But the start of the Hungarian Presidency has sparked a bit more interest because of the attention it has focused on contentious new legislation that places ill-defined restrictions on the country’s media. The sudden influx of interest in Hungarian domestic affairs is most uncomfortable for Orbán’s government, which was hoping to create a much more positive impression with its presidency. Germany, France, the OSCE and the European Parliament have all called for the legislation to be amended, and Barroso is expected to raise similar concerns in his meeting with Orbán today.
The tactic of using the spotlight of the presidency to highlight shortcomings in a member state is not a new one: civil society has been using it for a number of years. In 2008, Amnesty International campaigned throughout the Slovenian Presidency for justice for the thousands of people who were erased from the national registry of permanent residents in 1992. But until recently, EU governments and the Commission have found it inappropriate to discuss domestic affairs at a European level, and certainly not in public, pleading a lack of EU competence. Instead, they operate a gentlemen’s club at the UN Human Rights Council by pre-warning each other of any difficult issues they may raise on one another’s internal record at the Universal Periodic Review, or simply don’t mention each other’s weak points.
So what has changed? Did the angry fallout between member states over discriminatory treatment of the Roma over the summer of 2010 set a precedent? Does the Lisbon Treaty’s reduction in the importance of the presidency mean that member states are now prepared to take increased risks in using the spotlight it shines on the incumbent to address sensitive matters that they would not otherwise have a legitimate say on? Is the long-standing civil society message finally being heard: that breaches of the EU’s fundamental values, even in only one member state, are still a source of collective shame?
Whatever the reason, it has to be a positive development that a political conversation has finally started about these matters at a European level. A Union that has in its founding treaties respect for democracy, rule of law and human rights cannot credibly turn a blind eye to potential breaches of these principles by constituent states.
This development is certainly not before time, and the EU’s double standards are already clear to the other countries around the globe that it engages with. Discrimination against minority communities, restrictions on media freedom, abusive counter-terrorist policies are all classic topics of conversation in the myriad human rights dialogues that the EU conducts with third countries, so Europe really needs to be whiter than white on these matters. As ECFR’s recent policy brief “Towards an EU human rights strategy for a post western world” points out, this is becoming a real point of vulnerability in the EU’s efforts to promote its treaty values abroad.
The key question now is: will the EU move beyond words on Hungary’s media freedom law, and will the Commission look into it? Or will the problem stay, as did treatment of the Roma over the summer, as did complicity in US renditions operations and torture since 2001, a sore on the EU’s collective reputation that it never really accounts for?
Reprinted with the permission of the European Council on Foreign Relations (www.ecfr.eu)