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.

REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
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.

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.

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.

Last week, the executive arm of the EU, the European Commission, launched legal proceedings against Hungary – demanding changes to recent Hungarian legislation affecting the independence of Hungary’s central bank, data protection authority, and judiciary. Commission President José Manuel Barroso went further, raising concerns about the erosion of democracy in Hungary.

With Hungary’s economy in turmoil, the Orbán government is desperate to secure funding from the International Monetary Fund and EU. The IMF has made it clear that no loans will be forthcoming until Hungary settles its disputes with the EU.

Orbán appeared before the European Parliament last Wednesday, giving a speech defending his government’s record. Most members of the European Parliament were unimpressed, and a number are calling for the launch of a legal procedure to investigate whether Hungary is in breach of the EU’s fundamental values – a procedure that could see Hungary stripped of its voting rights in the EU.

Faced with mounting pressure from the EU and the need to secure IMF funding, Orbán has already signaled a willingness to back down. He met yesterday in Brussels with Commission President Barroso and promised to modify the legislation concerning the central bank, the judiciary, and data protection in line with EU demands.

The future of democracy in Hungary is by no means secure. The EU will need to apply much more pressure to assure that the Orbán government does not consolidate one-party rule in the coming months. But the prospects for democracy in Hungary are much better in the EU than outside it. Were it not an EU member, Hungary might easily slide into authoritarianism on the model of the Ukraine or Russia.

At this point, the bureaucrats and judges in Brussels and Luxembourg – so much maligned of late – may be the last best hope for democracy in Budapest.

R. Daniel Kelemen, director of the Center for European Studies at Rutgers University, is author of “Eurolegalism: The Transformation of Law and Regulation in the European Union.”

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