June 14 (Bloomberg) -- Hungary’s new constitution, which consolidates Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s power, threatens the rule of law in the European Union member state, a panel of experts said.
The fourth amendment of the Hungarian constitution, approved in March, “endangers the constitutional system of checks and balances,” the Venice Commission, an independent advisory body on constitutional matters of the 47-nation Council of Europe, said in a report today. The findings were criticized by Orban’s government.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive, is raising pressure on Orban, calling on the government to heed warnings about erosion of the rule of law. European Commission President Jose Barroso “expects that the Hungarian authorities will take due account of” the Venice Commission’s “opinion and address it in full accordance with both European Union and Council of Europe principles, rules and values,” it said on April 12.
The European Commission is “confident” of reaching an agreement with Hungary on two of three concerns on constitution, commission spokesman Olivier Bailly told reporters in Brussels today.
Orban has asserted his influence over independent institutions since winning elections in 2010, drawing criticism from the EU, the U.S. and the United Nations. His lawmakers passed the new constitution over opposition protests, ousted the chief justice of the Supreme Court and set up a media regulator led by ruling-party appointees.
The EU’s focus and the subject of the report is the fourth constitutional amendment, which curtails judicial authority, limits campaign ads in private media, restricts the definition of a family to marriage and allows the criminalization of homeless people who live on the streets. The Constitutional Court had vetoed these in past decisions.
According to the Venice Commission, the fourth amendment “seriously undermines the possibilities of constitutional review in Hungary and endangers the constitutional system of checks and balances.”
Thorbjoern Jagland, secretary-general of the Council of Europe, an inter-governmental organization that promotes democracy and human rights, requested the report.
Orban’s government said the Venice Commission’s opinion is based on “unfounded claims” and reached “disproportionately severe conclusions” about “the state of the independence of the judiciary, the constitutional review and the constitutional checks and balances in Hungary,” according to a 17-page rebuttal.
The Venice Commission says the fourth amendment is a “threat for constitutional justice and for the supremacy of the basic principles” contained in the constitution. Several of the provisions also contradict European standards and Hungary’s constitution, the report said.
The report says the amendment “is the result of an instrumental view of the constitution as a political means of the governmental majority and is a sign of the abolition of the essential difference between constitution-making and ordinary politics.”
The amendment has fueled concern for the rule of law and checks and balances in Hungary, where Orban has wielded a two-thirds parliamentary majority since 2010.
The European Commission says it will start infringement procedures against Hungary “where relevant” and the foreign ministers of Germany, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands in March pushed to impose EU funding cuts on member states that violate the 27-nation bloc’s democratic values.
Orban’s government published its statement today based on a draft opinion of the Venice Commission. It asked for a “fundamental” revision of the opinion.
“The European Union is abusing its power and is asking of us things it doesn’t have to right to ask and expects of us things which it doesn’t expect of others,” Orban said in an MR1 state radio interview today.
Still, the government has moved to partially address the EU’s concerns by submitting to parliament a fifth amendment to the constitution that would revoke the right of the National Judicial Agency president to reassign court cases. It would also delete from the constitution a passage about the levying of extraordinary taxes in case of an unfavorable court rulings.
Hungary is sticking to its ban on election ads in private media, over EU concerns. The Venice Commission said such a ban has a “disproportionate effect on opposition parties.”
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, of which Hungary is a member, will meet in the week of June 24 to consider starting a monitoring procedure on Hungary’s adherence to the organization’s values, according to Panos Kakaviatos, spokesman of the Strasbourg-based organization. If approved, it would be the first time such monitoring would be initiated against an EU member.
“The Venice Commission’s opinion will be taken into account by the assembly on whether or not to formally launch a monitoring procedure against Hungary,” Kakaviatos said by phone today.
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