The European Commission accused Hungary of nonconformity with EU legislation and breaches of the rule of law during a plenary debate in the European Parliament yesterday (17 April) in Strasbourg. The country’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán paid a visit to the parliament the previous day.
The debate of MEPs over whether recent changes to the Hungarian Constitution were compatible with EU law were marked by sharp political divisions, with the European Peoples’ Party (EPP) providing support to Orbán, leader of Fidesz, a sister party to the centre-right group.
The leader of the liberal ALDE group Guy Verhofstadt called for steps under Article 7 of the EU treaty which authorises sanctions, including suspending voting rights, against a member state found to be in breach of EU values. "If the Commission is not going to do it, we in the Parliament should have the courage to do so," he said.
Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding, who is responsible for justice and fundamental rights, presented a much-awaited position of the EU executive over the constitutional changes approved by the Hungarian Parliament on 11 March.
Reding said the way the constitutional changes were made gives the impression that the government is willing to use a two-thirds parliamentary majority to overrule the Constitutional Court. This may endanger the fundamental principle of checks and balances in a democracy, she said.
Citizens to be taxed when Commission fines Hungary
Reding said that a clause, introduced by the constitutional changes, would allow Hungary to introduce an ad-hoc tax on Hungarian citizens should the country be fined for breach of EU law.
Hungary is already under two infringement procedures and it might likely be fined.
“Is it really sensible to make citizens pay for a tax whenever the state would fail to be in compliance with EU law?” Reding said. She said that in practice citizens would be penalised twice: once for not having had their rights under EU law upheld, and a second time for having to pay for it.
“This could undermine the authority of the Court of Justice and could constitute a violation of the duty of sincere cooperation in Article 4 (3) of the Treaty on the European Union on the part of Hungary,” the vice-president said.
Orbán has defended the changes in the constitution, saying they are necessary to complete the work of eradicating the legacy of communism from Hungary.
In a commentary contributed to EURACTIV, Hungarian European Affairs Minister Enik? Gy?ri writes that her country has “a spotless track record” of complying with all rulings of both the European Court of Justice and the Hungarian Constitutional Court. She cited as examples the amendments made to the media law and the status of the judiciary.
Arbitrary transfer of court cases
But Reding also voiced concerns over a constitutional change which would empower an administrative office to transfer cases from one court to another.
“If applied to a case concerning EU law, it could raise issues of incompatibility with the EU obligation to provide for remedies sufficient to ensure effective legal protection and to the right to a fair trial as foreseen by the Charter of Fundamental Rights,” Reding said.
“Everyone has the right to a pre-established and reviewable determination of which judge will hear his or her case,” she said.
Publication of political advertisement
The third amendment to the Hungarian constitution to which Reding referred concerns provides restrictions on the publication of political advertisements during election campaigns, including elections to the European Parliament.
According to this provision, political advertisements could only be published on "public media services".
“It should be noted that the audience share of private media where the restriction would apply represents almost 80% in Hungary,” Reding said.
She added that this list was “by no means exhaustive” and referred to the two infringement cases launched last year by the EU executive. The first concerns the early retirement of magistrates, and the second the violation of the independence of the data protection authority.
“The Commission can assure this House that it will continue to call for the legislation to be made compatible with EU law and the rule of law to be respected,” Reding told the MEPs.