• Hungary's prime minister defends the country's constitution (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Hungary's climbdown not good enough for MEPs

19.01.12 @ 08:57

  1. By Nikolaj Nielsen
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BRUSSELS - Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban defended his country's new constitution before the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday (18 January), saying it is based on fundamental values of democracy and freedom.

His unscheduled trip to the EU assembly came after the European Commission launched legal action against Hungary due to concerns the new charter undermines the independence of its central bank, the MNB, and its judiciary, among other issues.

"The problems at hand can be swiftly resolved and remedied," Orban said.

He said he is happy to fall in line with commission demands to take back measures on control of the MNB and on early retirement of judges.

But he stood by a new provision forcing MNB top officials - the governor and the members of the monetary council - to take an oath of fidelity to the country and its interests.

The commission objects to the oath because the governor of the MNB is also a member of the general council of the European Central Bank - a 'neutral' pan-EU body.

Orban said the country's old constitution failed to protect private property, the environment and the rights of minorities. "The new constitution remedies all this in a satisfactory way," he argued.

Orban - who in his youth stood up against Soviet oppression - asked the European Union to support the country's historic transition, depicting his recent reforms as an attempt to fully shake off its Communist legacy.

"We have a budget in line with EU stability. We banned all paramilitary organisations and we have protections for all minorities. We will always defend minorities," he said.

Deaf ears

Orban's speech failed to appease most MEPs in a debate which dragged on into the early evening.

Liberal group leader Guy Verhofstadt and Green group leader Daniel Cohn Bendit both called on the EU to invoke Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, which can be used to suspend a member state's voting rights in the EU Council if there is a "serious and persistent breach" of EU principles.

"To say that there is no problem in Hungary is astonishing," Verhofstadt said in response to Orban's remarks. The Liberal leader added that the Hungarian government is undermining the "spirit" of EU values.

Cohn-Bendit said: "The EU is not just a welcome mat for you to wipe your feet on. It is a house we build together."

He took issue with Orban's claim that the European left is on the attack against him. "Is Merkel, Juppe and Hillary Clinton now part of the European left?" the French politician asked, referring, respectively, to Germany's centre-right leader, France's centre-right foreign minister and the US secretary of state, all of whom criticised Hungary in recent days.

For his part, the newly-elected Austrian leader of the Socialist group, Hannes Swoboda said Orban is destroying the very freedoms that his country fought for.

The French leader of the centre-right EPP group - to which Orban's Fidesz party belongs - noted that his colleague was elected with a mandate to "cut ties with all the political trends from the past and reform the country." He added, however: "The only way to establish whether these doubts are justified is to rely on the judgement of the European Commission. And my group agrees entirely with this judgement."

Media laws under new scrutiny

EU commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso told MEPs that he also has problems with Hungary's new media laws, amid a recent outcry by NGOs that Orban is trying to silence his critics in the press.

"In fact, already yesterday, in a matter that raises also political issues, [commission] vice-president Kroes again sent a letter to the Hungarian authorities expressing our concerns regarding media freedom," he noted.

Kroes raised concerns over the Budapest-based Klubradio - a popular, liberal talk-show station - which will no longer be able to broadcast from March because its frequency licence expires in late February. The station often highlights Fidesz-critical views.

"Klub Radio is subject to the same open licence-bidding rules as every other media company in Hungary. It failed to win a licence because it failed to meet the required technical and legal specifications," the Hungarian authorities said in a statement.

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