Saturday

10th Dec 2016

Opinion

Hungary-bashers should take closer look at new laws

  • Budapest. Verhofstadt's op-ed is 'part of a chorus of recent Hungary-bashing,' Schopflin said (Photo: www.spotmob.com)

Alde group leader Guy Verhofstadt in a recent piece in EUobserverdenounces the Hungarian government and all its works.

He uses loaded language - “last straw … Orbanization … radically curtailed” - and he calls for Article 7 proceedings, or the suspension of my country's voting rights in the EU Council.

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It is part of a chorus of recent Hungary-bashing.

But let us look in more detail at the allegations which appear in Verhofstadt’s text.

He says there are "some highly controversial laws which have restricted media freedom."

No evidence is presented to sustain this charge. In reality, there is none. The European Commission and the Council of Europe have investigated the state of the media and have accepted that it operates under conditions of freedom.

Here is the conclusion of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission: “The Hungarian law on self-determination and freedom of information (Act CXII/2011, of 1 June 2012) may be considered, as a whole, as complying with the applicable European and international standards.”

Verhofstadt speaks of Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party as seizing “an opportunity to consolidate its grip on the state, media and judiciary”.

No evidence is presented to underpin this assertion, it is simply a claim with a party political dimension. Fidesz is a member of the centre-right EPP group, Verhofstadt is part of Alde.

The Alde leader notes that: "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.”

These amendments were submitted to the Hungarian Parliament in February and these bodies were all informed well ahead of time of the projected amendments.

They failed to react until a few days before the actual vote.

Verhofstadt says Orban “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.”

This is a misinterpretation of the situation.

It was precisely because the Hungarian Constitutional Court required that these provisions be inserted into the Basic Law that the Fourth Amendment was formulated and passed.

Ex post facto, yes, the Venice Commission has been asked by the Hungarian government to look at the issue and will report probably in June.

Verhofstadt adds that: “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). “

Let me take these one by one.

On "criminalising the homeless," Article 8 of the new law reads: “Article XXII (1) Hungary shall strive to provide every person with decent housing and access to public services. (2) The State and local governments shall also contribute to creating the conditions of decent housing by striving to provide accommodation to all homeless people. (3) In order to protect public order, public security, public health and cultural values, an act of parliament or a local ordinance may declare illegal staying in a public area as a permanent abode with respect to a specific part of such public area.”

This is hardly an attack on homeless people.

On a "restrictive definition of family," Article 1 of the amendment reads: “Hungary shall protect the institution of marriage as the union of a man and a woman established by voluntary decision, and the family as the basis of the nation’s survival. Family ties shall be based on marriage and the relationship between parents and children.”

This is very close to the previous constitutional provision.

It also must be noted that the provision does not exclude the protection of other family models and does not affect the rules on same-sex couples' registered partnerships.

On "strict state control over religious establishments," Article 4 reads: “(2) Parliament may pass cardinal Acts to recognise certain organisations engaged in religious activities as Churches, with which the State shall co-operate to promote community goals. (3) The State and Churches and other organisations engaged in religious activities shall be separated. Churches and other organisations engaged in religious activities shall be autonomous.”

Where is Verhofstadt's "control," I see only support?

On a "ban on political advertisements in the commercial media," Article 5, section 3 reads: “(3) For the dissemination of appropriate information required for the formation of democratic public opinion, the political election advertisements of political parties with nationwide support and other nominating organisations shall be published by public broadcasting services before the election of Members of Parliament and Members of the European Parliament free of charge and under equal conditions as determined by a cardinal Act.”

Again, hardly a ban.

Verhofstadt adds: "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.”

Article 12 provides: "[The Constitutional Court shall: “b) review immediately but no later than 30 days later any legal regulation applicable in a particular case for conformity with the Fundamental Law upon the proposal of any judge" … e) review any legal regulation for conformity with the Fundamental Law upon an initiative to that effect by the Government, one-fourth of the Members of Parliament, the President of the Curia, the Supreme Prosecutor or the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights; f) review any local ordinance for conformity with the Fundamental Law upon an initiative to that effect by the metropolitan or any county government office; g) examine whether legal regulations are in conflict with international treaties."

This provision may have caused the confusion: "(5) The Constitutional Court may review the Fundamental Law and any amendments thereof for conformity with the procedural requirements set out in the Fundamental Law with respect to its adoption and promulgation”

It is quite clear that this is no more than one of the powers of the Constitutional Court.

The powers of the Constitutional Court have indeed been restricted where budgetary matters are concerned, as is proper in a democracy where these matters must be in the hands of an elected and accountable parliament.

The rest is incorrect, there has been no curtailment - this is an assertion that has to be proved. No proof is adduced.

In the light of the foregoing, the proposition that “there is a "clear risk of a serious breach" by Hungary of the European values of democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights” is an error, a category error to be precise.

The writer is an Member of the European Parliament for the Fidesz party

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