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.
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.