Although he spoke about ethnic Hungarians in a denigrating tone and was even fined for his remarks, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis will become the honoured recipient of the Charlemagne Prize. The director of the award board appears to find no fault with the politician's remarks, whom he considers to be a champion of European values.
In May the Szekler National Council, an organisation representing ethnic Hungarians in Romania, sent a letter to Jurgen Linden, board director of the International Charlemagne Prize of the City of Aachen, warning that Romania's president was an unworthy awardee of the prize. The authors of the letter argued that Mr Iohannis had stigmatised an entire national minority by making unfounded remarks concerning Transylvania's Hungarian communities, something that could be used to incite hatred.
The incident occurred on 29 April when, in his video message, Mr Iohannis accused his political opponent - Romania's Social Democratic Party (PSD) - of "fighting in Parliament's secret back offices to hand over Transylvania to the Hungarians", while the Romanian government was combatting the coronavirus epidemic.
The president claimed that the tacit approval of a draft law on granting territorial autonomy to Szeklerland by parliament's lower house was the outcome of a clandestine agreement between PSD and the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (RMDSZ). During his speech, Mr Iohannis also used the Hungarian language in a derogatory tone and style.
The International Charlemagne Prize is awarded for work done in the service of European unification. Former recipients include renowned personalities such as Konrad Adenauer, Winston Churchill, Robert Schumann or Vaclav Havel. Because of his inciting remarks, Iohannis is unworthy of being honoured to join this hall of fame, the president of the Szekler National Council argues.
However, the award board in Aachen appears to find no problems with the Romanian president's remarks. Board Director Jurgen Linden wrote in a letter that "The President may have used unusually strong rhetoric, but I cannot seem to detect an attack on, or any degradation of, the Hungarian minority."
"President Iohannis himself has repeatedly made it clear that his statements were in no way directed against the Hungarian minority, whose members he holds in high esteem. Motivated by his role as the guardian of the constitution, he concerns were levelled against politicians, and above all the politicians of PSD. The award board of the international Charlemagne Prize of Aachen has no doubt that Klaus Iohannis is a convinced and convincing European, and we see no reason to revise our decision."
In an interesting development, however, Mr Iohannis was fined 5,000 leu (1,032 euros) by the country's National Anti-Discrimination Council (CNDC) for his anti-Hungarian remarks in May, in a clear sign of rejecting and condemning his words. According to Balazs Izsak, the move shows that even Bucharest found President Iohannis's comments a little "less European" than Jurgen Linden suggests.
Speaking to Aachener Zeitung, Linden underlined his convinction that Romania's head of state was a committed European citizen. The interview took place following Mr Iohannis's anti-Hungarian remarks.
SZNT President Balazs Izsak noted that Western Europe's image entertained by Central and Eastern European communities before the fall of Socialism was an illusion, adding that they now have to face reality. Speaking to Hungary's public Kossuth Radio on Thursday, he added that the focus of the EU's core values had already shifted from Western to Eastern Europe. Balazs Izsak also expressed his party's regret that Mr Iohannis would receive the award despite their protests.