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Infringement procedures against Hungary: a collision of principles?

March 12th, 2012

Commenting on the European Commission’s decision to launch infringement procedures against Hungary, left-wing columnists believe that Brussels took a moral stand, while their conservative counterparts interpret the Commission’s decision as an example of the EU’s double standards.

On Wednesday, the European Commission decided to take two out of the three infringement procedures against Hungary to the next stage. The Commission will now submit a“reasoned opinion” to Hungary, explaining its concerns over the independence of the judiciary and of the data protection authority. On the third issue, the independence of the central bank, the Commission will ask Hungary to supply supplementary information.

In Népszabadság, Miklós Blahó believes that although the European Commission clearly dislikes the constitutional reforms introduced in Hungary over the past eighteen months, it cannot legally force the Hungarian government to withdraw them. Blahó contends that those changes have impaired democracy in Hungary, but Brussels has no tools to roll them back, because nobody could foresee that any member country would embark on such an “undemocratic path”. Brussels can impose adherence to certain written rules, but the constitutional set-up will remain in place, which “is not a bad deal for Orbán, after all”.

The EU’s has chosen, however, a moral, rather than a legalistic approach, and is now threatening to withdraw subsidies in defence of “the common European spirit”. In theory, the infringement procedures are not linked to the excessive deficit procedure, but Blahó believes that the Commission will withhold its consent from Hungary’s negotiations on an IMF credit line, for as long as substantial progress is not made on both of those issues. On the other hand, Miklós Blahó suspects that Viktor Orbán is not really eager to start talks with the IMF, and is just playing for time. Although this approach did pay off for a while, as the Hungarian currency got stronger in February, the forint has recently begun to weaken again, as the markets suspected that the government was simply bluffing.

In his Népszava column,Vilmos Pór also suggests that the mounting pressure on Hungary is due to the commitment of the European Commission to democratic values. The left wing commentator remarks that even European People’s Party leaders have asked Orbán to revise those laws which are out of tune with EU norms. Pór acknowledges that PM Viktor Orbán has given up the sabre rattling in his “freedom fight” against the European Union and the IMF, but thinks he will resist their demands to the very end. In fact, he cannot afford to lose even more face among his supporters. And should he fail and be forced to implement financial restrictions, he will have a perfect scapegoat in these institutions.

Right wing newspapers also believe that the argument between the Hungarian government and the European Union is about principles rather than legal issues, but  differ about the interests which the two parties intend to represent.

Writing in Magyar Nemzet, László N. Kovács suggests that the conservative government has shocked Hungarians and the rest of the world by actually governing instead of just pretending to do so, and contrasts PM Viktor Orbán with US President Barack Obama, whom he characterizes as a prime example of make-believe governing. He describes the European Union, which once represented great promise, as an institution suffocating under the weight of an overdeveloped bureaucracy. Hungary’s active government may be accused by libertarian neo-conservatives of building a dictatorship, writes the right wing daily, but “there’s nothing odd about a PM actually governing the country”.

In Heti Válasz, editor Gábor Borókai criticizes the leftist and liberal members of the European Parliament for only defending the old system and protecting their own financial interests, when they punish the Hungarian government. Although he believes that the Hungarian government is on the right track, Gábor Borókai urges PM Viktor Orbán to find allies in order to succeed.

In Magyar Hírlap, Csaba Szajlai warns that the agreement with the European Union and the IMF is much more urgent for Hungary than for those two institutions. Reviewing the latest statistics the business commentator complains that lending is practically at a standstill and domestic consumption is low. If on the other hand Hungary strikes a deal with the IMF and the EU, Szajlai suggests, the rating of Hungary’s sovereign debt will improve, borrowing will become cheaper and markets will start to believe that we are getting back to business as usual. “It would be worth remembering that we depend more on that agreement than those two international organisations,” – Szajlai concludes.

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