Thursday

21st Mar 2019

Orban defies EU with 'rubber-stamp' court

  • Hungarian leader Viktor Orban to face German chancellor Angela Merkel and others at EU summit on Thursday (Photo: Consilium)

Freedom of assembly, electoral violation, and corruption cases risk being decided by Hungarian government fiat, instead of independent judges, under a new law.

The changes put Hungary, and its one-man ruler, prime minister Viktor Orban, out ahead of Poland and others in the region in terms of violation of EU norms.

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  • Orban mocked MEPs, like Dutch deputy Judith Sargentini, at the European Parliament in September (Photo: European Parliament)

The judicial bill, pushed through by Orban's MPs in Budapest on Wednesday (12 December), is to create a new supreme court to handle the most sensitive types of cases.

It gives his justice minister, Laszlo Trocsanyi, the power to hire and fire judges and to control its budget.

Trocsanyi himself said he would take "greater political responsibility" for the court's actions, in what NGOs and student protesters have warned would lead to government impunity.

Between 1,000 and 2,000 people rallied outside Orban's party HQ and outside parliament to oppose the changes on Wednesday.

They waved the EU flag and scuffled with riot police, injuring four.

But anti-Orban protests could become a thing of the past if his judges begin jailing opponents in future, as feared.

Orban is accused of having misused state funds to win the last elections and of enriching loyalists, for instance, via the country's golden passport scheme.

But judicial scrutiny of such accusations, or of who may benefit from €10bn of Russian loans for a new nuclear plant, could also end if the "rubber-stamp court" is as bad as critics believe.

"In [the new] administrative courts, rulings would be made by judges who are more experienced, better equipped, and more knowledgeable about the unique body of law that regulates public administration," Orban spokesman Laszlo Kovacs said on Wednesday.

"Independent administrative courts exist in many other European countries, for example in Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, and Poland," he also claimed.

Hungarian civil society took a different view, however.

'Political interference'

"Boundaries between the executive and judicial power in Hungary will be blurred and it could pave the way for the government's political interference," the Helsinki Committee, a human rights group, said.

The reform "runs counter to values Hungary signed up to when it joined the European Union," it added.

"The creation of this rubber-stamp court is alarming," Mate Szabo, from Hungary's Civil Liberties Union, told the Reuters news agency.

"The EU has been totally unprepared to deal with it," he said.

"Orban is feeling omnipotent ... [that] there's nothing inside or outside Hungary that can limit his power," Peter Kreko, from the Political Capital consultancy firm in Budapest, said.

The EU did put Orban on notice in September, when the European Parliament triggered a sanctions procedure over his "systematic" violations of EU norms.

But he reacted with mockery, both of MEPs and of his own peers in the centre-right EPP group, who have urged him to hold back, in his self-avowed project to create a Russia-type "illiberal" state in the heart of the EU.

"Now it is up to European leaders to take responsibility and stop watching from the sidelines as the rule of law is destroyed in Hungary," Judith Sargentini, a Dutch Green MEP said on Wednesday, as Orban prepared to again meet fellow leaders at a summit in Brussels on Thursday.

The EU has also opened a sanctions procedure against Poland on abuse of rule of law, and has put Malta and Romania, the next holder of the EU presidency, on a watchlist for similar reasons.

EU splits

The split on rule of law is just one of several fault lines in Europe, amid Brexit, migration clashes, budget clashes, and the rise of anti-EU populists.

But Poland recently honoured an EU court injunction to halt its judicial purge, in an olive branch to Brussels.

That, and the even more audacious nature of his court reform, puts Orban in the vanguard of the anti-EU rebellion.

Wednesday's vote also comes after he rode roughshod over Hungary's own asylum laws by sheltering a political ally from Macedonia - Nikolai Gruevski, its former PM, who fled a jail conviction.

The Hungarian leader forced out the Central European University, a top post-graduate academy, amid antisemitic slurs against its financial sponsor, US philanthropist George Soros.

He also created a new media conglomerate, meaning fewer Hungarians will hear critical voices on TV, on the radio, and on the internet.

"This is unacceptable for a union that is built on democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights," Sargentini, the Dutch MEP, said.

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