Hungary is playing chicken with the European Union over Hungarian citizens' rights and freedoms — or lack thereof.
Many in Brussels and Berlin believe that conservative Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has overstepped a “red line” on democratic freedoms with recent constitutional changes. It is uncertain if Hungary, in turn, will lose its ability to decide on EU laws for an indefinite period. That would be a first in EU history.
New changes to Hungary’s constitution, passed in March, catalysed the confrontation. The Orbán Government’s constitution came into effect in January 2012, and has been already been changed four times. Opponents charge that Orbán has been gradually centralising power in Hungary, by eliminating potential sources of opposition.
The onetime democratic revolutionary has made far-reaching, anti-democratic changes, the draft of a forthcoming European parliamentary report charges. Like many of the other recent protests from Brussels, the report focuses on restrictions to constitutional court powers in Hungary.
Orbán has hobbled Hungary’s constitutional court by restricting its ability to challenge constitutional changes, the report says. The court can rule on “how” an amendment to the Hungarian constitution was written, but not “what” it says. Even if that particular amendment is anti-democratic, the report adds.
Those restrictions to the constitutional court’s authority were accompanied by several other constitutional amendments, many of them enshrining the government’s views on social issues in the constitution, European media is reporting.
March’s constitutional revisions, writes Der Spiegel’s online edition, restrict freedom of speech in cases where “the dignity of the Hungarian nation is injured” by speaker's remarks.
They also force students to remain in Hungary after graduation, so they can work and pay taxes there. They criminalise homelessness, mandating fines for the homeless, the German weekly writes.
The report goes on: Orbán has created a regulator to monitor private media. He has eliminated the data protection commissioner’s office, intended to protect citizens from corporate and official spying online. His government has created an effective monopoly in news provision by launching a news service that distributes its content free of charge to news outlets.
After several years of private lobbying and public silence, the rest of Europe has begun speak out against Orbán’s government. Austrian foreign minister Michael Spindelegger says that Orbán is testing “the limits of the acceptable” with his changes.
German chancellor Angela Merkel is said to be aghast, too. When Hungary’s figurehead president came calling in Berlin last month, Merkel delivered him a message for Orbán: the Hungarian prime minister had to use his big majority in parliament “responsibly”, the effective leader of the EU said.
Orbán’s two-thirds majority in the Hungarian parliament means he has the power to change Hungary’s constitution by executive fiat. Or even tear up the constitution and write a new one, as he did just two years ago.
Berlin has been escalating criticism of Hungary in recent days. Last week, Merkel’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, made a very pointed visit to Budapest. Westerwelle’s top priority there was not meeting the government. Rather, he wanted to lend support to the World Jewish Congress. Rather than convene in Jerusalem as usual, the Jewish community’s peak body chose to hold its general meeting in Budapest, where anti-Semitism has become a real concern.
Critics – including many in Budapest’s Jewish community – charge that the patriotic, nostalgic conservatism that Orban has promoted has boosted the electoral prospects of Jobbik, a neo-fascist party.
“Over the past three years, under Orbán’s government, anti-Semitic incidents have multiplied in Hungary: [there have been]physical and verbal attacks against Jews, damage to monuments to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust,” reported RAI, Italy’s national broadcaster, last week.
With one eye to Jobbik’s voters and a looming election – Orbán’s party, Fidesz, has flirted with open anti-Semitism, says El País. “They have done things like concede a journalism prize to an anti-Semite in March, before revoking that decision,” the Madrid daily wrote last week.
In addition, Fidesz has “not condemned attempts to rehabilitate [fascist World War Two dictator]Miklós Horthy, the ultimate authority during the deportation of [Hungarian] Jews,” El País added.
Yet after several years of shock and awe at the Orbán Government’s transformation of Hungary, it is unclear whether Europe will effectively exclude Hungary from the EU. Europe’s top justice official, Viviane Redding, is said to be privately in favour of just such a decision.
Redding, the European Commission’s vice president “has demonstrated resoluteness”, comments French news broadcaster France Info.
“Her [Redding’s] services are carrying out a detailed study on the latest constitutional changes, to see if it is an opportune [time]to launch [legal]infringement proceedings against Hungary,” the radio station says.
If it is proven that Hungary has been violating EU law, Hungary could lose its voting rights at the EU Council of Ministers, the EU’s top decision-making organ. A majority of the European parliament has been advocating precisely that in recent weeks.
Yet the EU’s top bureaucrat, Jose Manuel Barroso, is said to be against such attempts, according to EU specialists. As is Redding’s own centre-right faction in the European parliament.
Still, the Orbán Government has repeatedly proved its adeptness at undiplomatic diplomacy and its ability to antagonise onetime sympathisers in foreign capitals.
As part of attempts to convince Brussels that it has it all wrong on Hungary, Fidesz lawmaker Gyorgy Schopflin penned a guest column in Brussels specialist The EU Observer.
The Fidesz MEP again charged that critics were “Hungary-bashing”. That very accusation is often used in Budapest – against opponents and sometimes minorities. And it riled up EU critics when Orbán trotted it out in Brussels last month.
Europe has been intervening more and more in member states’ economic governance since the financial crisis. In the coming weeks, we may find out if the EU is willing to get involved in redrafting member constitutions, too.
ABOUT BEST OF THE REST: It's a big world out there and plenty of commentators and journalists are writing about it — but not always in English. And not surprisingly, ideas about big events of the day shift when you move away from the Anglosphere. Best of the Rest is a fortnightly NM feature by Berlin-based journalist Charles McPhedran. Charles reads the news in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and reports on what the rest of the world is saying about the big stories.
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