Time to suspend Orban's EU voting rights
21.03.13 @ 18:41
BRUSSELS - The EU is not only experiencing an economic crisis.
Even more worryingly, it is suffering a democratic crisis in its member states, including, among others, Hungary.
Since the arrival in power of Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his conservative party Fidesz, Hungary has gone through a set of dramatic changes to its legal system.
Not only has the Hungarian parliament adopted a new piece of legislation almost every day, among them some highly controversial laws which have restricted media freedom.
It has also adopted a new constitution, which despite being described by Orban as "solid as granite," was already been amended four times, showing the instability and unpredictability faced by Hungarians every day.
This has all been made possible by an electoral law which enables the parliament to change all rules by a two-thirds majority.
Having a political majority should not mean riding roughshod over the minority, but taking their views onboard.
However, Orban has seen his party's political majority not as a responsibility, but as an opportunity to consolidate its grip on the state, media and judiciary.
International and European institutions, civil society and human rights organisations, opposition parties, and even the United States have closely scrutinised and criticised the gradual "Orbanization" of Hungary.
The last straw was the adoption on 11 March by the Hungarian parliament of a fourth amendment to the constitution, ignoring requests by EU institutions to delay the changes until the Venice Commission - a Council of Europe expert body composed of former constitutional judges - had given its opinion.
This decision flies in the face of Hungarian Constitutional Court rulings and criticism from the Venice Commission over a large number of controversial laws, which have now simply been inserted directly into the constitution.
These include the possibility of criminalising homelessness, a restrictive definition of family, a ban on political advertisements in the commercial media and strict state control over religious establishments (which violates freedom of religion).
Other new measures include linking state grants for students to an obligatory period of domestic employment after graduation, as well as the abolition of the autonomy of universities and higher education institutions in financial matters.
Many of these measures had previously been rejected by Hungary's Constitutional Court.
But now, the court has had its powers radically curtailed, impeding its ability to review the constitutionality of amendments to the constitution and restricting its powers in relation to budgetary matters.
Finally, the fourth amendment has also threatened the independence of the judiciary, meaning that the Fidesz-appointed president of the National Judicial Office now has the last word over which court tries which case.
The Liberal (Alde) group in the European Parliament has strongly criticised this new set of amendments.
We have called for a debate during our plenary session of April. And I have called on the European Commission and Council to activate Article 7 of the EU Treaty to start the procedure to determine if there is a "clear risk of a serious breach" by Hungary of the European values of democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights that we all subscribe to.
If there is a "serious and persistent breach," Hungary would be invited to submit its observations and the European Council could decide by qualified majority to suspend certain rights, including voting rights.
Far from being a "nuclear" option, as it is often described, this is a formal procedure that is available to handle such situations if the political will to use it is there.
Let me be very clear.
I believe that we are far beyond the "risk" situation. We are clearly faced with a "breach" that is persistent and systematic.
I intend to call on the European Parliament to initiate the Article 7 procedure. And in particular I urge the European People's Party (EPP) to support such a procedure.
In effect, as a two-thirds majority is required in the parliament, the final decision will be in the hands of the EPP of which Fidesz is a member and Orban is a vice-president.
In recent days an anti-Semite journalist and an extreme right-wing musician have also been honoured by Zoltan Balog, the Hungarian minister of human resources.
Enough is enough.
I call on all those of us in Europe who believe that our continent is built on a set of common values and fundamental rights, who believe that the Union is only as strong as the principals it adheres to itself and who recognise that the time has come to take firm measures to stop the drift of Hungary away from democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights.
We owe it not only to the Hungarians, but to Europe itself.
Guy Verhofstadt is a Belgian MEP and the leader of the Liberal Alde group in the EU parliament