10 important highlights from the past 10 years

It’s hard to sum up ten years of work in just a few minutes. If I were to ask the government’s paid agitators, they would obviously assess my performance as an MEP as „net treason.” But if I go by feedback from the opposition public, I have been one of the most active and credible Hungarian politicians in Europe in recent years.  Now that I am temporarily ending my MEP career and leaving the arena of political parties for the time being, it is time to give you an account of my work over the last ten years.  I have a lot to sum up.

Here are ten important highlights from the past ten years:

1. It may seem immodest, but I am the only Hungarian MEP to have been nominated for MEP of the Year four times in ten years and to have won the prestigious award twice. I am particularly proud that I was found worthy of nomination in several fields, including tourism, transport and health. 

2. No doubt one of the most significant and, for me, best-loved programmes to have been involved in creating was the free train pass scheme for 18-year-olds. The original concept came from two young German activists who, a few years ago, came up with the idea that the EU should give every young person in Europe a free Interrail pass on their 18th birthday. I was the first to spearhead the proposal and, after overcoming many obstacles, I mentored it all the way to implementation. Since then, young Europeans have had the chance to apply for this special travel opportunity nine times: we’ve had more than a million applications in the last few years. The success of the programme is not only demonstrated by the fact that we have been honoured with a European Excellence Award, but also by the fact that we regularly receive surplus applications from Hungary, too. So far, more than 6,000 young Hungarians have had the opportunity to travel to Europe under the DiscoverEU programme and, as we have managed to secure EU funding for the programme in the long term, this number will continue to grow.

3. I consider the creation of the concept of the European Health Union to be an equally important milestone in my work as an MEP. A few years ago, it was I and my fellow MEPs and colleagues in the S&D Group of the EP who laid the foundations for what has since become an official European pillar. The further expansion of the European Health Union and the introduction of the minimum health service, which I have been calling for, guaranteeing European standard of care, still represent a lot of work to be done, which I will continue to do as a public citizen. In recent years, I have managed to build up a deep and active knowledge and strong professional contacts in the health sector and I have also managed to produce – very important – policy reports in the European Parliament, such as the document on non-communicable diseases, which dealt with groups of diseases that are not caused by viruses or other infections. This latter issue is also much more important than you might think, since these diseases cause almost 90% of all deaths in the European Union. And the document I co-edited as shadow rapporteur has helped to prevent them, detect them early and improve the effectiveness of their treatment.

4. Tourism was already a priority area for me before I became an MEP, and over the last ten years I have become even more immersed in actively representing this sector. Tourism is a much more important policy area than many people realise: it is the third largest employment sector in Europe, and the fate of 25 million Europeans directly and indirectly depends on tourism and hospitality in the EU.  I have taken a number of valuable and long-term initiatives as an MEP: for example, I created the Tourism Manifesto with the participation of thirty-eight stakeholders in the sector, which was both a written document summarising the interests of the tourism profession and a round table of sorts that has been running ever since. I am also responsible for the policy agreement between the UN World Tourism Organisation and the European Parliament, the organisation of the EU-China Tourism Year and the creation of the European Capital of Smart Tourism programme, which has since become one of the most successful EU calls for proposals for sustainability and innovation, with winners such as Seville, Helsinki, Lyon or indeed Malaga.

5. In addition to tourism, I have also tried to make a mark in transport policy as vice-chair of the EP’s Committee on Transport (TRANS). In recent years, I have been responsible for a number of important dossiers, perhaps less interesting from a Hungarian point of view, but certainly useful from a European perspective. As rapporteur for the S&D Group, I was the initiator of the proposal on the safe operation of ferries and high-speed passenger craft, but I was also shadow rapporteur for the report on tourism related to fisheries, the document on the short-stay Schengen visa, the report on the digitalisation of European industry and the parliamentary document on 5G networks, i.e. internet connectivity for competitiveness. I consider it an important achievement that, after many years of work together with experts, we have succeeded in creating the Code of Ethics for Low Cost Airlines and I am also proud to have been the rapporteur on the so-called CITS report, the EP document on intelligent transport systems. At the time, few people understood why this was important; but thanks to these regulations, road accidents will be significantly reduced, because intelligent systems will almost completely eliminate human error.

6. There have been few periods as stressful and tense in the last decade as the covid pandemic. The pandemic, with its high death toll, caught not only the European Union, but in fact the whole world, unprepared. As a member of the EP Committee on Health, I have been engaged in serious battles with the Hungarian Government, and sometimes also with the European Commission, in order to provide citizens with the most accurate and credible information possible. I have submitted countless public interest inquiries to the government, exposed their many misleading lies and their procurement stinking of corruption. And in more than one case, I have performed important public service tasks on behalf of the government, for example when I liaised with the European Commission on travel restrictions for Hungarians vaccinated with Russian and Chinese vaccines not recognised by the EU.

7. One of my first objectives as an MEP was to actively support young people who had been forced to emigrate from Hungary and the communities they had formed abroad. I organised several professional conferences to promote the representation of emigrants, we worked together with expatriate groups to prepare the „Come Home / Hazaváró” programme, which has since caught the attention of not only opposition parties but also the government, and we launched an online petition to ensure equal voting rights for Hungarians living abroad. Self-critically, I have to admit that we have not yet succeeded in fully implementing the latter, since the institution of postal voting is still not guaranteed for them, but we have already partially improved the unfair situation by increasing the number of Hungarian foreign representations abroad. During my visits to expatriate Hungarian communities, I have held a number of meetings abroad: for example, the need for a consulate in Scotland was first raised at a forum in Edinburgh, Scotland, and I kept pressing the government for one until they finally opened it in 2018.

8. One of my first personal commitments as an MEP was to start a scholarship programme for interpretation students at the University of Szeged, for which I signed a cooperation agreement in 2015. Since then, I have hosted two Szeged students every semester at the European Parliament in the so-called „Bringing you into sync / Szinkronba hozunk” programme, where they have had the opportunity to experience what it is like to work in an interpretation booth, with the help of the fantastic Hungarian staff of the interpreting service, and what kind of tough situations they will face after their university exams as professional interpreters. Over the years, I have met many excellent young people, many of whom I have stayed in touch with ever since. I must admit that this is one of the programmes that I regret having to put on hold with my departure. But perhaps, one day, we can continue.

9. Many people considered my active involvement in European circus arts to be „clownish,” but it was not only important to me because of tourism policy. In the European Union, roughly 8.7 million people are employed in one way or another in the cultural and entertainment industries. In comparison, it may seem insignificant that there are roughly 1 600 to 2 000 registered circuses in Europe, providing a direct livelihood for roughly 15 000 people. But they also provide recreation and entertainment for millions.  In 2016, I organised a comprehensive and important professional conference at the European Parliament, where we discussed the present and future of the circus with some of the most prominent representatives of the genre: from artistic challenges to social issues (such as the education of children in travelling circuses) and the very important animal welfare issues. Together with my colleagues and independent experts from the circus world, in 2018 we created the BigTopLabel project, now known as the „Michelin star” of circus arts. We have created a multi-stage, rigorous and objective quality control process, which not only checks the quality of the shows of the circuses that apply for the test, but also the full respect of the rights of their staff, working conditions, the quality of the services provided to guests, and the compliance of the transport and animal facilities with the strict standards. Only a circus that meets all the requirements of this extremely demanding test can be BigTopLabel certified. In recent years, we have awarded this accolade to 12 circuses in Europe, including Finnish, British, German, Italian, French, Swedish, Spanish and, to our pride, two Hungarian circuses – the Hungarian National Circus and Flórián Richter’s Circus.

10. In the last ten years I have also experienced a number of radical changes in my life. And I don’t mean going grey, growing a beard and getting glasses. I’m not even thinking about the fact that during my time as an MEP, my family has grown by two and I’m now a father of six.  In these ten years, my political family has also undergone a major change: I have had to leave my second family, the Socialist Party, out of necessity. I sincerely believed that I could succeed in giving a radically new, fresh direction to my then community, but this was ultimately prevented. I still believe it was justified and I fear that time will prove me right.  So, after nearly 30 years of active party politics and 10 years of fierce MEP work, I am entering a new phase in my life. 

I saw my political carrier as a mission of service and I am confident that I have succeeded in fulfilling it. I will continue my civil society career as the founder of the Community of Chance (Esély Közösség), but as a „Political Eyewitness” I will continue to have an opinion on the day-to-day affairs of public life and politics. 

So, if you want to continue to hear straight talk, follow me on social media and my Youtube channel. 

Remember: every system fails eventually. And it’s up to us to decide when.

István Ujhelyi


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