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Brussels-Budapest: strained relations

April 22nd, 2013

Left-wing commentators accuse PM Orbán of challenging the common values that unite the 27 member countries of the European Union, while pro-government pundits argue that the Hungarian government is just defending the national interest.

In his regular weekly editorial in 168 óra, Tamás Mészáros believes Prime Minister Orbán is over-stretching the tolerance limit of the European Union with his constitutional reforms.  Even European People’s Party politicians, he suggests, “are horrified by Hungary’s attempts to restore interwar right-wing habits,” and do not believe Fidesz’s claim to be the only bulwark against the far right Jobbik. On the contrary, Mészáros believes, Mr Orbán’s party is progressively coming to resemble Jobbik itself. He finds that government representatives are unable to defend their “makeshift constitution” in professional argument, and their only excuse is to accuse the European Left of conspiring against them and the European Institutions of bias at their expense.

On Thursday, the day after the hearing in the European Parliament on Hungary’s constitutional amendments, Népszabadság carried three columns on the issue.

Brussels correspondent Eszter Zalán remarks that after a People’s Party hearing on Hungary, Mr Orbán cancelled his press conference. The reason, she believes, was that he felt increasing pressure on the part of his centre-right colleagues and was put on the defensive, although the right-wing party-family still stands firmly behind him – at least in public. Nevertheless, Zalán thinks, the People’s Party expects Mr Orbán to put an end to “Hungary’s senseless freedom fight,” and fears that relations between Budapest and Brussels have become too tense. An inadvertent move on either side might lead to a chain reaction whereby “things may get out of control.”

Károly Lencsés deems ‘insufficient’ the recent bills tabled by the government to soothe Union concerns. (The National Judicial Office will not be entitled to move trials from one court to another if Community rights are at stake and commercial TV stations will be able to run electoral campaign videos before the European Parliamentary elections, after all.) He believes Mr Orbán only makes concessions when it is absolutely necessary to do so. Whenever he fears a non-compliance procedure with the suspension of community funds looming, he will retreat. But he will never yield when he finds that the Union is powerless, because its founders did not foresee that any future member state would “ignore the fundamental standards of the rule of law.”

Ervin Tamás writes that Mr Orbán is a “hot potato” for Europe, whose representatives are trying hard to domesticate “the continent’s prodigal son.” However, Mr Orbán himself does not believe that he is at fault. On the contrary, he thinks the “European model” is in crisis, and more hierarchy and more discipline are necessary to put things straight. He is ready to compromise, whenever it is unavoidable, Tamás continues, but will not lose sight of his strategic targets.

In Demokrata (print version), Gábor Bencsik suggests that Mr Orbán has been targeted as a scapegoat for the failure of Hungary’s liberals. The courageous, basically left-wing intellectuals who represented urban dissent in Hungary during the last two decades of Communist rule, were convinced that they were destined to rule the country under democracy. They lost the first free elections in 1990 to right-wing forces, but joined the victorious Socialists in 1994 and governed in alliance with them again from 2002 to 2010 (during the last year simply supporting a “crisis management cabinet”). As a result of the 2010 elections, they practically disappeared from the party scene, and cannot understand that failure. As a surrogate explanation, Bencsik thinks, they point their fingers at PM Viktor Orbán, as someone who has grabbed power through his “anti-democratic witchcraft.” Bencsik compares the “manhunt” for Viktor Orbán to the 1692 Salem witch trials, when prominent members of the local community could not tolerate the ascent of newcomers and accused them of witchcraft. This time, he explains, Hungary’s liberals have powerful allies in the ruling Western liberal élite which help them play the role of the “good guys” against the “bad guys”, just like when they were criticising the Communist regime.

In Heti Válasz, editor Gábor Borókai writes that Mr Orbán is facing the last year of his second term in office with a sizeable advantage over the opposition in terms of voters’ support. “Despite all his mistakes”, he adds. The reason is that he has realised that the European Union is not a “community of love.” “By now we have learned that we have to fight for ourselves or we will be subordinated to other people’s interests,” he explains. And Mr Orbán is the only actor on the Hungarian political scene, who is known for not merely trying to please his counterparts in the west. His opponents, Borókai argues, are caught on the horns of a difficult dilemma: they are too weak to vigorously represent the national interest abroad, and their efforts to seek foreign support make them lose support at home. “That’s too big a handicap for anyone to win the vote,” Borókai opines.

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