Laszlo Solyom served as president of the Republic of Hungary from 2005 to 2010. He obtained a law degree at the University of Pecs in 1965 before earning a doctorate at the University of Jena, Germany, in 1969. He worked as a research fellow at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences from 1969 to 1982, and then as professor of law at ELTE University in Budapest (1982–2000).
In the 1980s, Solyom worked as a legal advisor to environmental movements and groups, and became a member of the Democratic Forum delegation to the regime-changing roundtable negotiations in 1989. He was president of the Hungarian Constitutional Court from 1990 to 1998.
What special roles do you see the CEE region playing in a Europe-wide or global context in the coming years?
Two possible areas of concern for the region are the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the future of nuclear energy in the context of alternative and renewable energy sources. I don’t know whether the REC will have a voice on these issues, but they should at least be talked about.
What first pops into your mind when you hear the name “REC”?
My immediate association of ideas with the REC is “independence”. An institution that does not depend on domestic politics — which is, at best, indifferent to environmental issues — the REC establishes its own ends and has the means to implement them, and in a wider geographical context.
The second thought is more visual — or, rather, in the imagination — the genius loci of Szentendre. This embraces not so much the old town but the Szentendre arm of the Danube, which is for me more human, domesticised, or simply kind, than the rather strange, huge main arm. The REC breathes the air of that riverside.
Can you share a memorable anecdote about the REC or the CEE region?
I was deeply impressed by the then just-completed conversion of the REC Conference Center into a zero-energy building. But I must admit that I felt equally cold inside during both winter and summer — and was quite hot outside during my summer visit. There was enough light in the room for working, but not enough real sunlight. I had a strong desire to be sweating and blinded by the sun.
I am familiar with some REC programmes in the Balkans and have kept them in mind while visiting Montenegro, [the former Yugoslav Republic of] Macedonia and Albania. For instance, the REC facilitated cooperation with people from villages at Lake Ohrid in the interest of peace and economic wellbeing, which broke through prejudices and contributed much to my understanding of the region.
You spent the pivotal years of 1990 to 1998 as president of the Constitutional Court of Hungary. What were Hungary’s greatest environmental challenges at that time, and what was needed in order to address them from the legal and political points of view?
Only the happy few know that the most influential legal instrument for building constitutional democracy in Hungary in the ’90s — the actio popularis, which preceded the Constitutional Court — had its origins in environmental law. Before the democratic change I had already proposed to introduce the possibility of a lawsuit on behalf of the environment without showing personal damage. In the given circumstances, the opportunity presented itself to transform this idea to an unlimited access to the Constitutional Court. The actio popularis demonstrated that political power and legislation itself have limits.
The most important ruling of the Constitutional Court in environmental matters, the declaration of the non-derogation principle, was also delivered on a popular footing. The Court opined that the State could not reduce the degree of nature protection as guaranteed under law unless it was necessary to realise other constitutional rights — and even then only in proportion to the set goal. The burning practical question behind the case was that protected forests were privatised, which led to dismemberment of those areas — and, furthermore, the maintenance level of protection was not guaranteed. The Court obliged the State to repurchase those forests.
Another topical question reached the Court already in its first year, in 1990 — namely, the environmental damages caused by the Soviet Army, on which a mixed commission had the last say. The Constitutional Court opened recourse to the ordinary courts in such cases.
One of your three pillars of government as president of the Republic of Hungary (2005–2010) was: “Calling the Hungarian and the international public’s attention to environmental and ecological issues, such as the importance of biodiversity or the risks of climate change.” How would you assess, up to now, Hungary’s political and public response to this particular calling?
Perhaps a five-year period provides enough scope for evaluation of my three presidential priorities. Surely the fate of these efforts has been directed by events, which were partly unexpected, but surely independent from the once-hoped-for durability and energy invested into them. I think it is senseless to go into mourning for the decline of the rule of law, the current lack of neighbourhood and minority policy making, or the systemic pushing of environmental and sustainability issues into the background. These aims had to have the desired effect in their time — and if they had it then, one may have some hope in resilience.
The most eye-catching undertaking was the plan to establish a network of “green” presidents. Apart from two “presidential panels” at the World Science Forum — with only two neighbouring presidents — it, alas, remained a slogan. The presidents of the Visegrad countries and the colleagues in the Arraiolos Group — non-executive EU heads of state — showed no affinity for environmental issues, and I tried in vain to raise the question of nuclear energy with them. Their negative answers were as under-informed as they are today in the Hungarian Parliament. Speeches in the UNO, at academic conferences, or even on the Climate Thinkers blog are nice — but no Hungarian president should think that their work is complete through such abstract acts.
Concrete actions are needed, and I joined in civil protest actions. We succeeded in preventing the building of a NATO radar station on the Zengo (a strongly protected area), an international airport at the Balaton with a landing strip over the lake (Szentkirályszabadja), and an electricity plant fired by straw that would have been collected and transported through the Tokaj area. I was lobbying internationally to remain GMO free in the EU, and against another power plant — an incinerator on the Hungarian-Austrian border (Szentgotthárd).
My warmest memories, however, are of my three-day visits to Hungary’s 10 national parks. I was enriched not only by seeing the natural treasures, but also by the uncounted personal encounters with park workers and people living on or from the park territories — or, in some cases, restricted by protective regulations. In turn, the self-standing Orseg National Park has been restored, and the number of visitors to the parks increased.
Finally, as head of state I called for well-informed nationwide debate on the use of nuclear energy and a public environmental impact assessment before taking any decision on the Paks Nuclear Plant.