New Hungarian constitution slithers through EU hearing


Feeble disapproval was voiced at a presentation of Hungary's draft new constitution in the European Parliament yesterday (29 March), with the organisers – from Hungary's ruling centre-right parties – benefiting from the absence of socialist MEPs.

With the centre-left Socialist & Democrats group holding an internal meeting in Athens and no Hungarian liberals present in the European Parliament since the last EU elections, the new Hungarian constitution met less criticism from MEPs than had generally been anticipated.

Fidesz MEP József Szájer, vice-chair of the European People's Party and chairman of a group of three parliamentarians drafting the new Hungarian constitution, chaired the hearing by giving the floor mostly to supporters of the text.

The contents of a national constitution are in no way a competence of the European Parliament, but as MEP Cecilia Wikström (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe; Sweden) said, this was a matter of common values which needed to be addressed by the EU assembly.

MEP Lajos Bokros, the only Hungarian MEP among critics of the proposed constitution, complained that Szájer had for a long time pretended not to see him asking for the floor.

Bokros, who is from the Hungarian party Magyar Demokrata Fórum, affiliated to the ECR (European Conservatives and Reformists) group, did indeed raise his hand for quite a long time in the half-empty meeting room before being briefly allowed to speak.

Bokros claimed that László Sólyom, the first president of the Constitutional Court and a former president of Hungary, Péter Paczolay, current president of the Constitutional Court, András Baka, president of the Supreme Court, János Kis, a former president of the Hungarian liberals, and Ern? Kállai, ombudsman for national ethnic minority rights, had all criticised the draft constitution for seriously violating the rule of law and democracy in Hungary.

The state is being re-organised, while checks and balances are being dismantled, Bokros claimed.

But the boldest attack came from MEP Baroness Sarah Ludford (ALDE; UK), who challenged the draft constitution on a range of issues.

Ludford said that as a liberal she saw that "this is not a liberal constitution". She voiced concern over what she called "irredentist" and "very dangerous" claims in the draft constitution to protect Hungarians abroad.

She also said that the definition of the family as a union between a man and a woman appeared not to represent modern life, while a vow to protect the foetus amounted to a ban on abortion. Ludford also pointed out that in the text concerning discrimination, the draft constitution had omitted the category of sexual discrimination.

Baroness Ludford also insisted that rights envisaged in the draft for parents to cast votes in elections on behalf of their under-age children were "seriously contentious," also from the perspective of EU elections.

Judging from the responses of József Szájer and fellow Fidesz MEP György Schöpflin, the most important news is that this particular novelty had met with resistance within the Hungary's Fidesz/KNDP parliamentary majority and had been dropped.

On alleged "irredentism", Szájer insisted that the proposed text was no different from the current constitution. Regarding the definition of family, he said it was taken from a recent Constitutional Court decision. On the rights of the foetus, he said the text did not mean the prohibition of abortion, but was creating "an obligation of the state to create institutions".

Although Fidesz is European People's Party-affiliated, Elmar Brok, a prominent German MEP from the EPP group, also voiced criticism regarding the limited competences of the Constitutional Court envisaged in the draft constitution. Hungary recently passed retroactive tax laws which have prejudiced against German companies operating in the country.

It also emerged from the discussion that the Council of Europe's Venice Commission, a specialised independent body set up to provide urgent constitutional assistance to Central and Eastern Europe, would deliver an opinion on the draft constitution – probably after its adoption.

The liberal ALDE group has sent written question to the EU Council, the institution where the 27 member countries meet chaired by Herman Van Rompuy, asking among other things whether the Council believes that the draft constitution creates a risk of discrimination on the basis of nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion or beliefs, and as such represents a violation of the principle of equal treatment.

The ALDE group also asks whether the Council will call on the Hungarian authorities to await the Venice Commission's opinion and follow its recommendations before adopting the draft constitution.

The Hungarian NGO Tasz, the acronym standing for "the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union", has published a list of the translation mistakes and omissions in the English version of the proposed new Hungarian constitution.

Three Hungarian NGOs, namely Tasz, the Eotvos Karoly Institute and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee have sent an open letter to the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe and the leaders of European Parliament groups, to draw their attention to the fallacious translation of the draft Constitution. According to Tasz webiste, the three NGOs have informed them about their analysis of the Constitution framing process and "some dangerous points of the draft".

The new Hungarian constitution will be adopted in April, a week before Easter, its main author, centre-right MEP József Szájer – who wrote part of it on his iPad – recently announced.

The country's opposition claims the procedure for adopting the new constitution is illegitimate and the controversy could impact upon the Hungarian EU Presidency.

On 21 March, the Hungarian parliament has started a debate on Hungary's new draft constitution. The speaker of the house, László Kövér, called the current constitution "void". The opposition claims that the Hungarian government has started a "constitutional coup".

Only about a quarter of the MPs bothered to participate in the debate on the constitutional draft.

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