Hungary’s new constitution has freedom at its heart

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

Hungary's new constitution has freedom at its heart and strengthens the country's commitment to individual liberty, democracy and the rule of law in full conformity with European tradition, argues Hungarian MEP György Schöpflin (European People's Party), a member of his country's ruling Fidesz party, in an exclusive op-ed for EURACTIV.

The following contribution was sent exclusively to EURACTIV by Hungarian MEP György Schöpflin (European People's Party), a member of his country's ruling Fidesz party.

"A lot has been said about the new Hungarian constitution, which was signed into law last week. Most people have engaged in a fair-minded discussion about what a country's fundamental law should and should not do. Some of the ideas put forward for inclusion in Hungary's constitution have been unusual, so understandably some strong views have been expressed.

Unfortunately, other commentators have sought to wilfully misrepresent the facts for their own political ends. This is to be expected, but it also calls for a firm restatement of the facts.

A common criticism is that the Hungarian constitution marks a departure from shared European values and standards of liberal democracy. A reading of the text belies this view.

The new constitution has freedom at its heart. It strengthens Hungary's commitment to individual liberty, democracy and the rule of law. It enshrines in full the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. It locks in a classic separation of powers between Hungary's legislature, executive and judiciary. Taken together, the measures conform fully with European tradition.

Some have questioned the need to change the constitution at all given the wide-ranging changes made since 1989. Far-reaching changes have been made since the end of communism but crucially, the old structure remained in place.

Even from a narrow legal perspective the document was in dire need of an overhaul. During the last 20 years, the constitution had to be revised by the Constitutional Court on 133 occasions. The new document incorporates these changes and removes other anomalies and areas of overlap.

Others have questioned the government's mandate for revising the constitution.  They point out that Fidesz won only 50% of the popular vote in April 2010 and only achieved two-thirds of the parliamentary seats because of peculiarities in the voting system.  

This too is disingenuous. To put the result in perspective, the same result under the UK electoral system would secure 98% of the seats for the winner. It is not unreasonable to describe the result as a revolution at the ballot box, and one that legitimises an overhaul of the constitution.

More worrying are persistent attempts to misrepresent what the election result actually meant. Four out of five Hungarians voted against the socialists. Critics continue to misrepresent the public's views on various policy issues to give the impression of government acting against the public's wishes. 

The constitution is a prime example. Opinion polling throughout the consultation period has consistently shown majority public support. Reading the media coverage, one would be forgiven for missing this.

More than anything else, the election result represented a rejection of the corruption and abuses of power of the previous administration. The constitution is just one measure this government is introducing to prevent similar deceptions being perpetrated on the public again.

The previous socialist administration was able to run the State with such far-reaching corruption precisely because too much of the old communist system had been salvaged. 

In 1989, the communist party was largely rebranded as the Hungarian socialist party.  There was no transformation. Party members kept their money, buildings, assets, networks and connections to the secret services. 

It was this that voters finally wanted rid of; and it could only be achieved by a caesura, a radical shift. Fidesz was given a mandate to carry this out.

There have also been questions about the absence of a referendum and the legitimacy of the public consultation process. The idea was hardly foisted on the public. Debate about a new constitution has been going on for over 20 years. It has been a goal of each and every Hungarian government since the fall of communism. The 1989 version was only ever a provisional document.

The new constitution was a key pledge in the government's election campaign. Formal consultation then got underway in June 2010, shortly after the election. The opposition parties, expert and civil society groups were invited to take part. Most did. And so did the opposition until they pulled out of the parliamentary stages, a cynical move and a gross negation of responsibility to their voters.

The charge sheet continues. References to Hungary's past, Christianity and the Holy Crown are described as cringe-worthy and, worse, discriminatory. They are simply an acknowledgment of the importance that Christianity has played in Hungary's history. Such references are not unconventional in European constitutions and they place no limitation on people's freedom to practice other faiths. 

The constitution is also said to discriminate on grounds of sexuality. Like other European constitutions, it states that marriage is possible only between a man and a woman. However, same-sex couples are entitled to the same legal protections as heterosexual couples through registered partnerships.

The majority won by the government at the last election has given it the mandate to reform Hungary's discredited system of social and economic governance, including its woefully outdated constitution. 

It is right that opposition voices should put forward alternative visions, but they should avoid misrepresenting the facts."

György Schöpflin MEP was elected as a Hungarian member of the European Parliament (Fidesz) in 2004 and re-elected in 2009. He serves as a full member of the Committee on Constitutional Affairs (AFCO) and as substitute on the Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET). 

He was formerly Jean Monnet Professor of Politics at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. He is also currently teaching at the University of Bologna's Forlì Centre. 

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