Commission shies away from warning Orbán over death penalty

The Visegrad countries can lead the Western Balkans through the process of state-building and EU accession. [EPP/Flickr]

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán raised the possibility that death penalty be reintroduced in his country. Commission spokespersons made their best to avoid answering questions what would be the consequences for the country’s EU membership status if such a measure is adopted.

Orbán told reporters in the south-western city of Pecs yesterday (28 April) that existing penalties for serious crimes such as murder were ‘too soft’ and that something needed to be done to remedy the problem.

“The death penalty question should be put on the agenda in Hungary,” Orbán said, as quoted by agencies. He added that it was necessary “to make clear to criminals that Hungary will stop at nothing when it comes to protecting its citizens”.

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He was speaking a week after the stabbing to death of a female clerk in the nearby town of Kaposvar, which made headlines across the country.

Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party commands a majority which has been able to pass many laws which have raised eyebrows in the Commission and more broadly, in the international community.

Asked to comment, a Commission spokesperson quoted Home Affairs and Citizenship Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, who had told the European Parliament in Strasbourg earlier today that “for the EU, death penalty is never the answer”.

“The provision of banning the death penalty is one of the pillars of the EU fundamental rights standards and one of the key provisions of the Charter of Fundamental starts which explicitly states that no-one should be condemned to death penalty or executed in the EU,” spokesperson Christian Wigand said.

Journalists asked what would be the consequences if Hungary, or any other EU country for that matter, would reintroduce the death penalty. In historic terms, 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 (see background).

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Wigand said that the question referred to a “speculation”, but confirmed that the abolition of the death penalty is a condition EU candidate countries are required to meet before their accession.

Asked what Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s position on the issue was, failed to respond.

In the meantime, it has become known that Parliament President Martin Schulz has had a telephone conversation with Orbán over the issue. Schulz was the leading candidate of the Socialists and Democrats for the European elections, while Orbán is from Juncker’s political family, the European Peoples Party (EPP).

The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks stated that the idea of reintroducing the death penalty which has been raised by Prime Minister Orban is incompatible with Hungary’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and runs contrary to the values that Europe stands for.

Muižnieks also reacted a planned “national consultation on immigration and terrorism” , which he called “an additional manifestation of the Hungarian Government’s negative stance on human rights”.

“Public consultations are certainly an important feature of a democratic society. However, the content of the consultation launched in Hungary is unacceptable. It feeds intolerance against migrants, who are portrayed as a danger to Hungarian society”, Muižnieks stated.

ALDE Leader Guy Verhofstadt calls on the European People's Party not to remain silent on yet another undemocratic move by the leader of Fidesz.

"The Orbán Government would not be accepted by the European Union if it were to apply for membership now. The statements by Orbán go against the fundamental values that Europe represents. If the European People's Party take their own manifesto seriously, it is high time that the leadership of the EPP stands up to Orbán."

ALDE Vice President Sophie in ´t Veld (D66, Netherlands) added: "The EPP leader Weber tries to dismiss this as "domestic politics", but these issues go right to the heart of European integration: upholding our shared values. How can EPP continue to defend Orbán, and have any credibility on moral issues at the same time?"

Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans wrote the following in his Facebook page:

“The Hungarian PM Orban launched a debate on the reintroduction of the death penalty and his government formulated questions for a public consultation on migration. I would like to share my comments with you.

The abolishment of the death penalty was a milestone in the development of fundamental rights in Europe and has given our continent the moral authority to campaign worldwide against capital punishment. Article 2 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights prohibits any person from being condemned to death, or executed. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled since 1989 that the exposure to the pervasive and growing fear of execution - the so called “death row phenomenon” – was in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court also held in 2005 that capital punishment in peacetime had come to be regarded as an unacceptable form of punishment which was no longer permissible under Article 2 of the Convention. In 2010, the Court considered that the death penalty involved a deliberate and premeditated destruction of a human being by the state authorities. There is thus no doubt that the reintroduction of capital punishment would be contrary to the EU's fundamental values.

Public consultation can be an important tool for governments and other public authorities to develop policies that can count on support of the population. In this context, it is entirely up to the Hungarian authorities if they want to consult the people on migration. But a public consultation based on bias, on leading and even misleading questions, on prejudice about immigrants can hardly be considered a fair and objective basis for designing sound policies. Framing immigration in the context of terrorism, depicting migrants as a threat to jobs and the livelihood of people, is malicious and simply wrong - it will only feed misconceptions and prejudice. It will create and fuel negative attitudes towards minorities and it will stimulate confrontation between different groups in society. It is wilfully misleading to present migrants only as a burden to our economies and societies, without any mention of their contribution. When we address the many challenges posed by migration today, we must look at the issue in a frank, open and balanced way. We should not close our eyes to the sometimes serious challenges posed by migration in our societies. But in doing so, we should never lose sight of our fundamental values and of the need to preserve a pluralist and diverse society, based on mutual respect and equal treatment of every individual.”

The EU has only once 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 extremist 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 sought for the sanctions to be lifted.

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