Hungarian President Pál Schmitt’s days may be numbered. Today the president of Semmelweis University began the formation of a committee to investigate the charge of plagiarism. Considering that a couple of days ago the dean of the graduate school of the same university didn’t see anything wrong with the circumstances of the case, this is a welcome shift in policy.
There were also two new developments today in the battle between Hungary and the EU. First, in an unprecedented move the European Commission launched accelerated infringement proceedings against Hungary over the independence of its central bank and data protection authorities as well as over measures affecting the judiciary.
The second development is that Viktor Orbán will be able to speak in person tomorrow at the full session of the European Parliament. The topic will be the Hungarian situation, which all parliamentary delegations find worrisome.
Let’s start with this second development. InfoRádió, a right-of-center all-news radio station, learned in Brussels that Viktor Orbán had asked Jerzy Buzek, then president of the European Parliament and a great supporter of Fidesz, whether he could make an appearance at the Wednesday meeting and participate in the debate of the EP on issues relating to Hungary. This news hit the electronic media around 7 p.m., and about four hours later Péter Szijjártó officially announced that the Hungarian prime minister will indeed speak in the European Parliament.
When I first heard the news that Orbán wanted to speak in Strasbourg, I didn’t think he was serious about this venture. After all, his last appearance before the European Parliament was anything but a success. He cut a terrible figure. He lost his temper and although later in front of a Hungarian audience he tried to spin the event as a great diplomatic and political success, it was an embarrassment not only for Orbán but also for the country he represents.
But no, it seems I was wrong. Orbán is itching to go to Strasbourg again. I suspect that this time he will have an even more difficult time than before. First of all, although Orbán wrote to Jerzy Buzek, a conservative Pole, he now has to face Martin Schulz, the new president of the European Parliament. Schulz is a socialist and an outspoken critic of Fidesz. The MSZP members of the EP enthusiastically supported Orbán’s request, most likely because they are sure that he will not cut any better figure this time than he did earlier. It seems that Schulz thinks the same way.
There is another reason Orbán will face an even less friendly audience this time around. Earlier the Christian Democratic People’s Party’s delegation stood firmly behind him. That is not the case today. Orbán is friendless in the European Parliament. Joseph Daul, the leader of the Christian Democratic delegation, announced that its members will follow the lead of the European Commission. He added that every member country’s government must follow the European Union laws, there are no exceptions.
Just to give you an idea of what a difficult time Orbán will most likely have in Strasbourg tomorrow, I mention only what Schulz had to say about the Hungarian prime minister after announcing Orbán’s presence at tomorrow’s session. Schulz found it a sign of “bravery” that while Viktor Orbán asked the president of the European Parliament in a modest sounding letter for permission to speak, the Hungarian government didn’t even wait for an answer before announcing that Orbán would address the parliamentary session. Moreover, Viktor Orbán’s spokesman described the European Parliament’s session as “an attack the international left is planning to launch against Hungary.” What a beginning!
Martin Schulz, the new president of the European Parliament, not exactly a friend of Viktor Orbán
Another “friend” of Viktor Orbán, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-chairman of the Greens’ delegation, announced that the whole debate will be broadcast on the Internet because “the Hungarian media has a peculiar habit of providing disjointed information.” (The Hungarian translation of the word he used was “feldarabolva.”) Good luck, Mr. Orbán!
As for the infringement proceedings, until now there have been only bits and pieces of leaked news about the exact topics that will be covered. By now it is clear that the rumors were correct. The infringement proceedings are being brought against Hungary over the independence of the central bank and the data protection authorities in addition to measures taken against the judiciary. All these are important topics which need detailed analysis that I will leave for tomorrow. Here I would like to concentrate on how the Hungarian government will most likely react to the whole issue.
From Zoltán Kovács’s fairly lengthy interview on BBC’s Hard Talk it is clear that Viktor Orbán and his spin doctors are trying to portray the European Commission’s objections to the new Hungarian Constitution and some of the cardinal laws as a demand for small adjustments to certain phrases in the laws. They simply don’t want to understand that the problem is not in the details but with the whole new “regime” that came into being as a result of the year-long legislative marathon. The “regime” is a mockery of democracy. But to admit that would mean giving up Orbán’s cherished dream of a system that has the appearance of being democratic but that is in reality–well, pick your favorite adjective.
That’s why spokesmen for the regime, Zoltán Kovács for example, act as if they were completely baffled by the “attacks.” They demand examples. Generalities won’t do, the apologists of Orbán’s regime claim. Kim Scheppele in her latest article on Paul Krugman’s blog talks about this problem when she states that “Europe will have to do a lot more than demand small legal changes to reverse what has happened.”
So, I wasn’t at all surprised when I heard Zoltán Kovács’s reaction to the European Commission’s infringement proceedings. “At last,” he said, “instead of heated political discussions here are legal and technical details.” He also made it quite clear that the Hungarian government is planning to sit down and “discuss” these details. When the reporters reminded him that the Hungarian government has only one month to answer, he expressed surprise because normally in such cases the member state has two months to answer the charges. What at this point Kovács didn’t yet know was that this proceeding is not a garden variety but an accelerated one.
Kovács also claimed that “Hungary and the Hungarian government have nothing to be ashamed of because there are more than 700 infringement proceedings currently in process.” Against Hungary there have been only fourteen and now, after the Commission added another three, the number became 17. “There is nothing extraordinary here,” Kovács said. Unfortunately for the Orbán government, this is not the case. These are grave objections and the European Union has a powerful weapon in its arsenal: money.
Finally, we just learned that on January 24 Viktor Orbán will be travelling to Brussels to meet José Manuel Barroso. I assume he will try “to discuss the details” of legal wording that will be acceptable to the EU. After that meeting the second act of the drama might begin.
P.S. Tomorrow at 15:00 Hungarian time there will be live broadcast of Orbán’s speech here: