A European Parliament debate over Hungary's controversial media law, scheduled to take place at a Strasbourg plenary, had to be rescheduled in a smaller room after the EU assembly's two biggest political groups voted against the plan.
The centre-right European People's Party (EPP) insisted on not giving too much visibility to the debate because a European Commission legal assessment on Hungary's media law was still pending.
"There is a great deal of political motivation behind this debate," argued MEP Simon Busuttil (EPP; Malta), stressing that his group would prefer to wait for the Commission's complete assessment of the law.
The move by the Parliament's largest political group is hardly surprising since the ruling party in Hungary, Fidesz, is EPP-affiliated.
More intriguing was the backing from the assembly's second largest group and main opposition party, the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), which also backed the motion to reschedule the debate.
Asked by EURACTIV to comment, an S&D spokesperson said his group did not want to put the cart before the horse and that legal arguments were needed for holding such a debate in plenary.
This did not prevent S&D MEPs, however, from attacking the law in the Parliament's Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE). The debate took place on 17 January.
Claude Moraes (S&D; UK), agreed that all member states must comply with EU law. "We are not interested in targeting a particular country, but in analysing whether EU rules have been breached," he said, adding that the Hungarian media law "raised concerns all over Europe".
"The fact that this law is so widely criticised shows that something in it is seriously wrong," observed Tanja Fajon (S&D; Slovenia).
Commission assessment pending
The debate, featuring Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes, took place in a crowded room, where she repeated the same statements she had made in Brussels in a hearing organised by the liberal ALDE group the week before.
Kroes said her services were assessing the Hungarian law's compatibility with the EU Audiovisual and Media Services (AVMS) Directive, adding that that preliminary examination had already indicated some problems. Among them, she cited the law's apparent application to media firms established in other EU countries as well as rules on media registration and political control over the country's media authority.
Unlike the debate in Brussels, Hungary was represented by a government representative, Justice Minister Tibor Navracsics, who promised to amend the law "if necessary". Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán promised the same on the occasion of a Commission visit to Budapest earlier this month.
But Navracsics defended the new law, which from the official Hungarian perspective is intended to replace outdated provisions and implement the EU directive. "All of these comments were already out and about before the law was approved," he insisted.
Kinga Gál (EPP; Hungary) blasted the "collective hysteria" among political opponents regarding the law.
Manfred Weber (EPP; Germany), suggested that the Commission should examine the media laws of all 27 member states and not just Hungary. "My experts are well aware of all national laws. And we will not act against Hungary without acting on media rules in other countries, that would be unfair," replied Kroes.
In separate surroundings, Commission President José Manuel Barroso revealed that the EU executive would send a letter to the Hungarian government this week to express its objections "again".
Barroso said this yesterday (18 January) during a question and answer session at the European parliament in Strasbourg.
"We must treat Hungary like any other member state, prudently and objectively," he added.
It remains unclear, however, if this letter is the final legal opinion regarding the media law or if a more detailed opinion will follow.