Did the Dutch ambassador go too far in his criticism of the Orbán regime?

Outgoing Dutch ambassador Gajus Scheltema’s suggestion that the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán creates enemies along the same lines as Islamic terrorists sparked a political firestorm in Hungary. Mr. Scheltema said, as part of a response to journalists from the 168 Óra weekly on the risk of terrorist attacks, particularly after Barcelona:

“A car attack can occur anywhere in the world, but mostly in the Middle East. So should we just bomb the Middle East? Here is a group whose members have been losers of globalization. As a result, they turn to extremism and fundamentalist religiosity. This is what gives them the feeling of security. They create enemies along the same principles as the Hungarian government.”

Gajus Scheltema. Photo: MTI.

On Monday, Hungary’s former Socialist Minister of Foreign Affairs, László Kovács, came to the defense of the Orbán government. An unlikely ally, the veteran Mr. Kovács who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1994 to 1998 and from 2002 to 2004, said that the Hungarian government had no choice but to respond firmly and unequivocally to the outgoing ambassador of the Netherlands.

“The ambassador said things that cannot go without a response. As foreign minister, I was never quick to engage in battles. But in a case such as this, I would have shaken my head too,” said Mr. Kovács, before adding: “I would happily have a chat with the ambassador, to find out exactly what he meant. It was an extremely unfortunate sentence,” the socialist politician added.

Mr. Kovács, however, was surprised that the Hungarian government did not express dismay over the ambassador’s biting criticism on systemic corruption in Hungary. The ambassador had said that the European Union and the Netherlands could “no longer fund a corrupt system, we cannot fund corruption.” He then added: while Hungary lags far behind western European in development, which means Dutch and other western European citizens have an obligation to help, it is the western taxpayer’s legitimate expectation that these funds be used by the Hungarian government in a much more transparent and accountable manner.

The Dutch ambassador also had some strong criticism of the Hungarian media. He noted what many of our readers would probably agree with as well: compared to western investigative journalists, Hungarian reporters are chronically ill-prepared and are superficial in their reporting.

According to journalists from Index, however, there was long-standing tension between Ambassador Scheltema and Hungarian foreign affairs. Diplomats and key employees of the Ministry, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that they viewed Mr. Scheltema as a dogmatic ultra-liberal who was uninterested in deepening Dutch-Hungarian relations. “We felt that he hated us. Even among liberals, he was the most extreme” said one civil servant at foreign affairs, adding that the ambassador did almost nothing to promote meetings between Hungarian foreign minister Péter Szijjártó and his Dutch counterpart, Bert Koenders. The foreign affairs source was quick to emphasize: Hungary’s decision to suspend ambassadorial-level ties with the Netherlands was not an indication that the country did not want close relations with the Dutch government. It was a personal response to the actions of Mr. Scheltema.

For its part, the Dutch foreign ministry carefully distanced itself from the words of its retired ambassador. “It is obvious that there exists no connection between terrorism and the actions of the Hungarian government,” said Mr. Koenders. He suggested that the ambassador does not believe that such a connection exists either. The minister then remarked that the Hungarian response to these statements was unnecessary and “exaggerated.”

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