Verhofstadt calls for ‘Haider’ sanctions against Hungary

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Europe’s socialist and liberal party leaders have hit out at Hungary’s controversial new constitution, demanding that the country and its ruling Fidesz party be ostracised.

France has so far been the only EU country to raise concerns about the constitutional changes that took effect on 1 January. The other 26 nations and the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) – to which Fidesz belongs – maintain a ‘deafening silence’ on the issue.

Guy Verhofstadt, president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), called for sanctions against Hungary like those used against Austria's rightist leader Jörg Haider in 2000 (see background). Under the Lisbon Treaty, the proposed sanctions could in fact be even tougher.

“The treaties foresee a procedure to deal with such situations," Verhofstadt said. "Unfortunately, the time has come to apply it to protect democracy and fundamental rights in Hungary and in the EU today, and avoid setting a dangerous precedent as well as a bad example for aspirant countries wishing to join the Union.”

In the Austrian case, the EU governments imposed sanctions under rules that allow them to act in case of risk of human rights violations, rather than their actual occurrence.

Serious human rights breaches by a member state can result in a suspension or loss of voting rights in the Council under Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty.

Critics say the constitutional changes and other laws enacted under Orbán's 2-year-old government weaken the independence of the judiciary, news media and the central bank.

Socialists also seek action

The party of European Socialists (PES) called on the EPP – which has the controlling bloc in the European Parliament – to suspend Fidesz.

“The silence on the situation from the European Peoples Party, who count Fidesz as a full member, is becoming deafening,” said PES General Secretary Philip Cordery. 

He said Fidesz should be suspended from its ranks “until such time as Hungarian democratic institutions regain their independence and their integrity”.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is a vice president of the EPP and the party’s response to the situation is keenly anticipated.

EPP to issue statement later this week

A spokesman for the EPP refused to comment to EURACTIV about either the position of Fidesz or Orbán within the party. He said that the EPP was still considering the text of Hungary’s new constitution. A statement would be delivered before the end of the week by EPP President Wilfried Maartens, the spokesman said.

Meanwhile, France is the only member state to have made a public statement on the issue. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé told national television on Tuesday (3 January) that “the situation is problematic in Hungary”.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is of Hungarian origin.

Juppé said that France had asked the European Commission to take the necessary steps to ensure that fundamental principles and common values of the European Union be respected everywhere, Hungary included.

Hungary’s Foreign Ministry hit back the same day, saying: “Juppé’s comment is at odds with the traditional friendship between the two countries.”

European Commissioner for Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes addressed the Hungarian situation in a blog post. She said that "concerns continue" in the Commission regarding Hungary's recent reforms and urged the authorities to respect media pluralism, particularly in radio.

Kroes argued the expansion of internet had empowered citizens to circumvent government censorship saying, "however worrying the general media environment may be in Hungary, the opportunities of Hungarians to express themselves and access the opinions of others has grown immeasurably because 98% of Hungarians now have access to broadband internet."

A Hungarian expatriate of Brussels told EURACTIV that “people are scared to associate their name or face to the protests because they fear they could be monitored by the police”. “People have enough financial problems, they don’t want more trouble, they are afraid to speak out publicly and they would especially not appear on television out of this fear,” the same source said.

“There would not be so many demonstrations every day for the past weeks now if people were scared to speak out," Amnesty International's Budapest office ?said in a statement to EURACTIV, calling the accusations of fear an "exaggeration". The statement went on to say there is pressure on the government from the public and the international media to change some of the laws.

 

EURACTIV contacted the office of American-Hungarian billionaire George Soros, who has a long track record in fighting for democracy in Eastern Europe. His office said he was not available for an interview.

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.

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 urged for the lifting of sanctions.

  • Amnesty International in Hungary:Website

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