BRATISLAVA – The last time I saw the European Union this embarrassed by a new EU member, it was forced to freeze hundreds of millions in aid to sticky-fingered Bulgaria. (Which I covered extensively for the CSMonitor.)
So, what will Brussels now do about Hungary? On Jan. 1, it became the third ex-Communist country to assume the EU’s rotating presidency. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his party, Fidesz, won elections last spring in such overwhelming fashion, their two-thirds majority has set out to re-write the country’s constitution and commandeer every nominally independent institutions, from the largely ceremonial post of president, to the Supreme Court, state audit office and Central Bank.
Then, just before Christmas – and days away from stepping into the EU spotlight – Fidesz lawmakers passed a media law that shocked fellow EU members in its brazen bid to muzzle mainstream media. A new “Media Council” – coincidentally, with all five members appointed by Fidesz – may slap crippling fines on any newspaper, TV, radio or Internet outlet that produces a report deemed “unbalanced” or offensive to “human dignity.” Oh, and the Council can also force any journalist to reveal their sources.
Reaction was immediate.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe denounced the law as “unprecedented in European democracies.” From Germany, Hungary’s largest foreign investor, a spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “As a country that is about to take over the president of the EU, Hungary will have a particular responsibility for the image of the whole union in the world.” Added Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselbron, “The plans clearly violate and the spirit of EU treaties. It raises the question of whether such a country is worthy of leading the EU.”
Orban retorted with his signature pugnacity: “We are not even thinking in our wildest dreams about making amendments to the law.”
His strong-armed tactics illuminate several realities, two decades into the post-Communist transition. 1) The roots of democracy are shallower than many Western observers think. 2) The authoritarian reflex endures – even from a fellow like Orban, who was an earring- and blue-jeans-wearing dissident “democrat” who once accepted a scholarship from George Soros (the scourge of authoritarian regimes across ex-Communist Central and Eastern Europe) to study at Oxford. And 3) there’s very little Brussels can do about it. Once you’re in the club, you’re in. Or can something be done?
I’ve seen Brussels upset with Hungary many time before during the 17 years since I moved to Budapest. But this can’t be ignored. For six months, Orban will be the face of the 27-member union, his nation holding the gavel. How many headlines can EU ministers read – like the Washington Post describing the “Putinization” of Hungary, or The Guardian calling it “One-Party Rule” – before they’re compelled to act
With Bulgaria, the EU could take action against its naughtiest member because it was so dependent on EU help – and because it had to send a stern warning to the aspiring EU members, watching so closely.
What – if anything – can Brussels do about Hungary? The Washington Post, for one, has an idea. With US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton scheduled to attend a major EU summit in Budapest in May, the paper suggests Washington and Brussels threaten Hungary with the “humiliation” of boycott.