Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Hungary caves in to EU pressure on media law

After a month of skirmishes between Budapest and Brussels over the new Hungarian government's controversial media law, it looks like the country's defiant prime minister Viktor Orban might be ready to throw in the towel.

Yesterday the country's communication minister announced that the government had agreed to change the wording of the law following concerns from the European Commission that it restricts press freedom. The minister didn't specify what the change in wording would be, but he told the BBC it will be submitted on Thursday and that Budapest and Brussels are "very, very close" to resolving the issue.

The media law took effect at the start of this year, on the same day that Hungary assumed the rotating EU presidency. The law will create a new agency called the Media Council that will monitor news reports for "balance" and "human dignity". Offending news outlets who are found to have not been "balanced" would face large fines and possible deaccreditation in the country. The law would require all journalists, even video bloggers, to be accredited by the state. The word "balanced" had particularly alarmed the commission because the Media Council was to be packed with people from Orban's governing conservative party, Fidesz. So it is likely that this is one of the words that will be changed in the new text.

But despite the offer to change the wording, Orban has remained indignant in the face of the criticism. He is still fuming at the way he was greeted by MEPs in the European Parliament last month as he delivered an address marking the start of Hungary's EU presidency. He called the MPs protest of gagging their mouths while he spoke an "insult to the Hungarian people." When Martin Schulz, the leader of the Socialist grouping in European Parliament, said Hungary was beginning to resemble a dictatorship, he responded "Wow, that coming from a German."

Of course allusions to Germans and Nazism in Brussels is a huge no-no, so this didn't help Orban's already frayed relations with the EU as he took the reigns of the presidency. (By the way, as long as we're drudging up historical irrelevancies - I don't think a Hungarian gets to cast aspersions on another country's behaviour in World War II, considering Hungary was a dictatorship that was an ally of the Axis powers. Maybe history isn't Orban's strong suit).

If the media law controversy is truly being put to rest now - and that's a big if - it is still not going to satisfy larger EU unease with what is going on in Hungary. Since Orban's Fidesz party won a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian Parliament last April, he has been undertaking an unprecedented and aggressive campaign to completely transform the country. As reported in today's Financial Times, "Intellectuals, opposition figures, journalists, diplomats and foreign investors warn of moves to dominate all areas of political life, of which the media is only a small part."

Orban is preparing to unveil a complete overhaul of the country's constitution in April, the contents of which may alarm Brussels even more than the media law. Already Orban's government has curtailed the ability of the country's constitutional court to challenge economic legislation and packed other oversight committees with Fidesz loyalists. There are rumours that the new constitution will give Hungarians living abroad (of which there are two million living in Slovakia and Romania) the right to vote in Hungarian elections – a bloc which will be guaranteed to vote for Fidesz if given the vote. This would also increase the size of the electorate by 20%. And it is sure to increase tensions with its neighbour Slovakia, which faces consistent tensions with its 10% Hungarian minority living along the border.

At this point it's hard to see how the Hungarian presidency will be able to successfully navigate all of these tensions and controversies and end up with a successful EU presidency. If Eastern Europe ends up with another failed EU presidency as occurred in the Czech Republic in 2009, it could be a big embarrassment for the region. But the larger question of Orban's path of collision with Brussels could have even larger ramifications for Eastern Europe than a failed presidency. Poland, which will be the next country to take on the rotating presidency in July, has it's own history of sometimes difficult relations with Brussels. Are we looking at a future of consistent bickering between East and West? When it comes to the new member states and the EU, the honeymoon may be over.

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