European centre-right closes ranks with Orbán
Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, yesterday dismissed accusations from MEPs and the European Commission that his government had failed to respect the European Union’s core democratic values.
He portrayed constitutional changes as liberating the country from a code imposed by the Soviet Union, and rescuing it from the brink of economic collapse. Speaking in a debate in the European Parliament on Wednesday yesterday (18 January), Orbán said that Hungary was undergoing an “exciting process of renewal”.
Orbán played down the importance of the Commission’s decision on Tuesday (17 January) to launch infringement procedures against three Hungarian laws. He said that the problems “could easily be resolved by next week”. Orbán is meeting José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, in Brussels on 24 January to discuss the Commission’s concerns about the laws.
His government has come under fierce criticism for a new constitution agreed in April last year and a package of 30 laws that was rushed through the national parliament in December. Opposition politicians, journalists and human-rights groups say that the changes will give Fidesz a stranglehold over the country’s political and financial institutions.
Orbán told the Parliament that the Commission had not raised any concerns about Hungary’s constitution. He received strong support in the debate from members of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) political group, to which his Fidesz party belongs. Joseph Daul, the leader of the EPP group, said that the Hungarian voters had given Orbán’s government a “clear mandate” to reform the country.
But Liberal and Green MEPs want to launch a special procedure to establish whether Hungary is complying with the EU’s fundamental democratic values. Under Article 7 of the Lisbon treaty, the Commission, the European Parliament or the Council of Ministers can request a formal investigation into whether a member state is at risk of committing a serious breach of the EU’s fundamental values.
Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group of MEPs, said: “This house has a responsibility in the treaty to take action.” He called on members of the European Parliament’s civil liberties committee to draw up a report on triggering use of Article 7. “If there is a clear risk of a serious breach of our values that is what we have to do,” he said.
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, leader of the Green and nationalist MEPs, said: “Let’s send a delegation from this house under Article 7 to Hungary to see why homeless people in Hungary are afraid, why intellectuals are afraid.”
Cohn-Bendit challenged Orbán to allow MEPs to visit, saying: “If you’re so sure of yourselves that there are no democratic problems in Hungary, let us carry out the Article 7 procedures. If you are right, I will apologise.”
Triggering an Article 7 procedure requires the backing of two-thirds of those MEPs that vote. If all 754 MEPs voted, the backing of 502 would be needed. The liberals and the Greens combined have only 143 votes, so would need reinforcement at least from the 190-strong Socialist and Democrats (S&D) group to stand any chance of victory.
But the S&D group is cautious. Claude Moraes, a UK S&D MEP who is a member of the civil liberties committee, said that using Article 7 should be the “final resort”. “We have to exhaust all other avenues first,” he said, adding that he wanted to await the outcome of the Commission’s infringement proceedings.
The civil liberties committee is planning to hold a meeting with Hungarian opposition groups and human-rights groups in the next two weeks to assess the political situation in Hungary.
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