Let’s start at the end. The European Commission found the Hungarian government’s answers to its infringement proceedings against Hungary unsatisfactory. The Orbán government had exactly one month to satisfactorily answer questions about recent legislative action concerning the judiciary, the central bank, and the office of the ombudsman in charge of data protection.
Budapest wasn’t exactly in a hurry to answer. It waited until the very last day and almost to the last hour. At that time Viktor Orbán nonchalantly remarked that there was nothing new in the document, which turned out to be 100 pages long. He was convinced that the government’s arguments were sound and “convincing.”
As soon as I heard that the document was that long and that, instead of complying, the Hungarian government was arguing with the European Union’s legal points, I was almost certain that Brussels would not be impressed. One doesn’t have to be a legal scholar to know, for instance, that the new structure of the Hungarian courts cannot possibly ensure the independence of the judiciary. The forced retirement of the judges also seems arbitrary and raises the question of the government’s designs. One cannot help but suspect that the retiring judges are making space for new judges favored by the government.
At that time there was only one newspaper, Népszava, that categorically stated that “the government said ‘no’ to Brussels.” Népszabadság was a great deal more cautious. Eszter Zalán, the paper’s correspondent in Brussels, seemed to think that Viktor Orbán still had some cards left in his hand.
Brussels promised a quick response. Indeed, two weeks later the European Commission was ready with its answer. The Hungarian government already had an inkling, perhaps by the end of last week, that not all was well. Early Monday morning Péter Szijjártó, Orbán’s personal spokesman, made an appearance on MTV’s morning program “Ma Reggel” and casually mentioned that “it is possible that in one thing or two the Commission will move into a new phase of the proceedings either because we can’t agree or because the Commission doesn’t accept our arguments.”
A few hours later in Brussels Viviane Reding, Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, announced that a decision would be reached on Wednesday and that the Hungarian answers were rather “vague.” MTI learned in Brussels from an unnamed source that “there is at least one problem which the Commission found very serious.” As it turned out, the Commission found two serious problems: the judiciary and the office of the ombudsman in charge of data protection.
The reporting on the infringement proceedings today was interesting. MTI was surprisingly slow at passing along the bad news. Almost as if they were waiting for word from the government. HírTV was very prompt. They interrupted their regularly scheduled program to bring the announcement by the spokeswoman of the European Commission live to their audience. Index also gave a timely and accurate report with the headline “Brussels is waiting for changes in the law or will sue.” A few hours later HVG announced that “the Hungarian government received a harsh lesson in Brussels.” Then about an hour later MTI appeared with the following news: “KDNP: Hungary is right in the remaining disputed questions.” Under this headline was the news that there had been a press conference in Brussels and that the news was not the best. Since the reporters of MTI were unable to reach anyone important in the government they had to settle for Péter Harrach, leader of the Christian Democratic Party’s parliamentary caucus, who announced that “even a small success is a success.”
The important news as related by MTI came an hour and a half after the press conference ended in Brussels. Reporting on the event was adequate. It mentioned the “grave concerns” of the Commission as well as Reding’s demands for actual changes in the laws, not just promises. However, MTI reported only later that it was also made clear that as long as the Hungarian government doesn’t oblige there can be no “international financial negotiations.” In plain language, negotiations with the IMF for a loan cannot even begin until Brussels receives a satisfactory answer from Budapest. I might add here that it was only two days ago that János Martonyi announced that negotiations with the IMF can start at any time. Hungary is ready. Too bad that the decision is not Hungary’s.
Twenty minutes after the release of MTI’s belated report came the official Hungarian governmental response. Both Péter Szijjártó and András Giró-Szász announced that “the Hungarian government received with satisfaction the news that the European Commission accepted 90% of the Hungarian answers and thus these matters can be closed.” This is quite a description of what actually happened. The truth is instead that the European Commission gave the Hungarian government an ultimatum: “You change the laws to our satisfaction within a month, otherwise we will proceed to the European Court of Justice. Meanwhile, you are not getting a penny from the IMF and the EU.”
The opposition parties naturally criticized the Orbán government’s attitude toward the European Union and its intransigence when it comes to an understanding with Brussels. LMP announced that it was expected that the reaction from the European Commission would be negative, while DK somewhat naively demanded a change of policy and behavior appropriate to a modern European country. Jobbik was not at all surprised, but not for the same reason as the other opposition parties. The verdict was expected “because Hungary became the colony of an empire with double standards.” MSZP’s Attila Mesterházy repeated his conviction that the Orbán government doesn’t really want to have an agreement with the IMF and is only playing for time.
Mesterházy may be right. Gabriella Selmeczi, spokeswoman for Fidesz, announced that the legislative work of the Hungarian government is in line with European laws and the party will support the government’s plans for the renewal of the country. Moreover, Giró-Szász tonight announced that in the two disputed cases the Hungarian government is “willing to consult” with Brussels. That is a far cry from the answer the European Commission is expecting.
Meanwhile Viktor Orbán received a friendly warning from Joseph Daul, leader of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament, when he asked the Hungarian prime minister to “assure the correction of all problems that are not in accord with the common norms of the European Union.”
Late in the afternoon the cabinet got together and put their stamp of approval on some of the changes the Commission demanded with respect to the independence of the central bank. Details will be known only later.
If I were forced to make a prediction, I would say that Viktor Orbán at the moment is not contemplating total compliance and in a month the European Commission may be forced to turn to the European Court of Justice. Unless, of course, the financial markets wake up. The weakening of the forint today might be just the beginning.