Here are a few headlines from European papers. “Icy reception for Hungary’s Prime Minister in Strasbourg,” wrote Die Zeit. “Media Law: ‘Chavez’ Orbán ‘ready to fight,'” says the Austrian Die Presse. Der Standard, another Austrian paper, introduced the story thus: “Orbán clenches his fists. He is ready to fight.” The Neue Zürcher Zeitung, a conservative paper, called the scene “a scandal.” According to The Financial Times, Orbán had to endure “an avalanche of criticism,” including the charge that he is leading his nation “on a path to totalitarianism.”
It was an uncommon scene by EU parliamentary standards and it “appeared to validate fears that Hungary’s first presidency of the European Union would be a rocky one.” Orbán’s speech about the next six months and his plans concerning the future of Europe was quite well received. The trouble came later during the debate. Most of the remarks weren’t about Hungary’s rotating presidency but about the controversial media law. Before the debate started Orbán asked his audience “not to mix Hungarian internal affairs with the presidency,” but he added that if the members of parliament don’t oblige “he is ready for a fight.” Mixing up the two will do more harm to Europe than to Hungary.Thus even before the debate began Orbán took an antagonistic stance. No wonder that what came afterward was, according to the journalist of euobserver.com, “a barrage” of criticism.
I read in several papers that Orbán’s encounter in Strassbourg “was an unprecedentedly hostile welcome for an incoming EU presidency in the European Parliament.” That was confirmed by Csaba Tabajdi, Hungarian socialist MP who has spent the last six years in Brussels. Some of the journalists found Orbán belligerent and antagonistic. Yet at the same time he expressed his willingness to change the media law if the European Commission finds shortcomings in it. Orbán had to oblige because José Manuel Barroso called for amendments to the law. Later this week the Commission will demand “clarifications” and Barroso pointed out that “some points of the law were problematic.” Joseph Daul, parliamentary leader of the conservative European People’s Party, said it was enough for the premier to vow to change the law if necessary.
The Hungarian government’s stance on the issue is confused at best. Only yesterday Zoltán Kovács, undersecretary in charge of communication, defended every point of the law after a long discussion with Dunja Mijatovic of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe. Not a word will be changed, says Kovács in Budapest while the prime minister is ready to change the law if the Commission so demands. One is really curious what will happen when the chips are down.
The brunt of the criticism came from the social democrats, the liberals, and the greens. Martin Schulz, the leader of the socialists and democrats, urged Orbán “to withdraw the act and come back with a better one.” Guy Verhofstadt, head of the liberal democratic group, said a change was needed as soon as possible. But the strongest criticism came from Daniel Cohn-Bendit, head of the green parties, who compared Orbán to Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez. He claimed that Orbán had forsaken his former pro-democracy, anti-communist past and was “becoming a European Chavez, a populist who does not understand the structure of democracy.” Orbán in answer made no secret of the extent of the changes he has introduced in Hungary. “The rule of law in Hungary is currently being reconstructed,” he said in response to concerns about the systematic attacks on the checks and balances that are part and parcel of democracy.
Orbán lost his cool when the German liberal Alexander Graf Lambsdorff suggested that Hungary’s democracy was endangered under his rule. Speaking to journalists after the debate, Orbán said that he could tolerate unsubstantiated criticisms from the press but not from other European politicians. “I cannot accept that any politically legitimate actor of European politics says and questions that Hungarian democracy is endangered, because it is an offense to the Hungarian nation,” he said. But his political foes were not impressed. Schulz protested: “We are not criticizing the Hungarian people by criticizing an act of parliament.” Cohn-Bendit pointed out that Orbán by “pretending here that we have said something against the Hungarian people is manifesting sheer nationalist populism.”
His critics also wanted to enlighten him on the role of the media in a democracy. “The aim of media governance is not to guarantee ‘proper’ and ‘adequate’ information,” said liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt. “The aim is to uphold pluralism and to guarantee that any initiative in media can be developed.” Cohn-Bendit asked Orbán: “Do you think Mr. Nixon got balanced information? Or Mr. Bush on Abu Ghraib? Do you think Mr. Berlusconi thinks research done on his life amounts to balanced information? No, information is to be a gadfly to politicians. That’s why your law does not correspond to the values of the European Union.”
I believe that Cohn-Bendit is right: Orbán really doesn’t understand the workings of democracy. It’s an alien concept to him.