Brussels and Budapest lock horns

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Controversial legislation recently adopted by Hungary's ruling majority has apparently been straining relations with the European Commission since the country took over the rotating EU presidency at the beginning of the year.

A row over a contentious media law adopted by the Hungarian Parliament on 21 December, along with 'special taxes' imposed on foreign businesses, overshadowed a festive launch of the Hungarian EU Presidency over the holidays. 

The launch included a giant party in Budapest and the opening of a blogging platform which has so far only been used by officials.

Olivier Bailly, a European Commission spokesperson, admitted on 3 January that the EU executive had requested information from Budapest regarding both laws, after questions were raised by the Brussels press.

On 22 October, two days after Hungary passed a law enabling 'special' or 'crisis' taxes, the Commission had sent a letter requesting additional information, Bailly said. He insisted that no time had been lost.

The EU executive had acted in advance of a complaint filed by the CEOs of 15 large European and Western firms warning of "a trend towards using selected sectors and foreign companies in particular to balance the state budget".

The signatories, among which were leading German and Austrian energy companies, included Aegon NV, Allianz SE, ING Group NV, RWE AG, EnBW AG, E.ON AG, Deutsche Telekom AG and OMV AG.

On 17 December, Hungary replied to the Commission but the spokesperson explained that conclusions had not yet been drawn from Hungary's reply and therefore the issue was not yet a legal case.

Hungary's new media law has also raised eyebrows in Brussels. Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes wrote to the Hungarian authorities just before Christmas expressing "three worries" about it, Bailly said.

According to him, these were "the law itself," its alignment with the 2007 Audiovisual Services Directive and the capacity of the new authority to act as an independent regulatory body, especially considering the way it had been composed under the new Hungarian law.

A preliminary answer by the Hungarian minister had already been received by the Commission, and more details were expected to follow, he said.

The Commission position appears to be that the new Hungarian legislation should be scrutinised under the Audiovisual Services Directive, rather than the Charter for Fundamental Rights of the European Union, Article 11 of which concerns freedom of expression and information.

This is because unlike the directive, Charter articles are based on principles and are thus subject to interpretation.

Bailly denied that the correspondence between Brussels and Budapest amounted to the start of an infringement procedure against Hungary at this stage. But he confirmed that a reply from Budapest had been requested "in the following days".

Bailly also made it clear that he expected the issues to be raised during a visit by the College of Commissioners to Budapest on 7 January.

In a statement published by the Ministry of Public Administration and Justice, Hungary rejected the criticisms related to the new media law coming from different sides.

“A common trait of the opinions expressed by the media is that they apparently lack in-depth knowledge of the Act's text. Instead of formulating specific criticisms, they are a collection of unfounded, at times outright absurd accusations,” the statement reads.

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"The freedom of the press in Hungary comes to an end," the largest-circulation daily in Hungary Nepszabadsag plastered on its front page in Hungarian, followed by the same sentence in every official language of the 27-member European Union, AFP reported.

The newspaper explained its move in an editorial, saying: "the media law only serves the Fidesz government's authoritarian interests."

"Its aim is to tame, punish and in the end to ruin those who have another opinion," it added.

In a show of solidarity, the German daily Tageszeitung published the same protest on its front page.

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.

EU presidencies are organised in trios. The Hungarian one is last of a series including Spain and Belgium. The next trio will include Poland, Denmark and Cyprus.

Hungarian Foreign Minister János Martonyi compared his country's presidency to a Spanish corrida, insisting that Budapest would not play the bull, but the torero.

  • 7 Jan: The Commission visits the Hungarian government in Budapest

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