Disreputable Presidency

It’s around this time of year (as well as at the end of June) that Euronerds’ thoughts turn to the EU member-state about to take over the six-month rotating EU Council Presidency. By most accounts I have seen, the presidency about to end – that of Belgium – has gone rather well, despite being the first one ever to be conducted entirely by a caretaker national government. Next up is Hungary, which has already publicized its intended agenda emphasizing topics such as treatment of the EU’s Roma population, Croatia’s membership application, and something called the “Danube Initiative.”

However, as we can see from a good summary in Der Spiegel, it looks like the rest of the EU might well insist on another item, namely Hungary’s new structure of state media supervision. That country’s right-wing ruling party, FIDESZ (the Young Democrats), gained a more than two-thirds majority in the national parliament in elections last April as the country threw out a detested, incompetent, and mendacious Socialist Party government. That enabled FIDESZ to alter the state constitution how it likes, and the new set of media laws are part of a series of sweeping changes the new government has introduced.

The problem is, it plainly looks like the new legal regime for media is designed to impose firm government control, of a sort strange to most free societies that more resembles the sort of Communist regime from which Hungary managed a peaceful transition more than twenty years ago. There is to be a Media Council, inevitably staffed by FIDESZ politicians, with the power to fine TV, radio, magazine and newspaper organizations as it pleases, presumably for any trumped-up charge it can come up with, with no possibility for appeal. Further, journalists from now on will be required to disclose their sources, whenever the matter at issue can be fit by the authorities within the flexible category of “national security.”

Already, even before Hungary has had a chance to assume the Presidency, there have been outcries against these new media laws from within the EU, such as from European Parliament members and even the foreign minister of Luxembourg, who publicly stated that Hungary risks putting itself in the same authoritarian category as Belarus. The Der Spiegel lede states the question baldly: “Can something like this be – in the middle of Europe?”

Unfortunately, this won’t be that easy to address. First, is it really true that the country’s FIDESZ government has in mind the creation of an authoritarian state? Even if so, what can be done? – especially in view of the awkward fact that Hungarian officials will be charged over the next six months with an important leadership role in guiding the EU’s business? The denunciations made public so far are fine, but in the institutional realm EU member-states are rather loathe to chide each other for their internal behavior. (As opposed to candidate states: both the EU itself and its more-powerful member-states see no problem in bossing them around.) I suppose the test-case here could be the shunning of Austria within the EU back in 2000 after Jörg Haider’s right-wing party entered the governing coalition there; I don’t recall that was very effective.

It’s an ugly situation, which I doubt will really ever be addressed in any substantive way. It’s potentially made even worse when you consider the financial dimension: Hungarian premier Victor Orban has been notably hostile to outside pressure to tighten state finances. Yet his country still has its own currency, the forint, and the amazing proportion of native debtors who have obligations denominated in some foreign currency instead (often the Swiss franc) makes them (and those who loaned them money) very vulnerable to any forint loss of value. Watch this space – that is, if you have the sort of morbid curiosity always looking for the next highway pile-up. This could turn out to be another Ireland, but an authoritarian one; that is, it could get very ugly.

UPDATE: Now what was I sayin’? Here’s Josept Cotterill of FT Alphaville on the Fitch rating agency’s downgrade today of Hungarian sovereign debt to BBB-, just one step above “junk” status.

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