Political fire flew between Brussels and Budapest last week, as the European Union (EU) threatened a monitoring procedure that could lead to sanctions against the Hungarian government.
The EU’s criticism against the post-communist country for changing its constitution is, however, fueled by European left-Liberal leaders. Some members of European Parliament (MEPs) say the political interests of the European left are motivating the move against Hungary, rather than a concern for Hungarian rights.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s center-right government adopted a series of changes to its constitution on March 11. European and U.S. human rights organizations have said the changes limit the mandate of the Constitutional Court, criminalize homelessness, and oppress religious and media freedom.
The parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) expressed concern about an “erosion of democratic checks and balances,” in an April 25 statement.
Some Hungarian MEPs and political activists say Hungary should be able to determine its own constitution independent of the EU. Orban has the support of the people, according to polls.
Some say the criticism against Hungary’s center-right government serves the political interests of EU leaders.
“The European left really doesn’t know what to do with a country that has elected a center-right government with two-thirds majority,” said Hungarian MEP Gyorgy Schopflin. Schopflin is part of Orban’s ruling party, Fidesz, and he is a member of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP).
“The European left badly needs a scapegoat for its own failures,” he said. “And from this point of view, having a center-right government in an obscure and small country like Hungary, is extremely helpful to find exactly the escape that the left needs.”
The center-left is feeling the pressure to bend to austerity measures, being traditionally more free with its spending than the center-right. The balance of power in the EU leans toward the right, with center-right governments in Germany, Britain, Spain, and Poland.
Schopflin said Viviane Reding, EU commissioner for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship, particularly has a political stake in the matter.
On April 17, the European Parliament hosted a plenary debate on Hungary, during which Reding said the European Commission (EC) is analyzing Hungary’s constitutional amendments and will deliver an opinion by mid-June.
“Reding wants to be the next president of the EC, and as she is from the center-right wing, she is making gesture after gesture to the center-left, to get their support,” Schopflin said. “For me, the case with Hungary is not more than a political game by the left.”
Breaking the ‘Unwritten Law’ of the EU
Andreas Molzer, an independent Austrian MEP, says that the center-left criticism of Prime Minister Orban is somewhat hypocritical.
“Orban did what every other politician would do when his party has a two-third-majority in Parliament,” Molzer wrote in an email. “Do you think that left-wing politicians in this case wouldn’t try to change their country according their notions?” he asked.
What triggered the anger of the EU, according to Molzer, was Orban’s violation of an unwritten law of the EU: “This unwritten law means that there is no place for national interests or traditional values. In today’s EU, the national state has to lose its importance,” giving way to the interests of Europe as a whole.
“By reforming his country, Orban broke with dogmas of the EU,” Molzer said.
Gellert Rajcsanyi, deputy editor-in-chief of Hungarian political news website Mandiner.hu, said it is the left-Liberal values, not European values, that Orban violated.
“I would not state that the legal changes in Hungary were completely opposite of the ‘European values.’ What are exactly the European values?” Rajcsanyi asked, responding to questions via email.
“I would say, some paragraphs or ‘values’ of the new laws are not in line with the international left-liberal mainstream, and they rather represent a more conservative view of the world.”
Molzer recalled that last year, when Romania’s socialist Prime Minister Victor Ponta tried to overturn the nation’s constitution, the EU was silent—especially the political left side.
“Here can you see the hypocrisy of the political correctness in the EU: Post-communist leaders like Ponta can do what they want and they have to fear no consequences. The EU has to apply the same law for all—otherwise [it] will lack credibility.”
Confidence in the EU is in decline, according to a European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) think tank study published in the Guardian on April 24. The study was based on polling information from Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Spain, and Poland. Spain, Germany, and Italy, historically pro-European, showed 52, 59, and 72 percent of voters respectively mistrust the EU.
The six countries surveyed—Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Spain, and Poland.
In Hungary, a pro-EU attitude prevails, as people enjoy EU education programs, visa-free travel in the EU, and other benefits.
Rajcsanyi maintains that Hungary is a democracy.
“The Hungarian democracy is not perfect. It is far from perfect. But it exists,” he said. “The quality of our democracy is exactly there, where our country is located: on the Southeastern end of Central Europe.”
Hungarian Sensitivity to EU Criticism
Schopflin explained, “Many Hungarians feel isolated.”
“[There is] the question of the language, which nobody else understands, [and] the sense that Hungary was very badly treated historically,” the MEP said. “There is a sense of victimhood.”
The country was dominated by a communist regime until 1989. The new constitution drafted in 2011 is considered to mark a complete victory over the post-communist and left-Liberal elite. Schopflin said this is why Hungarians are very sensitive to questions of independence and self-determination.
Joszef Szajer, a Hungarian MEP testified during a hearing in Washington, D.C., organized by the U.S. Helsinki Commission, an independent agency of the federal government, which was recorded and uploaded to YouTube by U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin.
“In the course of our history, thousands of Hungarians died for Hungary’s independence, but finally we won it only little more than 20 years ago,” Szajer said.
“Now our task is to consolidate freedom and democracy, and we insist on our right to decide.”
As some Hungarians express a concern for their country’s right to self-determination independent of the EU, human rights advocates insist the constitutional changes may present problems.
Sylvana Kolaczkowska, project director of Nations in Transit at Freedom House, said the reforms undermine checks and balances by creating hierarchical structures whose top tier, again and again, is the dominant party in Parliament.
The changes seem to have been designed in a way that creates excessive opportunities for political favoritism in the allocation of power and resources, Kolaczkowska said.
“The ubiquitous two-thirds majority thresholds in recent legislation are problematic, because they make it extremely difficult for any future government to tamper with the legacy of the current administration,” wrote Kolaczkowska in an email.
While admitting that in any democracy, illiberal tendencies can gain an advantage in times of crisis or uncertainty, she sees the pace and breadth of legislative measures affecting the media, the judiciary, and independent civil society activities in Hungary as deeply disturbing. She is worried by the government’s “apparent imperviousness to widespread domestic and international criticism.”
“This sets a terrible precedent and example for other countries where a sweeping electoral victory could create similar opportunities,” she warned.
During the hearing in Washington, Szajer testified that Hungary’s reforms were not an act of “gripping to power,” but were instead urgent measures to bring the country back from the brink of bankruptcy.
Still, Cardin, U.S. Helsinki Commission chairman, expressed concern.
“When we are looking at the changes that you have done, it gives us concern,” Cardin said. “Because we are looking beyond the current ruling party, we are looking at how this framework will work for Hungary’s future. We see a potential of real problems.”