Council of Europe turns up the heat on Hungary

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Hungary is set to become the first EU country to be monitored by the Council of Europe, following recent changes to the country’s constitution. 

The monitoring committee of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly announced last week (25 April) that it was recommending a formal procedure to monitor Hungary’s respecting of its obligations to the Council of Europe.

The Council of Europe (CoE) is Europe’s oldest organization, specialising in human rights, and its Parliamentary Assembly is the oldest international parliamentary assembly, currently representing the parliaments of 47 countries.

When countries join the Council of Europe, the organisation automatically opens a monitoring procedure, which is lifted over time. Of all EU countries, only Bulgaria has been covered by a monitoring procedure, since it joined the CoE in 1992. But the CoE has never opened a monitoring procedure against an EU member.

"If the motion of the monitoring committee is approved by the Parliamentary Assembly, this would be the first time that a monitoring procedure would be opened with regard to an EU member state", Andrew Cutting, media officer of the CoE told EURACTIV.

A 41-page report says that the Monitoring Committee regrets that the Hungarian Constitution and related laws were adopted "in a hasty and opaque manner that disrespected proper democratic procedure”.

As a result, the report says, these laws “are not based on a consensus between the widest possible range of political forces in Hungarian society”, and thus “undermines the democratic legitimacy of the new Hungarian constitutional framework”.

The Monitoring Committee says that it regrets that changes to the constitution made on 11 March included provisions “that codify norms and values that are contentious and divisive in the Hungarian society”.

“The Monitoring Committee is deeply concerned about the erosion of democratic checks and balances as a result of the new constitutional framework in Hungary. This new framework has excessively concentrated powers, increased discretion and reduced accountability and legal oversight of numerous government institutions and regulatory bodies in Hungary,” the report says.

The Council of Europe is concerned that the two-thirds majority of the ruling coalition in parliament circumvents Constitutional Court decisions and reintroduces provisions in the Constitution that were previously annulled by the Constitutional Court.

Since 1 January 2012, when it was adopted, the new Constitution has already been amended four times, on 11 March considerably.

“The constant changing of the Constitution for narrow party political interests undermines the required stability of the constitutional framework,” the Monitoring Committee states.

The attention of the Hungarian authorities is drawn to five areas:

  • The Act of Religion and the Status of Churches, where Hungary is asked to establish clear legal criteria for the recognition of a church that are fully in line with international norms;
  • The Act on Elections of Members of the Parliament, where Hungary is required to ensure that the election district boundaries are drawn by an independent authority, and not by law or the Constitution;
  • The Act on the Constitutional Court where Hungary is required to remove a limitation of the jurisdiction of the Constitutional Court on economic grounds;
  • The Act on the Judiciary, where Hungary is required to remove the possibility of an administrative office to transfer cases from one court to another;
  • Media legislation, where Hungary is required to abolish registration requirements for print and online media, to separate functionally and legally the Media Council from the Media Authority, and to ensure that, by law, all decisions of the Media Council or Media Authority can be appealed before a court of law.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is expected to debate the proposal of the Monitoring Committee at its June session, EURACTIV was told. 

The Hungarian government issued a statement following the publication of the report.

It stresses that committee members supported the motion in a vote of 21 to 20.

“The circumstances of the Committee's decision raise serious procedural and substantial concerns,” the statement continues.

“Contrary to the previously established practices, only one of the rapporteurs attended the session of the Monitoring Committee to put forward the proposal because Jana Fischerová, the other rapporteur, had resigned claiming that the report on Hungary was seriously biased and one-sided. Moreover, the Committee will only vote on the chapters of the proposal on Thursday, which is a deviation from normal procedure, as this vote should have preceded Wednesday’s final vote. This may cast a shadow on the transparency of the working methods of the Committee.”

“Another flaw of the proposal is that it did not incorporate the results of Hungary’s still ongoing consultations with the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe and with the European Commission; moreover, the proposal disregarded the fact that the Hungarian Parliament has not finished discussing the legal provisions related to the fourth amendment to Hungary's Fundamental Law.”

The Hungarian government also says that Foreign Minister János Martonyi sent a letter to PACE President Jean-Claude Mignon requesting the postponement of the decision, and Justice Minister Tibor Navracsics also sent a letter to the Chairman of the Monitoring Committee, Andreas Herkel, with the same request. 

Following general election held in April 2010, Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said that voters had carried out a "revolution" by giving his party Fidesz two thirds of the seats in parliament to rebuild Hungary after a near financial collapse. Fidesz is affiliated to the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), the largest political group in the European Parliament.

A new Hungarian constitution was passed in April 2011 without much debate. It was severely criticised by civil liberties groups and the Socialist and Liberal European political families, for being contrary to EU norms and values and for strengthening the Fidesz one-party rule.

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