Françoise Pons est journaliste et présidente du Club Grande Europe, une organisation qui se concentre sur l'Europe élargie. Le commentaire suivant a été envoyé en exclusivité à EurActiv.
"No other European country, except Austria in 2000, has been so submitted to systematic criticism as Hungary. In the context of a highly political, therefore biased debate, it is urgent to rely on facts instead of opinions. The only guarantee that a fair attitude is adopted towards Hungary is to undertake a rational analysis which respects Hungarian traditions and customs.
An essential tool to achieve this rational analysis is the European Commission for Democracy through Law (also known as the Venice Commission), the Council of Europe’s advisory body that scrutinises constitutional laws to ensure they adhere to democratic principles. It was established in 1990 in order to provide urgent answers to the process of Eastern Europe's transition from communism to democracy. Little known by the general public, it is however considered by informed circles as the “crown jewel” of the Council of Europe.
The Hungarian government itself submitted to the Venice Commission's scrutiny the two laws on the independence of the judiciary and on religion which were examined at the plenary session from 15 to 17 March. In addition, and at the request this time of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, five other laws are in the process of being examined by the Commission. Their opinions on these laws will be adopted during the next plenary session in June.
Any doubts the Hungarian government may have harboured have been confirmed: the reform of the judicial system threatens the independence of the judiciary. The criticism of the Venice Commission is severe : 'The essential elements of the reform contradicts European standards of the organisation of the judiciary. They are also problematic as concerns the right to a fair trial'. Modifications brought to Venice by Hungarian Minister of Justice Robert Repassy did not convince the rapporteurs.
Nevertheless the Polish vice president of the Commission, and one of the rapporteurs, Hanna Suchocka, underlined that "the fact that Hungary is the only European country which concentrates the judicial power in one person, the President of the National Judicial Office (NJO), is part of Hungarian tradition and not a priori a problem in itself. The traditions of every country must be respected. The issue is to guarantee the independence of the judicial power." Finally, the Venice Commission did not notice any political interference of the government in the running of the judicial system. It did not criticise the professional and moral stance of the current NJO president said to be close to Prime Minister Victor Orbán.
Concerning the law on religions, the selection procedure of organisations recognised as 'churches' was severely criticised because of the political process of selecting the 'churches' through a vote in Parliament, requiring a two-thirds majority, and with no possibility for a religious association to take legal action against a negative decision. "The range of requirements are excessive and based on arbitrary criteria," says the Venice Commission. “The deregistration process of hundreds of previously lawfully recognised churches can hardly be considered in line with international standards.” The previous law adopted in 1990 had opened the status of 'church' to numerous religious associations (as long as they had at least 100 members). In 2010, Hungary had 360 so-called churches.
However, the rapporteurs did not make a precise count of the number of 'business churches,' associations which have been multiplying for 20 years to take advantage of the generous status of 'church' and whose religious character is questionable (e.g.: psychological support of a sports car rally). The Venice Commission sets their number at around 60, despite the fact that this issue is quite heated in Hungary. However, the Venice Commission underlines that "as a whole the Act constitutes a liberal and generous framework for the freedom of religion as such." Hungary can choose its own policy towards religions – even a restrictive one – under the condition that it remains in line with the rules of democracy.
It would also have been interesting to make a comparison with other European laws. When reading the Commission’s opinion, one could forget that even with “only” 32 churches recognised now in Hungary, the Hungarian law remains the most liberal in Europe, a fact one learns almost as an aside. When the Venice Commission scrutinises the powers of the constitutional court, it will be most interesting to know precisely how the Hungarian court is positioned compared to the other constitutional courts in the EU.
"The choice of Venice as the venue for our plenary sessions, far from the turmoil of the world, has been extremely helpful in bringing certain countries back on the right track to democracy," said a frequent visitor. As the Venice Commission has no power to sanction, it must offset this weakness by trying to convince. In this regard, the president of the Venice Commission, Gianni Buquicchio, with firm and sensitive touch, constantly encouraged the Hungarian delegation which had come in force. He repeated that "the purpose of this exercise is not confrontation but cooperation." A necessary attitude in this bottleneck."