Foreign Policy Blogs

Out of the Block, Hungary Comes Up Lame

Well that was quick. Less than a week into its EU presidency, Hungary has been blasted from most corners of Western Europe — including the EC president’s office — for two bizarrely reactionary measures it passed within its own borders that took effect Saturday. The first, a 1.05 percent “crisis tax” imposed on revenue of major European corporations operating within Hungary, elicited an unusually swift response from the EC demanding a review of the measure. The law applies retroactively to all 2010 revenues earned by large energy, telecom and retail firms.

The second, a media censorship law, was said by an EC spokeswoman to fall well short of accepted European standards of press freedom. According to the Wall Street Journal, the law states that the media may not infringe on public morality or offend human dignity, standards to be defined by a party-appointed council. The law also limits crime coverage to 20 percent of news broadcasts, and that news itself may only be broadcast for brief, defined windows in mornings and afternoons. The Hungarian government’s first act under the law was to launch an investigation into a local radio station that played profane songs by rapper Ice-T during daylight hours. The charge, the Journal reports, was creating the potential for an “adverse impact on the moral development of listeners under the age of 16.”

The government has brushed aside concerns on the measure, saying the legislation adheres to EU law and that those criticizing it misunderstand its meaning. PM Viktor Orban has said he is open to amending the law if asked to do so by the EC. But Al-Jazeera reports that three journalists have already been suspended for voicing their protests against the new law.

Given the economic peril faced by the Eurozone, the EU cannot afford to be distracted by the populist antics of its temporary president. So it is perhaps fortunate that, as the Journal pointed out recently, the rotating presidency itself has been much watered down in recent years. The expansion of the EU parliament — and the Union itself — has further diminished the reach of the six-month term holder.

Orban may yet amend the measures in the coming days or weeks, but the tone he has set will not easily dissipate.