Hungary’s Orbán steals the show in Strasbourg

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The announced arrival in Strasbourg of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán today (18 January) has eclipsed any other highlights of the first session of the European Parliament for 2012. EURACTIV France reports from Strasbourg.

The session was expected to focus on the election of the new president and the priorities of the Danish EU presidency. However, on Tuesday (17 January) it became known that Orbán had invited himself to address the MEPs and address the criticism coming from what his spokesperson called "yet another attack from the international left".

The European Commission – led by the European People's Party-affiliated President José Manuel Barroso – started legal action yesterday over legislation that came into force at the beginning of the year under Hungary's new constitution.

The Commission sent three "Letters of Formal Notice" to Hungary – the first stage in the EU's infringement procedure – and decided to raise additional issues with Hungarian authorities to identify whether further action may be warranted under EU law, notably regarding concerns that the new measures weaken judicial independence.

The Hungarian authorities now have one month to respond to the Commission's concerns.

For the EU executive, the Hungarian legislation conflicts with EU law by putting into question the independence of the country's central bank and data protection authorities as well as the judiciary.

Brussels made an effort to keep its demarche low-key, with Barroso making a doorstep announcement, instead of a full-scale press conference with questions and answers.

"Hungary, like all member states, is obliged by the EU Treaties to guarantee the independence of its national central bank and its data protection authority and the non discrimination of its judges. The Commission is determined to take any legal steps necessary to ensure that the compatibility with European Union legislation is maintained," Barroso said.

Central bank in focus

The independence of Hungary's central bank appears as a key issue in a very difficult economic context for Hungary, which is seeking  'precautionary aid' from the EU and the International Monetary Fund as what the government calls "a kind of insurance policy" against possible future financing difficulties.

Under the new Hungarian laws, the economy minister can participate directly in the meetings of the central bank's Monetary Council, opening it to possible government influence.

The Commission has noted several concerns about the central bank overhaul:

  • The agenda of the central bank meetings needs to be sent to the government in advance, thus impeding its capacity to hold confidential discussions.
  • Changes in the remuneration scheme appear to put pressure on the bank.
  • The governor and the members of the Monetary Council have to take an oath of fidelity to the country and its interests, which the Commission sees as problematic.
  • Rules of dismissal for the governor and the members of the Monetary Council make them prone to political interference.

Informal talks between Budapest, the IMF and the Commission with a view to offering the country a financial bailout broke down in mid-December, as Hungary indicated it was about to change the laws regarding the independence of its central bank.

Cash needed

Hungary urgently needs the money to maintain access to international capital markets this year; it needs to refinance €4.8 billion of debt in the coming months.

Fresh talks between Hungary, the IMF and the Commission in Washington are scheduled to continue this week.

The judiciary is another area of concern for the Commission. Under new Hungarian laws, 274 judges (including those on the Supreme Court) face compulsorily retirement in contradiction of EU rules.

The government also strengthened powers over the data protection authority that contradict the EU Treaties, which require the agencies be independent.

The largest political group in the European Parliament is the centre-right EPP, whose vice president is Orbán. It is not surprising that Orbán has the support of the EPP, at least during the one-month period  Hungary has to reply to the Commission's letters. Two more months after the Hungarians response could elapse before the Commission would decide on its next steps.

"There is no problem as long as it is not proven that Hungary is in breach of EU law," said Jean-Pierre Audy, president of the French delegation of the EPP group. Audy expressed doubts as to whether the EU executive was sufficiently equipped to pursue its investigation.

?The President of the European People’s Party, Wilfried Martens, and the Chairman of the EPP Group in the European Parliament, Joseph Daul emphasised in a statement that the new Constitution had in fact replaced "a Stalinist-type constitution, which dated from 1949".

 

"Hungary was the only country in Central Europe which could not draft a new fundamental law since the fall of communism. The new constitution has incorporated the Charter of Fundamental Rights and also a new, fairer electoral system was established which offers the possibility for minorities to be represented in Parliament," said Martens and Daul.

"At the same time, we are well aware that the European Commission has raised issues on some pieces of legislation and is currently examining the English and French translations to determine if they comply with EU law. On the basis of the European Treaty, the Commission shall oversee the application of EU law, under the control of the Court of Justice of the European Union. Needless to say, the EPP will back the Commission’s recommendations that will ensure Hungary’s full compliance with EU law. In this sense, we are confident that Prime Minister Viktor Orbàn will work closely with the leadership of the Commission to assure that the legislation complies with EU law and, if necessary, to make modifications," Martens and Daul concluded.

Sergei Stanishev, leader of the Party of European Socialists, wrote in an article that "Hungarian democracy is under siege".

"The actions of the conservative Fidesz government under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán have resulted in an unprecedented attack on basic international democratic standards. It is an extraordinary thing to say in the year 2012, but the cold hard fact is that the European Union could now be said to include a non-democratic state as one of its members," Stanishev wrote.

"The European Peoples Party (EPP), which counts Fidesz as a member, should suspend its Hungarian affiliate until internationally acceptable democratic standards are re-established in Hungary. As a parallel measure, the European Parliament should call on the 14 Fidesz MEPs to reject the actions of the Fidesz government and to commit themselves to upholding internationally acceptable democratic standards," the PES leader said.

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe lamented that stronger measures have not been taken by the EU executive. In a statement, the group expresses its concern that the core issue of a breach of fundamental rights is occurring in Hungary and has been ignored so far by European institutions.

"By deciding to begin infringement procedures only on three specific issues that may breach European law, the Commission has missed the broader picture. The case of Hungary is not just about technical breaches of EU legislation, but a wider concern of gradual but persistent erosion of EU values, as spelled out in Article 2  - eg. concerning freedom of expression, of the media and of religion'", said ALDE leader Guy Verhofstadt.

"It is stated in Article 7 that when there 'is a clear risk of a serious breach by a member state of the values referred to in Article 2'  the EU institutions shall take action. If not the EU, then who? If not now, when?"

"This should not be perceived as an attack on Hungary or the Hungarian people but a warning to the Hungarian government, and other governments who may pursue similar changes undermining civil liberties", Verhofstadt said.

The Green/EFA group also called for the initiation of an infringement procedure under Article 7 of the EU Treaty.

In a join statement, the group's co-presidents Rebecca Harms and Daniel Cohn-Bendit said:

"The EU must act swiftly to prevent any further possible moves towards an authoritarian system in Hungary. The assaults of the Orbán government on the freedom of press, the independence of the judiciary, the independence of the national bank and the severe restrictions to political pluralism are a serious and persistent breach of basic European values and rights.

"The Greens call upon the European Parliament to initiate a procedure under Article 7 of the EU Treaty to examine whether Hungary is in breach of EU fundamental values. The first step should be a decision by the leaders of the Parliament's political groups to commission a report on the situation in Hungary as soon as possible. The Greens also want the EP to adopt a resolution calling upon the Hungarian government to change course or face the consequences in January.

"The European People's Party should suspend the membership of the Hungarian government party Fidesz in both the European party and in the parliamentary group of the EPP until respect for European values has been re-established in Hungary."

A new Hungarian constitution entered into force on 1 January, accompanied by legislation which critics say undermine the independence of the central bank, the judiciary and the media - and entrench the position of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's ruling Fidesz party which is affiliated with the European People's Party.

Tens of thousands of people protested in Budapest alleging that the new laws are authoritarian.

Commission President José Manuel Barroso and Orbán exchanged a series of letters at the end of December in which Barroso warned the prime minister not to jeopardise the independence of the Bank of Hungary, and re-iterated concerns about media independence.

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