Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Hungary, the EU and the international press 2: Fighting back

Forgive the frequency, and sometimes the length of these posts, but this isn't 'just politics'. It is a serious struggle. If in doubt read this about the growth of the extreme Right in the whole region.

There are various ways of establishing authoritarianism as a norm. There is finance, there is the law, there is the press, and there is culture. The Hungarian government has been working at all these levels at a furious speed, hoping that by the time the world has noticed what it is doing, especially in the current economic chaos, the deed will have been done and the changes become irreversible. It has tried to keep the momentum going at home through the usual paranoid, patriotic bluster.

Some of it will be familiar here. It concentrates on interference from the EU, since what have a country's internal affairs to do with them? (The answer that Hungary joined the EU of its own free will and is a member of a group that works within the rules of the group doesn't suit them to occur to them), on the depredations of international finance (and we can guess who that will come to mean, in fact already does mean to some), and on all those cynical godless liberal dictatorships outside the sacred borders of the country - which are not wide enough, of course - whose representatives will insist on asking questions.

The cultural take-over goes on. Orchestras, theatres, magazines, radio stations and newspapers are subject to sackings and political appointments. Most recently the internationally admired director of Trafó, György Szabó has been pushed aside for a government backed appointee. If you can control it, control it, if it's awkward make the lives of those you regard as awkward as difficult as possible until it becomes impossible.

Can you imagine a far right wing Tory government (and I don't mean Cameron), supported by the BNP, replacing the leading figures of law, media, finance, the arts, and the rest of the state apparatus with their own candidates, ensuring that the laws they passed cannot be repealed, and handing the BNP a theatre or two just as as a start? That is exactly what the Fidesz government is doing now.

But the Hungarian government has finally come up against stiffer opposition at the EU, as reported, for example by The New York Times where, Stephen Castle writes:

On Tuesday, the European Commission, the union’s executive arm, said it was starting proceedings over Hungarian measures that threaten the independence of the country’s central bank and its data-protection authority, and over rules on the retirement age of judges. Ultimately, Hungary can be forced to change rules that breach European law or, if it refuses, can be taken to the European Court of Justice.

But the dispute has ignited a broader debate. While the union insists that countries meet democratic standards to join, there are few sanctions once a nation is a member. After talks on Monday, Belgium and the Netherlands suggested that European ministers could discuss the situation next week...

...“Hungary is a key member of the European family,” Mr. Barroso said in a statement on Tuesday. “We do not want the shadow of doubt on respect for democratic principles and values to remain over the country any longer.”

This seems limited but it's a start and it was enough to send the Hungarian government scuttling back while pretending nothing had happened, as reported through the Associated Press, here today:

Hungary plans to change parts of its legislation that has prompted EU threats of court action and sparked Western fears about democratic rights, a top European official said Wednesday, but the promise did nothing to appease critics...

...After a heated three-hour debate at the EU parliament Wednesday, Orban said Barroso's complaints about the central bank were "not a matter of life or death for us. If the commission believes this is problematic then we have no problem."

The letter was sent only hours before Orbán faced stinging criticism from the European Parliament and a day after the Commission, the European Union's executive, threatened to take Budapest to court over some of its new laws.

"We are willing to factor in the European Commission position," Orbán said of the criticism of the judiciary.

In other words OK, it's not that important, so yeh, we'll compromise, but actually we'll do it anyway. The article goes on:

The Hungarian leader was met with widespread derision as he sought to convince the legislature that the new constitution and laws were necessary to get closer to European democratic principles.

Orban said he expected to find a solution soon to the EU Commission's legal challenges, well before they would reach the stage of going to court.

Hungary could, in theory, be expelled from the EU using article 7 (Respect for and promotion of the values of the Union) of the TEU.

I hope they push Hungary hard on that.

In the meantime there is this excellent Guardian article by the author I am currently translating, Yudit Kiss. She writes::

As is customary in authoritarian regimes, the system's ears are sharp and its arms are long; people think twice before signing a petition, a newspaper article or taking part in public actions where they can be identified. Against this background, the large demonstrations of the last few months, as well as multiplying manifestations of civil courage, have an extraordinary value.


Borsó said...

Please keep reporting. Thank you for taking time to do this. Nowhere else in the English language sphere is anyone pulling the story together in the way you can, thanks to your background, your sensibility, and your kindness. You've written a post we can all share.

Gwil W said...

In Austria the ORF TV journalists have made a private video at their own expense to protest about ORF TV being in the control of the SPÖ (Socialist Party) and for independent journalism. The video has gone viral with nearly 500,000 viewers so far. It is very good and might be worth the Hungarians doing a similar one.
You can see the video on YouTube at "ZiB Redaktion-Das Protest-Video" and there's a button towards the right of the bottom bar which gives an English version in drop-down translation.
The SPÖ control and influence of the TV media has been going on for some years but has got much worse since Faymann became the Bundeskanzler. I don't know if it is coincidence but it has got much worse since he started going to Bilderberg Group meetings. This policy can only play into the hands of the right wing FPÖ in the long run.

Gwil W said...

The man at the centre of the ORF controversy has now resigned. So the power of the YouTube video is I think quite something.

Today Spindlegger who is the deputy Kanzler in Austria is to go to Budapest to meet Orban and "build golden bridges" between "the old friends" whatever that "golden bridges" expression means. If I'm any judge of character Spindlegger will met with an Orbanesque: What are you doing here? Where's Faymann?!"

This Austrian attempt at one-upmanship won't produce much unless there's solid money behind it.

To answer Viktor Orban's question, Faymann will be packing and preparing to go to Kitzbuhel tomorrow to sit in the VIP lounge with Armie "I'm gonna clean house" Schwarzenegger and Pres. Heinz Fischer at the Super-G skiing event society party.

Global warming may have the last word. It's persistently peeing when it should be snowing. Today's training is cancelled.

George S said...

Thanks for the updates, Gwilym. Fancy writing a guest post laying out the Austrian situation? Can do it as yourself, as Anon or any other name. I think it would be a good thing. A few links so people can orientate themselves. Or even a series of short posts if you like.

George S said...

Dear Borsó - I will do my best.

Gwil W said...

We now learn that Kanzler Faymann has gone to Berlin to meet Merkel presumably en route to the Alps for the annual Kitzbühel bash. This explains the deputy having to go to the lion's den in Budapest.

Today's wall to wall TV coverage of the skiing is naturally cancelled. If the mild weather continues the celebs may soon be folding their tents.

A notable absence from the apres-ski, should it go ahead, will be the multi-scandal haunted Austrian ex-finance minister K H "I will fight like a lion to clear my name" Grasser, a man once touted as a potential EU Finance Minister.

The tax haven of Lichtenstein is about to release banking and finance info. pertaining to KHG. Don't hold your breath.

I will keep you posted on any developments.

George, thanks for the invite. I'll see if I can do a guest post as you call it. I think I'm going to have to review the movie J Edgar first though. Get back on all that soonest.

Gwil W said...

George, I think I'll have to pass on the guest post idea. Just been asked for some poems. Got to write at least 10. Obviously I'll keep abreast of the Austrian slant and comment here from time to time.