Hungarian prime minister rejects EU Parliament call to reverse ‘undemocratic’ reforms

Viktor Orban condemns vote on democratic rights and EU values

Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban: has used a two-thirds majority in parliament to transform Hungary’s legal framework. Photograph: Vincent Kessler/Reuters

Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban: has used a two-thirds majority in parliament to transform Hungary’s legal framework. Photograph: Vincent Kessler/Reuters

 


The European Parliament has sharply criticised the Hungarian government for undermining the country’s democracy and concentrating too much power in the hands of prime minister Viktor Orban.

The decision was rejected by Mr Orban and his Fidesz party’s allies in the parliament’s centre-right bloc, which include Fine Gael. They called it a “biased and politically motivated” attack by centre-left MEPs on Hungary’s leader, who has clashed repeatedly with the EU since taking power in 2010.

The parliament in Strasbourg yesterday voted 370-249, with 82 abstentions, to approve a report that urges Hungary to act “as swiftly as possible” to reverse reforms in a host of areas that critics believe breach basic EU laws and values.


Power-grab
Mr Orban has used a two-thirds majority in parliament to transform Hungary’s legal framework, in what he calls a push to modernise the country and clear away the last vestiges of the communist era, but which opponents denounce as a blatant and dangerous power-grab.

He has placed allies at the head of the central bank and powerful agencies overseeing the judiciary and media, and introduced a new constitution that has been criticised for weakening everything from the constitutional court to the rights of churches, gay people and the homeless.

Furthermore, some of the most important changes made by Mr Orban’s government can only be undone by another two-thirds majority vote in parliament, which is very hard to achieve; Fidesz and its allies secured such dominance in 2010 due to the parlous state of their main Socialist rivals.

Following complaints from the EU, United States and major international rights groups, Mr Orban’s government has made some concessions and scrapped some intended reforms. But his most frequent response to foreign critics is defiance. He accuses them of trying to bully Hungary, to keep its government in a position of weakness and prevent it from following an unconventional economic policy that includes taxes that have hit foreign firms in Hungary hard.


Power
Rui Tavares, the Portuguese MEP who wrote the resolution that was adopted yesterday, said recent reforms in Hungary showed “a general trend of concentration of power towards the [parliamentary] majority and government . . . and away from EU values enshrined in the EU treaty.”

“Democracy is about the rule of the majority, but not about majoritarianism,” he added. “In a democracy, the majority has to respect the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary and fundamental rights.”

The resolution – which is not binding – called on the EU to create a body to ensure member states uphold the bloc’s so-called common values.

Mr Orban denounced the report, and derided the proposal to create a monitoring group. “The report is unfair, deeply offensive, and its author and those who vote for it are abusing their powers and applying double standards against my country,” he told MEPs before the vote.

“You are proposing that Hungary should be placed under political tutelage,” he said during a debate in the European Parliament.

“I will never accept that and do not accept this report.” According to a statement from his office, Mr Orban said the report’s attempt “to put the country under guardianship . . . seriously infringes on and limits the independence of Hungary” and is “dangerous . . . for the future of Europe and the European Union.

“We cannot accept this attempt to unilaterally override the basic treaty, based on which we joined the European Union,” he said, adding that Hungary’s parliament would respond with its own resolution today.

The European People’s Party group, of which Fidesz and Fine Gael are a part, rallied behind Mr Orban and called the report “a wish-list of the European leftist parties who aim to impose their own political agenda on Hungary”.

“The European Parliament has no competence to act as a tribunal and tell people how they have to live,” said the group’s vice-chairman, Manfred Weber.

“The European Parliament must not turn itself into a Big Brother.”


Rules
Mr Orban’s defiance has intensified debate over the discrepancy between how the EU deals with countries that break financial and trade rules and those that abuse its democratic norms.

Earlier this year, Germany, the Netherlands, Finland and Denmark suggested that Brussels adopt new powers to freeze funding to member states that fail to respect EU values – a system modelled on the one now used to sanction countries with excessive budget deficits.