Orban, at it again

Fri, Mar 15, 2013, 06:00

We’ve been here before. Hungary ’s conservative prime minister Victor Orban has form. In the past three years, despite protests from home and abroad, his party Fidesz has pushed through measures that critics say sap the independence of the media, central bank, judiciary and other institutions.

Now parliament has passed a series of constitutional amendments that have further alarmed EU partners. Four of them, Germany, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands, in a timely letter to commission president José Manuel Barroso hint at financial sanctions though they stop short of mentioning Hungary specifically.

The latest amendments include allowing the constitutional court to challenge laws only on procedural grounds, not on substance; limiting election campaign ads in the private media; restricting the definition of a family to heterosexual marriage; and allowing the criminalisation of homeless people who live on the streets; all of which the constitutional court has vetoed in past decisions. The amendments scrap all decisions made by the court before 2012, discarding a body of case law often used as reference.

Earlier this year the court blocked a Fidesz proposal to change voter registration rules and the opposition cites the attempt to reduce the retirement age of judges as evidence of the government’s particular desire to rein in and replace with more pliable members a bench that it sees as politically hostile.

Orban’s government insists it has the right to use its parliamentary mandate to reform a constitution it calls a relic of communist rule.

The Irish Presidency has been coy about voicing criticism, insisting that it is the Commission which is charged with being the guardian of the EU treaties, and Barroso rang Orban on Friday to express concerns. To no avail. “These amendments raise concerns with respect to the principle of the rule of law," Barroso said in a joint statement with Thorbjoern Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Eu rope.

It is to be hoped that EU leaders will press the point with Orban at their summit today.