EU must hold Hungary to its commitments

27 April 2013

EU must hold Hungary to its commitments

The European Union says that it wants to become a community of values, yet Hungary, a member states, isn’t taking the rule of law at all seriously, in the opinion of SP Member of Parliament Harry van Bommel.

Since the arrival in office of centre-right Prime Minister Victor Orbán, increasing numbers of young Hungarians are leaving the country. Not only the economic crisis but also Orbán’s authoritarian policies are behind this, and understandably the question is being posed as to whether action should be taken. If the European Union really does aspire to be a community of values, it should be looking more critically at developments in Hungary while at the same time adopting a social path out of the economic crisis.

After capturing a two-thirds majority in Parliament, Orbán’s Fidesz party began the reorganisation of Hungary: the Constitutional Court may no longer subject laws to test to see whether they are in keeping with the Constitution; political campaigning will be restricted, as will freedom of expression; and numerous senior civil servants have been replaced by Fidesz members. Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland has warned that ‘the fundamental principle of checks and balances in a democracy’ is in danger.

It is in the first instance for the Hungarian people to reprove their own government, and a short while ago they took to the streets en masse to protest against these measures. The European Union does, however, also bear a responsibility: not for nothing is it demanded of applicant states that they have stable institutions which respect democracy, the rule of law, and human rights and that they guarantee the rights of minorities. All of this is necessary to the sound functioning of the European Union. Citizens and companies must be able throughout the EU to count on the rule of law, and on protection against corruption and arbitrary executive power, or their rights will not be effective. New member states also have a say in legislation which applies throughout the EU. Countries which are less attached to democracy and the rule of law cannot be expected to contribute to their strengthening.

After accession there are, however, few means in which member states can be held to their commitments regarding the responsibilities of membership. That’s why the SP has been calling for several years for a periodic test of the quality of each member state’s commitment to the rule of law and its fulfilment of the fundamental values of the EU. This has now come a step nearer since the Netherlands and other member states last month asked the European Commission to bring forward proposals to this effect. The Hungarian example demonstrates the need for such a system.

Not every Hungarian measure which has come under criticism is, however, strictly speaking in conflict with EU legislation. The Netherlands also lacks judicial constitutional review of laws. A ban on party political advertising on commercial channels can be justified by reference to the desire to give less wealthy parties a fair chance. The much criticised and clearly reprehensible restrictions on the rights of gays and lesbians do not affect the fact that there are no EU agreements that guarantee complete equality of treatment. So it will also prove difficult for the European Commission in its current investigation to note precise violations of such agreements, let alone to ensure that justifiable demands for adjustments will lead to an immediate restoration of democratic checks and balances in Hungary.

It is also therefore necessary that the other member states do not issue only a legal judgement but also a political assessment of the situation in Hungary and that they state what it is that they expect from the country, but in this they must proceed with care. Secretary General Jagland was quite correct when he said, earlier in the year, that critics sometimes exaggerate and make accusations which aren’t based on normal standards within Europe but rather employ specific standards for Hungary. Arbitrary condemnation remains a danger, so it’s also good that the EU continues to work closely on this with the Council of Europe, an institution with more authority in relation to the assessment of human rights in a country and which is, moreover, entirely separate from the EU.

The growing unrest regarding the European Union also plays a certain role. This disquiet expresses itself not only in the increasingly nationalist and conservative character of the originally liberal Fideszj. Everywhere in the EU new parties are appearing which are more and more likely to reject European values. The European approach to the financial and economic crisis puts wind in the sails of such parties because the result is massive insecurity and rocketing unemployment. The European community of values is thus under pressure not only in Hungary but throughout the EU. A social path out of the crisis is more necessary than ever before.

This article first appeared on 27th April 2013, in the original Dutch, in the Dutch regional newspaper Het Friesch Dagblad

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