Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s personal spokes-man last Friday sought to blame a stinging rebuke from the European Commission on “misunderstanding” by a journalist.
European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso believes that “those who compare the European Union to the USSR show a complete lack of understanding of what democracy is”, spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen had told reporters in Brussels. “They also fail to understand the important contribution of all those who have defended and fought for freedom and democracy,” she added.
Péter Szijjártó, who juggles his role as spokesman for the prime minister with another job as a Member of Parliament, explained away this criticism. “The journalist who asked the question misunderstood something, since the statement he referred to was not voiced on Thursday,” Szijjártó was quoted as saying by state news agency MTI.
This was a reference to Orbán’s speech to a crowd of as many as 100,000 in front of the Parliament building on the 15 March bank holiday, when Hungary ostensibly remembers the start in 1848 of its failed rebellion against Habsburg rule.
Technically Szijjártó was right: it was during his 15 March speech last year that Orbán declared: “In 1848 we didn’t tolerate the dictates of Vienna; in 1956 and in 1990 we didn’t tolerate the dictates of Moscow and now we will not allow anyone to dictate from Brussels or anywhere else.” This year Orbán said merely this: “We don’t need to be led like donkeys and we don’t want unsolicited help from foreign hands that want to steer us… We will not be a colony.”
When in Rome…
Whatever was said, the rhetoric employed by Prime Minister Orbán and his emissaries in Brussels – while Hungary seeks a credit line of up to EUR 20 billion from the European Union and International Monetary Fund – is markedly different from that used to rally the troops at home.
Two days before declaring that would-be colonists will find Hungary an unwelcoming host, Orbán had written to President Barroso asking him for help in hurrying along the start of formal talks over a market-soothing credit line with strict conditions (though this is not quite how the government describes it).
The key sticking point is concerns over domestic legislation that the Commission believes are not in line with European Union law or its standards of democracy.
Plea for help
“I hereby ask your cooperation in taking the measures necessary to start negotiations on a precautionary financial agreement with Hungary so as to avoid unnecessary delays,” Orbán wrote. He said the government was already drafting amendments to its law on the Hungarian National Bank in line with Commission concerns over central bank independence. Hungary would deal with other “questions” raised by the EU’s executive and, in a separate review, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe (see page 1).
“This letter, of course, is receiving due attention by the president and should be seen in the context of the ongoing dialog that we are having with Hungary,” Barroso’s spokeswoman said in Brussels.
“Hungary has a Janus-faced prime minister and a cabinet of doublespeak,” the leader of the opposition green-liberal LMP parliamentary caucus told the house on Monday. “You can’t sit on two horses with one backside and already the government’s negotiating partners do not believe a word it says,” Javor Benedek said.
Under-secretary for justice Róbert Répássy responded by saying that, for the LMP, “if he wears a hat, that’s a problem, if he doesn’t that’s a problem”. The country has one PM and the government has one programme, Répássy said.