Danish MPs warn of Hungary ‘core value crisis’

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MPs from centre-left and liberal parties in Denmark voiced concern yesterday (10 January) about what they described as a “crisis of Europe’s core values” caused by an apparent authoritarian drift in Hungary. They also asked the country’s government to keep the issue higher on the Danish EU presidency agenda.

Speaking to a group of 66 Brussels-based journalists invited to Copenhagen by the incoming presidency, several MPs from the Danish Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee asked the EU to act on recent developments in Hungary.

On 1 January, a controversial constitution entered into force in Hungary, accompanied by basic laws, which were widely criticised for curtailing the powers of the judiciary, the media and the central bank. Moreover, according to critics, a new electoral law passed recently in Parliament has redesigned the country's electoral districts in favour of the ruling conservative party Fidesz.

Lykke Friis from Venstre, the liberal party in opposition and minister for climate and energy in the former government, said her party was in favour of isolating Hungary within the European Union by using the EU's Lisbon Treaty Article 7, once all facts were “on the table”.

Under Article 7 of the Treaty, serious breaches to the values of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights by a member state can result in a suspension or loss of voting rights in the EU Council of Ministers. Effectively, this would mean Hungary would temporarily lose its EU membership rights. But before such a decision can be taken, the Council shall hear the member state in question and may address recommendations.

“We all eagerly expect the report or the statement from the Commission, tomorrow (11 January) or this week at least,” Friis said.

The Commission meets today for the first time in 2012 and the situation in Hungary will without doubt be among the issues discussed. Later today, Commission President José Manuel Barroso and the commissioners will head to Copenhagen for the official inauguration of the Danish EU presidency.

Sophie Carsten Nielsen from the Radical left, a social liberal party, said she agreed with Friis. “This is a democratic crisis, a crisis of Europe’s core values; it’s just as important as the debt crisis, no doubt about that."

Eva Kjer Hansen, also from the liberal Venstre party, who has served as minister in three cabinets and now chairs the Danish Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, said that she was very concerned, as she believed Europe was facing a "crisis of values".

Copenhagen criteria

Making reference to the Copenhagen criteria, which listed a series of democratic conditions for the EU accession of Central and Eastern European countries, Carsten Nielsen questioned whether Hungary would be allowed to join the EU today.

“To me the question is whether we have sufficient articles in the treaty. I think the core question is if the situation in Hungary today would give them the opportunity of becoming member of the EU. When in 1993 we had the presidency and we agreed the Copenhagen criteria, which you have to live up when you are a candidate country. And we may face a problem today in the sense that we are not able to follow up on whether the new member state sticks to those criteria and fulfils them all the time. That may be an issue we might need to put on the table again,” Carsten Nielsen said.

Lisbeth Bech Poulsen from the Socialist Peoples' Party backed the statements of the previous speakers. She argued that the countries in the European Union had very high expectations from each other.

EURACTIV asked Lykke Friis if the present legal basis of the Union was sufficient to deal with the problem in Hungary. She said that following the crisis with Austria in 2000 (see background), Article 7 had been changed, supplementing the red card, which is the actual suspension of the voting rights of a given EU country, with a yellow card used as an warning before that.

She therefore argued that the legal base was sufficient and could be used, coupled with EU pressure on Hungary to comply with the Copenhagen criteria.

Issue ‘more important’ than sovereign debt crisis

“As a Liberal party, we raised the issue last week, stating that the issue was as important, if not more important, than the sovereign debt crisis, because this deals with the core values of the European Union,” Friis said.

The European Union is not just an economic, it is very much a political union, she argued further. She said her party had asked the Danish government to act decisively on the Hungary dossier in its capacity of holder of the rotating EU presidency, and advised it to work very closely with the European Commission.

Referring to 1989, the year that saw the collapse of the Berlin wall and the end of communism in Central Europe, she said: "How can we explain to the post '89 generation what the European Union is about, if we do not say anything at this particular stage, and how can you also be able to explain to Ukraine and to other neighbours that they have to stick to the Copenhagen criteria if they want to have close relations with the European Union, if we do not live up to those criteria?"

"So this is obviously also a very important matter for the Danish EU presidency,” Friis said.

The EU has imposed sanctions only once against a member state. In 2000, 14 countries of the then 15-member EU reacted to the entrance of Jörg Haider's far-right Austrian Freedom Party into the Austrian government by freezing bilateral relations with the country.

No contacts or ambassadorial meetings at an intergovernmental level were held and Austrian candidates were not supported when EU international offices were assigned.

The sanctions were imposed in February 2000 and lifted seven months later when Haider stepped aside as party leader. He died in a car accident in 2008.

France, Belgium and Germany led the campaign to ostracise Vienna. This was seen largely to result from domestic political sensitivities to the far right. Then-President Jacques Chirac of France sought to oppose the country's Front National and Belgium faced pressure from the separatist Vlaams Blok.

By contrast, Italy and Denmark urged for the lifting of sanctions.

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