A new Hungarian think tank vowing to "shake up European debate" has insisted it is independent despite receiving funds from Viktor Orban's government.
The main aim of MCC Brussels, executive director Frank Füredi told Euronews, "is to offer an alternative narrative" to the EU bubble which he says "tends to be very conformist and...create a quarantine against views that are different."
Critics say the think tank has been set up to push the Hungarian prime minister's vision of Europe.
Its launch event took place this week at the Atomium, a landmark building in Brussels which crucially — we're told — is located outside of the city centre and its EU bubble.
Instead, downtown Brussels can be seen through the window of the building's central pod, which also looms over the Mini-Europe attraction, where miniature replicas of some of the bloc's most famous buildings and monuments — from the Eiffel Tower and the Berlin Wall to Rome's Trevi Fountain and the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela — can be seen.
"I think it's a genuine attempt to amplify the Hungarian government's views in Brussels," said Zsuzsanna Vegh, an associate researcher for the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), another think tank.
"I don't think it's a genuine attempt to engage in the type of constructive, collaborative, deliberative discussion that is customary in European circles. That's not the way this government functions."
'Completely affiliated with the Orban government'
There are broadly two kinds of think tanks.
There are those that are affiliated with foreign ministries and are used by governments as sounding boards for policies, and there are private ones which largely fund themselves by doing individual projects for international institutions or governments.
Neither is better than the other and both are needed but "the most important thing for think tanks, in general, is to be transparent in the way they are financed and the way they are affiliated," Camino Mortera-Martinez, head of the Brussels Office of the Centre for European Reform (CER), another (private) think tank, told Euronews.
MCC Brussels is "a think tank that is totally and completely affiliated with the Orban government and that, I assume, is here to push his agenda and to look for ideas to bring back to Budapest," she said.
But a Hungarian government-affiliated think tank in Brussels is, for her, not a problem as long as it clearly identifies as such.
"If you know in advance that you're engaging with an Orban-sponsored organisation, if you know the kind of limits that you have when you engage with this kind of organisation, then what's the problem?"
"We've been talking to the Brits about Brexit in a way that defies any logic for a very long time and nobody is saying "oh my god, the Brits are horrible because they're bringing their own thinking to Brussels"," she added.
In fact, she welcomes the think tank in the hopes that it will open a line of communication with Budapest.
'No one asks us what to do'
MCC is a well-known entity in its home country with a largely educational purpose.
Its after-school classes for children in primary, secondary and tertiary education are given to some 6,000 students in 24 training centres dotted around Hungary and Romania. It also includes a "knowledge centre" or think tank as well as a publishing house.
It has a public foundation status and claims it is thus independent.
Still, the organisation received a "huge endowment, around €1.5 billion endowment from the Hungarian state," when it got its new status a few years back, Dr Balázs Orbán, chairman of the Board of Trustees of MCC, told Euronews. The chairman is also Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's political advisor.
This endowment granted by the government also included real estate as well as 10% stakes in the country's state-owned oil and gas company, MOL, and pharmaceutical and biotechnology company, Gedeon Richter.
It also received support during the COVID-19 pandemic from the country's recovery programme.
"Currently the government is giving us support for infrastructure projects like we have new centres, and I mean these are construction," Orbán said.
"But in general we are independent, so no one asks us what to do," he said.
"I'm not saying that from a value point of view, we are totally neutral, we are not a political body. And I think this kind of talent management is not about politics. It's a national strategy position."
Vegh points out however that MCC's chairman is both "Orban's political director and one of the closest advisers when it comes to ideology, party ideology".
'Lack of communication'
There has been little love lost between Budapest and the European Commission in Brussels.
The EU's executive has for years lambasted the hard-right government of Viktor Orbán for its reforms that have weakened the independence of the judiciary and media and chipped away at minorities' rights including women, the LGBTQI community and asylum seekers.
The two sides have regularly met in courts which have generally sided with Brussels but EU rules, especially unanimity voting on certain issues including budget and foreign affairs, have meanwhile provided Budapest with the power to grind certain policies to a halt in order to secure concessions and funds.
Budapest has also relied heavily on the line oft-used by governments everywhere across the EU that its problems are caused by Brussels.
For researchers, this unwillingness to engage with the so-called EU bubble and vice versa has been tough.
"All of the discussions are going on without Hungary or Poland in the room and as a think tanker, somebody who works on rule of law and migration issues, I've had many, many troubles to get the governments involved in discussions," Mortera-Martinez said.
"And I've had many, many troubles getting others to accept a Hungarian or Polish representative in discussion.
"So there is a complete lack of communication in between the two sides of the debates, and I think that benefits nobody," she added.
The think tank comes as the war of attrition between Budapest and Brussels reached yet another level this year.
Faced with inaction from Hungary despite the court rulings, the European Commission came up with a new tool, the rule of law mechanism, to directly go after the money they give Budapest and which they say Orbán misuses by channelling it towards close allies.
In September, it took its threat a step further by proposing to withhold €7.5 billion of EU funding unless Budapest got serious about reforms tackling corruption and rule of law concerns.
Since then, Orban has joined the Twitter-sphere, in English, launched a so-called national consultation on "Brussels sanctions" against Russia and now this new think tank.
"What they seek is mainstreaming their views and by that influence the European debate in a sovereignist, socio-culturally conservative direction and to seek legitimacy by bringing on board intellectuals who are regarded as credible in Europe," the ECFR's Vegh said.
"I think it's very strategically well-timed for the next European elections (in 2024), giving it enough leeway to build up a presence. And yes, in the shorter-term, clearly the Commission actually suggesting financial sanctions against the Hungarian government gives the government an additional incentive to put forward its own narrative and try to shape the debate".
'Just the beginning'
This link between EU funds and the launch is rejected by Balázs Orbán.
"If anybody thinks that we Hungarians have only one issue with Brussels and this one issue is money, then it's a misunderstanding. We have lots of issues with Brussels: the money, the war, the sanctions, the global minimum tax agreement, migration in general, gender (identity), judiciary and the future of Europe and so on," he said.
Rather, he argued, the launch comes from a position of strength: Viktor Orbán was reelected for his fourth consecutive term in April, Italy elected a far-right government in September, Republicans in the US have wrestled control of the House of Representatives away from Democrats and relations with Poland, damaged by Hungary's position on Russia's war in Ukraine, are reportedly on the mend.
"Our international position on the West is more safe than it used to be six months ago and I think that since Europe is going down, voters will look for political alternatives or will convince the so-called traditional political parties to change their policies.
"The current mismanagement of the crisis situation is supporting the alternative visions about Europe and obviously Hungary is offering an alternative vision for Europe."
MCC Brussels, he stressed, "is just the beginning."