By Claire Davenport and Krisztina Than
STRASBOURG/BUDAPEST (Reuters) - The European Union raised the stakes in a showdown with Hungary on Tuesday, with the European Commission saying it would take legal action against the Hungarian government for failing to make authoritarian new laws comply with EU legislation.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban's conservative Fidesz party has been condemned by the international community for introducing measures that threaten the independence of the media, the judiciary and the central bank since sweeping to power in 2010.
The Commission, the EU's executive, said the laws governing the central bank, the retirement age of judges and the country's data protection authority violated EU rules and needed to be changed within one month if Hungary wanted to avoid being taken to the European Court of Justice, the EU's highest court.
Failure to comply with the EU means that Hungary is also stalled in its efforts to negotiate financial assistance from international lenders as it tackles the threat of insolvency.
Talks with the International Monetary Fund on aid collapsed last year in a row with lenders over the new legislation. The IMF said Hungary must first get the EU's blessing before talks on a new financial package can start.
"The Commission is determined to take any legal steps necessary to ensure that the compatibility with European Union legislation is maintained," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in a statement.
"We hoped the Hungarian authorities would make the changes necessary to respect European law. This has not happened so far, so we have decided to launch the infringement proceedings."
EU officials, who are also struggling to contain a debt crisis in the euro zone, have led criticism of Orban's policies. Legal proceedings against a member country's laws are rare and reflect growing fears about Hungary in European capitals.
The key problems are with a batch of new laws that came into force at the start of the year. The EU's fundamental treaty requires independence of central banks, but Hungary's new law allows a government minister to participate in key meetings, the Commission said.
On the judiciary, the EU said that Hungary's decision to lower the retirement age for judges and certain types of lawyer to 62 from 70 went against EU laws prohibiting workplace discrimination based on age.
Thirdly, a restructuring of Hungary's data protection authority infringed an EU rule requiring the independence of data protection supervisors.
Hungary's ambassador to the EU, Peter Gyorkos, played down the disagreement.
"Even the most impartial and most correct partners can get into dispute," he told Reuters TV. "But please let's not exclude that in certain cases we will say 'Sorry European Commission, we don't agree'."
Hungary's government has said it may rework its policies but Deputy Prime Minister Tibor Navracsics on Tuesday chose to make no last-minute concessions to stop the EU Commission launching the proceedings.
"On the issues of central bank law and data protection we are close to possibly finding a solution in the near future ... if the aim is to further strengthen the independence of the head of the data protection authority, I will surely not oppose that," he said.
"As far as the general retirement age of judges and prosecutors ... is concerned, I think there is a real professional debate on those issues."
LAST DITCH EFFORT
Hungarian diplomats in Brussels made last-ditch efforts to explain their government's position.
The start of the infringement proceeding would mean that Hungary must modify the disputed laws or face a potential lengthy legal battle that could end up in the European Court of Justice. This may hold up talks on financial assistance.
With its economy headed into stagnation and investor confidence ruined by ad hoc measures that included Europe's highest financial sector tax, and hefty debt payments due this year, Hungary needs a new funding deal to prevent a market crisis.
"The most negative reaction would be if the government starts disputing the procedure which in turn could seriously delay the start of the official talks regarding external financial assistance," Unicredit, an Italian bank, said in a note on Tuesday.
Hungary sold more debt than planned at an auction last week, but at yields above 9 percent, widely seen as unsustainable, while the forint is stuck on the weak side of 300 per euro after
record lows hit this month on a string of ratings downgrades to "junk" debt status.
With parts of a $13 billion private pension transfer, which produced a one-off 2011 fiscal surplus, and some cash reserves still in government coffers, Hungary is under no immediate pressure to clinch a deal.
But given high borrowing costs muddling through without a backstop is not an option, analysts say.
"Failure to reach an agreement would mean very serious trouble for Hungary," said analyst Zoltan Torok at Raiffeisen.
"In the short run, the government could probably continue to repay debt, but this is the short term, half a year, or a year, give or take. It can't afford to go it alone for the long haul."
Orban's point man with the IMF, Tamas Fellegi, returned from Washington to Europe empty-handed last week and was told "tangible steps" on policies to stabilize the economy were needed before talks could even start about a financing agreement.
(Writing by Anna Willard and Sebastian Moffett,; editing by Giles Elgood)