On 7 February, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán spoke before the European Parliament in Strasbourg – at his own request – to explain his government’s policies and face MEPs’ questions. This followed a previous appearance in January 2011, during which he came under sustained attack. This time, he and his supporters from the European People’s Party were better prepared.

The game started with an unexpected exchange of civilities between the referee, Martin Schulz (Germany, SPD–Speaker of Parliament) and the Hungarian centre-forward (Viktor Orbán–Hungary, Fidesz). There has been little love lost between the bearded German official and the clean-shaven Hungarian player at previous matches, but this time it was all compliments. Mr Schulz praised Mr Orbán for choosing this particular stadium to play in (Strasbourg), and thereby investing the European Parliament with all the honour his fellow players (MEPs) feel they deserve, but which they do not usually get credit for from other heads of government. For his part, the Hungarian Prime Minister said how much he liked Parliaments, as a true democrat, and how pleased he was that the referee had let him and his team play here. Some in the crowd listened to this exchange open-mouthed. They had hoped the referee would kick Hungary’s best-known player at least once, before the match started.

There was one more speech before the whistle blew. Jose Manuel Barroso (Portugal, PPD), a sturdy midfield player told a packed stadium about his own exchange of messages with the Hungarian captain. He stressed the need for the Hungarian team to follow both the letter and the spirit of the rules of the game, and explained how his own team (the European Commission) would not hesitate to take further steps if Hungary failed to do so. But Barroso also established a tone designed to include, not exclude Hungary from the democratic tournament.

“We want Hungary to continue as a respected member of the European Union”, he said, “we don’t want even a shadow of a doubt cast on any of our members”. And he went on to stress the high regard with which Hungarian players are regarded in Europe.

The whistle blew, and the crowd roared. There was no time for the national anthems – neither the ode to sadness (Hungarian) nor the ode to joy (EU).

Viktor Orbán took the ball straight down centre-field, swerving past each defender in turn. “What is happening in Hungary is a very exciting process of renewal”, he said, and stressed how proud he was of the job his government had done, to bring down the national debt, and pass a budget for 2012 in line with EU principles. His government had protected all minorities, and had banned a paramilitary organisation (the Hungarian Guard) which offended the Roma. Wrong footed, the LLG (Left–Liberal–Green) goalkeeper dived to the left, while Orbán struck the ball firmly into the bottom right hand corner. Fidesz 1 – LLG 0.

The ball was back in Fidesz possession immediately. No less than 365 laws had been enacted during 18 months in office, Orbán continued, including a new Basic Law (the Constitution), and 25 so-called “cardinal” laws, requiring a two-thirds majority. The 1949 “Communist” constitution had to go, he explained. “We’re talking about the renewal of Hungary on the basis of European values.”

This time he hit the post, and Fidesz supporters in the crowd and on the pitch (European Peoples’ Party MEPs) were loving it. But Orbán could not keep running forever and after about seven minutes, he finally passed the ball. Joseph Daul (UMP, France), the seasoned captain of the EPP (European People’s Party) team, kept the pressure on with prowess in midfield. Then the LLG won possession, and started their fi rst attack.

Hannes Swoboda (Austria, Social Democrat) has a distinguished career on the left of the field, and lost no time taking the ball into the Fidesz half. “You just want to stay in power!” he accused Viktor Orbán, “that is the true spirit of your reforms”. Corner kick to the LLG. “Many who fought against Nazism and Communism are offended by the measures you are advocating” – the ball spun wide of the goal. “Follow the example of Václav Havel!” thundered Mr Swoboda, “as a champion of freedom”. Another narrow miss. “If Croatia had behaved like your government is behaving now, it would not have gained an invitation to join the EU in 2013!” A melee in the goal-mouth. Several players on the floor. The ball rolls over the line into the Fidesz net! Appeals for handball! The whistle blows. The referee points at the centre spot. Fidesz 1 – LLG 1.

LLG regain possession immediately. Guy Verhofstadt, (Belgium, Liberal) is one of the LLG’s most dangerous players, with a knack for keeping the ball almost glued to his boot. He takes the ball right to the edge of the Fidesz penalty area. The accusations against the Fidesz government for trampling on democratic norms and European values are not just a matter of the three laws which the European Commission has already found in breach of EU law (Central Bank, independence of the Data Protection Authority, early retirement of judges), Verhofstadt said. No less than 30 laws have been passed which have drawn the serious concern of European bodies of such international standing as the Council of Europe, the Venice Commission, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Central Bank… and the list went on. “You say, Prime Minister, that there is no big problem with Hungary. I am astounded by that.” A terrible silence among Fidesz supporters in the house. The ball sails out of reach of the Fidesz keeper, into the top left corner of the goal. Fidesz 1 – LLG 2 – and only twenty minutes of the match gone! More goals than the European stadium in Strasbourg had seen in the opening minutes of a match, for many a long year.

“I call on all members of this house to support Article 7 proceedings against Hungary, to investigate whether a serious breach of our values has occurred – Yes or No!” “And the answer may be no!” he added, just to show what a fair player he is. Before finishing, he sprinted down the left touchline, playing havoc with the Fidesz defence. He quoted a letter of former dissidents, accusing the Orbán government of taking Hungary down the path to dictatorship. This time the ball ballooned high over the goal, harmlessly into the crowd.

The EPP regain possession of the ball for Fidesz for a while, disputing some of Verhofstadt’s remarks, but soon the LLG have it, and it is passed immediately to their wild man, Danny Cohn-Bendit (Greens, France). A sort of George Best figure, as famous for his antics off the pitch as on it, Cohn-Bendit was the first European politician to actually declare war on Viktor Orbán, and seems to thrive on his reputation for doing so. But while Swoboda and Verhofstadt caused serious problems for the Fidesz defence, Cohn-Bendit’s acrobatics failed to get the ball anywhere near the Fidesz goal. In a speech laden with sarcasm, red Danny lectured Viktor Orbán on European values. “The EU is not just a welcome mat you wipe your feet on!” he screamed. “It’s a house we are building together.” “You said in public that you are coming to Strasbourg to defend Hungary against the aggressive European Left”, he shouted. “Are Jose Manuel Barroso, Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton part of this aggressive European Left? This is ridiculous.”

“Or perhaps we are all just crazy? Are we just mad?” Some, even in his own team, were beginning to fear that Danny might need a soothing drink – a hot chocolate perhaps, or even an opiate.

“Why are the homeless afraid? Why are the Jewish intellectuals afraid?” The ball crossed harmlessly into touch. Throw-in to Fidesz.

A period of more consolidated play followed, with some good footwork from both teams, but few goal chances. A Polish player defended Hungary’s right to maintain its own sovereign path, against multinational companies. Krisztina Morvay, a far-right Jobbik player from Hungary suggested – to almost universal disdain – that the whole European stadium was a failure and might just as well be dismantled, though she failed to offer any suggestions as to where the teams might play instead.

Then József Szájer, the Fidesz inside-right, took the ball back into the LLG half, and counter-attacked against Cohn-Bendit.

“Jews are not afraid in Hungary…” Szájer claimed. Only the day before, he amazed those deputies who assume that anyone to the right of centre is automatically anti-Semitic, the Hungarian Prime Minister had taken part in celebrations to mark the centenary of the birth of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved tens of thousands of Jewish lives in Budapest in the Second World War. “We are a committed, dedicated member of the European Union…”, thundered Szájer, and the ball was back in the LLG net for the equalizer. Fidesz 2 – LLG 2, and the whistle blew for half time.

The second half began with a surprise. Csaba Tabajdi (Hungary, Socialist), in a gentlemanly gesture worthy of Martin Schulz’s opening remarks, defended Viktor Orbán. As a Hungarian and European patriot, Tabajdi said, the vehemence of some of the attacks against the Hungarian Prime Minister discomforted him. “Allow Viktor Orbán the personal dignity he deserves!” Groans and disbelief from some sections of the LLG camp. What should happen instead of such attacks, Tabajdi continued, was for the Fidesz government to be treated as a family member who has strayed a little. Orbán’s policies were hurting the people of Hungary, and especially the poor of Hungary, not the European Union. At this point, he won back the attention of his fellow Socialist MEPs. At last a Socialist Parliamentarian who had remembered the interests of the working-class!

Lulled into a sense of safety by Tabajdi’s reasonable tone, the Fidesz defence did not even notice the shot when it came.

“All we are calling for”, concluded Tabajdi, “is a responsible government, which can be voted out of office.” Fidesz 2 – LLG 3.

Encouraged by the Hungarian Socialist’s more nuanced play, the game settled into a more equal struggle. Renate Weber (Romania, National Liberal) was unlucky not to score, with some astute comments on the loss of power of the Hungarian Constitutional Court, as evidence of the weakening of the system of checks and balances in Hungary. Another LLG player nearly scored from a corner, when she admonished Fidesz for not behaving more normally, and enjoying its two-thirds majority, rather than using it as a battering ram against its opponents.

Then József Szájer, a Fidesz veteran, got possession again. He had been personally insulted, he said, by a fellow MEP who suggested that his own wife had just been appointed to one of the top positions in the Hungarian judiciary purely by virtue of her husband’s position in the governing party. “My own person should not be an obstacle to the professional advancement of my wife”, roared the clearly aroused Fidesz forward – an argument the proudest feminists in the Socialist or Liberal ranks could hardly find fault with. The LLG keeper did not even see the ball. Fidesz 3 – LLG 3.

Some nice midfi eld work from both sides followed, but each attack foundered on a solid defence. An exception was Alexander von Lambsdorff (Germany, Liberal) who hit the cross bar when he argued that Fidesz had no right to build its fl at tax into the new Constitution, as this restricted the right of future, democratically elected governments, to establish their own economic policies. Joseph Daul said much of the criticism of Fidesz was ideological. It was Jobbik, the far-right party, not Fidesz, who demonstratively burnt an EU flag recently in Budapest, he underlined.

The digital clock seemed to start clicking faster, as full time approached – three hours after the game began. Finally Viktor Orbán stood up to reply to the criticism. He thanked the house for paying so much attention to Hungary – taking the ball down the centre again, and praised MEPs for taking part in what he called “a European debate”. He tried to reassure Hannes Swoboda, that he was in favour of political competition, after spending 15 of the past 20 years in opposition. Turning to Guy Verhofstadt, he pointed out that the former dissidents who signed the letter were largely members of a political party (the Alliance of Free Democrats) which failed to cross the 5 per cent threshold and enter Parliament in the 2010 election. Fidesz 4 – LLG 3.

He asked the many critics of the Hungarian Constitution to actually read it, in the hope they would discover what he called, its “many novelties”. He defended the early retirement of judges on the basis that the former pension system “had ruined the country”.

We welcome criticism, he suggested, but “we demand that criticism is made in a civilised way”. “Get to know the Hungarian people”, he suggested.

With only seconds left of normal time, the LLG were desperate for an equalizer. “It’s good that you came here today”, said Hannes Swoboda. “I’m glad that you admit your mistakes, and that you will correct them”, the Fidesz players bunched nervously, waiting for the “but…” And then it came. “But remember that when we offer criticism, it is criticism of your government, not of your country.”

“My family is Europe… your family should be Europe too.” It was a good try, but the attack broke down.

Three minutes injury time, and a press conference with Orbán. His opponents brought on fresh blood in the shape of foreign journalists from some of the biggest hitting media on the European continent. Surely they might score an equalizer.

Orbán took a long shot from the biggest Hungarian daily, Népszabadság, full on the chest. Political attacks on him were legitimate, he said, he would be offended if there were not any! This time he hit the post. Speculation against Hungary was normal too, he told an Italian journalist. But only those countries which are weak and have large debts are vulnerable to speculation. What did he intend to do with the IMF/EU money his government had applied for? Another journalist tested his defences. “We don’t intend to touch a pfennig of it!” Orbán replied with a clever flick of the ankle. “How could I look a German voter in the eye, if I were spending his hard earned money, while we maintain a flat tax of 16 per cent?” The ball was in the LLG net again, but this time the linesman’s fl ag flew up – offside! The fl at tax has, after all, proved rather bumpier than its name implies.

With just ten seconds left on the clock, Canal Plus put the last question of the match, testing his “nationalism”. “I don’t like that word”, said Orbán. “I prefer ‘national greatness’, or should we call it ‘Gaullism’?” The ball was back in the LLG net again. Then the ref blew for full time. Fidesz 5 – LLG 3. A rare away victory, but a precious one.

Viktor Orbán went home feeling like he had won the Cup Final. But he knew this is actually the Champions League. A long season lies ahead.

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