Barroso quiet as Hungary talks stagger

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A meeting between European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, aimed at bridging differences over Hungary's controversial state reforms, ended up inconclusively yesterday (24 January). Meanwhile, finance ministers opened the way for sanctions to be imposed on Budapest over its deficit.

Orbán took a conciliatory tone after the end of his visit to the Commission's headquarters, but the statement, released by Barroso's office, made it clear there was little progress.

Piling further pressure on Orbán, EU finance ministers issued a statement just before the meeting, warning that Hungary could see its regional funding cut if it continues to break the EU's deficit limits.

Orbán was expected to present a calendar for changes to recently enacted Hungarian laws that the Commission and critics say could undermine the independence of the country's central bank, data protection authority and judiciary.

On 17 January the Commission launched infringement procedures in those three fields, giving the Hungarian authorities one month to respond.

"I have clarified with Prime Minister Orbán the work ahead that is needed to speedily address the Commission’s legal concerns," Barroso said in a written statement, published following the meeting.

Restoring the independence of the Hungarian Central Bank is seen as a precondition both by the Commission and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) before discussing "precautionary aid" requested by Budapest, which calls it insurance against possible future financing difficulties.

'Wider political concerns'

While making clear that Brussels was awaiting "formal answers" from Budapest, Barroso also spoke of "wider political concerns that the Hungarian government needs to address".

The diplomatic language obviously refers to what is widely seen across Europe as an authoritarian drift in Hungary.

Vice President Neelie Kroes, who is also the digital agenda commissioner, said in a statement that she met the head of Klubrádió, a popular radio station in Hungary that has lost broadcast frequencies in recent months.

"I just met the CEO of Klubrádió, a radio station in Hungary with a lot of political commentary, often quite critical. They have lost eight local frequencies in 2011 alone. These developments make me worried about media pluralism and media freedom in Hungary," Kroes said.

After the talks, Orbán spoke briefly to the press, saying he was ready to make the legal changes that the EU and IMF have made a precondition for negotiations over any precautionary loan deal.

'Stakes not that high'

But a deputy to Orbán said in Budapest that Hungary was not going to make changes to its constitution and that the stakes were "not that high" for making concessions.

"I don’t know if either the prime minister or the Commission’s President has the ambition to reach a political agreement today," Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister Tibor Navracsics said, quoted by the Hungarian press.

Hungary will "surely not modify" its new constitution, Navracsics said. "There won’t be a concession, the parties may find a joint solution," he added.

A new Hungarian constitution entered into force on 1 January 2012, accompanied by laws which critics said undermine the independence of the central bank, the judiciary, data protection authorities and the news media. They also said the measures entrenched the position of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's ruling Fidesz party, which is affiliated with the European People's Party.

Tens of thousands of people protested in Budapest alleging that the new laws are authoritarian. Commission President José Manuel Barroso and Orbán have exchanged a series of letters in which Barroso warned the prime minister not to jeopardise the independence of the central bank, and re-iterated concerns about media independence.

On 17 January 2012, the Commission launched infringement procedures relating to a number of new provisions in Hungarian legislation, namely the independence of the country's central bank, data protection authority and certain measures affecting its judiciary.

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