MEPs shut out of Hungary Council hearing as rule of law situation worsens

Representatives of three Presidencies, all in charge of the Hungarian dossier: Luminita Odobescu, Permanent Representative of Romania to the EU; Marja Rislakki, Permanent Representative of Finland to the EU, Irena Andrassy, Permanent Representative of Croatia to the EU. [Council newsroom]

MEPs are reeling after being shut out of a Council hearing under the Article 7 procedure against Hungary for systemic breaches to the rule of law, as the situation in the country further deteriorates.

The Council will hold a hearing on Article 7 proceedings against Hungary on 10 December, Finnish Council presidency representative told the European Parliament’s (EP) committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs.

Several MEPs expressed their disappointment that Parliament representatives will not attend the hearing, despite the EP’s request to participate. The decision to continue proceedings over determining whether Hungary is in serious breach of the EU’s core values comes amid reports of new rules undermining judicial independence.

The Council held its first general hearing on 16 September, almost a year after the Parliament triggered Article 7 proceedings against Hungary.

EU grills Hungary over rule of law concerns

EU affairs ministers grilled Hungary on Monday (16 September) over Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s tightening of restrictions around free media, judges, academics, minorities and rights groups, which the bloc worries weakens democracy in the ex-communist country.

“This time the presidency is planning to propose a thematic hearing,” Marja Rislakki, Finland’s representative to the EU told MEPs on Thursday evening (21 November). EU ambassadors will select a number of key topics for the hearing in December.

Romanian shadow-rapporteur Ramona Strugariu (Renew Europe) said she was unconvinced by the Council’s arguments “that the EP’s participation is not explicitly foreseen neither by the treaty nor by the rules and procedures”.

“There are after all precedents for the EU institutions and bodies like the European Central Bank being allowed to take part in the proceedings in the Council,” she added.

“On this file, as on others, but particularly this one, there is no mutual sincere cooperation”  between the European institutions, said Green MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield. “For years the situation has continued to deteriorate on a number of issues” while Hungary continues to block other matters in the EU, argued the parliamentarian, who is leading on the file.

Hungary is a staunch opponent of any move that would link EU Cohesion funds with respect for the rule of law. The country’s Justice minister has argued that the concept has no set of universally applicable objective criteria and that the Commission’s proposal to “introduce a regular rule of law review runs completely contrary to the Treaties.”

At the beginning of this month Viktor Orbán’s FIDESZ scrapped the idea of setting up the government-controlled and highly criticised system of administrative courts to oversee sensitive public administration cases.

Chaos as Hungarian MPs pass ‘slave law’ and government-controlled court

Rare scenes of chaos gripped the Hungarian parliament Wednesday (12 December) as it passed a controversial judicial reform, as well as labour legislation that critics call a “slave law”.

On 4 November, the governing party, which has a super majority in Hungary’s Parliament, elected Tünde Handó to the Constitutional Court. She previously served as the President of the National Judicial Office (NJO), responsible for the administration of the judicial system.

Handó has been at the centre of domestic and international criticism regarding the 2011-2012 judicial reforms, which centralised Hungary’s judicial administration and vested the NJO President with key powers, including the appointment of court executives and the training of judges.

“Ms Handó became the face of the ‘constitutional crisis‘,” a prominent rights group, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) told EURACTIV. “The governing majority is aiming at conveying the message that the person being in the centre of this crisis was removed, and so the crisis is solved.”

But terminating the mandate of Handó prematurely and electing her to the Constitutional Court was reportedly a “smoke screen” for amendments affecting the judiciary.

“Nobody really expected any major legislative steps at this point,” HHC explains.  “So it was indeed an ideal moment to try to ‘smuggle in’ new rules undermining judicial independence in a 200-page long omnibus bill.”

“The bill fails to address any of the structural deficiencies” that created the ‘constitutional crisis,’ claims the NGO. The fact that the proposed amendments were submitted “without any prior consultation with the general or the professional public — although this would have been mandatory by law — shows a complete disregard for the opinion of professional stakeholders and the civil society.”

These steps are “quite cynical if we consider that the independence of the judiciary is a central issue in the ongoing Article 7 procedure launched against Hungary,” said the human rights watchdog.

Disciplinary proceedings against criminal judge Csaba Vasvári were initiated for referring questions to the Court of Justice of the European Union, the NGO reported previously.

The “procedure against Mr Vasvári was launched by an interim court president appointed by Ms Handó single-handedly” thanks to a legal loophole that allowed Handó to annul public calls for judicial positions and enabled her to appoint an interim court president indefinitely, pointed out the HHC.

If adopted, the proposed law “will further demolish the independence of the judiciary – in a covert and technical way maybe, but it will still do so,” said the HHC.

“The aim of the amendments is for the politically sensitive cases to be decided by the Constitutional Court, which is under government influence,” agrees Amnesty International Hungary’s legal expert, Áron Demeter. “In other words, the aim of the government has not changed, it just found new tools to reach it.”

“The new amendments strengthen the constraints on the court, they may have a chilling effect on the legal reasoning and decision-making of judges” the expert told EURACTIV.

“From now on, if judges do not decide according to the new rules they may face negative consequences during aptitude assessments or — as it happened in Vasvári’s case — disciplinary proceedings may be launched against them,” said Demeter.

“There was a discussion on the new developments, and of course those new developments could be discussed” during the Council hearing on 10 December, concluded Finland’s representative during her debrief to the Parliament.

Rule of law has been a priority for Finland’s EU Presidency. Croatia, which will assume the rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU in January, may not have the willingness to pursue the proceedings against Hungary, MEP Delbos-Corfield told journalists on 5 November.

Hungary is the only “partly free” country in the European Union according to the democracy index compiled by the US Freedom House NGO.

[Edited by Georgi Gotev and Benjamin Fox]

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