I am not in the habit of letting the public in on all the behind-the-scenes details of my work as an MEP: on the one hand, it is not nearly as exciting and interesting as you might think it is, and on the other, voters are, quite rightly, interested in the result, not in the work that goes on behind the scenes. I am making an exception here to report on the background events of a specific case because it is particularly telling in Hungarian terms and has been a major topic of public debate in recent days.
Many of you have read in the news that one of the world’s largest online accommodation agencies, Booking.com, has not paid the money it owes to its contracted accommodation providers for a long time, and that this has put 22,000 Hungarian partners (mainly smaller tourist businesses, mostly family-run, in addition to the larger hotels) in a difficult position.
The first governmental reactions to the news in the press were rather peculiar: the Hungarian Tourism Agency, which many consider to be a payment outlet for NER [Orbán’s circles] started to operate with confusing figures, and the Fidesz parliamentary group – as part of the state communication routine – sent a concrete threat to the multinational company.
I, as one of the leaders of the European Parliament’s Transport and Tourism Committee and as an EU ambassador to the UN World Tourism Organisation, stepped in to support Hungarian interests and, interrupting my family holiday, initiated consultations with the responsible Booking.com executives as soon as I read the first news. I held several rounds of consultations with representatives of the company concerned, including the Deputy CEO responsible for the matter, the person in charge of the Central and Eastern European region, the heads of the Brussels and Budapest offices, the person responsible for the IT support, but I also held personal consultations with some of the Hungarian businesses concerned and the heads of professional organisations.
These negotiations have also contributed to the fact that – and this is an important announcement – by tomorrow, the approximately 22,000 Hungarian partner companies will almost without exception receive the delayed payments, and by Thursday, the regular and hopefully error-free operation will be restored. If, despite the promises made to me, the payments are still not settled, I will of course take institutional action at EU level.
As for the specific case: the Booking.com payment difficulties were not caused by a financial or management crisis, but by technical unpreparedness. Payments were delayed because of a change in accounting and bookkeeping software, which had been planned for more than two years, and the previous IT system could not cope with the surge in the number of partners and the workload of the summer season, while the new system was not yet up and running.
This is not to say that Booking.com should be excused or that its leadership should not be held responsible for thousands of Hungarian businesses not getting the money they were owed on time, but as the saying goes, you shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. You cannot just start making threats and launching a campaign of harassment for primitive political interests, because if we ourselves pull the rug out from under a company that serves so many Hungarian small and medium-sized enterprises and makes them a profit, then the Hungarian interests concerned will be toppled, too.
I am not a naïve beginner; I can see exactly how the multinationals exploit their market position, their size and their capitalist advantage in every situation at their disposal. Booking.com has also made countless insensitive mistakes and crisis management blunders in this case, but nothing will be solved by threats from political actors. In fact, it was in Hungary’s interest that the situation of the multinational company should be resolved as soon as possible, because if the system works well, Hungarian suppliers also benefit. If the multinational company collapses, thousands of Hungarian businesses will be buried under its debris. In the current case, therefore, the real result will be, and has been, achieved by a fair negotiation conducted based on firm, clear lobbying objectives.
It is a fact that the forced push for digitalisation – and the tourism sector, which operates as a litmus test – is constantly bringing to the surface countless new problems, to which economic operators do not yet have any quick answers. The lesson is that a multinational company with tens of thousands of partners per country cannot afford to be unavailable in times of crisis and communicate only via chatbots or artificial intelligence platforms. It is also a lesson learned that in similar situations, a tourism -based multinational with must not only focus on meaningful communication, but also on fairness, and must not treat its partners the way it just did.
So the Booking.com scandal seems to be close to a resolution, which was obviously in the interest of the multinational, but more importantly for us, it also resolves the situation of small Hungarian businesses without any serious damage. In this case, too, the Fidesz government has only used the old method: power play and threats, intoxicated by the glimmer of a possible takeover on the market. This, however, was only in the interests of Fidesz and the market players around it, not of the solution. What eventually led to an agreement was, now too, the quiet, behind-the-scenes and persistent conciliation work. Well, this is what truly effective representation of Hungarian interests actually looks like.
After the Hungarian Prime Minister’s landmark speech in Tusvámyos in 2014, which proclaimed the illiberal state, I vowed that, as an MEP, I would send an open letter every week to warn the public of the crimes of the system that had been established. For the 420TH time, I am ringing the bells of alarm and will continue to do so tirelessly for as long as the need arises. Because we must give our shared homeland a new chance.
dr. István Ujhelyi
Member of the European Parliament / Founder of the Community of Chance