Parliament divided over Hungary’s democratic record

Hungary MEP.jpg

Members of the European Parliament failed to unite behind a report calling on Budapest to remove a constitutional amendment that critics say restricts democracy and basic rights in Hungary. EURACTIV reports from Strasbourg.


MEPs held a heated debate on Tuesday (2 July) in Strasbourg ahead of a vote on Wednesday over Hungary's democratic standards.

The conservative government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has faced criticism over changes to the country's constitution, including changes to the fourth amendment, which grants broad new powers to the government (see background).

Orbán, who participated in the Strasbourg debate, has sharply attacked MEPs, saying that Europe used double standards and that successful countries were being punished instead of praised.

“We don’t want a Europe where the unity expressed by the two-thirds majority is condemned instead of respected,” he said.

Orbán’s ruling centre-right Fidesz party has used its unprecedented two-thirds parliamentary majority to make laws that critics say limit citizens' freedoms.

These include tough laws on education, homelessness and election funding. MEPs will adopt or reject today a report, written by Portuguese Green MEP Rui Tavares, which calls Orban’s government to scrap those provisions that the Constitutional Court have already declared unconstitutional.

If Hungary fails to comply, MEPs say the Council of Ministers should use Article 7 of the EU Treaty that enables a formal investigation as to whether the EU's fundamental rights have been breached.

Orban criticised the “very insulting report” and said it violated the Treaty as the report also calls for placing Hungary “under guardship”.

Defending the report, Tavares said Europe is a diverse place. "We don’t only respect this diversity, but we cherish it,” said Tavares.

“But what is important is whether these are compatible with our values or not. Europe is not only a club of democracies, we are also a union of democracy.”

MEPs were split left-right on the report, with the liberals (ALDE) saying it did not go far enough.

ALDE President Guy Verhofstadt noted that the Venice Commission, an advisory board of the Council of Europe, confirmed that the fourth amendment of the Hungarian Constitution contradicts EU fundamental laws and standards.

“In the European Parliament we ought to stand firm in protecting the basic principles of the European Union. How much more evidence do we need before recognising that in Hungary there is a risk of serious breach of European fundamental values,” Verhofstadt thundered.

"We should learn from our mistakes of the past. If today we turn a blind eye to a violation of EU fundamental rights in the EU Member States we will find ourselves faced with a political crisis with dire consequences in a long run."

Socialist group leader Hannes Swoboda insisted the report was not an attack on Hungary.

"If we vote for this report, we're voting for the freedom of the people in Hungary," said the Austrian MEP.

He said no other country in Europe had made so many constitutional changes as Hungary under the Orbán government, which came to power in 2010.

Sophie in’t Veld (D66, Netherlands) said: "Fundamental rights don't belong to any nationality, nor do they have a political colour. We should have the courage to tell each other when things are wrong, this is real friendship and a way to develop a real culture of fundamental rights."

Following general election held in April 2010, Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said that voters had carried out a "revolution" by giving his party Fidesz two-thirds of the seats in parliament to rebuild Hungary after a near financial collapse.

Fidesz is affiliated with the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), the largest political group in the European Parliament.

A new Hungarian constitution was adopted in April 2011 without much debate. It was severely criticised by civil liberties groups and the Socialist and Liberal European political families, for being contrary to EU norms and values and for strengthening the Fidesz one-party rule.

However, the EU commissioner responsible for institutional relations, Maroš Šef?ovi?, said in July 2011 that the new Hungarian constitution does not raise issues of compatibility with European Union law. 

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