The European Union and Hungary brought their fight over democratic rights fully into the open today with the EU Commission launching legal challenges against the former Soviet-bloc country many fear may be slipping back toward authoritarianism.
The EU's executive Commission said the new constitution that came into force on January 1 undermines the independence of the national central bank and the judiciary and does not respect data privacy principles.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose grip on power has already earned him the nickname "Viktator," defied the criticism and invited himself to the EU parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday to confront European detractors head on. "We won't allow the international left to accuse Hungary through lies and baseless slander," he said.
The EU Commission said it had found enough evidence to start legal proceedings, which may end up in a court case later this year, highlighting a general discomfort about Hungary, where critics fear creeping fallback to a centralised one-party rule under Mr Orban's Fidesz party.
"We do not want the shadow of doubt on respect for democratic principles and values to remain over the country any longer. The quicker that this is resolved the better," EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said.
In an initial reaction to the challenges, the Hungarian government struck a conciliatory tone. "There is no disagreement with the institutions of the European Union on the importance of basic principles, common European values and achievements," it said.
Hungary sought to sidestep the major political objections. Its Minister of State for Government Communication Zoltan Kovacs said that Hungary does not "think there is any room for a heated debate. This is a legal, technical issue."
Mr Orban has been under fire from the European Parliament and civil rights organizations that fear he could push the country back into authoritarianism, by imposing government control over institutions whose independence is protected by EU treaties.
Mr Kovacs said that there were "orchestrated efforts on behalf of political parties" to undermine the government of Mr Orban, "unfortunately not only at a Hungarian, but on the European level as well."
Beside the central bank law, which gives the government as much larger role than before in naming top bank officials, the EU is objecting to the forced, early retirement of hundreds of judges and has concerns about the independence of the new data protection authority.