Hungary throws down gauntlet to EU
The presidents of the European Commission and the European Parliament today joined the Council of Europe, Europe’s democratic watchdog, in warning that legal changes approved today by the Hungarian parliament may threaten the rule of law.
The Hungarian parliament’s decision to approve 14 pages of amendments to laws in many areas of life came despite calls from all three European institutions for the vote to be postponed until reviewed by Council of Europe and European Commission experts.
Martin Schulz, the European Parliament’s president, said he had “serious doubts” about the proposals, saying that they “might weaken democratic standards in the country”.
Hannes Swoboda, the leader of the socialist grouping in the European Parliament, said that “the amendments…go directly against the fundamental values of the European Union”.
His liberal counterpart, Guy Verhofstadt, said that EU leaders should challenge Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán when they meet at a summit in Brussels later this week (14-15 March).
“Orbán has been warned many times that the values of the Union he joined are not to be abused or ignored,” Verhofstadt said. “He has repeatedly been given the chance to make amends and rather than seeking compromise he has chosen confrontation.”
Verhofstadt’s statement refers to a series of clashes between Orbán and the EU’s institutions following the re-writing and adoption of a new constitution in January 2012. Significant parts of the constitution were subsequently adjusted under pressure from the EU and the Council of Europe and at the demand of European and Hungarian courts.
Thorbjørn Jagland, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, has said that some of the amendments introduced today reintroduce legal provisions annulled by the constitutional court.
He said last Wednesday (6 March) that the return of these clauses endangered “the fundamental principle of checks and balances in a democracy”.
His declaration prompted José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, to call and write to Orbán on Friday. The United States also said on Friday that the amendments – now approved – could threaten “the principles of institutional independence”.
In a joint statement today, Barroso and Jagland said that “these amendments raise concerns with respect to the principle of the rule of law, EU law and Council of Europe standards”.
Jagland’s recent statements mark a sharp change of tone over recent weeks. In late January, a variety of steps taken by the Hungarian government prompted him to say that Hungary had made “significant progress”. He had added that critics had made “some exaggerations, some accusations that were not based on normal standards in Europe but established some particular standards for Hungary”.
Among the many changes made today, the amendments curb the constitutional court’s powers, define marriage, impose limits on speech, restrict political advertising, and adjust how religious groups are recognised. In his letter to Orbán on Friday, Barroso noted that the restrictions on political advertising could have an impact on the European Parliament’s elections next year.
The amendments passed easily through the Hungarian parliament thanks to the two-thirds majority commanded by the governing Fidesz party. In all, 265 of the 386 deputies voted for the changes.
The changes still need to be ratified by Hungary’s President János Áder. Swoboda and Verhofstadt today called for Áder to withhold ratification.
However, Áder, a former member of the European Parliament, is one of Orbán’s oldest and closet political allies and was Orbán’s nominee for the presidency last May.
No leading EU politician or official has explicitly called for EU to be stripped of its voting rights in the EU’s institutions, though Swoboda said that the EU might need “to make use of all measures available”.
Four foreign ministers – from Germany, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands – on Wednesday (7 March) said that the European Union needed a “a new and more effective mechanism to safeguard fundamental values in member states is needed”.
János Martonyi, Hungary’s foreign minister, replied to them on Friday (8 March), saying that “my government has given ample evidence of is spirit of co-operation whenever the competent European institution … have scrutinised or even challenged Hungarian legislation”.
EU officials have not, however, commented on the appointment of one of Orbán’s closest allies, György Matolcsy, to head the central bank. Among the concerns of the European Union – and the International Monetary Fund – last year was a law deemed as limiting the independence of the central bank. The law was adjusted, but Matolcsy’s appointment to the post has reignited allegations that Orbán is seeking to control all Hungarian institutions.
Matolcsy, who took up the post on 1 March, on Friday strengthened his influence on the bank by replacing two deputy governors with a close ally, Ádám Balog. His move – and the passage of the legal amendments – sent the Hungarian forint tumbling on Monday to its lowest level since June.
Orbán’s moves come against a backdrop of sharply falling popularity and ahead of national and European parliamentary elections in 2014.
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