Sat Feb 18th, 2012 at 08:51:24 AM EST
At the end of 2011, the European Commission made clear that it finds three new laws enacted by the parliamentary supermajority of Hungary's right-populist government party Fidesz problematic, which led to the start of infringement procedures on 17 January 2012. This and a 2 January mass protest in Budapest against Fidesz's new constitution brought the sweeping legal changes in Hungary to international attention. As I argued in Protest in a one-party state, the Commission action didn't appear to be motivated by concern for democracy (criticism focused on a violation of the dogma of central bank independence, though the other two concerned legal protection issues), while the criticised laws were only a small part of a legal coup to remove checks & balances and cement power beyond the current election cycle.
Discussions started in the European Parliament (EP), too, where earlier only the Greens (Daniel Cohn-Bendit) made significant efforts to thematise the developments in Hungary. Things came to head on 18 January, when Hungary's PM Viktor Orbán had invited himself for a debate before the EP. While the debate was an opportunity for the EP factions for a show of sharp political debate, as I argued, it also served Orbán's intentions perfectly: for his home crowd, he was spinning criticism from the EU as a conspiracy of the international Left, and whatever the party allegiance of Barroso and the Council majority, Orbán's EPP comrades in the EP were only too glad to play their role in the show.
Extremists and crooks in the region can get away with a lot on the European stage due to the circumstance that most of what they say and do will never get translated into French or English (and will often get translated to German with a loss of context). This weighted on the initial reactions of the European Parliament, too. But, lately, there is too much that gets across the language barrier for Fidesz. A Green MEP, the leader of the Socialist & Democrat EP faction, and digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes got a taste of Fidesz double-talk and vicious defamation in pro-Fidesz media, with the help of voluntary translators.
And on Thursday (16 February), the EP adopted a motion of the liberal and left-of-centre factions, with support from right-wing deserters, calling on the Commission to launch much wider reviews and consider Article 7 action; while alternative motions tabled by the EPP and the eurosceptic Conservatives were rejected.
The brainless impetigo-suffering lying idiot MEP
On 9 January, the EP's Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee held a hearing about Hungary. The issue of the big pro-government rally on 21 January came up. Greens-EFA MEP Ulrike Lunacek, who hails from Austria, and had made herself heard in the 18 January EP debate already, rose to mention the presence of anti-Semitic placards at the event.
I wrote about this and more in my reports in One hundred years of protests. That pro-government rally was indeed initiated by Fidesz's in-house far-right (although GOTV-style mobilisation was done by the party itself). They staged the event for an international audience, so they tried their best to hide their (and their followers') true colours by calling it a "Peace March", by not holding any speeches, and by asking attendants to bring only candles. But too many didn't listen, including the holder of a placard with a David star and a bizarre figure of a skinhead in ski mask (below), the photo of which Lunacek probably saw in a post by Pusztaranger, a German-language blogger on Hungary. In addition to the anti-Semitic posters, there were anti-gay ones, too, and other symbols of the far-right which are less obvious to a Western European audience (like Árpád-stripes flags and Greater Hungary maps).
Lunacek's comments greatly angered the main initiator of the Peace March, Zsolt Bayer.
Bayer is a founder of Fidesz (holder of party book No. 5) and personal friend of Orbán, but in the past two decades, he worked as a
propagandistjournalist in the media. His post-1989 re-discovery of his ethnic-German roots somehow led him to anti-Semitism and with that back to Hungarian chauvinism, which came handy when Fidesz first attempted to steal the voters of far-right parties ten years ago. He was also the point man in failed attempts to compete for anti-Roma racist voters with present main far-right party, Jobbik, which included hyperboles calling on police to summarily shoot rioting Roma and on drivers to hit-and-run when they see Roma children. Beyond trying to get as brutal as possible behind the cover of plausible deniability, Bayer's style involves an escalating use of expletives for political opponents. In short, Bayer is a ranter who would get banned as commenter on the sites of some western newspapers, but who in Fidesz-Hungary is a columnist in a main daily and commenter on cable news channel Echo TV, both owned by a pro-Fidesz industrialist, and got a state culture award last year.
In reaction to Lunacek, on 10 February on Echo TV, Bayer flat-out denied the presence of anti-Semitic posters at the "Peace March", and raged on in his usual style: "Then around comes a brainless impetigo-suffering lying idiot like Ulrike Lunacek, and I expressed myself mildly. [...] It all is a rotten scummy lie from the mouth of a rotten scum."
Unfortunately for Bayer, blogger Pusztaranger saw this, and posted a translation, which was noticed by Lunacek herself, as well as Austrian media. Lunacek reacted with a demand for apology in a letter to Echo TV, in which she threatened formal action at Hungary's media authority (though that's Fidesz-controlled and has been highly biased, too).
The latest in the affair is a letter to Lunacek by a Fidesz MEP who defends the expletives as only subjectively outrageous with the exception of the accusation of being a liar, but he puts it on Lunacek to prove herself not a liar. Read the original letter in English at Pusztaranger again; in a post which also does the job of proving Lunacek right with photos of three anti-Semitic posters. I'll also reproduce the most-eye-opening pair of photos: apparently, initially someone told the poster holder to cover up the David star, but the sheet of paper was removed or came off later:
Kroes the harpy
At the same EP hearing on 9 February, as reported in the Salon, digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes got into a frosty exchange with deputy PM of Hungary Tibor Navracsics. The issue was media freedom, and what Navracsics did was standard Fidesz mode of operation at home: pay lip service to democratic values by making clear promises to one audience and hollow them out in front of another audience. Kroes reacted saying: "That is different from what you were answering in my office".
Again this wasn't the end of it. In the same TV show in which he insulted MEP Ulrike Lunacek, Zsolt Bayer also had some insults for Kroes: "And there sits Neelie Kroes, this hapless idiot, and thinks that she can allow herself to do that." This was relayed via EP President Martin Schulz to the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso.
The extremist Echo TV isn't the only pro-Fidesz cable news channel: there is Hír TV, too, a channel established after Fidesz's 2002 election loss. Although it ended up much less extreme than its role model, Fox News, its activity included the live reporting of the first riot in 2006 (when far-right protesters stormed and torched the headquarters of public television) as if it were a revolution. Hír TV practises defamation in more subtle ways. On the same day Bayer spouted his expletives, Hír TV interviewed Navracsics himself. After dismissing the EP beforehand as a flea circus, the talking head chose to (partly) hide behind a quote from an anonymous viewer in a question: "...Our viewers are very critical. They write that 'an arrogant, prideful harpy' tried to humiliate, insult, belie you. Just how did you endure that without flipping the table?" Now Pusztaranger translated this, too.
Swoboda the coup leader
During the 18 January parliamentary debate, Orbán told critics that they should come to Hungary to see the situation for themselves. Taking him on his word, Socialists and Democrats faction leader Hannes Swoboda (who hails from Austria) travelled to Hungary on 10 February, to meet the local Socialists and the government-critical NGOs.
Earlier that week, Fidesz leaders held a closed workshop. Reportedly, PM Orbán demanded party discipline by upping the earlier rhetoric about the conspiracy of the international Left, claiming that there was an international coup attempt against him personally that included CNN as well as moles in Fidesz circles. Although Fidesz denied these reports, Fidesz-close media reported it, too. And then came government speaker Gabriella Selmeczi (the key player in the 1999 Lockheed scandal I wrote about in one of my first diaries) who issued a communique upon Swoboda's arrival just in line with the coup rhetoric, also accusing him of 'defaming Hungary with baseless and base lies'.
The above is rhetoric for the home crowd, but Swoboda's Hungarian Socialist hosts didn't omit a translation. The S&D leader reacted at the press conference saying "Maybe Viktor Orbán and his supporters should think about why it was him who received these [the EU] criticisms. He is not as important a person as to make all of Europe to conspire for his removal."
Swoboda also saw Pusztaranger's report on the defamation of Lunacek and Kroes, and made it the subject of a question before the EP on Monday (13 February). He said "Mores are breaking in which are totally unacceptable", then "The fact that I have now been described as a liar by many speakers in Hungary is only an aside. But the way colleague Lunacek is depicted in public in Hungary is totally unacceptable." Fidesz's reaction in turn was to accuse Swoboda of opposing press freedom.
More importantly, having talked to the NGOs, Swoboda returned to Strasbourg with a wider view on Fidesz's legal coup. This likely played a role in the EP motion.
The EP motions
The liberal (ALDE), Socialist and Democrat (S&D), Green (Greens-EFA) and hard-left (GUE-NGL) factions of the EP began to draft a resolution with strong words on Hungary last week. The resolution includes a near-full list of the objectionable legal changes I mentioned in Protest in a one-party state, and calls on the European Commission to monitor legal changes in eight fields:
- independence of the judiciary,
- EU conformity of the central bank (more below),
- data protection,
- constitutional court authority,
- media freedom,
- electoral law,
- political freedom of public employees,
- religious freedom.
The liberals, greens and leftists wanted to include an explicit call on the European Commission to start Article 7 action against Hungary. The socialists however argued that this motion should be one to pass, for which it is necessary to win some EPP renegades, and an Article 7 call before the conclusion of Commission reviews would scare them away. The compromise was to mention Article 7 only in reminders.
The EPP for its part sought to kill the four-party motion by tabling a rival motion of its own ahead of it. This counter-motion was tabled by two Fidesz MEPs, as well as a Bavarian, a Maltese (both of whom already defended Orbán on 18 January, see naming and shaming again) and two Italian co-sponsors. It combined a reaffirmation of European values with a rejection of unspecified unfounded attacks, a declaration of sovereignty, and even a lie about Fidesz's constitution having replaced Hungary's 1949 communist constitution (see this comment on that issue).
The eurosceptic ECR faction had more sense and tabled a much shorter motion, sponsored by two British MEPs, using a neutral tone, in calling on the Commission to be fact based and balanced in its review and on the Hungarian government to cooperate and change legislation if necessary.
The three motions were tabled before the EP on Thursday, 16 February. The results:
It must be noted that there was a separate vote on a GUE-NGL amendment to remove the part on the central bank, but it failed with a surprisingly balanced 277 For, 305 Against and 49 Abstentions. A further GUE-NGL Amendment wanted to add the issue of labour law, but that one didn't even made to a vote.
Paradoxically, the EPP resolution fared even worse than the ECR one. According to information of the website of Hungarian business magazine HVG, French and German EPP MEPs felt that the motion of their own comrades is too mild on Hungary. The four-party proposal passed with a slight majority of those present, which must have included EPP renegades.