Hungary kicks off chaotic EU presidency

Hungary kicked off its presidency of the European Union on Friday, already thrown into disarray over a controversial media law that critics say limits press freedoms.

The government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban was holding talks with the entire European Commission in Budapest, followed by a joint news conference with Orban and Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso in the afternoon.

The meeting, meant to discuss Hungary’s priorities during its six-month presidency -- such as energy security, Roma integration, EU enlargement and stabilising the eurozone -- was overshadowed by the media law debate.

On Thursday, Orban had admitted to a "bad start" for his country’s presidency.

"The Hungarians are making us forget the Czechs," one diplomat said, recalling the chaotic Czech presidency in 2008, which was plagued by the government’s fall and President Vaclav Klaus’s eurosceptic comments.

The media law now under attack allows a new regulatory body -- headed by a close ally of Orban -- to impose major fines on media outlets and force journalists to reveal sources on issues related to national security.

Brussels has already expressed doubts over whether the law complies with EU regulations, while Germany and France have also voiced criticisms.

Hungary "has adopted laws that raise many questions and that come at a bad time," France’s European Affairs Minister Laurent Wauquiez said in an interview with French daily La Croix published Friday.

Earlier, he had insisted however that Paris was "not trying to lecture anybody" after Orban slammed France and Germany for trying to dictate Budapest’s behaviour.

Criticism has also come from international media watchdogs and rights groups like Amnesty International and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

In the wake of the media issue, concerns over Orban’s leadership have also re-emerged.

With a two-thirds majority in parliament, Orban’s government has set about changing the constitution, prompting comparisons between the prime minister and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin as well as Belarus’s president Alexander Lukashenko.

"From 1998 to 2002 (during his previous stint in power), the Western press said I was reminiscent of Hitler and Il Duce. Now they compare me with Putin and the Belarussian president," Orban said on Thursday.

"I will leave up to you to decide if it is progress or not."

Aside from the media law, Hungary drew ire this week from several major EU firms over a "crisis" tax that they argued targeted only foreign companies.

The Commission was now investigating whether that measure too was in compliance with the bloc’s regulations.

Not averse to economic interventionism, Orban’s government has been in a dispute with the IMF and EU, which together saved it from bankruptcy in 2008 with a 20-billion-euro (26-billion-dollar) bailout, and is at loggerheads with the central bank over fiscal policy.

Politically, Orban, who has a strong populist streak, has also been catering to the far-right Jobbik party by offering Hungarian citizenship to ethnic Hungarians living in neighbouring countries, creating severe tensions with Slovakia.

This could soon be followed by a right to vote for ethnic Hungarians abroad, he said.

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