The official ceremony marking the beginning of the Hungarian presidency of the European Union is taking place just about now. The event has been seriously marred by the barrage of criticism of the Media Law that according to some of its critics signals the death of freedom of the press. As Orbán said today, "Who would want a start like this? I didn't write the script." Ah, but he did.
You may recall that those who attended the official party on New Year's Eve were all hoping that Hungary's image would greatly improve by the sheer fact that Hungary will be leading the Union over the next six months. Instead, as the reporter for the German national public television (ARD) said, "within a few days the country's reputation was in diplomatic ruins." Hilde Stadler, the reporter, repeated the general impression of Viktor Orbán that "protests leave him cold" and that he keeps repeating that all the details of the law can be found in other media laws in effect in the European Union. However, ARD's reporter in Brussels took the trouble to find that "this is not always the case." Moreover, "combining different elements of diverse pieces of legislation resulted in an entirely new type of media law that means the de facto end of the freedom of the press."
Viktor Orbán's answer to the criticism which he most likely didn't expect to be so ferocious was that he was ready to change the law under instructions from the European Commission but only if all other EU members will change their laws as well. So, as it stands now, he has no intention of retreating from his rigid stance on the subject. The same ARD reporter asked in the program "whether Hungary has realized what makes Europe Europe…. The question is whether Hungary has any inkling of the spirit of Europe…. She will have to learn a lot in the next six months."
I'm not at all sure whether Orbán's Hungary will learn anything about the spirit of Europe in the next six months. In the first place, anyone in his right mind should have known that this media law would be met with international protests. Why did they have to pass this law just before Hungary took over the rotating presidency? But then, one could ask: Why did they have to pass the law on dual citizenship just before the Slovak elections when everybody warned them that this move might strengthen the Slovak anti-Hungarian right?
Viktor Orbán is an avid soccer player and fan, but while the goal of soccer or any other sport is winning, in politics the rules of the game are different. Politics is the art of compromise, especially in a democracy, and it seems to me that Orbán is incapable of compromise. For him, compromise means defeat. Therefore, although people usually call him a brilliant politician, I am unwilling to grant him this title. On the international scene this kind of attitude sooner or later will lead to failure.
Orbán's uncompromising attitude toward the European Union and toward any criticism coming from abroad may also lead to some serious differences of opinion within the party. At the moment I don't think there is anyone who could possibly challenge Orbán, but if Orbán's policies lead to a further deterioration of Hungary's position in the world those who are not entirely happy with the way things are going might gain strength. As it is, it is becoming apparent that Tibor Navracsics, who is after all trained as a lawyer and a political scientist, is somewhat taken aback by Orbán's ways; the prime minister was aptly described by the American ambassador as a "bare-knuckled political brawler." This "political brawler" was successful against the liberals and socialists at home, but will he be successful on the international scene? I doubt it.
I already see that not everybody agrees with Orbán in Fidesz, but for the time being their grumbling results merely in confusion in communication. Tibor Navracsics and János Martonyi indicate that the media law can be changed if the critics come up with some weighty arguments while Orbán a few hours later says, "not in my wildest dreams." We know from the government spokesman, Anna Nagy, that there had been discussions on the question of the media law, but it looks that–at least for the time being–Orbán has won. Right now he is not ready to compromise, but who knows what will happen tomorrow when the whole European Commission will be in Budapest?
Even Orbán had to realize by now that the whole world is up in arms, and a last-minute decision was made to have a press conference for the approximately fifty foreign journalists who came to Budapest for the occasion. Expectation in journalistic circles was high both at home and abroad that Orbán would yield. Reuters in a great hurry reported that Orbán announced at the press conference that "if the European Union considers it necessary to change the media law we will oblige." MTI happily announced the news a few minutes later. Yes, the press conference began with this sentence but as time went by Orbán got feistier and feistier. Although he assured the journalists that he was aware of the rules of the game in the European Union, he immediately attacked Hungary's fellow members, France and Germany. AFP reported that according to Orbán "it is not the business of France or Germany to pass judgment on whether this or that law complies with the rules of the European Union or not."
As for changing certain passages of the Hungarian law, he declared that "if Hungary is forced to change this or that part of the law then the same passages must also be changed in France, Germany, and the Netherlands." He will not allow any discrimination because if Hungary unilaterally had to change the law it would be a discriminatory move against a fellow member of the Union. He was obviously very angry about the German and French reactions and he lashed out at these two countries. He found it unacceptable that these countries passed judgment on the Hungarian law when they are still not familiar with its content. He mentioned that Germany was a little better than France because at least the German government has softened its criticism of Hungary somewhat since December. "I expect the same from the French government." He added, "I don't remember any time that Hungary criticized the French media law." And if that weren't enough, Orbán announced that "in Hungary, unlike in France, there is no such practice that it is the government that appoints the president of the public television. And I never said that the French law was antidemocratic." This is a sure way to make friends and influence people!