Budapest, where are you going?

On 21 December, Prime minister Viktor Orbán pushed a bill through parliament restricting press freedoms. As Hungary prepares to take the EU’s presidency, why is no-one in Europe talking about this? wonders Gazeta Wyborcza columnist Jacek Pawlicki.

Published on 22 December 2010 at 11:48
Anti-Orbán demonstrator in Budapest, early December 2010.

In winter 2000 the EU slapped unprecedented sanctions against Austria, isolating it after Jörg Haider’s xenophobic party had been invited to join a coalition government. As correspondent in Brussels at the time, I remember very well the lamenting that took place all over the EU at the time. I remember the humiliated Austrians and Haider himself visiting Brussels to demonstrate he was no mini-Hitler in a Carinthian tunic.

In January 2011, Hungary, with Viktor Orbán clearly steering it in an authoritarian direction, takes the helm of the EU’s rotating presidency. Strong with his three-quarter majority in parliament and an opposition in disarray, the Hungarian PM has just passed a new media bill that allows his government to rein in and financially harass the independent media on whatever pretext it considers fit via a government controlled media council.

Orbán’sexecutive has already taken control over most of Hungary’s public institutions. On top of that, he has also unnerved Bratislava by offering Hungarian passports for the Slovalkia’s Hungarian minority.

Not a single critical comment by any EU leader

Orbán is much a more talented and experienced politician than the late Mr Haider. He began his career in the democratic opposition movement and his fighting spirit is impressive, returning to power after two lost general elections. Unfortunately, his mix of populism, Pannonian messianism and 19th-century nationalism could be more dangerous than Haiderism.

And in Europe no one is reacting. Media aside, there hasn’t been a single critical comment uttered about Orbán by any EU leader. Depressed by euro troubles, Europe has become thick-skinned. I’m not saying we should impose sanctions on Hungary, because what the EU leaders did to Austria 10 years ago was grotesque. But couldn’t someone at least tell Orbán, “Viktor, you’re going the wrong way! Why, with the public support you enjoy and the lofty challenges lying ahead, are you destroying democracy?”

Populism is the pan-European malaise today – from the Balkans, through Italy, and up to France. Each leader is busy dealing with his own problems and won’t peek outside his own backyard. Europe is losing not only its sensitivity and self-confidence but also its ability to defend itself. And yet we share not only the common market, the budget, the euro or Schengen but also democratic principles. Do we want to give them up?

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