Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán began his speech to the European Parliament at 10:36 a.m. on Wednesday morning. He had hardly had time to greet the assembled deputies before being interrupted by European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek. A number of Green Party members of the European Parliament had taped their mouths shut with band aids while holding up placards reading "censored," as a protest against Hungary's controversial new media law.
Orbán responded ironically, saying he was "pleased" that the sessions of the European Parliament did not lag behind those of the Hungarian parliament in their style. "I feel at home," he said.
Orbán knew what to expect when he made his appearance in Strasbourg. Even before he assumed the rotating presidency of the European Union on Jan. 1, members of the European Parliament (MEPs) had already vented their anger at Budapest. German MEP Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a member of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), warned of "authoritarian decay." The head of the Socialist group in the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, said Hungary was not worthy of the EU presidency, while Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a member of the European Parliament for the Green Party, said the Eastern European country was on track to become a "communist surveillance dictatorship."
Recent weeks have illustrated that having a two-thirds majority at home is no guarantee for a smooth EU presidency. On the contrary, the previous Belgian presidency was widely praised, even though the government had already been voted out at home and was only in office in a caretaker capacity.
"We know that Europe is facing a difficult half year," Orbán said on Wednesday in his speech to the European Parliament. He wasn't referring to his controversial media law but rather the heavy debt burden of many bloc members. Orbán spoke for 20 minutes before making a reference to the criticism being fired at him. Then he played down the issue, dubbing the media law a "domestic matter" and adding that the issue should not be mixed up with the European presidency. He then warned: "If you mix up the two, I am ready to fight."
European Commission President José Manuel Barroso was the first to speak after Orbán. The Portuguese president said that press freedom was a "holy principle" for the European Union. The Commission is currently reviewing whether the Hungarian law violates the EU's treaties. Barroso announced that, by the end of the week, he would send a letter to the Hungarian government, in which Brussels would criticize specific passages in the law.
'You Are on the Way to Becoming a European Chavez'
That did not go far enough for many MEPs. "A unilaterally appointed media board checks in Hungary whether reporting is balanced," said Schulz, the head of the Socialist group, which includes Germany's center-left Social Democrats. "That is unacceptable." Orbán should not wait for the European Commission's review, but should repeal the media law right away, he said.
The leader of the Greens parliamentary group, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, was even more scathing in his criticism. The press could not be balanced, he said: "It is their job to hassle us politicians." Cohn-Bendit said he had admired Orbán in the past for his struggle against communism. "But today you are on the way to becoming a European Chavez," he said, referring to the autocratic Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez.
Meanwhile, FDP politician Lambsdorff reminded Orbán that they had met last year at the funeral of his uncle Otto Graf Lambsdorff, a renowned German politician and former economy minister. In recent remarks to the mass-circulation German newspaper Bild, Orbán had referred to Otto Graf Lambsdorff as his role model. "Honor his memory," Lambsdorff said. "Suspend the application of the media law!"
Orbán only received support from members of the European People's Party, to which Orbán's party Fidesz belongs. "Your party is founded on the values of freedom and democracy," praised the leader of the EPP's parliamentary group, Joseph Daul. "You are a great European!"
So far the EPP, which holds the most seats in the European Parliament, has prevented a resolution being passed against Hungary. But speaking off the record, some conservative deputies admit that they are not entirely comfortable with expressing unconditional solidarity for the Hungarian government. The EPP has long since become a home for some very strange parties, one of its most prominent representatives said, critically.
At one time, the EPP only counted moderate center-right parties from the countries of "old" Europe among its members. But then these traditional conservative parties dissolved in a number of countries, including France and Italy. To maintain the EPP's position as a powerful player, the party was prepared to absorb some more controversial members into its ranks, such as Silvio Berlusconi's party or the religious zealots of Spain's People's Party. It also accepted Orbán's Fidesz party. "And now," complained the veteran conservative politician, "we have to defend these people."