Hungary Rejects Democracy Criticism as Commission Meets

Hungary’s government rejected criticism of its new constitution even before European legal experts met today to approve an opinion that the European Union executive said Prime Minister Viktor Orban must respect.

The government published a 17-page rebuttal of what it said was a draft report by the Venice Commission, an independent advisory body on constitutional matters of the 47-nation Council of Europe. The commission meets today in Venice, Italy, to adopt an opinion on Hungary.

The European Commission, the EU executive, is stepping up pressure on Orban’s consolidation of power, calling on the government to heed its warnings about the 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,” the EU executive said April 12.

The Venice Commission’s draft was 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 the government statement, which asked for a “fundamental” revision of the opinion.

Orban has asserted his influence over independent Hungarian institutions since winning elections in 2010, drawing criticism from the EU, the U.S. and the United Nations. His lawmakers passed a new constitution over opposition protests, ousted the chief justice of the Supreme Court and set up a media regulator led by ruling-party appointees.

Family Definition

The EU’s focus and the subject of the Venice Commission’s report is the fourth amendment to the constitution, approved in March, which curtailed judicial authority, limited campaign ads in private media, restricted the definition of a family to marriage and allowed the criminalization of homeless people who live on the streets. The Constitutional Court had vetoed these in past decisions.

The move underscored 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 has said it would start infringement procedures against Hungary “where relevant” to rein in the country while the foreign ministers of Germany, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands in March pushed to impose EU funding cuts on member states that violate the bloc’s democratic values.

‘Abusing Power’

The EU “is abusing its power and is asking of us things it doesn’t have the right to ask and expects of us things 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 a constitution passage about the levying of extraordinary taxes in case of unfavorable court rulings. Hungary is sticking to its ban on election ads in private media, over EU concerns.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, of which Hungary is a member, will meet on the week of June 24 to consider starting a monitoring procedure on Hungary’s adherence to the organization’s values, according to Panos Kakaviatos, a 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.

The Strasbourg-based Council of Europe is an inter-governmental organization that promotes democratic values and monitors human rights and the rule of law in Europe.

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