Taking on Orbán to secure a green future for transport

17 November 2020

Hungary has become shorthand in Europe for rule-of-law issues. But the country’s capital, Budapest, is a bastion of progressive politics and opposition, leading the central government to scrutinise every single city initiative.

Now, Viktor Orbán’s right-wing administration has slammed the brakes on Budapest’s plans to expand its fleet of green vehicles and move towards a low-emissions future. The city’s mayor, Gergely Karácsony, has called out the government’s refusal to greenlight a European procurement project of low-floor trams, high-tech electric buses and state-of-the-art trolleybuses.

“We will fight”

“We will not allow the government to run counter to the interests of the people of Budapest because of petty power-economic intentions. If we have to, we will fight for it,” said Mayor Karáscony, co-leader of the opposition Párbeszéd party, on his Facebook page.

The Fidesz-run Hungarian government had initially agreed to fund the purchase of the desperately needed vehicles itself. But not only has it u-turned on the decision, it is now refusing to sign the paperwork for a €200 million refundable European Investment Bank (EIB) loan. Budapest’s Deputy Mayor for Climate and Development, David Dorosz, said that the Orbán administration is trying to politicise the process.

“We knew that Viktor Orbán’s government cynicism has no limits, however in this case they were not just unhelpful, but outright destructive,” said Dorosz. The deputy mayor’s comments echo those of Mayor Karácsony, who has criticised the central government for depriving opposition-run councils of resources to improve its citizens’ lives.

Simmering tensions

The spat comes as part of a ongoing conflict between the municipality and the central government on transport funding. “We asked nothing more from the government than a permitting signature on the EIB loan,” said Dorosz. Instead, the government now insists that the city uses funds from a previous loan to purchase the vehicles, a “very hostile move” according to the deputy mayor, as the city has already allocated these funds for other projects.

And last month, tense exchanges between Hungary’s central government and city of Budapest eventually led to funding agreements on a series of projects, including an extension of the tram network in Buda, the connection of the M2 metro and the H8 HÉV lines and a renovation of the city’s Chain Bridge. But the parties failed to reach agreements on other projects after rancorous negotiations.

Direct EU link

The souring of already-poor relations between the Orbán government and Budapest has led to fears that the city’s green revolution could be snuffed out. But for Dorosz, the message is clear: the EU can help by cutting out the middleman.

“This case clearly shows why the EU should allocate more funds directly to cities, so authoritarian governments cannot interfere with corruption or political games,” he said.

Previously, Mayor Karácsony was one of 50 mayors to lobby the EU to provide more direct access to COVID-19 recovery funds to help cities improve their fight against rising CO2 emissions.

For now, the mayor has said he will not give up the fight to develop a green transport network for Budapest’s 1.5 million inhabitants and many more who rely on the city’s system of trains, buses and trams.

Main image: Gergely Karácsony © Budapest City Council