Opinion: EU needs to resolve the crisis over Hungary’s slide to autocracy and human rights violations

The right-wing populist policies of the Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, have created real concern over a growing constitutional crisis within the European Union (EU). His Fidesz party secured a two-thirds majority in the 2010 elections giving Viktor Orban, total authority to pass legislation.

Since then, he has been much criticised across the EU, in particular, for his new law setting unacceptable limits on media freedoms. He has also declared the country’s previous constitution invalid and passed legislation with no consultation, declaring a new constitution requiring that all judges older than 62 retire – a cynical ploy thought to favour new judges favourable to Orban’s party, the Alliance of Young Democrats (Fidesz)

This hasn’t received widespread news coverage because it has been overshadowed by the Eurozone debt crisis. However, it is a dangerous situation, which has the potential to cause instability and deserves the attention of Liberal Democrats and all those with an interest in safeguarding personal freedoms and human rights across Europe.

The debt crisis has massively impacted Hungary – its currency has depreciated and its credit rating has been downgraded to ‘junk’ status. Orban is looking over his shoulder at recent events in neighbouring Romania, where there have been violent protests against the government for the economic problems, leading to its Prime Minister and the whole cabinet resigning. It is feared that Fidesz and Orban want to secure their influence in Hungary beyond their current term in office through a dangerous cocktail of populist, xenophobic and repressive policies.

As with the revised constitution, there is much to be concerned about. Fidesz have defined the nation of Hungary as the country of all Hungarians, whether living in Hungary or not. They have played up to nationalistic sentiment by referring to “the ideal of a unified Hungarian nation”. This has lead to concerns of irredentism and the potential for annexing neighbouring regions of countries whose populations are made up of people of Hungarian origin. Similar base arguments were used for Germany’s Anschluss of Austria and the annexation of German–speaking Sudetanland from Czechoslovakia in 1938.

People’s rights have been drastically altered by banning abortion, outlawing same-sex marriage, and defining discrimination to exclude grounds of sexuality, age or religion. In fact, the constitution specifically makes reference to the importance of Christianity in preserving nationhood. Families are clearly defined as only being those which are made up of both a male and female parent – thus removing rights and opportunities from both same-sex and single-parent families.

Worryingly the constitution allows for voting rights for minors and additional votes for ‘families’ (as defined above). This clearly undemocratic move gives more rights to certain people and de-values the votes of others.

The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), the European Parliament, Amnesty International, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and many other organisations, have all vociferously opposed the new constitution’s threats to democracy, equality and freedom. The Venice Commission has equally raised serious concerns over the transparency and speed with which changes were rushed through parliament. Opinion polls in Hungary show that people widely believe it should have been subject to a referendum.

Should a country’s constitution be an internal matter only? What if the constitution is clearly not attuned with the Treaty of the European Union? The fact that the previous constitution has been declared invalid might even mean that the law allowing Hungarian entry to the EU was now also invalid. The irony is that if Hungary joined the EU now, it would have been expected to jump through hoops and make constitutional changes prior to membership being granted – such as has been happening in Croatia.

The EU isn’t just an economic and political partnership; it is also about a uniform obligation to ensure that the rule of law and human rights are upheld. This issue needs to be resolved quickly before it poses a threat to the Union, or peace and democracy in Europe.

* Issan Ghazni is Chair of the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats and former National Diversity Adviser for the Liberal Democrats. Issan blogs here

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  • A good subject for discussion – but not an easy one

    The utopian view of the EU is coming under real strain with the current economic crisis opening the way for potential extremism.

    I am not sure that the EU has the mechanisms to act against this, although it is deeply unsettling that we have this type of autocratic behaviour hiding under the umbrella of ‘Europe’

  • John Stevens 19th Mar '12 - 4:28pm

    This is a good post. Pressure has already been put successfully on the Hungarian government, for example with regard to the politicisation of their Central Bank, and more is coming. Having, in effect, claims over neighbours’ territory is utterly unacceptable in modern Europe. Mercifully, because they have made such a hash of their finances, the leverage to get change is very large.

  • Jonathan Hunt 19th Mar '12 - 5:39pm

    Some better news in the FT tody. The Venice Commission, which advises the Council of Europe on constitutional matters, has sharply criticised the fidesz party’s legislation. The report will be discussed at meeting between the council and government on Wednesday.

    in particulr, the council is concerne d about the right to a fair trial and contradictions ofthe European Convention of Human Rights. The EU is consideraing taking legal action against the Hungarian government.

    Hope such action would sound a warning to any British Tories who cricise the Bill of Rights.

  • Lee_Thacker 19th Mar '12 - 6:29pm

    Very odd that less than twenty years ago Viktor Orban was a radical liberal. He has managed to veer sharply to the right without changing party. Does what anyone know what was the reason for Fidesz changing direction and leaving LI?

  • John Fraser 19th Mar '12 - 8:18pm

    I visited Fidesz and the then Checoslovzkian Liberals during the first elections in the 1990s and i thought then that there was a hint of very right wing ecomomic liberalism about them . cant really explain the human rights issues though as even right wing economic liberals normally have a healthy civil liberties streak .

  • Scott Walker 19th Mar '12 - 8:31pm

    @Lee_Thacker In Eastern Europe there isn’t as much ground separating Libertarian from Social Conservatism as there is in the UK. You can also see this in Russia’s Liberal Democrats, which are economically Liberal but in every other respect they are nationalistic. When the USSR fell, Orban helped form Fidesz as a Social Libertarian party. They lost the elections in the mid-1990s at around the same time as some right-wing parties broke-up. He moved from being a Social Conservative to a Christian Conservative, bringing some of his Libertarians with him but also gaining a load of nationalists. It looks like the party has been creeping ever rightwards since then.

    @Issan – great article – thanks for bringing it to everyone’s attention. I’m really surprised this isn’t getting more news coverage.

  • Richard Swales 20th Mar '12 - 12:42am

    @John Fraser, which party do you mean by the Czechoslovak Liberals? There were no all-Czechoslovakia parties after the revolution (not even the communist party). If you mean the revolutionary Czech ODS then yes, they were always pretty right-wing in terms of economic policy and of course Klaus is a big eurosceptic (this is why I am not sure if that is what you mean) – in Slovakia there has been nothing that would remotely qualify as liberal until the SaS emerged in 2008 and that is much more libertarian than the UK Liberal Democrats (for example they have a drugs policy).
    It’s difficult to draw direct equivalences between the political spectrum in the Uk and Eastern Europe . The UK is coming from a history of an establishment sitting on the right of politics (although of course not all members of the establishment were like that) and the “change and reform” agenda (free press, individual rights, responsive state) is seen as part of the role left. Eastern Europe is coming from a history of a “left” establishment so the “change and reform” agenda (free press, business rights, individual rights, responsive state, lower taxes) is a right wing one.

    I don’t know enough about Hungary to comment, however I would point out that until recently the UK and the Republic of Ireland both claimed Northern Ireland and the EU functioned fine. The judges issue is maybe not as clearcut as it looks from the outside. The aim is supposedly to remove communist era judges. Independence of the judiciary is fine in the UK where they are broadly pulling in the same direction as the rest of society, but if you keep seeing them releasing mafia suspects on spurious technicalities, then it is hard to support. In Slovakia if you have 100000 euros then you don’t go to jail no matter what. There was a recent case here of a serving judge who was caught more than ten years ago with over a kilo of heroin and automatic weapons in his car. His colleagues held up the case for a decade and he eventually when it came to court last year got off with a one-year suspended sentence. When he was first arrested he was suspended from his duties as a judge, but when the maximum suspension limit ran out he was back hearing cases, while awaiting his own trial.

  • Yet another post where the author fails to do his homework.
    Nothing has really changed since the times when we said American Indians were cannibals and primitive barbarians. And of course it is our duty to get them out of the way.
    The same thing is happening now. It is easy to “be afraid” that here is a barbarian country somewhere east sliding into autocracy (what a joke!), fascism.

    Hungary has always signalled change: 1848, 1956, 1989. Some people just don’t listen.

  • Paul Murray 20th Mar '12 - 7:20am

    So what are we supposed to do? Fidesz got a 2/3rd majority because it won 2/3rds of the popular vote. No-one (so far as I am aware) has suggested that there was any fraud in the election.

    I completely agree that Fidesz is an extremely unattractive party – their leaders have made anti-semitic and homophobic comments in the press – but they do appear to have been elected fair and square.

    I suspect that the Hungarian government will collapse for exactly the same reasons that so many other European governments are collapsing – indebtedness. In the case of Hungary, they are in a terrible debt crisis with a junk rating, yield on government bonds soaring and recent bond auctions that have failed entirely.

    A large percentage of domestic debt is also outside of the control of Hungary: many home mortgages are denominated in Swiss Francs rather than Florints and the cost of servicing those mortgages had risen sharply until the recent peg between the Swissie and the Euro.

    Orban knows that there are various Eurozone banks (particularly in Austria) that will go under if Hungary defaults. I think he’s been playing a game of chicken with the ECB. It remains to be seen who blinks first. The Eurozone leaders don’t seem to have the stomach to risk the fallout of uncontrolled default, do they?

  • Richard Swales 20th Mar '12 - 7:11pm

    Part of the trouble in Hungary is that they have a two party system – the electoral system is first past the post, with a list element, but the list element is separate and in proportion to the votes cast overall, not (as in Germany, Scotland or Wales) used to correct the disproportionality of the FPTP part leading to a proportional result overall. Given a binary choice between Orban and the former communists (i.e. the people who collaborated in the occupation of their own country), then one has to pick the lesser evil (look up Ferenc Gyurcsány speech 2006 for how the communists lost it). The previous election had seen the two leading parties on 42 and 40 percent, however this time Fidesz got 53 percent with the former communists dropping to 19 percent – for good reasons. Fidesz got a clean sweep of all 119 consituency seats – this is why they have a consitutional majority on their own – they didn’t actually get 2/3 of the votes. Also the debt is the fault of the Gyurcsany government, it didn’t suddenly appear after 2010. People who took out mortgages in foreign curencies have been unlucky (and foolish) but the interest rates in forints were much higher even before the crisis precisely because of the probability of the currency losing value later on (I remember warning people who wanted to deposit money there at the higher rates, that the markets were pricing in the currency losing value). You have to set their “losses” (measured in forints, measured in real money they haven’t lost anything), against their “gains” in paying lower interest rates – in some cases for a number of years.

    Certainly in Slovakia Orban is unpopular. However the citizenship law (giving citizenship to all Hungarian-speakers who want it whether they have any connection with the state or not) actually dates to the previous government, and the Slovak election last weekend saw Jan “Let’s we Slovaks get in the tanks and flatten Budapest” Slota fail to make the 5 percent threshold to be an MP (he was in coalition as recently as 2010) – so it is mostly being ignored. Hungary also represents no military threat to its neighbours, particularly as it touches 5 or 6 countries beyond whose borders are Hungarian minorities, and who are obviously not going to allow themselves to be picked off one after the other in turn. Orban is Hungary’s problem, but not a real problem for the countries neighbouring Hungary.

    Incidentally, speaking of Eastern European politics, how come we are happy to sit in the European Parliament with the HZDS from Slovakia? This is the party that is accused of kidnapping the president’s son and assasinating a journalist investigating it. Involvement was never proven but (and also because) HZDS Prime Minister (and party leader to this day) Vladimir Meciar gave an advance pardon to cover the whole affair before it had been investgated.

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