I just received word from someone who has been collecting articles from the western press on Viktor Orbán's performance in the European Parliament. Although his appearance in Strasbourg was only two days ago, my friend found 337 negative reports. That's quite a record. The foreign press usually doesn't spend that much time on Hungarian affairs. Here I would like to sample German, French, and British assessments of Viktor Orbán's appearance in Strasbourg.
According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, a liberal German daily, Orbán doesn't feel comfortable when it comes to "democratic discourse." He reacts too aggressively to criticism. Martin Winter, the author of the article, thinks that only autocrats or politicians with a Napoleonic complex consider themselves to be the embodiment of their people as Orbán did in his rebuttal. Der Tagesspiegel finds it unacceptable that Orbán tried to make the media law a simple domestic issue. Obviously Orbán doesn't understand the essence of the debate: the authenticity of the European Union as a democratic institution that is being damaged by Hungary representing it for the next six months. Der Spiegel talked about a "firing line" that awaited the Hungarian prime minister. His reaction to criticism was unacceptable. He was the one who threatened the European Union. Handesblatt, the leading financial paper of Germany, sarcastically remarked that "Hungary never misses a misstep." Deutsche Welle described Orbán as an obstinate man who could still change his course if he wanted to, but it is unlikely that he will given his psychological makeup.
The Austrian papers were not kinder. According to Der Standard Orbán's answer to criticism was a rhetorical fistfight. The same paper in an opinion piece claimed that Orbán misunderstands his role as prime minister of the country that will carry on with the rotating presidency in the next six months. He should strive for solutions and not carry on a fight with Brussels. Orbán's tragedy is that he became a hero in a struggle against the communists but today he would have to fight for something. That role is alien to him. The Kurier, also from Austria, asks whether Orbán is striving to be the Chávez of Europe. Die Presse emphasized that Orbán considers himself to be "the most dangerous man in the eyes of the left" because it was he who managed to win the elections with such a large majority. Therefore he refuses to take the criticism coming from these quarters seriously.
The Swiss Neue Zürcher Zeitung in the past was decidedly partial to Fidesz but lately its tone has changed. According to the paper, democracy occasionally brings to the fore "unpleasant contemporaries," but the author trusts in the strength of democracy itself "to take care of charlatans, demagogues, and power hungry politicians." These are perhaps the harshest words I read anywhere about Viktor Orbán.
The French press is not too taken with Orbán either. Le Figaro, a conservative paper, spent a whole page on the laws enacted lately by the Orbán government. It talked about the "nationalization" of the private pension funds, the extra levies on certain businesses. It even mentioned the new constitution to be voted on in April. However, the introduction of the media law was the last straw. The paper predicts that the dual citizenship offered to Hungarians living outside of the European Union might also cause friction between Hungary and Brussels. Le Croix, a Catholic paper, had a long interview with György Konrád, a novelist well known outside of Hungary, who dwells on Orbán's personality. He calls him an ambiguous and paradoxical character, a true Machiavellian who learned the "profession" of a politician well. According to him, Orbán managed to push aside all his potential rivals; by now he is convinced that his judgment is unquestionably correct. He is incapable of compromise, dialogue or debate. Orbán is building a political structure in Hungary that would exclude any alternative to his rule for a very long time.
The Guardian's deputy-in-chief, Simon Tisdall, wrote a long article about Orbán in Strasbourg in which he calls him the "rightwing prime minister" of Hungary. Previously, western papers, including The Guardian, were apt to use the adjective "right-of-center" when talking about Fidesz and Orbán. In his opinion Orbán made clear that he would cause maximum embarrassment if Brussels insisted on meddling in his domestic policies. He quotes Orbán himself: "If you mix up the two [domestic and EU issues], obviously I am ready to fight…. It won't just be detrimental or damaging to Hungary alone but … to the EU as a whole." According to Tisdall that "was an extraordinary statement: in effect, the EU's standard-bearer was threatening the EU." He quoted Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform, a think tank in London, who thinks that although the European Union is upset about Orbán's policies it is unlikely that the EU would suspend relations with Hungary. "A more probable scenario is that Orbán's anti-free-market policies would eventually end with him 'eating humble pie' and asking for EU and IMF help."
Charles Grant might be right. This afternoon the government received the letter containing the objections of the European Commission to the Hungarian media law and, behold, after all those harsh words in Budapest and Strasbourg Tibor Navracsics, deputy prime minister, announced that they are ready to change the media law. But then why all that fuss?