In the 19-25 July edition of European Voice, András Gyürk sought to distinguish between the quality of the rule of law in Hungary and Romania (“Hungary is not Romania”). His letter requires rectification in three directions.
When challenged by the European Commission, Victor Ponta, Romania’s prime minister, immediately retreated on the two most controversial subjects.
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The Hungarian government changed nothing before infringement procedures were started or before the European Union and the International Monetary Fund imposed related conditions on their loan to Hungary.
Secondly, the EU’s reaction to the two challenges differed sharply. The Commission reacted much more swiftly and forcefully in the case of Romania. The faction of the European Parliament to which the Romanian government belongs – the Socialists and Democrats group – not only did not protect Ponta, but also demanded that the Romanian government change its ways.
By contrast, the European People’s Party threw all its weight behind Viktor Orbán and his conservative Fidesz government.
Thirdly, some of Gyürk’s statements on Hungarian measures are misleading. He justifies the Hungarian government’s actions on the basis that voters gave the Hungarian government a “sizeable mandate” to carry out “root-and-branch reform”. Fidesz’s election programme did not make clear the scale of the reforms it has since enacted. In all, 53% of those who voted in April 2010 chose Fidesz – about 35% of all voters, not as sizeable a mandate as Gyürk would like to suggest – and the “national consultation” that followed the election was window-dressing. It is enough to read the independent part of the Hungarian press and leading blogs on the internet to see how deeply the reforms are out of line with the 65% who did not vote for Fidesz (and of a sizeable number of those who did).
Among the changes made by the government are changes to the election system that skew the system in favour of Fidesz and hinder smaller parties. They also eliminate the minimum-participation requirement – one of the complaints about an amendment that Ponta made to the referendum law in Romania. Romania’s constitutional court has reversed that amendment; that has not happened in Hungary.
That says something about Hungary’s constitutional court – and Gyürk’s claim that there are “stark” contrasts between Hungary and Romania. He seeks to downplay what the Fidesz government has done, saying that “the competences of the Hungarian constitutional court have been changed in one field only – budgetary matters”. What worth is a constitutional court that does not have power to judge on any question that concerns the budget? He also fails to mention that the court’s membership has been diluted with Fidesz loyalists; some even fail to meet the legal requirements for membership. (This is part of a broader pattern that has seen the holders of other independent functions – such as the attorney-general and the media watchdog – replaced or their institutions ‘re-organised’.)
Gyürk tries to distinguish, to Hungary’s advantage, between the response to charges of plagiarism levelled at Hungary’s President Pál Schmitt and Romania’s Ponta. Schmitt’s resignation was not as straightforward as Gyürk tries to depict when he writes that a special committee “was left to conduct its inquiry without interruption”. For one thing, much of the Fidesz commentary was directed not at Schmitt, but at those who questioned his work.
Gyürk tries to suggest that the EU’s doubts about Hungary have been consigned to the past. That is not the case. Hungary still faces two legal challenges at the European Court of Justice. The court will decide whether the data-protection authority truly remains independent.
The other case relates to a law that beheads the judiciary, by imposing a mandatory retirement age on judges. This is not the case for any other profession (or, even, for the judges of the constitutional court).
Gyürk’s introductory reference to the Romanian government – that it is a “left-wing coalition” – betrays much of why he thinks Hungary is not Romania: because in Hungary it is a ‘right-wing’ party that does its mischief. I use the single quotation marks advisedly: other than its strong bias against the poor and in favour of the wealthy, there is not much to qualify Fidesz as an ordinary right-wing party by European standards.
László S. Szabó Budapest