When I interviewed Hungary’s new prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, in 2004 his opening gambit was: “Call me Frank.” Ironic, really. But Mr Gyurcsany’s admission that he won an election through bare-faced deceit - recorded on tape as he spoke to socialist MPs about the need to face up to painful reforms - has won him a surprising amount of support around Brussels.
His speech was one of the most intriguing, passionate and honest political tracts you will ever read - even if it was delivered by a serial liar. Mr Gyurcsany’s plea for reforms of the economy and public services should stand as a template for other EU countries grappling with globalisation. “Reform or fall - there is no other choice,” as he put it, could be a motto for much of Europe.
With such a clear-sighted view of what needs to be done, no wonder Joaquín Almunia, the EU monetary affairs commissioner, privately hopes the Hungarian prime minister will survive politically to deliver on the rhetoric.
In a sense it doesn’t matter whether anybody can trust a word Mr Gyurcsany says. Mr Almunia is well past that point. Having initially swallowed the Hungarian prime minister’s wildly optimistic deficit-cutting plans in 2004, he won’t be fooled again.
What matters now is not Mr Gyurcsany’s words but action. When I interviewed him in Luxembourg, he said he knew the markets, Brussels and the European Central Bank no longer trusted him and were interested only in results. He promised to report back every six months on what has been done.
If anything, Mr Almunia is worried Mr Gyurcsany has been too radical with his upfront austerity measures. “These are not empty promises he’s making - he’s already delivering some very painful tax rises and cutting spending,” says one aide.
Mr Gyurcsany is staking his career on the reforms starting to pay dividends by 2009, with improved public services, lower unemployment and the prospect of those promised tax cuts actually being delivered. It is a fascinating political test case. Will Hungary’s voters and Mr Gyurcsany’s party give him the time to show the reforms will work? And if they do, will the electorate ever forgive him for winning the last election on a lie?
If his gamble pays off, it would suggest that Hungarians (like some in Brussels) have a sneaking regard for Mr Gyurcsany’s brutal political philosophy, in which the ends justify the means.