Members of the European Parliament gave a frosty reception to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán yesterday (19 January) in Strasbourg, where he came to deliver the traditional presentation of his country's EU presidency programme.
Orbán's nervous body language illustrated the tensions created by his government's controversial media law, which was widely criticised across Europe and the United States.
A tense Orbán, sometimes bullish but often on the defensive, faced a two-hour hostile grilling by MEPs, who warned that Budapest was on a collision course with its European partners unless its media law is brought in line with EU values.
Pre-empting the attacks, Orbán warned: "Don't mix up criticism of Hungarian internal politics with the Hungarian EU Presidency." He added: "If you mix up, I'm ready to fight."
The Green group took centre stage with a protest in which its members appeared with their mouths taped shut. They held up copies of Hungarian newspapers bearing the stamp "censored".
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-chair of the Greens/EFA group, raised the temperature by comparing Orbán to Hugo Chavez, the authoritarian president of Venezuela.
Cohn-Bendit said Orbán had forgotten his democratic and anti-communist past, and had become a populist "who doesn't understand the structure of democracy".
He also said that he had "lost his appetite" for a planned lunch with the prime minister.
Ruling Hungarian centre-right party Fidesz, using its parliamentary super-majority, has already amended the constitution ten times and passed controversial legislation in several fields, including the imposition of 'special taxes' on foreign businesses and the nationalisation of its pre-funded pension schemes.
Orbán refuted the accusations, saying he could not see how any politically legitimate actor in European politics could question Hungarian democracy. He said he considered such accusations to be "a slap in the face of the Hungarian people".
However, Orbán indicated that the media law could be amended if it were to prove incompatible with EU legislation. European Commission President José Manuel Barroso has said the EU executive will send a letter to the Hungarian government this week to express its objections.
The leader of the Socialists and Democrats group (S&D) in the Parliament, Martin Schulz, replied that in no way was the criticism aimed at the Hungarian people. He said that in a democracy, it is the media that scrutinises power. "What you are doing is scrutinising the media and that is not right," he said.
Schulz, a German MEP, continued: "We see a basic democratic value of European society being threatened. We don't want this debate to dominate the Hungarian Presidency. Please do something about it: withdraw your act and come back with a better one, a balanced media act in Hungary."
European right defends Orbán
Joseph Daul MEP, leader of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), gave a helping hand to Orbán, recalling that his party Fidesz – which is EPP-affiliated – had been based on the core value of freedom.
He welcomed "the new Hungarian government's willingness to reform following years of bad governance" by the former Socialist cabinet.
"Today, one of these reforms, that which concerns the media, is subject to legal assessment by the European Commission. For my part, I trust the European Commission in its role as Guardian of the Treaties, and I have confidence in the Hungarian prime minister, who has pledged to change the law if the Commission deems certain provisions in that law contrary to Community legislation. I refuse any trial of intent," Daul stated.
Before leaving the hemicycle, a battered Orbán was comforted with a hug by Daul.