Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper), In the heart of Europe, Hungary finds itself at a crossroads, embroiled in a contentious battle that pitches national sovereignty against fundamental European values. At the center of this storm is Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a figure who has long polarized opinion, both within his country and across the continent. The latest chapter unfolds around the so-called “sovereignty law,” passed in December, which has ignited a firestorm of controversy and prompted the European Commission to initiate infringement proceedings against Hungary.
This law, designed to combat “foreign interference,” is seen by many as a direct threat to the bedrock principles of the European Union, including the freedom of expression. The Commission’s response was swift and clear, declaring the legislation in violation of several fundamental rights cherished across the EU. Yet, Hungary stands defiant. Zoltán Kovács, the Hungarian state secretary responsible for the press, vehemently defends the law, casting it as a bulwark against external influences, notably those emanating from figures like George Soros and his son Alexander Soros. The Soros family, long-time adversaries of Orbán, have been active supporters of Hungarian civil society, a fact that the government views with suspicion.
This is not Hungary’s first dance with controversy. The European Commission has previously called out Hungary for policies perceived as discriminatory, such as those targeting the LGBT community in 2021. However, the rapidity of Brussels’ response to the sovereignty law has surprised many observers, underscoring the gravity with which the EU views this latest challenge to its core values.
Comparisons have been drawn between Hungary’s new law and Russia’s 2012 legislation on “foreign agents,” a parallel that raises alarm bells for many. The Russian law, initially aimed at NGOs, was later expanded to target media houses and journalists, leading to fears that Hungary could follow a similar path. The concern is palpable among Hungarian civil society and independent media, who see the law as a veiled attempt to stifle dissent and control the narrative.
The European Commission’s infringement procedure sets the clock ticking for Hungary, which has two months to address the concerns raised. Failure to do so could lead to escalated measures, including potential fines levied by the European Court of Justice. Yet, the path to resolution is fraught with political maneuvering and the shadow of upcoming EU elections in June.
Prime Minister Orbán, a seasoned political operator, is likely to leverage the proceedings to his advantage, framing it as an assault on Hungary’s autonomy by Brussels. The narrative of an EU out to undermine national sovereignty resonates with a segment of Hungarian society, providing fertile ground for Orbán’s Fidesz party as it gears up for the electoral contest.
The speed with which the Hungarian government sought to implement the law—decided in December and slated for action by February—belies the reality on the ground, where the infrastructure to enforce the law is conspicuously absent. This haste further underscores the political motivations attributed to the law, with critics arguing it serves more as a tool for propaganda than governance.
Despite the pressure from Brussels, concessions from Orbán seem unlikely. The prime minister appears prepared to weather the storm, betting on the protracted nature of EU infringement procedures to shield his policies from immediate consequences. This stance reflects a broader challenge facing the EU as it grapples with the rise of illiberal democracies within its ranks. While the European Commission, as the “guardian of the treaties,” pursues legal avenues to enforce compliance, the effectiveness of such measures is increasingly called into question.
As Hungary navigates these tumultuous waters, the question remains: can the EU find a balance between respecting national sovereignty and ensuring universal adherence to its foundational values and rights? This ongoing story tests not only Hungary’s resolve but also the unity and resilience of the European Union itself at a time when the principles of democracy, freedom, and the rule of law are under scrutiny across the globe.
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