Hungarian leaders are playing ‘cat and mouse’ with the EU

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

The gradual erosion in Hungary of the fundamental checks and balances of a democratic society is not going unnoticed, writes Guy Verhofstadt.

Guy Verhofstadt is a Belgian MEP and president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament. This commentary was submitted to EURACTIV as a response to Enik? Gy?ri, the Hungarian state minister for European Affairs, who recently wrote that Hungary’s critics should “check their facts".

“Enikö Györgi is clearly part of an orchestrated PR mission to counter some of the public criticism levelled against Hungary since it pushed ahead with its controversial new Constitution and subsequent amendments, thanks to the two-thirds 'super majority' the Orbán government currently enjoys in the Hungarian Parliament.

Absolute majorities are rarely a good basis for re-writing fundamental laws since they risk, like this one, being self-serving and neglecting the need for a broad, cross-party consensus.

Györgi and fellow Fidesz defenders may prefer to belittle international critics and play down our concerns but the truth of the matter is that our concerns are not based on what we read in the newspapers but on well-documented and researched evidence provided by established and respected bodies such as the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, the European Commission and Court of Justice, Hungarian NGOs as well as Hungary's own Constitutional Court.

The Fourth Amendment, adopted on 11 March, undermines the rule of law in Hungary by continuing the bad practice of inserting provisions into the Fundamental Law which do not belong there and weaken human right's protection and international standards as well as undermine the independent scrutiny of the Constitutional Court.

For a start the Fourth Amendment declares void the jurisprudence of the Constitutional Court prior to the adoption of the new Fundamental Law, thus effectively abolishing important established principles of law. Furthermore it prohibits the Constitutional Court from examining the substantive constitutionality of proposed changes which can be rammed through Parliament with little or no consultation. It also empowers the newly established President of the National Judicial Office (appointed by Parliament) to transfer (reassign) cases – a potential violation of the right to a fair trial.

The new amendment also narrows the notion of family to marriage and parent-child relations and transfers the right to approve the establishment of churches from the (neutral) courts to the (partisan) parliament, breaching the principle of separation of state and church and of Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits discrimination.

The Fourth Amendment restricts political campaigning by limiting advertising to public (and not commercial) media outlets. Even the freedom of expression is at risk by enshrining, in the Fundamental Law, the principle of not violating another person's dignity or that of the state, thus allowing the legislator to limit free speech by allusion to human dignity.

Many more concerns have been raised but space does not permit me to detail them here. Suffice to say that there is sufficient risk of widespread breach of fundamental rights to justify a closer look. Article 7.1 of the EU Treaties allows us to identify this risk of a breach of fundamental values outlined in Article 2 and give a Member State the opportunity to rectify misgivings before sanctions are considered. This is not a 'nuclear option' but a useful early warning that should be applied to all those countries where genuine concerns are raised.

The gradual erosion in Hungary of the fundamental checks and balances of a democratic society is not going unnoticed. The cat-and-mouse game being played by the current government with the EU institutions is degrading of both.

As the leader of the Liberal Group in the European Parliament, I will continue to stand up for the respect of fundamental rights wherever they may be under threat, whether n Hungary or anywhere else. The heavy-handed attempts by Hungarian government ministers and supporters to stamp out criticism only confirm rather than alleviate my suspicions.”

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