(Blank newspaper cover to protest media reforms- flickr-Lamarietta)
European Alternatives calls on European leaders to condemn the threats to democracy and freedom in Hungary and for the European Institutions to apply Article 7 of the Treaty of Lisbon to Hungary
There is a growing contradiction between Europe’s calls for democracy, freedom and the rule of law outside its borders, and its failure to protect these values within the EU. The Copenhagen criteria which any country joining the EU must meet, clearly lay out the imperatives of a free media, a democratic electoral system, and an independent judiciary. Not for the first time, these values are coming under threat inside the EU, this time in Hungary. Failure to address these threats undermines Europe’s influence in the world, weakens democracy and freedom throughout the European Union, and makes the EU appear hypocritical to its citizens. At a time when Europe’s leaders are calling for countries to lose their voting rights, and be taken to court, when they breach certain budgetary rules imposed by the credit markets, Europe’s failure to address threats to democracy in Hungary makes the EU look ever more like a self-interested project of economic elites. Europe must show it defends its citizens’ rights and fundamental freedoms and is not only interested in the market.
European Alternatives has manifested several times its worry about the status of democracy in Hungary since the re-election of Viktor Orban in 2010. Our focus has been primarily on media freedom and pluralism, which rapidly deteriorated with the reforms of the media law carried out in 2011. These reforms, initiated shortly before Hungary was to assume the rotating presidency of the European Council, led European Commissioner Neelie Kroes, after much pressure from civil society and the European Parliament, to officially intervene from Brussels to ask for reform of those elements that would breach Community law.
Unfortunately, the media reform was only the tip of the iceberg of a series of reforms and a new constitution, swiftly passed through a parliament in which the governing party enjoys a two-third majority, that seriously threaten core principles of democracy, justice and human rights.
On January 1st, 2012 a new Constitution came into effect in Hungary. At the same time twenty-seven areas of Basic Law, left out of the constitution, were also quickly approved by Parliament, without the necessary time to be properly debated and examined. This series of drastic institutional changes were brought through without any involvement of the opposition or any meaningful consultation of civic society or citizens at large. Aside from a series of reforms which we oppose, but which fall within the borders of democratic legitimacy (i.e. the reforms in education), the Orban government has been responsible for several constitutional and institutional changes that can only be defined as anti-democratic.
The former High Court Authority has been split in two, each managed by party people, so close to the ruling party that one of them is married to a Fidesz MEP. The new authorities have much more limited powers than previously and only MPs, not citizens or organisations, can appeal to it. Several hundred judges have been sent to early retirement and the new authority is now overseeing the selection of new judges.
The rules determining the function of Parliament have also been altered. Now Fidesz has been put in the position of proposing a law and closing it within twenty-four hours. With the changes in the judiciary system described above, we see the risk of the deterioration of the checks and balances system and the separation of powers, at the basis of democracy.
The media law continues to be the strictest in the EU, with enormous fines for those who breach censorship laws set up by the state and with new highly centralised authority, headed for the next nine year by Szalai Annamaria, again a close ally of the Fidesz party.
Private pension funds have been nationalised, marriage re-defined as solely the union of a man and a women, freedom of religion has been hampered, with only twelve religions now recognised by Hungarian law.Unemployed people may, under the new regime, be forced to move to another side of the country where work is available. The only area in which jobs are in surplus in some areas of Hungary is construction and the people most affected by these relocations are, unsurprisingly, the Roma minority.
European Alternatives has in the past asked the European Parliament to intervene on Berlusconi’s attempt to modify media regulation and to limit freedom of speech in the media fearing that this would have had a domino effect on other European countries (we called it the Berlusconisation of Europe).
We join the president of the European Liberals, Guy Verhofstadt and the vice-president of the European Socialists and Democrats, Hannes Swoboda, in asking the European Institutions to apply Article 7 of the Treaty of Lisbon. This article states that if principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms have been violated, a process can start that may lead to various consequences, including the loss of voting rights in the Council by the member state found to have violated those core principles. We realise that for such a procedure to be initiated by the European Parliament, the EPP would have to support it, and the EPP counts Victor Orban as one of its Presidents and Fidez MEPs amongst its members. The EPP deciding to speak out against one of its own would mark a major evolution in the independence of the European Parliament and its genuine representation of European citizens, but we appreciate it is unlikely. This is yet another reason to call for the emergence of transnational parties and lists which are not beholden to national political parties.
The European Commission, in recent days, has been active in calling for Hungary to ensure its constitution is in line with European Law, and we support the Commission in taking as strong a line as it can through the courts. What is lacking, as it has in the past with cases like those of Italy’s, is the condemnation of other European leaders. Expressions of concern, where they have come, have been limited to the Hungarian government infringing the independence of the Hungarian Central Bank. Europe’s leaders must understand that the interest of European citizens is not only in the economy or material wellbeing, but in living in a democracy where their rights and freedoms are protected. The peoples of central Europe with a historical awareness know that only too well, and in many neighbouring countries concern is growing that Hungary’s example is going unchallenged. At one time Victor Orban was taken for a hero of liberation, now he must not be allowed to become the symbol of a failed European dream.