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Hungarian EU-presidency overshadowed by media?

Guest contribution by Andrea Jamborova

Since Hungary took on the EU presidency in the beginning of this year, it has enjoyed plenty of media attention. The attention has turned especially to the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his government, who have been criticized for ‘undemocratic’ media law and ‘unjust’ transport taxes for multinational companies. The competence of Orban’s cabinet to stabilize the European euro crises has been questioned as well. Up to now, it can be said that the majority of the media analyses presented a slightly unbalanced view on the Hungarian presidency. These media are being rather skeptical about Hungary’s performance in the upcoming 6 months. However, the question is whether their criticism is justified.

In the past, Hungary has often approached the EU responsibly. It has completed all the pre-entry requirements two years before it officially entered the European community. Whilst accessing the EU in 2004, Hungary showed some strong economic performance and political stability. In 2005 it performed 4 per cent growth of GDP compared to the European average of 1.6 per cent. However, not everything went well with Hungary. Deficit grew since the 2004 due to ineffective fiscal policy and to inescapable borrowing in order to catch up with the rest of Europe. When in 2009-10 the global financial crisis escalated, it started to become clear that the public debt of many EU countries is unsustainable. By that time, Hungary had one of the largest EU public deficits, amounting to a gross debt-to-GDP ratio around 90%. In the second half of 2010, BBC reported, Fitch put Hungary’s public debt at BBB minus, which is one notch above junk status. Hungary’s new relatively strong government, under the conservative leadership of PM Viktor Orban, has pursued necessary steps to cut the country’s debt (raising the age of retirement, cutting public sector salaries and state pensions by one month, number of government officials have been reduced, etc.). These actions give the impression that Hungary knows what it takes to limit the impact of the financial crisis. However, it is questionable whether the country’s relatively responsible approach towards its domestic economic policies is in some way going to be reflected whilst presiding the EU. Is Hungary able to mediate tougher financial discipline throughout the rest of Europe?

It is crucial to look at the new media law which has been passed in the Hungarian parliament in December 2010. This law is said to undermine the European principle of free press. Nonetheless, these claims lack credibility since its authors are not well informed about Hungary’s internal press situation. Hungarian authorities say the media legislation was an essential step, because anti-semitism and hate speech have recently spread amongst Hungarian media. This is a real problem in Hungary. The Hungarian party Jobbik has gained enormous support over the pat years, even earning almost 17 per cent (3rd strongest party) in last summer’s parliamentary elections. This unprecedented ‘success’ has evoked much apprehension concerning this new wave on nationalism and its possible outcomes. The Hungarian government tries to eliminate this extreme form nationalism by stopping the media from taking part in spreading its influence. Left-wing newspapers Nepszabadsag and Nepszava as well as both conservative and liberal media in the west expressed their disapproval of the new legislation, whereas Hungary’s conservative media defended the law, as did the American Hungarian Federation, the Hungarian Civil Co-Operation Forum reported. On a different note, Viktor Orban showed respect for the EU institutions and is willing to amend the legislation after the law has been investigated further by the European Commission.

Beside the economic matters which acutely need to be addressed during the Hungarian presidency, there is also the social issue concerning the integration of Roma people, which Hungary wants to tackle. Viktor Orban is committed to fight Roma unemployment and to integrate this community more into the society by improving their education and their overall living conditions. Challenging the current Roma population’s status quo is an inescapable task for Hungary since Romania as well as Bulgaria will be considered to become part of the Schengen area in the first half of 2011. It is essential to improve Roma’s status in eastern Europe before opening the borders. This is mainly to prevent their mass migration to the western Europe, where they are offered better living conditions. It will certainly be a challenge to achieve considerable progress in this area since the EU devotes more attention to economic rather than social issues.

It seems that, in their coverage of Hungary’s EU presidency, the media completely lost its focus on EU politics. Instead, there is an ongoing debate whether Hungary opposes European principles while passing media legislation. Nevertheless, I believe that Hungary has a potential to succeed in its mission, no matter whether the media law is passed or not. It has a potential (in terms of location) to be a good mediator concerning Romania’s and Bulgaria’s possible admittance into the Schengen area. Also, it could potentially stabilize the current economic crisis within the EU since it has dealt so efficiently with its own domestic matters. We will have to wait and see.

After finishing her studies at Gymnasium Hejcin in Olomouc, Czech Republic, Andrea Jamborova moved to the UK to study Politics and International Relations at the University of York. Besides this, she has experience working in various social and environmental project, such as an asylum seekers centre in the Netherlands. Her special interests include developmental politics and security policies.
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