Analysis: European leaders accuse Hungary of violating E.U. laws and putting democratic principles at risk. Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban made a special visit to the European Parliament last week. But his conciliatory tone doesn't mean he
BERLIN - Victor Orban didn't go to Strasbourg to justify himself.
The Hungarian prime minister didn't waste his time addressing the specific complaints of European Union officials that he is seeking to limit the independence of his country's central bank and judiciary. "The problems can be corrected simply and quickly," he declared in his speech last week before the European Parliament.
Indeed, Orban had already communicated in writing the details of his plan to the president of the E.U. Commission, with whom Orban hopes to meet within the next few weeks. Was he backing down?
Orban had already sketched out the tactics behind his European appearance in an interview. He was bowing to "power, not the arguments." The prime minister is still hoping he can apply his policies. After all, not a single one of the Commission's criticisms had to do with the new Hungarian Constitution, "just with some of the conditions of its implementation," Orban said.
At the plenary session in Strasbourg, he was seeking understanding, arguing that ill will only erupts when something big happens. And he made no bones about the fact that something big is exactly what he has in mind. "What is happening in my country is a process of transformation and renewal."
Orban invited himself
The Hungarian prime minister invited himself to the parliament. That in itself was a fairly crafty move on the part of the right-wing leader, because addressing a plenary is usually reserved for the incumbent president of the European Council. Otherwise, only heads of state and religious leaders, like U.S. President Barack Obama and the Pope, are invited.
Orban had the confidence to address a group where he couldn't really bank on a lot of support. Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, called for Hungary to be reprimanded with regard to individual laws. He also called for an investigation as to whether or not its government measures were in accord with the rights to freedom guaranteed by European treaties. This would involve a never-before-used procedure meant to be applied in the event of serious violation of basic European values, and could lead to suspension of Hungary's voting rights at the Council of Europe.
At the same time, members of parliament were flattered at Orban's presence as he played the European institutions to win support -- it added luster to their own roles. The president of the parliament, Martin Schulz, said he was "thankful" that Mr. Orban had asked to address the body. However, they would now be asking representatives of Hungarian civil society to appear, to get a fuller picture of the situation.
That's not to say the E.U. Commission fully bought into the Hungarian leader's approach. Even though Orban, in his letter to Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, said he wished to work together with the European Union, Commissioner Neelie Kroes, who is in charge of media, sent a letter of complaint to Hungary's justice minister.
In the letter, Kroes repeated her criticisms of Hungary's media laws. Respecting the freedom and diversity of the media "is not only about the technically correct application of E.U. and national law, but also -- and more importantly -- about implementing and promoting these fundamental principles in practice," she wrote. Kroes went on to say that the Commission intends to monitor the situation, particularly the issue of the renewal (or not) of the broadcasting license of Klub Radio, which has been critical of the government.
The letter made no mention of possible legal steps. But the previous day, the Commission began proceedings against Hungary because it sees three national laws as being incompatible with E.U. law. These concern the authority of the Hungarian government over the central bank and a weakening of the independence of data protection authorities and the judiciary.
If Hungary does not answer Brussel's questions satisfactorily within a month, it can count on a case being brought before the European Court of Justice, and potentially severe fines.
Fearing financial collapse
The confrontation between Hungary and the European Union stands in the way of the country receiving urgently needed financial help. In his address to the parliament, Orban said the friction was a result of the attempts made by his government to balance the budget. He said he had accomplished a great deal in the 18 months he has been in office. "We still have enormous financial difficulties but are doing everything to lower debt levels," he said.
If it can't get any new loans, Hungary is looking at financial collapse by the middle of this year. That's a scenario both Orban and the European Union want to avoid. A collapse would no doubt cause severe problems for E.U. member country Austria and its banks, which have close financial ties with Hungary.
Foreign banks have been cutting back in Hungary. Many, like Austria's Erste Group and Raiffeisen, had to make write-offs due to the dramatic fall of the value of the Hungarian currency, the forint. German bank BayernLB went into the red in 2011 because of the performance of its Hungarian subsidiary.
Europe has a further worry regarding Hungary: that extremist politics in the country will grow stronger. According to an Ipsos poll, the popularity of Jobbik, the anti-Europe opposition party, is on the rise. The European Union has to be "very careful about the way it communicates things while remaining absolutely clear on the issues," said Commission President Barroso. "This should not be a debate against Hungary, but for Hungary."
Still, Orban did get some support: Polish opposition leader Jaroslav Kaczynski declared that the European Union should stay out of matters that don't concern it, and that he had given E.U. parliamentarians from his conservative right-wing PiS party instructions to oppose the "restrictions on Hungary's sovereignty."
In 2011, Kaczynski vowed that should his party come to power he would create a "second Hungary."
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Photo - Europa Pont