Is Hungary’s new constitution really so outlandish?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The outcry of certain MEPs regarding the Hungarian constitution is unreasonable, writes David Fieldsend from CARE, as the provisions included are inextricably linked with the original European norms and values.

David Fieldsend manages the Brussels Office of CARE (Christian Action, Research and Education). He is also honourary chairman of the European Christian Political Foundation. 

"The new Constitution of Hungary has been the subject of intense media interest and speculation over the recent weeks.  Despite hyperbolic claims to the contrary, the 30-odd cardinal laws implementing the Constitution’s provisions have been carefully examined and only three (relating to the structure of the central bank, the independence of the data protection authority and the retirement age of judges) have been found wanting by the European Commission.

Accordingly, the Commission has sent out investigatory letters to the Hungarian Government seeking clarification, with the threat of action being brought before the European Court of Justice if satisfactory answers are not received.  In response, Prime Minister Viktor  Orbán has promised to respond to the Commission’s letters and rectify any breach of European law.

Despite this, MEPs from the Liberal, Green and Socialist groups in the European Parliament declared at its January plenary session that there has been a breakdown in the rule of law and normal democratic processes in Hungary – maybe enough to warrant the initiation of procedures to sanction the country through the suspension of EU membership rights as provided for in Article 7 of the Treaty.

Most of their interventions have been long on invective and very short on specifics.  And the aspects of the constitution to which they seem to take most exception were not singled out by the European Commission in its statement, or by the Venice Commission in its report on Hungary's constitution which concluded that they were acceptable.

The aspects that so upset the Liberals and the Socialists in particular were the references to Hungary’s Christian heritage in the preamble, the section on family law which enshrines the traditional definition of marriage as being the union of a man with a woman and provisions calling for the right to life to be respected from conception.

But these provisions are, in fact, hardly novel or exceptional in a European context.  The constitutions of the vast majority of existing EU member states either invoke the name of God, refer to Christian heritage or a special role for the faith, or a particular church.  Marriage is restricted to the union of a man and a woman in 19 out of 27 member states, whether by general law or constitutional provision. In at least three cases such a constitutional provision has been adopted within the last five years.

As far as the right to life is concerned many constitutions provide protection from before birth – in cases such as Ireland this is accompanied by an almost blanket restriction on abortion, in other states (eg. Germany) it subsists alongside law that allows for an exception to be made for abortion with limits on the age of the foetus.

So why the outcry from parties of the broad left against Hungary’s new Constitution – the first since Communist times?   Maybe it is because they have been taken in by a conception of ‘progress’ that sees the current of political and social change in Europe flowing in only one long-term direction.  According to this view, progress can only flow from right to left, from Christianity to atheism, with a one-way valve preventing the loss of any left ‘gains’. 

When these politicians talk of ‘European values’ being under attack, it is not the mainstream values embedded in the vast majority of national constitutions that they are referring to – it is rather those of a small minority which they would like to see become the majority.

As the first Hungarian Government since the collapse of Soviet hegemony to command the necessary two-thirds parliamentary majority, the current Fidesz-led coalition was given by the people of Hungary the historic responsibility of drafting the country’s first post-Communist Constitution. 

The fact that this has been modelled largely on the constitutions of those EU member states that embody historic democratic values, rather than those incorporating more radical social innovations, should come as no surprise.

This is not a country disappearing off the radar screen of democratic European norms. It is a country firmly situated within the historic mainstream of European constitutional praxis."

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