Response to Hungary is test for EU
By Lydia Gall
The European Union has placed human rights, democracy, and the rule of law firmly at the core of its structure, and so its willingness to defend those values is crucial to its credibility.
Faced with a deteriorating situation on these three fronts in Hungary, Brussels has failed to show the necessary resolve.
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Unless it can marshal a stronger response, its failure is likely to do long-term damage in Budapest and to the European Union itself.
As a new Human Rights Watch report shows, since taking office in 2010, the Hungarian government has used its two-thirds majority in parliament to make major changes to the legal order in ways that have undermined human rights protection and the rule of law.
At a rapid pace and without adequate public consultation, the government has rammed through a new constitution and hundreds of laws that risk breaching fundamental principles of the EU.
The report shows how the government has chipped away at checks and balances against executive power, curbing media freedom and interfering with judicial independence and the authority of the Constitutional Court.
This has had a real impact on ordinary Hungarians, including more than 2,000 people convicted and fined just for being homeless and people with mental disabilities denied the right to vote.
The government also stripped 300 religious groups of their “church” status in opaque and arbitrary proceedings without a possibility for effective appeal.
As a result some of the groups, which provide essential services, have lost public funding.
Many of these changes have drawn expressions of concern and recommendations for reform from EU and Council of Europe institutions.
But the response of the Hungarian authorities has been largely to dismiss the criticisms as unfounded, or to make only symbolic changes that do not address the core of the problems.
In March, the Hungarian government amended the constitution again, adding a series of measures that had previously been ruled unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court and removing the court’s power to review the substance of changes to the constitution.
In other words, rather than accept the rulings of its Constitutional Court about controversial laws, the government changed the constitution to get the result it wanted and to block the court from taking further action.
When the core values of the European Union are under threat in a member state, EU institutions should act to safeguard those values.
But so far the EU’s response has been piecemeal at best.
The European Court of Justice has ruled against Hungary over the forced retirement of judges.
The European Commission has pursued enforcement action in relation to specific measures, including the March changes, which the commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, criticized.
Neelie Kroes, commissioner for the digital agenda, and Viviane Reding, commissioner for justice, citizenship and fundamental rights, have both said the EU should be ready to consider suspending Hungary’s voting rights under Article 7 of the EU Treaty, although there appears to be little appetite for such a move in the commission as a whole.
The European Parliament is set to consider a report prepared by its committee on civil liberties on the legal changes as a whole, and has discussed the impact on media freedom.
But the parliament is deeply divided, with the European People's Party (EPP) reluctant to see criticism of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, an EPP member, while the Liberal group is openly calling for Article 7 action.
At the Council level, however, the silence has been deafening.
While some member states may have expressed their concerns privately through bilateral channels, the Council has been unwilling even to issue a collective political statement urging the Hungarian government to reconsider its actions.
The closest the Council has come to action is a February letter from the German, Dutch, Finnish, and Danish foreign ministers on the need for stronger EU tools to respond to abuses inside its own borders.
Stronger tools can be valuable, but the commodity in shortest supply is political will.
The Copenhagen political criteria establish high standards on human rights, democracy, and rule of law for countries seeking to join the European Union.
Yet, the EU’s weak response to the crisis in Hungary suggests that once in, member countries can get away with human rights and rule of law abuses without any real consequences.
For the sake of Hungary and for the sake of the European Union, it is time for the EU and above all for the Council to get serious about the situation in Hungary.
Lydia Gall is Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch