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Hungarian government: We are not asking you about the climate because we care, but because we have to

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The European Union obliged the Hungarian government to hold a social consultation on the climate, and the Hungarian government fulfilled this obligation as quietly as they possibly could. In Hungary, the government left a week for the citizens to complete the survey while Austria's consultation ran for an entire month, and while Germany spent €2.5 million on making sure the consultation reaches even those who are not passionate about climate protection, the Hungarian government did not advertise its survey in any shape or form.

More than 150 000 people responded to the survey on the Hungarian government's long-term climate protection strategy, Index learned from several sources, which shows an elevated interest in the topic considering the fact that the Hungarian government did not exactly shout it from the rooftops.

While Austria's social consultation on the climate was open for an entire month, the Hungarian government gave the citizens only a week to voice their opinions. The survey was posted in two places: A Facebook-page operated by the Ministry of Innovation and Technology that only has a negligible amount of followers (909 at the time of writing this article) and in a submenu on the government's website.

After independent media outlets wrote about the consultation on Friday, several opposition parties voiced their outrage over the fact that Viktor Orbán's government had spent tens of billions of Forints to advertise national consultations on George Soros, migration, and terrorism, but considers the consultation on climate change done by publishing a link to a Google Form. The Ministry of Innovation and Technology responded on Wednesday in a press release reading:

"The government did not initiate a national consultation concerning climate protection, we complied with the Brussels provision about informing the public. We are asking parties of the opposition to turn to Brussels, as the deadline and format of the consultation were prescribed by Brussels. If the Hungarian government intended to launch a national consultation concerning the climate, they would carry that out in the usual manner."

On Monday, government spokesperson István Hollik told Inforádio:

"The aim of this [consultation] is not for the government to learn more about the general opinion of the people, it is just an obligation ordered by Brussels which the government fulfils."

It's on the website because it's obligatory

The Ministry's press release is true insofar as the member states of the European Union indeed have to consult their citizens on the states' long-term climate strategies, however, member states enjoy rather wide freedom as to how to conduct this consultation. The Regulation (EU) 2018/1999 on the Governance of Energy Union and Climate Action says implementation of policies and measures in the areas of energy and climate has an impact on the environment, 

"Member States should, therefore, ensure that the public is given early and effective opportunities to participate in and to be consulted on the preparation of the integrated national energy and climate plans."

During the public consultation, members states have to "aim to ensure equal participation, that the public is informed by public notices or other appropriate means such as electronic media, that the public is able to access all relevant documents, and that practical arrangements related to the public's participation are put in place," the regulation continues.

"Each Member State shall ensure that the public is informed. Each Member State shall set reasonable timeframes allowing sufficient time for the public to be informed, to participate and express its views. (...) The dialogue may take place by means of any national structure, such as a website, public consultation platform or another interactive communication tool."

This was the framework in which the Hungarian government had to conduct its consultation about which they will have to report to the European Commission. The only reason it was published on the government's website was that it was a box to tick. The rush of the last three days could even serve the government, as they can reasonably point out the heightened interest in the survey. In the meantime, pro-government media refused to publish news of the consultation even after the Ministry issued their press release on Sunday night. 

On Friday, we asked President János Áder (who is usually eager to talk about the climate) when he learned about the consultation, if he responded to the survey or promoted it somewhere, and about his opinion on the government not informing the citizens about it, but as of the publication of this article, he did not answer our questions.

How France and Germany did it

Some other EU member states chose a wholly different path of consulting the population on their long-term climate strategy. István Bart, a board member of the energetics NGO Energiaklub said that Germany conducted a so-called civic dialogue lasting one and a half years which had two pillars: one pillar was a written consultation involving 70 000 randomly selected citizens and 500 verbal interviews. The meetings yielded 70 proposed measures for protecting the climate and reducing emissions. The other pillar was an assembly of traditional institutions (municipalities, NGOs, and the states of Germany) where they assembled a proposal featuring 66 measures. The two packages were unified by a mixed committee before it was submitted to the German Minister for the Environment. 

All in all, Germany spent €2.5 million on its climate consultation.

The French consultation dubbed as the "National Dispute on Energy Transition" lasted nine months, and its main question was whether or not it is possible to reduce emissions and the share of nuclear power plants in the energy mix at the same time, István Bart told Index. The consultation in France also had two pillars. The citizens' survey was completed by 170 000 people online and at the more than 1000 events France held to promote the consultation, while municipalities, NGOs, corporations, MPs, and other representatives formed a subcommittee to discuss certain details such as renewables or how certain measures would be funded.

According to István Bart, the main result of such a lengthy and expensive consultation process is that the climate question breaks out from the circles of experts and policymakers, raising society's awareness of both the problems and the possible solutions, affording governments the confidence to take decisive action to protect the climate. 

As to why the Hungarian government is reluctant to discuss climate change, see our earlier articles covering the issue in detail.

(Cover: Participants of the Budapest iteration of the third Global Climate Strike marching across the Chain Bridge on 27 September 2019. István Huszti  / Index)

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