

The professor is also a firm backer of the widely discussed notion of a "Green New Deal," where government stimulus is used to protect jobs while paying for a shift to a low-carbon economy. According to him, while we need to give governments more time to sort out what this entails, he feels such a New Deal "has not yet been implemented." He is especially not enamoured with cash-for-clunkers car scrappage schemes as a way to protect jobs.

"In terms of government intervention, at the national level, at the European level, [a Green New Deal] is definitely not about saving the same structures. It is about managing a change to sustainability. There is a legitimate discussion about the speed and details of this."

In his 2000 book, Hungary on the road to the European Union: Transition in Blue, he sharply attacked the limits on government stimulus imposed by the EU's Maastricht Treaty.

"The current round of deepening of European integration - that is, the establishment of monetary union - represents a challenge to the postwar welfare state in that it attacks the established institutions of redistribution. The Maastricht Treaty virtually 'outlawed' Keynesianism at the level of the nation state and it has forced governments to cut back welfare spending in a ruthless way," he wrote at the time.

Nevertheless, he now feels the EU in reaction to the current crisis so far has got it basically right.

"It's obvious that the current crisis didn't originate with Europe or the EU. It is fundamentally a crisis of the Anglo-American model and this finance-dominated world. In the short term, Europe did what it could to co-ordinate national responses and to use European instruments. The magnitude of this crisis was beyond imagination."

Pressing the right buttons

For a non-politician, the young professor already knows what topics to avoid and the right Brussels buttons to press, giving a ringing endorsement to the Lisbon Treaty while flattering the parliament ahead of his confirmation hearing in the chamber.

"For us commissioners specifically, [there should be] closer work with the parliament, as the parliament is the directly elected side of the institutions and since the MEPs keep close contact with their own electorate, this is the channel for legitimacy in these times.

"The concept of a democratic deficit definitely exists. This is a fair criticism of the EU in general, but the innovations in the Lisbon Treaty have made progress. A stronger parliament is a good thing," Mr Andor said.

And no matter how many times he is pressed on two of Europe's most controversial pieces of legislation that come under his purview, the Posted Workers Directive, the 1996 law that trade unions argue creates a race to the bottom for wages, and the Working Time Directive, which the UK opts out of, and which President Barroso is committed to "sorting out" in upcoming administration, Mr Andor just keeps smiling and repeating "I will have to listen to all sides" and "We should find the best compromise that is possible."

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