STRASBOURG, France – The Hungarian prime minister told European Union politicians Wednesday not to meddle in Hungarian politics while his country holds the EU's presidency, warning that the entire EU would suffer.
But many legislators at the European Parliament did exactly that, accusing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban of undermining democratic ideals in an EU nation and starting to become, as one lawmaker put it, a "European Chavez" — a reference to Venezuela's mercurial leader Hugo Chavez.
"How does it feel to lead a country away from democracy and toward a dictatorship?" asked Austrian Socialist Joerg Leichtfried, making the kind of remark Orban called "a slap in the face of the Hungarian people."
It was a raucous and rather unpromising start to the eastern European nation's six-month EU presidency. Coming in for particular criticism were Hungary's new media law, which was criticized as stifling free expression, and Orban himself, who was accused of trying to undermine democratic ideals in a European Union nation.
"This debate in the plenary was almost like holding it on Mars," Orban said after a caustic confrontation in parliament centering on the media law.
At the start of Orban's speech to kick off the six-month presidency, some EU legislators covered their mouths with duct tape and held banners reading "Censored."
In a debate marked by raised voices and finger-pointing, Socialist lawmakers demanded that Orban immediately withdraw the media law, while the Greens questioned his democratic credentials.
Under the EU's Byzantine institutional rules, each state gets a six-month stint leading the EU presidency, often giving it unmatched exposure on the world stage. The nation at the helm also has a huge impact on deciding the EU's political agenda.
Hungary's turn began Jan. 1, and many fear it will be weighed down by domestic issues. Liberal ALDE leader Guy Verhofstadt called the media law "the elephant in the room."
Orban said Hungary would live up to the EU challenge if domestic politics, where he wields a two-thirds majority through his conservative Fidesz party, were left to him.
"If you mix up the two, obviously I am ready to fight," he told the European Parliament's plenary session. "It won't just be detrimental or damaging to Hungary alone but detrimental and damaging to the EU as a whole."
He said his electoral success was now working against him. "I should have thought about that earlier. We should have maybe avoided a landslide victory but I could not stop the people."
The EU's Executive Commission has said Hungary's media law might not meet all of its standards for a free and fair press. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe says the law could undermine pluralism.
The law, passed last month, greatly expands the state's power to monitor and penalize private news outlets. It allows a hand-picked authority to fine newspapers and broadcast outlets up to nearly $1 million (€760,000) for reports it considers unbalanced or harmful to minors.
Orban said if the EU came up with convincing legal arguments that the law was undemocratic "we would be only too happy to amend the law."
Socialist leader Martin Schulz said Orban should not wait. "Withdraw your act and come back with a better one," he said.
"We don't want the debate to dominate this European presidency," Schulz said.
Orban said he had already exercised restraint.
"Maybe you should start buying Hungarian newspapers, open them and then you will see brutal adjectives that the journalists use to describe me. These would be unthinkable in Germany. And this happens on a daily basis and nobody has even dreamed about taking them to court."
Orban continues to be harshly criticized in the Hungarian press.
Other issues in Hungary have also riled EU critics. Hungarians who do not move their private pension funds into a state-run program can now be penalized financially. Orban has also curtailed the powers of the constitutional court and is seeking to undermine the influence of the head of the traditionally independent central bank.
Critics accuse Orban of seeking a one-party system.
"You are on the path of becoming a European Chavez," said Green leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit.
Orban, raising his voice, said any accusation that a nation that fought off communism was now veering off democracy's path was hurtful to the whole nation.
"You cannot just go about wounding people in this way," he said.
Associated Press writer Pablo Gorondi in Budapest contributed to this report.