Hungary

Reding, far left, and Orbán, second from right, during a 2011 Commission meeting in Budapest.

For Viviane Reding, it appears that any opportunity to step into a hornet’s nest is a good one. This time around, the media-savvy EU justice commissioner has seriously upset the Hungarian government after she questioned the independence of the judiciary in the EU member state.

In an interview in the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Reding said the recent moves by the government of prime minister Victor Orbán to amend the Hungarian constitution in ways Brussels finds questionable made it understandable that Ireland had refused to extradite an Irish citizen convicted of killing two Hungarian children in a 2000 car accident.

Budapest didn’t appreciate Reding’s remarks, prompting a tart letter from Tibor Navracsics, Hungary’s deputy prime minister in charge of justice affairs, which called her assertions “outrageous and absolutely unacceptable” and requesting she “kindly refrain from making public statements that lack sufficient grounds as well as general benevolence”.

Both Reding’s remarks and the full text of Navracsics’ letter after the jump… Read more

Romania's centre-left prime minister, Victor Ponta

Just how should the EU react when a leader in a country like Romania threatens to undermine the democratic principles the entire European project stands for? Apparently it depends on what political party the accused underminer hails from.

Last year, when the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban – whose Fidesz party is a member of the EU’s centre-right political grouping, the European People’s Party – rammed through his parliament a controversial media law critics believed granted him overweening powers to mute press critics, the Socialists & Democrats – the EU’s centre-left group – were outraged.

“We cannot allow Hungary or any other government to drive a coach and horses through the fundamental values of the European Union,” insisted German MEP Martin Schultz, then the head of the S&D group in the European parliament.

Now, Romanian prime minister Victor Ponta – whose Social Democratic party is a member of the S&D group – has moved to impeach his political rival, centre-right president Traian Basescu; fired the country’s ombudsman; and curtailed the powers of the constitutional court. How has the S&D responded? Read more

Orban walks on stage in front of Hungary's parliament for Thursday's national day address.

[UPDATE] We’ve obtained the English-language version of Orban’s March 13 letter to Barroso requesting assistance on reopening talks with the IMF for a line of credit. The letter can be read here.

The war of words between Brussels and Budapest continued on Friday, with José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, hitting back at Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, who a day earlier compared Barroso’s Commission to Soviet apparatchiks and Hapsburg imperialists.

Orban’s tongue lashing, made at a national day rally in front of thousands in central Budapest, came after a series of recent moves by the Commission, the European Union’s executive branch, to sanction the Hungarian government for violating EU rules on deficits and democratic institutions.

Through his spokesperson, Barroso questioned Orban’s grasp of democratic principles, a rebuke sure to rankle the Hungarian prime minister, who as a young anti-Communist activist became famous for publicly calling for the withdrawal of the Red Army in 1989.

“Those who compare the European Union with the USSR show a complete lack of understanding of what democracy is, in his view,” said the spokesperson, adding she was relating Barroso’s personal comments. “They also fail to understand the important contribution of all those who have defended and fought for freedom and democracy.” Read more

EU commissioner Neelie Kroes

Viktor Orban is in Brussels today on the second part of a charm offensive designed to cool tensions between Budapest and the European Union.

Last week he flattered the European parliament by dropping in on its second home in Strasbourg to reassure MEPs that the sweeping reforms his government are currently undertaking are in line with fundamental European values.

But one commissioner at least is standing firm against the Orban’s overtures, and in a very public way. Just hours before Orban was to meet Jose Manuel Barroso, the Commission president, Neelie Kroes, the commissioner who oversees media issues, held talks in Brussels with the management at Klubradio, a talk and news station which is no fan of the Fidesz government. Since Orban came to power in 2010, it has had a knack of losing out in radio frequency allocation rounds, which it says is an attempt to muzzle dissident voices.

After the meeting, Kroes tweeted to her 33,876 followers:

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/#!/NeelieKroesEU/status/161762486524198913"] Read more

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban listens to MEPs during Wednesday's debate in Strasbourg

The buzz around Brussels since Viktor Orban’s appearance before the European parliament Wednesday has been that the Hungarian prime minister got the better of the parliamentarians, coming across as conciliatory and reasonable in the face of occasionally hectoring MEPs.

But Hungary’s troubles in Brussels are far from over. In addition to continued European Commission resistance to giving Budapest much-needed financial aid until it overhauls a new law critics believe threatens the independence of the central bank – a topic of discussion today when Hungary’s lead negotiator meets in Brussels with Olli Rehn, the Commission’s economic chief – next week is going to be a rough one for Orban’s government.

Most unexpectedly, the three Benelux countries – Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg – have asked that Hungary be discussed at Friday’s meeting in Brussels of all 27 national Europe ministers. Although no decisions will be taken, the move for the first time takes the Hungarian issue from the realm of EU technocrats to that of national politicians, where things could get more heated. Read more

Viktor Orban, Hungarian prime minister. AFP/Getty Images

Viktor Orban, Hungarian prime minister. AFP/Getty Images

Welcome to our live coverage of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban’s appearance before the European parliament, where he intends to defend his government’s recent actions against accusations they are anti-democratic. All times are GMT.

The Brussels Blog’s Peter Spiegel in Brussels and Stanley Pignal in the parliament’s second home in Strasbourg will be anchoring coverage, with contributions from other FT reporters who write about central and eastern Europe. Read more

Hungary's Viktor Orban during his address in Strasbourg last year. Brussels Blog will be live blogging his appearance on Wednesday .

Viktor Orban, Hungary’s combative prime minister, already had a lengthy list of Brussels’ critiques to rebut during an address today at the European parliament in Strasbourg, which the Brussels Blog is planning to live blog when it begins at 3pm local time.

Expectations are high after last year’s rowdy appearance, and the list of particulars has only grown in the last 24 hours: the European commission, the European Union’s executive arm, on Tuesday declared three new Hungarian laws in violation of the EU treaties, and warned that one may threaten the independence of the country’s central bank.

Just this morning, however, the commission added to the list again, hitting out at Orban – who prides himself on ridding his country from Soviet communism – for failing to respect “media freedom and media pluralism”, the same criticism he faced in Strasbourg a year ago. Read more

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban during an address last week.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, will meet tomorrow in Copenhagen amidst their ongoing investigation of new laws just passed by the Hungarian government of Viktor Orban, which have drawn accusations his ruling Fidesz party is using its overwhelming parliamentary majority to trample the independence of the judiciary and central bank.

Officials say the Commission is unlikely to come to a conclusion tomorrow, but the Hungarian government appears to be taking no chances. In a letter by Orban’s foreign minister, Janos Martonyi, sent to other EU countries and obtained by Brussels Blog, Budapest tries to insist the new laws are within European norms.

“Some of the critics are going as far to question the democratic commitment of the Hungarian government,” writes Martonyi. “I admit…that the sheer magnitude of the changes my government is carrying out or has initiated does not make the job of those who want to understand easy.” Read more

Hungary's Viktor Orban, left, with José Manuel Barroso during an EU summit earlier this year.

Perhaps because it is not in the eurozone, the recent turbulence in Hungary has not gotten a huge amount of attention internationally. But Budapest and Brussels are currently on a collision course that could have significant consequences for the region’s economic stability.

At issue is whether the European Union and the International Monetary Fund will provide financial assistance to Hungary at a time the florint is in free-fall and the government’s borrowing costs are skyrocketing, with 10-year bond yields now above 9 per cent, well above levels where Ireland, Greece and Portugal were forced into bail-outs. Standard & Poor’s downgraded Hungarian bonds Wednesday evening, citing the unpredictability of prime minister Viktor Orban’s economic policies – including his attempt to assert more control over Hungary’s central bank.

In a letter to Orban sent this week by José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, and obtained by the FT, Barroso drives a hard bargain. Not only does he “strongly advise” Orban to withdraw the proposed laws governing the central bank, but he makes clear that any assistance will come with tough conditions.

Excerpts after the jump. Read more

Hungarian finance minister Gyorgy Matolcsy, left, at last month's meeting of EU finance ministers

It is no secret that in the waning days of their European Union presidency, the Hungarians are going for broke trying to broker a deal on the “six pack” – the sprawling legislative package that would provide new tools, including fines, to force member states to rein in excessive spending and reform their economies.

The six pack is one of the bloc’s chief responses to the debt crisis, and pushing it over the finish line would surely rank as the high point of Hungary’s first ever turn in the EU’s big chair. (Depending on whom you ask, it could also mark an historic moment in the march toward an ever-closer European union.)

While the chances of finding common ground between member states, the European commission and a muscle-flexing parliament seemed remote just a few weeks ago, the Hungarians are not ready to give up just yet. The next hurdle comes Tuesday, when Hungarian diplomats will present a possible compromise to EU finance ministers at a dinner in Brussels. Read more

Day one of the European Union summit finally broke up after midnight Friday, with leaders finalising the structure of a new eurozone bail-out system that will go into place in 2013 and some tough language on Libya, including the promise to push for more sanctions against Libyan oil and gas companies.

Most everything else in the much-anticipated “grand bargain” to shore up the eurozone was decided before the summit, so the rest of the conclusions on economic and fiscal issues were widely reported and expected.

One thing worth reflecting on, however, is the fact that what was once one of the most contentious proposals to reform the EU’s economic governance – new budget rules that allow the EU to fine wayward member states – was agreed to without much controversy. That may require Brussels elites to reconsider the Hungarian presidencyRead more

For those who might not have noticed, Marton Hajdu, an affable and always reliable spokesman for Hungary’s EU presidency, has taken issue with our Brussels Blog item from last week about the covering put over the controversial Hungarian carpet during Friday’s European summit here in Brussels.

In a posting in the comments section of our blog, Marton gently prods us for constantly writing about the carpet issue to begin with – admittedly a somewhat tangential issue, but what’s a blog for if not to occasionally write about tangential issues?

Importantly, however, Marton says there’s a more prosaic reason for why the carpet – which includes a map of Hungary in 1848, riling Slovaks and Romanians, since parts of their countries were Hungarian at the time – was covered during the summit: “presidency decoration” is no longer allowed at the Justis Lipsius building during EU summits. Read more

For those, like the Brussels Blog, who have been following every twist and turn of the saga over Hungary’s carpet in the European Union building that hosts major summits, here’s another twist: the carpet has been covered up.

For those not following the drama so closely, a quick summary: To mark their turn at the EU’s six-month rotating presidency, Hungary laid down the carpet with symbols of the country’s history – including a map of Hungary from 1848, when parts of current-day Slovakia and Romania were within Hungarian borders. It has added to concerns about the nationalist tendencies of the government in Budapest.

Suffice it to say, the Slovaks and Romanians haven’t been amused.

But for today’s heads of government summit in Brussels, the first during the Hungarian presidency, the carpet has been covered by a giant Hungarian-green rug, raising questions of whether Budapest has backed down in the face of criticism.

We’ve been told, however, that no such climb-down is in the works. Read more

As we reported last week following an interview with Hungary’s foreign minister, the government in Budapest appears to be willing to diffuse the dust-up over its controversial media law, which critics charge is intended to stifle press opposition.

In a letter sent to the European Commission Monday, and posted by our colleagues at the Hungarian daily Nepszabadsag, Hungary’s deputy prime minister and justice minister Tibor Navracsics said his government was willing to amend the law, if the Commission deemed it necessary. (English translation of letter here.)

My half-hour interview with Janos Martonyi wasn’t all about the media law, however. We talked about his desire to see Friday’s summit of EU heads of government focus on energy issues – as originally planned – and not get overshadowed by the ongoing eurozone debt crisis.

And we also talked about The CarpetRead more

Fellow Brussels Blogger Stanley Pignal and I have a story in today’s paper about a letter sent to the Hungarian government on Friday by Neelie Kroes, the European Commissioner in charge of broadcast and digital media, in which she gives Budapest two weeks to avoid legal proceedings over its controversial media law. Read more

Monday’s meeting of EU energy ministers marked the last such ministerial conclave of the six-month Belgian presidency, a period that diplomats seem to agree will be remembered as extremely effective – even without a Belgian government in place for the entire span.

As we reported in today’s paper, there is a good amount of trepidation heading into the Hungarian presidency, particularly amid moves by Viktor Orban, the populist prime minister, to consolidate power in the hands of his government, most recently through a much-criticized media law.

Mr Orban himself has been a bit unpredictable. When I spoke with him during the October summit of EU heads of government here, he was his usual colourful self, saying his fellow European leaders were frequently too focused on EU institution-building in response to the economic crisis: Read more

The European Union’s rotating presidency will pass on July 1 from Spain to Belgium, and then six months later from Belgium to Hungary.  The direction of EU affairs will therefore soon be in the hands of a centre-right Hungarian government that has wasted little time, since its massive election victory in April, in asserting its patriotic – some would say ‘nationalist’ – credentials.

Policymakers in Brussels are anxiously watching this development.  They recall the unhappy experience of the Czech Republic’s EU presidency in the first half of 2009.  The last thing they want is another turbulent presidency run by one of the 10 central and eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004-2007.  It would give critics of EU enlargement even more ammunition to fight with. Read more

With Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s ruling Labour party heading towards defeat in Thursday’s British general election, the European left may soon be in even worse condition than it was just one year ago.  The trouble started in last June’s European Parliament elections, when centre-right parties swept to victory in the European Union’s six biggest countries – France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK.

Then came the Social Democrats’ crushing defeat in September’s German election: the SPD took a mere 23 per cent of the vote, its worst result in the Federal Republic’s 60-year history.  Finally, Hungary’s ruling socialists were decimated last month in an election that saw the triumph of the centre-right Fidesz party and a strong performance by the ultra-right Jobbik party. Read more

There are all sorts of threats to the European Union’s unity, but something tells me that the biggest threat isn’t the Visegrad group.  This appears to be a view not shared by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France.

Speaking after the October 29-30 EU summit in Brussels, Sarkozy criticised the fact that the leaders of the four Visegrad countries – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – had held a pre-summit meeting to co-ordinate their positions.  “If they were to meet regularly before each Council, that would raise some questions,” Sarkozy said. Read more

After the fall of communism in central and eastern Europe, one compelling argument for bringing the region into the European Union was that the experience of prosperity, democracy and everyday multinational co-operation would ease national and ethnic tensions there.  Who knew, perhaps eventually it would get rid of them altogether, just as France and Germany were gradually reconciled after the second world war?

A flare-up of tensions last month between Slovakia and Hungary will serve as proof, to those western Europeans who were always hostile to enlargement, that such hopes were premature.  Worse still, it will confirm them in their opinion that, by admitting the two countries in 2004, all the EU succeeded in doing was to trap a nasty virus inside its own borders. Read more