The new EU presidency

 

THE EUROPEAN Union is more than an economic union, more than a large market place. It is a political union in which a common culture with shared democratic values is supposed to provide a safe home for minority points of view, human rights and a free press. These are obligations on the union as a whole (Art. 2, Treaty on European Union), and on each member state individually. Budapest, please note.

Hungary, which is at the centre of a storm over new press controls, this week assumes its first EU presidency since its accession. In that role it will co-ordinate the work of the member states in the Council of Ministers and it has a significant function representing us on the world stage. And it has a difficult and important agenda which includes, among other issues, the setting up of a new bailout fund and new mechanisms for economic supervision of member states, and the launch of the EU’s own vexed multi-annual budget negotiations. The political authority that role requires, however, has already been seriously undermined.

Since sweeping aside Hungary’s corrupt left to win a massive parliamentary majority in April, the conservative Fidesz government of Viktor Orbán has enacted a series of controversial measures, from seizing private pension assets, to stripping the constitutional court of the power to review the budget, to a windfall tax that has fallen largely on foreign businesses, and – none more so – the new press law. Cheered along by the nationalist far-right, the government is also upsetting its neighbours’ sensitivities by granting Hungarian citizenship to 3.5 million ethnic Hungarians in their populations.

The press law provides for a national media board, packed already with Fidesz sympathisers, to monitor “balance” in the media and to impose fines of up to €720,000 for coverage deemed unbalanced, immoral or “offensive to human dignity”. It also has the right to inspect documents and force journalists to reveal sources on issues related to national security.

Internal critics have rightly decried it as rolling back many of the democratic gains of the last 20 years, while leading daily Nepszabadsagmarked its enactment with a front page declaring in the EU’s 23 languages that: “The freedom of the press in Hungary comes to an end”. At least three journalists have been suspended over the past week for trying to voice protests on state radio. And such criticism has been echoed from capitals throughout the EU, its parliament, and from such human rights organisations as the OSCE and Amnesty.

Major foreign companies have also protested vigorously at what they see as a discriminatory “crisis” tax imposed in October on the telecoms, retail and energy sectors to raise €1.8 billion to boost government revenue and shore up the national budget. The EU Commission has backed their concerns.

When Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso meets Mr Orbán tomorrow, he will be right to remind our representative, the EU presidency, of its obligations both to the single market and to the core political values of the union.