25th Oct 2016

Hungary law reform sparks protest, criticism

  • Hungarian lawmakers want to redefine family and ban sleeping in the streets (Photo: Axel Buhrmann)

Hungarian lawmakers are set to vote in 14 pages of constitutional amendments on Monday (11 March) which critics say may undermine rule of law.

The amendments would curtail the power of the constitutional court and annul all decisions made before the launch of the new constitution in January 2012.

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Some of those decisions include limiting political campaign ads in commercial media, introducing a conservative definition of family and allowing the top prosecutor to select judges in cases.

Other proposals include outlawing sleeping on the streets and a law requiring state-sponsored university students to remain inside the country upon graduation.

Thousands in Budapest took to the streets in protest over the weekend against the new measures.

If voted through, the laws could set a new collision course between the European Commission and Hungary’s right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

The two had already clashed when Orban’s two-third’s majority parliament revamped the constitution in 2011 and introduced a series of cardinal laws said by the commission to be violating EU principles of democracy.

Brussels introduced infringement procedures against Hungary in January 2012 on new laws concerning the retirement ages of judges, independence of the central bank and the independence of the data protection agency.

Commission chief Barroso called Orban on Friday in a bid to delay the vote and allow greater scrutiny into the proposed amendments.

The Prime Minister pledged “full commitment” to European norms and rules in a letter addressed to Barroso following the telephone conversation.

Hungary’s foreign minister Janos Martonyi in a separate letter on Friday addressed to his EU counterparts noted that the amendments conform to EU norms, reports the Financial Times.

“My government has given ample evidence of its spirit of co-operation whenever the competent European institution ... have scrutinised or even challenged Hungarian legislation,” said Martonyi.

Some critics had already raised the alarm earlier last week.

Human rights watchdog Council of Europe (CoE) issued a statement on 6 March calling upon the Hungarian government to postpone Monday’s vote.

CoE secretary general Thorbjorn Jagland said the “Hungarian government is reintroducing the transitional provisions which were annulled by the constitutional court.”

He noted that the proposed amendments give the impression that the government is willing to use the two-thirds parliamentary majority to overrule the constitutional court.

Meanwhile, a handful of member states are calling upon the commission to introduce a new leverage against "errant" governments, reports Bloomberg News.

The foreign ministers of Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark in a letter to Barroso asked the commission to help “create a culture of respect for the rule of law.”

Bloomberg, which obtained a copy of the letter, said the ministers said the EU should be allowed to impose financial penalties for breaches of basic values.

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