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…
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.”
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.