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Opinion

European Union test case: stop Hungary from backsliding on democracy

It's hard to love the EU – bureaucratic, legalistic, mired in gridlock. The euro crisis hasn't earned it much praise lately, either. But the EU still has vital clout. It can help force member states like Hungary to stick to democracy, rather than backslide into dictatorship.

By R. Daniel Kelemen / January 25, 2012

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso welcomes Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (L) before their meeting at the European Union Commission headquarters in Brussels Jan. 24. Under pressure from the EU and IMF, Mr. Orbán promised to modify legislation he and his party enacted to consolidate their power. For all its failings, the EU may be the last best hope for democracy in Budapest.

REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

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New Brunswick, N.J.

It is hard to love the European Union. Bureaucratic and legalistic, often mired in gridlock, it is little wonder that the EU has such trouble winning over the hearts and minds of European citizens or inspiring confidence internationally. The eurozone crisis has made all of this worse, with skeptics questioning whether the common currency or the EU itself will survive. But the EU’s mounting conflict with the Hungarian government reminds us why this union of 27 democratic nations remains so vital.

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In 2010, Viktor Orbán and his party, Fidesz, won over two-thirds of the seats in Hungary’s parliament – a majority large enough to amend the Hungarian Constitution. Since then, the Orbán government has pushed through a slew of laws, constitutional amendments, and institutional reforms designed to remove any checks on his government and to consolidate his party’s hold on power for years to come.

The Orbán government has passed laws attacking freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the independence of the judiciary, and the independence of Hungary’s central bank. They replaced Hungary’s previous electoral system with a new system designed to strongly favor Fidesz.

On Jan. 1, 2012, a new constitution went into effect – a constitution designed to perpetuate Fidesz’s hold on power. The new constitution requires that laws in many key areas of public policy can only be changed by a two-thirds super-majority in parliament. Fidesz can use its current two-thirds majority to pass laws that future governments – holding only a simple majority – will be unable to change.

Moreover, the new constitution establishes extremely long terms of office for key positions in government, including the public prosecutor and heads of the new budget council, media board, and national judicial office. These positions have been staffed with Fidesz party loyalists who will remain in office for years, regardless of the outcome of the next election.

In December, as international criticism of his government’s actions mounted, Mr. Orbán declared that no one in the world could tell the Hungarian parliament which laws to pass and which not to. Fortunately, he is wrong. In his bluster, Orbán ignored the fact that Hungary has joined the European Union, making it subject to European law. Ultimately, the European Court of Justice can tell Hungary when its laws are unacceptable.

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