Hungary yesterday moved a significant step closer to becoming the first European Union member state to be placed under a special monitoring regime by European politicians.
A committee at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) said that it was deeply concerned at “the erosion of democratic checks and balances” as a result of a completely new constitution introduced in 2012.
PACE brings together 318 national parliamentarians from the 47 member states of the Council of Europe, a body established after the Second World War to develop the rule of law across Europe.
The committee’s report, which was authored by a Swedish liberal, Kerstin Lundgren, and a Czech centre-right politician, Jana Fischerová, concluded that the constitution was adopted in “in a hasty and opaque manner” and was “not based on a consensus between the widest possible range of political forces in Hungarian society”.
It also argued that the constitutional was too wide-ranging in its scope, stating that “the excessive use of, and wide range of subjects regulated by, cardinal laws and provisions – which need a two-thirds majority to be changed – can be harmful to democratic principles”.
The current centre-right government, Fidesz, has a two-thirds majority, the first time power has been so consolidated in Hungary’s post-1989 history.
The party has since amended the constitution four times. That prompted another criticism. “The constant changing of the constitution for narrow party political interests undermines the required stability of the constitutional framework,” the committee said.
Overall, Hungary’s new constitutional “framework has excessively concentrated powers, increased discretion and reduced accountability and legal oversight of numerous government institutions and regulatory bodies in Hungary”, it said.
Lundgen said that the “whole package” of constitutional changes “raises so many concerns, so it is not single paragraph, no single issue, it is the whole pattern as such” that led to the committee’s recommendation. The changes introduced by the government “are establishing political controls at the same time as checks and balances are weakened”, she said.
The committee’s recommendation will now be considered by the assembly’s leaders. They will issue an opinion in a matter of weeks. The committee’s recommendation will then be debated by all PACE members, possibly when they next meet in plenary at the end of June.
The votes in thecommittee, on the overall recommendation and on specific elements, were very close, suggesting that the recommendation may struggle to win the backing of the full assembly.
Two previous recommendations to start monitoring processes against EU member states – Italy and the United Kingdom – have failed to win support.
Ten of the Council of Europe’s 47 member states are currently subject to monitoring.
Hungary is currently awaiting three other, potentially more important assessments of its constitutional changes.
One is, like the PACE recommendation, an assessment being made by politicians. The European Parliament is currently working on a report on Hungary’s legislative reforms. No date has been set for its completion and adoption.
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Hungary, though, is likely to pay most heed to two pending legal appraisals.
Lawyers at the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission currently considering the most recent set of constitutional amendments, made in March. It will announce its findings on 15-16 June. So too is the legal service of the European Commission. An initial assessment, announced on Friday (12 April), said there were grounds for “serious concern” about clauses relating to payment obligations, restrictions on political advertising and powers of the president of the National Office for the Judiciary. No date has been set for publication of the final assessment.
The Hungarian government has said that it will act on the Venice Commission’s and European Commission’s advice, or seek the opinion of the EU’s highest court, the European Court of Justice.