It was a quick one-liner, delivered tongue-in-cheek but loud enough for the assembled media to hear. As Jean-Claude Juncker greeted leaders at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga on May 22nd, he gave a special welcome to Viktor Orban. "Hello dictator," smiled a beaming Juncker as he saluted the 52-year old prime minister of Hungary.
The jocular tone revealed an uncomfortable truth. Orban is becoming an increasingly problematic presence for the European Union and particularly the European People's Party (EPP), the political family to which Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel belong.
On Wednesday the European Parliament in Strasbourg passed a resolution condemning recent comments from Orban about reintroducing the death penalty; the motion also called on the European Commission to monitor democracy and human rights issues in member states.
The parliament vote came a day after the Council of Europe’s expert group on racism and intolerance published a damning report on Hungary. While noting that anti-Semitic and xenophobic speech is a feature of the radical right-wing party Jobbik, the 59-page report said hate speech occurs across the Hungarian political spectrum, with the Roma community, in particular, the subject of abuse.
The report specifically mentions a number of media outlets and pro-government journalists, noting that a right-wing journalist who had expressed racist views on the Roma minority was awarded the 2013 Tancsics journalism prize – the country’s highest journalistic award – by the government.
Orban himself cuts a powerful figure in the European political landscape. He had already served as prime minister between 1998 and 2002 before his Fidesz party returned to power in 2010 with a two-thirds parliamentary majority, going on to be re-elected last year. But there have been concerns about his party’s increasing shift to the right.
In part, this is due to domestic political factors. As with many mainstreams parties across Europe, Fidesz has found itself vying with the far-right Jobbik for votes, prompting a lurch to the right on issues such as immigration, crime and freedom of speech.
The last number of years have seen Orban's government tamper with the constitutional court and the judiciary, as well as introduce new media laws, moves that caught the attention of the former justice commissioner Viviane Reding, who took an admirably tough stance against Orban in the previous European Commission.
Internet tax withdrawn
More recently, a planned internet tax was withdrawn last year after tens of thousands demonstrated on the streets of Budapest. On EU issues, over the past few months Hungary has opposed EU migrant relocation proposals, while the government also launched a public consultation on immigration that the European Parliament has branded “highly misleading, biased and unbalanced”.
Hungary, along with Italy, Greece and Cyprus, is one of the most pro-Russian voices around the EU table, reflecting the country's strong trade and energy links with Moscow.
The country has caught the attention of Washington, which has been openly critical of the government's record on the rule of law. In a highly unusual move, six Hungarian diplomats were banned from entering the US on suspicion of corruption.
Nevertheless, Orban has allies around the European table. He has good relations with Merkel, despite her call for Hungary to recognise the role of the opposition civil society and media during her visit to Budapest in February.
Similarly he is seen as a possible ally for David Cameron, as the British prime minister sets about renegotiating Britain's EU membership. Orban was the only EU leader to back Cameron's opposition to Juncker's appointment as European Commission president last year.
A recent article in the British weekly the Spectator titled "Cameron's friend in Brussels" argues that Orban could be Cameron's most influential ally in the forthcoming EU renegotiations.
But Orban’s recent comments on the possible reintroduction of the death penalty have been a step too far for many, provoking international condemnation.
Wednesday’s European Parliament vote followed a combative appearance by Orban at its plenary session in Brussels last month, when the prime minister said he had not called for the reintroduction of the death penalty, but only a discussion on the topic.
According to sources, a meeting with the EPP group after the hearing was even more tense, with EPP MEPs challenging the Hungarian leader on his views.
In this regard, the European Parliament’s stance on Orban should be applauded.
As the European Council and member states – particularly those such as Ireland, whose governing parties are EPP members – continue to turn a blind eye to sliding democratic standards in Hungary, at least one EU institution is prepared to stand up for European values of democracy and media freedom.