EuroDemocracy Failing?

Talk about ending the year on a sour note! Der Tagesspiegel journalist Caroline Fetscher starts her post-Christmas opinion column (Project Europe is only beginning) with Belarus, which is certainly depressing enough. Through the vicious wave of police-repression following his recent presidential election “victory,” Aleksandr Lukashenko has cemented his title as “Europe’s last remaining dictator.” That much is clear, but Fetscher has a rather different point to make: Europeans should not assume that Belarus is the only problem when it comes to democracy, i.e. that there are no other stains elsewhere.

That would be a complacent thing to do; and after all, Die Zeit republished Fetscher’s piece under the new title Complacency is the enemy of Democracy. So where are there problems elsewhere in Europe? Well, there’s the Vatican, with its pedophilia scandals; Italy itself where “there rules an operetta-premier, who systematically subjugates the media, laws, and several submissive girls”; the Netherlands, where eurosceptic and anti-Islam ideologies thrive (and where Jews live uncomfortably – allegedly); and then Hungary, where antisemitism and anti-Gypsy feelings prevail.

This is mostly incoherent. First of all, Fetscher’s subject is supposed to be threats to democracy; the Roman Catholic scandals have little to do with that, while one would think that at least some of the opinions she condemns (at least euroscepticism) are precisely what free, democratic peoples are supposed to be allowed to hold if that suits them. She also strangely misses one recent phenomenon that would seem to have constituted a datapoint strongly supporting her thesis, namely the new media-supervision law in Hungary (which I recently covered here) that some see as paving the way for the return of something resembling a dictatorship.

But does the new law really make up such a threat? Why not go ask someone actually on the ground there, which is what Hanno Mussler of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung does in an interview with Jan Mainka, publisher in Budapest of a German-language weekly.

This is a remarkable piece, mainly because of the calm lack of concern Mainka displays for the new media law:

The Budapester Zeitung [his paper] reports in a fair and balanced manner. In our editorials we support no party. At most you could describe our line as pro-Hungary. I don’t see that we will get in conflict with the new law. I’m not so sure about other Hungarian media outlets. Many are anything but fair and balanced. The interregional dailies stand on the side of either the opposition or the government.

To him, concern elsewhere in Europe over the media law (even as expressed by German Chancellor Merkel, or by the EU Commission) is “hysteria.” The new Hungarian premier, Viktor Orbán, was after all one of the leaders of the opposition that brought Communism down in Hungary twenty years ago. Of much more concern for the country’s media business are its economic troubles, for which the Orbán administration is just the set of personnel you would want to look to for solutions. Yes, recent taxation measures (bank tax, tax on foreign companies) have been drastic, but drastic solutions are what is needed; only their somewhat unpredictable nature is to be regretted.

So there you have it. If we are to believe Herr Mainka – again, responsible for putting out and making money with a publication in Hungary’s capital – neither the new media law nor Orbán’s ruthless revenue-raising measures are anything to worry about. But I don’t know: in particular, his dismissal of the Hungarian dailies – implying that it’s no problem if the government comes down hard on them, after all, they’re partisan – for me strikes the wrong note: newspapers are supposed to be allowed to be partisan! I’m getting too much here of the syndrome “OK, they’re going after the Jews; but I’m an upstanding and decent citizen, and they’ll never come after me!”

Still, this is a “don’t worry” viewpoint from an expert who is right there where the things are happening. Maybe all of us who were viewing developments in Hungary with alarm should stop and reconsider. Mainka also makes the point that few if any have likely taken the trouble to read the new media-law act to see what it actually says – maybe that would be a good first step for everyone!

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