Can the EU Stop Hungary's Controversial Constitutional Amendments?

Article excerpt

Amid growing concerns that the Hungarian government has taken steps to centralize power and weaken democratic principles in the country, a growing movement in the European Union is considering what should be done to keep Hungary in line.

On Monday, the latest set of amendments to the Hungarian constitution - the fourth set since its passage in 2011 - came into effect, having been pushed through by Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his conservative Fidesz party's two-thirds majority in parliament.

Critics say the new amendments erode the authority of the Constitutional Court, which overturned several Fidesz-backed laws in recent months. Hungary has also clashed with the EU regarding changes to the country's media laws and the independence of its central bank.

Last week, EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said the changes in judicial independence in Hungary were "very worrying," according to Dow Jones. The Hungarian government responded by stating on its website that Ms. Reding was "waging private war against Hungary."

Curtailing the Constitutional Court?

Reding is not alone, however, and critical voices from the EU have been increasing. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso also expressed concern and spurred the Council of Europe (CoE), an independent human rights organization, to investigate whether the amendments conform to EU law.

The amendments limit the Constitutional Court's ability to refer to its own rulings prior to January 2012, when the current constitution came into effect, thereby effectively cutting a large portion of established legal decisions out of the country's law. Instead, the amendments restrict the court to only reviewing amendments to the constitution based on procedural requirements, rather than substance.

"There is nothing to be concerned of," says Jozsef Szajer, member of the European Parliament (MEP) from Fidesz. Mr. Szajer says the amendments are "not curtailing the powers of the Constitutional Court but expanding it" by giving the court the ability to determine if new amendments follow proper constitutional procedures.

Hungary welcomes the review of the CoE, he says, but constitutional affairs of member states should be respected by the EU.

But CoE spokesman Panos Kakaviatos said in an email that his organization was concerned that the amendments include provisions that were previously rejected by the Constitutional Court, as this "could endanger the fundamental principle of checks and balances in a democracy." By incorporating the provisions into the constitution itself, Fidesz effectively does an end run around the court, realizing the changes that the court rejected as undemocratic.

The results of the CoE's review are expected to be released in June.

EU institutions have shown varying degrees of political will to act on Hungary. The Commission has been relatively cautious in its criticism, while MEPs have been more vocal.

"The Commission is after all a neutral arbitrator," says Agnes Batory, public policy professor at Budapest's Central European University. "They cannot act in an overtly political way, as opposed to party groups within the European Parliament. …