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Hungarian EU presidency off to a shaky start

Unusually strong media and political criticism clouded the first days of the Hungarian EU presidency, which now will have to work hard to get back into Europe’s good graces.

Christmas and the New Year’s holidays, far from being a peaceful period in business and politics, are often the most eventful part of the year, and last year was no different. 2010 was a busy year for the European Union. It hardly recovered from the recession, if it did at all, when it was faced with even more severe problems threatening to undermine its existence.

First it was Greece’s threat of bankruptcy that weakened and challenged the eurozone alliance. Then followed the collapse of the biggest Irish banks, meaning yet another country had to be bailed out. Consensus on various controversial matters, including the EU's 2011 budget, was reached in the eleventh hour. Then, just when the EU could have caught its breath, came a member state and stirred up emotions with its media law. And not only that: it did so right before taking over the EU presidency, an event that, in more tranquil times, would raise little public attention. The two events have now been inextricably linked together. Hungary made headlines all over Europe, though not exactly for the reasons it meant to.

It is not the kind of media attention the Hungarian government expected. Reputed newspapers with solid audiences abroad labeled the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, unfit to steer the presidency, and challenged the country’s right to lead the Council of the European Union at all. The former editor of the Economist, Bill Emmott, even suggested that Hungary should be expelled from the EU. The reaction of the media, though harsh, was not surprising. When sensing that basic rights such as the freedom of the press are at stake, they rally and protest as one.

Yet even some journalists and policymakers found the reaction of some politicians exaggerated and rushed. Obviously, they had their reasons, too. Experts see the outburst of German politicians, for example, as a delayed reaction to windfall taxes that heavily affected German companies operating in Hungary. Orbán has also reinforced his image – at least as described by his opponents – of being a divisive and defiant populist. It is not only him, however, who could be blamed of populism. Many politicians lashing out at the new Hungarian media legislation in Brussels used this opportunity to score extra points with their voters. “Orbán has opened many fronts with Brussels lately. The passage of the media law was the last straw,” said Zoltán Gyévai, editor-in-chief of Bruxinfo, a Brussels-based think-tank and information agency.

With these steps, the government alienated much of the European press, which is rather unfortunate as the media plays an important role in how the presidency is perceived. The press’s benevolence is essential for a favorable final assessment, but now the chances of improving the country’s reputation are quite thin. “With an impeccable presidency, the damage may be reduced but it would take a miracle to bring it back,” Gyévai noted.

The media wrath against the government has not helped strengthen ties between Hungarians and the EU either. While discussing whether the unprecedented strong reaction from Brussels was justified or not, reporters and politicians unintentionally widened the gap between Budapest and Brussels – almost as if Hungary wasn't a member of the EU at all. When Hungarian MEP József Szájer, a member of the European People’s Party, blamed Brussels in a television program for applying a double standard and cited many incidents to prove his point, he was probably right. Yet he also loosened the ties between the EU and Hungarians who don’t feel too attached to the EU anyway.

But it is also a shame that the media frenzy has diverted attention away from issues that really matter. Even after the takeover of the presidency and the government’s meeting with European commissioners on January 7 in Budapest, questions revolved around possible amendments to the media law and not, say, the strengthening of the euro. “Many of the journalists returning from Budapest lamented that real important issues were barely raised,” said György Folk, Brussels correspondent for HVG, a Hungarian economic and political weekly.

The media law controversy comes at a time when the EU’s agenda is crammed with pressing economic issues. Restoring economic competitiveness, the main priority of both the EU and the Hungarian presidency, may not be such a sexy topic as press freedom, but definitely concerns just as many. To accomplish it, Hungary together with the EU must strengthen the euro and amend the EU Treaty in order to establish a permanent mechanism for crisis management.

During his meeting with the European commissioners in Budapest, Orbán confirmed that the main agenda would be dominated by Europe's ongoing economic crisis. Among the issues discussed were enlargement policy, the liberalization of the single EU energy market, the Eastern Partnership and Iran. Orbán expressed his hope that the EU's Roma Strategy would be completed during the Hungarian Presidency and would be approved at the European Council's meeting in June. By that time, Hungary needs to conclude the debate on the economic governance package and the European Stability Mechanism as well.

“A more powerful EU and a stronger euro will be the measures of the country’s success in June,” said Orbán at the joint meeting with the Commission in Budapest. He added that he believes the odds were in favor of a successful presidential term. However, that is not the case right now, as the odds are against the success of not just the Hungarian presidency but that of the European Union as well. And to reverse them, the government will need a lot more than good press. (Zsófia Végh)