Monday 9 January 2012

The Orbarony of Hungary

This weekend saw, rightly, a wave of stories about Hungary (see yesterday's Week in Bloggingportal for some blog articles). The new constitution came in for a strong attack by the Party of European Socialists president Sergei Stanishev:

"Hungarian democracy is under siege. The actions of the conservative Fidesz government under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán have resulted in an unprecedented attack on basic international democratic standards. It is an extraordinary thing to say in the year 2012, but the cold hard fact is that the European Union could now be said to include a non-democratic state as one of its members.

Now it is a test for European leaders and institutions of their commitment to democratic values when democracy is at stake. It is not a matter of internal policy but rather the question of whether the EU will preserve one of its core values and features. A new constitution has been in place in Hungary since January 1 this year. It contains set of provisions that are an attempt to institutionalise authoritarian rule. The measures have been, accurately, described as a 'constitutional coup'.


The essential point is this: there does not seem to be any end-point to the actions of Fidesz. Their actions indicate a consistent and quickening slide towards authoritarian rule. Those responsible have not listened to rational requests and they have not heeded eloquent calls to respect democracy. Therefore the international community must look at more robust measures."

The PES counts the opposition MSZP party among its members. The changes brought about by the new constitution are:

"- The Constitutional Court has been stripped of its powers
- The government can decide which judges will review which cases
- The supervision of elections is overseen by a new Council of Government party appointees
- A'media board' of government appointees has been given power to decide what constitutes "balanced" media coverage and has been allowed to impose fines which only be appealed after payment
- Tax and fiscal policy, including a new flat tax, can only be changed by a two-thirds majority.
- The government can appoint a deputy governor to the central bank
- Provisions to protect citizens from discrimination based on sexual orientation have been deleted."

The governing Fidesz party is part of the European People's Party, which controls the Commission and the Council of the EU, and is the biggest party in the European Parliament. The Economist has called for the EPP to be tough on its wayward member:

"Mr Orban’s fellow centre-right leaders, who include Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, have more leverage over him than other European politicians, and therefore a particular responsibility to take him to task. Fidesz is proud to belong to their umbrella group, and the biggest political family within the EU, the European People’s Party. Threatening to chuck Mr Orban out of the EPP could be the best way of steering him off the path towards autocracy."

The only communication I can find from the EPP on the issue was this press release, stating that they would support whatever decision the Commission took on the constitution's compatibility with EU law - but this is not simply a matter of compliance with EU legal requirements (though The Economist points out that the Commission should stand firm on the requirement for an independent central bank). This is a question about European values and the standards of democracy that a Member State should be held accountable to. Candidate countries have to measure up to a certain democratic standard: so should current members.

While the EPP may control the Commission and play up its central role in European politics (every press release ends with a note to the editor on the size and influence of the Europarty), but as a political and parliamentary group it seems content to accept the decisions of the Commission and Council - no rebellious backbenchers, these. The press release shows the party trying to have it both ways, stating that they would support technical corrections, but using language supporting Orban's post-Communist narrative of the new constitution:

""The Hungarian Parliament adopted on 18 April 2011 a new constitution that replaced a Stalinist-type constitution, which dated from 1949. Hungary was the only country in Central Europe which could not draft a new fundamental law since the fall of communism. The new constitution has incorporated the Charter of Fundamental Rights and also a new, fairer electoctal system was established which offers the possibility for minorities to be represented in Parliament," said [EPP Leader and EP Group Chairman] Martens and Daul.

"At the same time, we are well aware that the European Commission has raised issues on some pieces of legislation and is currently examining the English and French translations to determine if they comply with EU law. [...] Needless to say, the EPP will back the Commission’s recommendations that will ensure Hungary’s full compliance with EU law.""

The EU cannot work if we don't stick to our common values: what happens to the trust that cooperation and common rules have to be founded on to work, if we don't feel that some members aren't following the same basic standards? It's an issue that we need to be strong enough to take on. Not only when it comes to Hungary, but for all members.

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