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Europe

Opinion: Hungary's Orban missed chance to show European leadership

When Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban presented his agenda for the EU presidency, he failed to tackle criticism of Hungary's controversial media law. A missed opportunity, says DW's Bernd Riegert.

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Hungary's new law on monitoring the country's media has been universally condemned - by the European Commission, by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and even by other conservative leaders.

It is obvious that Hungarian Premier Victor Orban got more than he bargained for when he introduced this law. The debate in the European Parliament on Wednesday focused solely on this issue - other no doubt worthy goals for the EU presidency Orban was hoping to present in Strasbourg completely faded into the background.

Bernd Riegert

Bernd Riegert is the head of Deutsche Welle's Europe Department

Orban, who was heavily criticized during the debate, should have taken this opportunity to announce changes to the law. That way, he could have taken the wind out of the sails of his critics and shown that he is a true European, willing to take criticism on board.

Instead, he insisted that the media law was an internal issue and that he had been merely misunderstood. The "strong Europe" that Orban intends to promote during the Hungarian presidency cannot develop under such circumstances.

Orban wants to speed up Croatia's EU membership by giving the Balkan country a firm date for its entry in to the bloc - his remedy for fighting expansion fatigue. That is a worthy goal, but Orban should bear in mind that Croatia would never be allowed to join if it, like Hungary, introduced a law that so obviously curbs freedom of the press.

It is a fundamental flaw in the EU's setup. The bloc can decide who joins and who does not, but once a country is in, it can do precious little when a member leaves the path of political righteousness.

The Hungarian leader insists he is not vain and the media law, he says, is not a prestige project for him. If that is the case, he should make the legislation compatible with EU norms. Other countries have, of course, tried to influence the media, but, so far, none has dared to pass legislation allowing it to practically censor content.

Orban is pretty much free to do as he pleases, as he has a two-thirds majority in parliament. The media law is only part of his overall aim to establish members of his conservative Fidesz party across all state institutions and the justice system.

There is also a tendency in Hungary to make economic policy more patriotic after having thrown out the International Monetary Fund (IMF). There is nationalistic propaganda in public places, and the constitutional court's responsibilities have been curtailed. All this sets alarm bells ringing, not just for the left-wing opposition in Hungary, but also in Brussels.

It is not too late for Orban to change tack - if he is interested in demonstrating that he is not just throwing his weight about and thereby jeopardizing democracy. Hungary is not, as some European newspapers suggest, in danger of becoming a 'Fuhrer state' or in any way totalitarian.

To ensure that that remains the case, Europe's conservative leaders should put pressure on Orban, both publicly and in private dealings with him, so that a pluralistic democracy with a free press will continue to be a reality for Hungary.

Author: Bernd Riegert, Head of DW's Europe Department / ng
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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