Karen Coleman: Sinister path Hungary is taking should worry us all
IMAGINE you're on your way home from a great break with your pals in Budapest. The craic was mighty, the spas were fantastic, the massages cleared a few knots, the shopping was terrific and the booze was a steal. So there you are at the airport, feeling all warm and fuzzy queuing for the flight home.
The only problem is ... you won't be going anywhere. There's a big sign at the check-in, saying all Aer Lingus flights have been cancelled because the airline has gone into bankruptcy protection.
That's pretty much what happened earlier this month in Dublin when travellers flying to Budapest arrived at the airport only to be told their flights had been cancelled because Hungary's national airline, Malev, had been put into bankruptcy protection.
Now remember, Hungary was one of those pots of gold the Irish chased during the bling days. Back then, we were told Budapest was the new New York where our investments would bank us gazillions.
Well things aren't so rosy in Hungary right now and Malev airlines isn't the only headache. Like many of us in Europe, Hungary is in deep financial trouble. It was the first EU country to seek an IMF bailout in 2008 and it's now looking to revive bailout talks with the IMF and the EU. Its credit rating has been slashed to junk status, it has a weak currency, high debts and an unemployment rate of over 10pc.
But more sinister developments are taking place in Hungary.
Over the past year, there's been a steady erosion of democracy and human rights and this is triggering alarm bells internationally.
Since coming to power in 2010, Viktor Orban's centre-right Fidesz Party has introduced a spate of laws that jeopardise the independence of the judiciary, the central bank, data-protection agencies and the freedom of the press.
His government has also changed electoral boundaries that will favour his party in future elections. Many of these laws were consolidated in a new constitution that came into force in January 2012 and some of them will require a supermajority of two-thirds of the parliament to be changed in the future.
The situation has alarmed the EU so much that the EU Commission last month launched legal action against Hungary, warning it to reverse some of the measures it has brought in saying they breach EU Treaty laws thatHungary signed up to when it joined the EU in 2004. Human Rights Watch also recently issued a report on Hungary in which it expressed grave concerns about the 'regressive' developments there.
The government is being accused of forcing judges to retire early and replacing them with political allies. It's also changed the way judges are appointed. Up until recently, an independent body used to appoint judges. But the government scrapped that and instead established a National Judiciary Office that is led by a politically appointed individual. The EU Commission says too much power is vested in this one individual who has too much say in appointing judges, allocating judicial cases and managing judicial budgets. In a strongly worded statement last month, the commission warned that those changes contravened EU laws.
And another essential column of democracy is being targeted. A new media-regulation body now has the power to close media outlets and impose fines if they are not seen to provide "balanced" reporting. Human Rights Watch says this council is staffed by ruling party loyalists and that its establishment is an 'alarming' development.
So why should we care about these developments? And who are we to point the finger? After all, haven't we had our own share of dodgy governments, abusive institutions and issues about media ownership?
These are all fair points but as this euro crisis has shown, we are all inter-connected in Europe and what happens in one country can have serious implications for the rest of us. Aren't we now being told that Greece should never have joined the euro in the first place because it lied about its financial situation? And what's the point in accepting countries into the EU if they later break laws they signed up to?
Viktor Orban is taking his country down a regressive path and bending rules Hungary that adopted when it joined the EU. And these changes come against a backdrop of growing far-right popularity in Hungary.
Jobbik, The Movement for a better Hungary, is now the third-largest political party in Hungary with 47 parliamentarians in the Hungarian Assembly and three MEPs in the European Parliament. Founded in 2003, it's been described by the British think-tank Demos, as "openly anti-liberal, frequently homophobic, anti-Semitic and anti-Roma".
DEMOS describes its economic policies as "protectionist, anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation" and that it is "anti-European and anti-Israeli" and argues for strengthening of ties with Iran, Russia, China and Turkey.
Jobbik has also been linked to the sinister vigilante group called the Magyar Garda (The Hungarian Guard). This outfit of uniformed men and women was likened to neo-fascist militia organisations. Although it claimed to be a cultural organisation, it was banned in 2009 following a series of nasty anti-Roma activities and anti-Semitic outbursts.
But despite its proscription, the intimidation of Roma gypsies continued and some of these self-styled policing groups were linked to Jobbik. In spring 2011, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union filmed an event that took place in the small village of Gyongyospata where groups of uniformed men and women marched through the town and intimidated the local Roma population. Supporters justified their presence by saying they were preventing crimes by the Roma.
In the video you can see these men and women dressed completely in black, patrolling the village. Some are wearing neo-nazi insignia on their clothes. At one stage other thugs, wearing camouflage fatigues and carrying whips, join them. In the video, the Roma people described how they were verbally and physically abused. The local police did little to stop them.
History has shown how hard times can foster nasty, xenophobic, protectionist and intolerant sentiments. When times are tough, it can be easier for governments to justify the unjustifiable and to introduce undemocratic legislation. Hungary, like Ireland, agreed to abide by EU laws when it joined in 2004. A dangerous precedent will be set for all of us if it gets away with violating those laws so blatantly.