Hungary responds to suspicions with facts

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

In this opinion piece, Hungarian minister Enik? Gy?ri reacts to criticism by Liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt on Hungary's constitutional changes. EURACTIV has suggested that the debate continues on video.

Enik? Gy?ri is the Hungarian state minister for European Affairs. She responds here to a reaction by liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt to a previous article of hers.

"I am delighted that my call on Hungary’s critics to check their facts has prompted Mr. Verhofstadt to make an effort to be more precise in his criticism. Alas, while he deserves an ’A’ for effort, the substance still deserves nothing better than an ’F’.

Mr. Verhofstadt lambasts Hungary for "prohibiting the Constitutional Court from examining the substantive constitutionality of proposed [constitutional] changes.” But the facts speak for themselves – not only is the principle of assigning the supreme constitutive power exclusively to the elected representatives of the people perfectly democratic on its own, it has also been laid down in numerous previous decisions of the Constitutional Court itself in the past two decades. Furthermore, it is a generally accepted principle, not only in Europe, but in other democracies of the world as well, namely that the Constitutional Court is there to check legislation against the Constitution but not the Constitution.

Equally seriously, Mr. Verhofstadt seems to be trying to tell Hungarians what to make of the institution of marriage and the family. His concern could be valid if the rights of non-marital couples were somehow harmed. But again, the facts point in a different direction: the Fundamental Law simply calls a spade a spade, and a marriage a marriage, and that is all that is in there – and as the Venice Commission noted earlier, the definition of marriage belongs to the state and its constituent legislator.

Mr. Verhofstadt also picks on our attempt to level the political playing field by channeling political commercials from costly private broadcasters to the free public media, on an equal footing for all national parties. It is surprising not only because there are similar restrictions in Member States like France and Italy, but also because the Commission and the Venice Commission are currently in the process of assessing our legislation. Mr. Verhoftsadt may think he knows better, but he shouldn’t dress his opinion as facts at least until the competent bodies established whether any principles have been breached at all.

Finally, Mr. Verhofstadt sees “freedom of expression at risk by […] the principle of not violating another person's dignity or that of the state.” Why, the Fundamental Law does not even refer to the state at all in this context, and Mr. Verhofstadt would have known better, if he had cared to read the translation of the Fundamental Law the government sent to the leaders of all political groups in the EP. What is in the Fundamental Law is the respect for human dignity, the dignity of the nation and the dignity of ethnic, religious and national minorities. It is difficult to see what issue Mr. Verhoftsadt could take with this provision, given that already the Venice Commission noted approvingly that the "EU Charter [also] places the individual and the individual dignity at its heart” and that the Constitutional Court in its former decisions also stated that "human dignity, which is under constitutional protection, may put a limit on the freedom of expression.” If that wouldn’t be enough, this provision has been hailed by various minority groups, including one of the largest Hungarian Jewish congregations, calling it a historic step forward that sets an example for others to follow. And I am personally very proud of it because it allowed the government recently to have a demonstration of neo-Nazi bikers banned (under the horrifying slogan “Give gas”) on the day of the Hungarian March of Life commemorating the victims of the Holocaust.

Most of the rest of Mr. Verhoftsadt’s laments are based on similarly flimsy evidence, hearsay and misunderstandings. Regrettably, this approach leads to a degradation of the political discourse and to our citizens becoming disenchanted with the European project. I, on the other hand, believe that the way to resolve disagreements and political debates is through constructive dialogue on the basis of, inter alia, legal analysis. For this is a particular feature of the European Union: instead of all-out war, the political battle is circumscribed by the legal process. I have every reason to believe that the responsible European institutions will act in that spirit. In the meantime, if anyone disregards or even willfully misinterprets the facts, we cannot be expected to remain silent and let unfounded allegations go unanswered."

That explains my attempt to engage Mr. Verhofstadt in a rational, almost even technical discussion about the situation in Hungary. He considers it a “heavy-handed attempt […] to stamp out criticism” which “only confirm rather than alleviate” his suspicions. That is regrettable. If facts cannot alleviate Mr. Verhoftsadt’s suspicions, I don’t know what could."

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