Harry van Bommel: EU must monitor rule of law in the member states

31 October 2014

Harry van Bommel: EU must monitor rule of law in the member states

The US has issued stern criticisms of Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban as a result of the authoritarian tendencies he exhibits, restrictions on the free press, and the demonization of civil society. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland even accuses Hungary of “sleep(ing) under your Nato Article 5 blanket at night while pushing ‘illiberal democracy’ by day.” This American criticism is absolutely justified and should make the European Union think. The EU should go so far as to develop instruments to subject member states to tests regarding core values and where necessary to call them to account, argues Harry van Bommel.

Under the Victor Orban regime and the conservative Fidesz party, Hungary has slid towards an authoritarian state which shows no respect for the principles of the democratic rule of law and puts human rights at risk. In the last four years Orban has seriously restricted press freedom by means of a controversial media law, diluted the powers of the Constitutional Court so that it may no longer subject the content of laws to a test of Constitutionality, and inserted placemen into all sorts of important positions in Hungarian society. In this way Orban increasingly suppresses any possibility of monitoring and counterweight from the international order, and grabs to himself ever more power, supported in all of this moreover by the extreme right party Jobbik. If Hungary were just now applying to become an EU member, then the Copenhagen Criteria would require them first of all to do a great deal of homework.

In recent times Hungary has again allowed huge gaps to appear in the area of democratic freedoms. Last month it was revealed that the Hungarian police had turned over the offices of an environmental organisation and an organisation which gives support to the development of democratic rights in Hungary. These organisations receive financial support from Norway from a fund which forms part of a partnership between Norway and the EU. Now it emerges that the EU funds have been divided by the government amongst organisations faithful to their line. Such practices remind one of the period before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The fact that Prime Minister Orban seems to hanker for those times was shown at the end of July when he announced plans to make Hungary into an ‘illiberal’ state, pointing to other repressive states such as Russia and China. Hungary’s critical media spoke scornfully of his ‘end of liberal democracy’ speech. Because in 2014 Orban managed to retain his two-thirds majority in Parliament, he can carry through his constitutional amendments without the support of other parties. We can therefore only conclude that in the years to come he will be turning words into deeds. .

This sawing off the legs of Hungarian democracy cannot be allowed to continue. In the first place it is of course up to Hungarian citizens themselves to call their government to account, but recent worrying reports demonstrate once more how difficult Orban is making this. The EU must for that reason carpet him. The Copenhagen Criteria – the conditions for EU membership – such as the maintaining of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, and human rights, apply after all to all member states, and tests to determine whether the Copenhagen Criteria are being met should continue. When a state falls into undemocratic ways, the EU has a duty to call it to account. If EU funds are misused to benefit political friends then serious consideration must be given to suspending their distribution.

To prevent Hungarian conditions arising in other member states there ought I would argue to be periodic checks on the rule of law and the fulfilment of the EU’s fundamental values. Given recent developments the conditions attached to access to and use of European funds must be re-examined. In this the EU could cooperate with the Council of Europe, the body which attempts to defend human rights in Europe. Membership of the EU is not after all – and in our view should not be – free of obligations

This article first appeared, in the original Dutch, on Joop.nl.


You are here