Liberal MEPs initiate Hungarian Presidency boycott

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MEPs from the European Parliament's liberal ALDE group have called for the venue of a meeting to be changed from Budapest to Brussels, as a sign of protest against a controversial media law recently adopted in Hungary, the country holding the rotating EU presidency.

Liberal MEPs will convene next Thursday (20 January) to decide whether the EU-African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Joint Parliamentary Assembly should be held in Hungary, which has raised eyebrows across Europe with a media law that is widely seen as undemocratic.

Belgian MEP Louis Michel, co-chair of the EU-ACP assembly, called a special meeting after receiving a letter from Luxembourg colleague Charles Goerens, who wrote that the law ''violates democratic principles recognised by EU member states''.

Michel is remembered for leading calls for the EU to take harsh measures against Austria in 2000, when Jörg Haider's far-right Freedom Party entered into a coalition government with the Austrian People's Party.

The ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly brings together MEPs and elected representatives from the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries that have signed the Cotonou Agreement.

MPs from the ACP states meet their European counterparts for two plenary sessions a year, focusing on democracy and human rights. The 2011 meetings are scheduled for 16-18 May in Budapest and 21-23 November in Sierra Leone.

The new Hungarian press rules impose a strict supervisory regime on all print, broadcast and online media in Hungary, including "online media abroad that have been located in another country in order to circumvent stricter regulation in Hungary".

TV and radio stations can be fined as much as 200 million forints (about €700,000) for allegedly unbalanced coverage, while penalties for national newspapers and websites can reach 25 million forints (€90,000) and 10 million forints (€36,000) for weeklies.

The European Commission is now examining whether the law is compatible with relevant EU legislation. On Monday (11 January), Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes insisted that the EU executive will not make any compromises.

In his letter to Michel, MEP Charles Goerens slammed the ''timidity'' of reactions from both the Commission and the vast majority of EU member states.

''Faced with so much reservation, shouldn't this assembly stand out by demonstrating its firm opposition to any member state that isn't conforming to the fundamental values that are part of the acquis communautaire?'' he asked.

Hungarian Presidency spokesperson Gergely Polner told EURACTIV that the debate on the media law with the government should be separated from the presidency.

"The presidency speaks for 27 Member States, it does not represent the government,” he insisted.

Some political groups of the European Parliament have agreed on this separation, he added.

Asked by EURACTIV to comment on the possible cancellation of the ACP meeting, the European Commission had no comment to make at this stage.

Czech MEP Zuzana Roithova, vice-chair of the EU-ACP joint parliamentary assembly and head of the Czech delegation in the European People's Party group, disagrees with the idea of cancelling the Budapest meeting in May.

''I am convinced that such a proposal is motivated by the thirst for media attention. I understand that the media law will be evaluated by the European Commission in order to make sure of its conformity with EU legislation. Therefore, this debate cannot in any way be a reason for the cancellation of meeting of the ACP-EU JPA," she told EURACTIV.

In an open letter to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Socialist & Democrats group leader Martin Schulz urged him to withdraw the media law in order to facilitate institutional cooperation and allow a smooth presidency at a difficult time for the EU.

"The Media Act adopted by parliament in your country has become the centre of an international controversy, and in the meantime, also a burden for your presidency. I therefore ask you to withdraw this Act so that you can take come more time to reflect on a media law for your country that is in line with our common European basic rules and common values. By doing so, you will have taken a step to pave the way towards the success of your presidency,'' he stated.

"The success of your presidency can contribute to making Europe stronger in difficult times. This aspect of making Europe stronger is our common objective," he added.

Hungary took over the six-month presidency of the Council of Ministers on 1 January 2011.

The key issues that Hungary wants to tackle during its presidency include energy, the Eastern Partnership, Croatia's accession to the EU, the Roma situation and the Danube Strategy.

But since day one, controversial legislation recently adopted by Hungary's ruling majority has been straining relations with the European Commission.

In particular, the Commission is investigating whether a contentious media law adopted by the Hungarian Parliament on 21 December and 'special taxes' imposed on foreign businesses are compatible with EU law.

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