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Is Hungary's EU presidency doomed by controversy?

Hungary took over the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union on January 1. It comes at a time when the country is in the midst of a heated controversy over a new media law.

The EU stars with the letters EU written in the colors of the Hungarian national flag

Hungary takes over the EU presidency for the first time on January 1

Hungary took over the rotating European Union presidency on New Year's Day amid international concerns about its democratic credentials.

A recently passed media law in particular has led some critics to compare Hungary to an autocratic former Soviet state, with some describing it as "Orbanistan," after Prime Minister Viktor Orban. His center-right government will impose greater control on the media as part of measures to increase state supervision over key institutions.

Beginning January 1, a government-appointed media authority will have the power to fine broadcasters nearly $1 million (750,000 euros) and websites or newspapers more than $100,000 if their political coverage is deemed unbalanced or immoral.

Orban's Fidesz party, which swept to power earlier this year, also expanded government influence over financial institutions, including the State Audit Office. Fidesz legislators have used their two-thirds parliamentary majority to change the constitution so the Constitutional Court no longer rules on budget matters.

This will allow the Orban government to nationalize billions of euros in private pensions in the coming days in a bid to reduce the budget deficit.

"The question arises as to whether such a country deserves to lead the EU," pondered Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn earlier this month. "If we don't do anything, it will be very difficult to talk to China or Iran about human rights."

Animal farm revolution?

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban

Concerns remain over Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's policies

Orban has called the perceived "Orbanization" of Hungary a voters' "revolution" for change. But the opposition compares it to Animal Farm, written by late British writer George Orwell.

He writes about animals taking over a farm thinking it will be the start of a better life, similar to the recent Hungarian elections. Their dreams of a world where all animals will be equal, and all properties shared, turn into a nightmare. Soon, the pigs take control and one of them, Napoleon, becomes the animals' leader.

One by one the principles of the revolution are abandoned until the animals have even less freedom than before.

But Orban says domestic tensions will not overshadow Hungary's EU presidency plans. High on his wish list is EU approval for the Danube Strategy which aims to improve the lives of over 115 million inhabitants living near the Danube river.

Just as the river flows through four capitals, Hungary is demanding that money flows through the 14 nations bordering the Danube. They include impoverished Bulgaria and Romania, but also some of the richest European countries - Germany and Austria.

Danube modernization

The strategy, expected to be adopted by the EU, involves modernizing road, rail and river infrastructure, attracting more tourists, creating a regional energy market and reinforcing security while protecting the environment.

Besides the Danube Strategy, Hungary's EU presidency is also expected to be dominated by efforts to approve new fiscal discipline and economic coordination rules to prevent a repeat of the current economic crisis in the EU and in the countries that adopted the European single currency.

View of Boersoeny Hills and the Danube from Visegrad Citadel, Hungary

Millions live along or near the Danube River

Hungary's conservative-leaning government is concerned however that these ambitious plans will not be realized if the European birth rate continues to decline.

Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi said his country wanted to use its stint as EU president to introduce a discussion on "family values," and to propose that 2014 be declared a "European Year of the Family."

"We know very well that it's very difficult to make Europe the most competitive region of the world with a shrinking and aging population, without confronting the demographic challenge," he said.

Social inclusion

"That is why we want to speak about family, social inclusion, the fight against poverty. We very much hope that a framework strategy will be adopted about a whole European question which is the integration of the Roma," Martonyi added.

Hungary also wants use its presidency to complete EU membership talks with neighboring Croatia and to at least take one step forward with each of the other EU-hopefuls, including other western Balkans states, as well as Iceland and Turkey.

European Council President Herman Van Rompuy has welcomed the initiative, despite opposition from some member states who are concerned about the costs of further enlargement.

He even expects membership talks with Turkey to get new momentum during Hungary's presidency. Van Rompuy also praised Hungary's plans for a summit with the Eastern Partnership countries, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine, aimed at boosting energy security for Europe.

International concerns

European Council President Herman Van Rompuy

Van Rompuy says Hungary's presidency could benefit Turkey

Yet questions remain over whether the Hungarian presidency will be overshadowed by international concerns over autocratic domestic politics. The European Commission is already expected to investigate issues such as Orban's controversial media law and new "crisis taxes" imposed on multinational and other companies.

So far, however, Van Rompuy has only indirectly criticized Hungary. He recently spoke somewhat abstractly about "the power of ideas."

Hungary's well-known political writer Paul Lendvai has demanded stronger words, and actions.

"The task of the European Union is not only to protect the imports of cheese, wine or meat, but also to protect its [democratic] values," he said. "The EU is also a union of values."

Author: Stefan Bos, Budapest (dfm)
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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