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European Ties

EU puts pressure on Budapest

Both the European commission and parliament step up their criticism against Hungary's latest constitutional changes. With core European values at risk, the call for infringement procedures gets louder by the day.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (Photo: REUTERS/Yves Herman)

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban faces steep criticism against the latest wave of constitutional amendments.

For years, Brussels has been at loggerheads with Budapest. Most recently, however, the European Commission has repeatedly expressed concerns about constitutional amendments that Hungary's center-right Fidesz party, together with the Christian Democratic People's Part (KDNP), have passed as a two-thirds majority coalition.

The recent and controversial plans further limit the independence of the judiciary, place restrictions on campaign advertising in the media and are meant to shift the burden of EU fines onto Hungarian citizens.

EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding assured European Parliament that, "We will continue to insist that the legislation is compatible with EU law and that the law is respected."

European Union Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding addressed the European Parliament during a debate on the constitutional situation in Hungary on April 17 (Photo: Vincent Kessler/REUTERS)

Reding: "Hungary could lose its voting rights in the Council of Ministers."

The Commission will examine the situation carefully and objectively and will then decide whether an infringement procedure is necessary, she said. She added that, as a last resort, Article 7 of the EU Treaty could be applied. Article 7 states that, in cases of "permanent violations of fundamental EU rights," countries such as Hungary could lose voting rights in the Council of Ministers - a virtual expulsion.

But the use of this "nuclear bomb", as Reding called it, would only follow very serious deliberations.

'Losing' its peoples?

As spokesman of EU parliament's center-right European People's Party (EPP), Frank Engel of Luxembourg warned not to overdo it with the attacks on Hungarian domestic politics.

There is the danger, he said, that "the Hungarians, whether they are Fidesz voters or not, will get the impression that Europe is not really on their side."

Greeks, Cypriots, Italians and Portuguese already have this impression, he says, each for different reasons. Europe, Engel fears, is on its way to "losing a lot of peoples."

One complication for the EPP faction within the European Parliament is that Orban's Fidesz party also belongs to it. Orban attended a faction meeting in Strasbourg as recently as Tuesday (16.04.2013).

Many parliamentarians found his presence embarrassing. But despite sharp criticism from other factions, the EPP has not excluded the Fidesz party.

Instead, and to better address the woes of the Fidesz party at the European level, EPP delegates have begun framing the Hungarian quarrels as calculated European party politics.

Growing anti-Semitism

But delegates from the European Left and the Greens argue that this isn't about party politics at all - nor that the EU is meddling inappropriately in Hungary's internal affairs.

Rebecca Harms, co-chairwoman of the European Green Party, said that Hungary is violating civil rights and the rule of law - and, with it, "the heart of the European project."

"As a German European, I tell you: If we keep catering to empty promises to the European Union, rather than living up to them, then we are abandoning what lies at the heart of the European project," she said.

The Austrian Hannes Swoboda, head of the Party of European Socialists, worries more about Hungarian anti-Semitism. Swoboda publicly contrasts that "trend" with the EPP's silence on the issue.

(Photo: EPA/PATRICK SEEGER)

Swoboda has his eyes set on anti-Semitism in Hungary

"Ladies and gentlemen of the European People's Party, you just cannot [afford to] look on," he said, "when nowadays in Hungary the name plates of professors are smeared with 'Jew, Jew, Jew,' and [with] a swastika, and it all goes by unpunished."

Amid great applause, Swoboda said he expected the EU to take a clear position.

Europe's scapegoat

Some Fidesz delegates see their government back home as a European scapegoat and a victim of political correctness. They point to the democratically elected two-thirds majority and, with it, their legal mandate to change their country's constitution.

Backed by the right-wing Hungarian Jobbik party, another EU parliamentarian, Krisztina Morvai, intends to pay the ongoing allegations no more attention.

Since the EU Justice Commissioner Reding hadn't studied law, she argues, the commissioner wouldn't be able to ascertain any legal matters in the first place.

"For us lawyers, the nature of the state under the rule of law is the opposite of arbitrariness," Morvai said.

Hungarian protestors, including a new Together 2014 movement, have demonstrated vociferously against the new constitutional amendments (Photo: Bernadett Szabo/REUTERS)

Hungary's latest constitutional amendments have brought thousands of protesters into the streets

A cowardly Commission?

Meanwhile, the Belgian lawyer and chairman of the liberal faction, Guy Verhofstadt, is already convinced that Hungary has breached EU law.

Like his Green Party counterparts, Harms criticizes what he calls too much of a reluctance on the Commission's part when it comes to dealing with Hungary. Instead, he said, the Commission should launch infringement proceedings against the country.

"And if the Commission doesn't do it, "Verhofstadt continued, "then we, in this parliament, need to have the courage to launch infringement proceedings, according to article 7 of the EU treaty."

But Portugal's Rui Tavares, a delegate for the Greens and rapporteur to the Commission regarding the situation in Hungary, remains cautious - even though, as he said, a lot is on the line.

"Any institution that doesn't honor the values of the treaties doesn't live up to its historic responsibility," Tavares said. "All European citizens need to know that this institution is not going to fail them."

Thus far there hasn't been any decision on how to proceed with Hungary. A detailed report on the country is due in June. That is also the deadline the Commission has given itself to decide whether it's time to begin infringement procedures against Hungary.

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