Introduced: Zsuzsanna Szelényi

February 2020

Zsuzsanna Szelényi is a Hungarian politician and expert in foreign policy. She was a member of the Hungarian Parliament from 1990 to 1994 and from 2014 to 2018 and established the Visegrad4Europe project to organize pro-European advocacy in Central Europe. In between her two terms in parliament, she worked, among others, at the Council of Europe for fifteen years advising governments and NGOs on conflict management, human rights education, and human development.

Zsuzsa Szelényi

What are you working on as fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy?

The ultimate question of politics is how we want to live together in the future. For several decades we in Europe could easily answer this question since liberal democracy had an indisputable consensus. The revolutionary changes our generation is witnessing today, however, challenge this unambigous commitment. My key professional interest is how European societies will be able to manage the qualitative and irreversible transformation we live in.

I am a former Hungarian politician, and my country demonstrated how quickly politics could deconstruct a society when it builds upon the uncertainties of our times. Hungary, a country deeply integrated in the European social and economic system, is a proof that shows how the current European political establishment and the European institutions were unprepared for this threat and proved to be unable to resist populist pressure. Today the trend has developed into a global movement in the West in the form of a political culture war.

We know a lot about how populism works and how easily it can turn a systen illiberal when it comes to power. On the other hand, we have much less understanding about a very important phenomena that exists behind every populism, namely poisonous political polarization. My work focuses on how we can recognise the level of polarization that goes beyond the pluralist democratic debate and how to avoid the polarisation gap. Political polarisation show distinct faces in every European country. It does not reach a critical level in all countries, yet it is distressing everywhere. It can easily threaten social stability and the institutions of pluralist democracy. I am concerned that this is an issue of high relevance in contemporary European society, and thus a crucial concern in the European Union.

What are you trying to achieve? How will that idea or project be continued after your fellowship?

Beyond my research and writing, I am reaching out to politicians, think tanks and civil society organizations in Berlin that deal with European politics, democracy and social change. Germany is a large country in the middle of Europe with a society that possesses Western, Northern and Eastern political traditions. From this central position, Germans can have a nuanced understanding of Europe’s political realities, which enables Germany to think and act in an integrative way. German democracy has proved to be very resistant to populism so far, but like other countries, it is undergoing significant change. My aim is to share, learn, and build collaborations to counter extreme polarization in European society. Whether our societies can adapt to the upcoming large-scale transformations in a timely way will determine whether we can keep control and lead the change. I build collaborations that support the adaptation process.

What are you expecting to learn during your fellowship? Which insights will help you to develop your project?

My interactions with politics, academia and civil society help me to understand better the positions and interests in Germany. I am looking carefully at how Germany takes on a leading role in forming both European and global politics. I hope to see how German society will accompany its politicians in accepting the responsibility that originates from its centrist position.

Why did you accept the invitation to stay as Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy?

The Fellowship at the Robert Bosch Academy provides an ideal working space for thinking, debating and writing. It provides a perfect starting point to reach out to institutions, innovators and decision-makers.  The lively discussions among colleagues is deeply enriching, and provides a global perspective since fellows come from all over the world. The Academy is a great place to think globally and locally at the same time. I am glad I can contribute to this community at the Academy and in Berlin’s political environs.

What are your expectations for living in Berlin and Germany?

Berlin is a fascinating intellectual place with bookstores on every corner, and political, academic, and artistic dialogues going on everywhere. That is very inspiring. The biggest challenge is how to focus on my selected work topics. My aspiration is to combine work and enjoy the cultural richness of the city. Visiting one or another region in Germany enables a deeper understand of the distinct parts of the country.

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