Hungary has been given five days to bring its new constitutional provisions into line with European Union law, or face legal action from the European Commission. The Commission would take “appropriate decisions” next Tuesday (17 January), when commissioners meet in Strasbourg, José Manuel Barroso, the Commission president, said yesterday (11 January).
The new constitution, produced by the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, entered into force on 1 January. The parliament – where Orban's centre-right Fidesz holds more than two-thirds of seats – adopted implementing legislation on 30 December. The Commission says it is “preoccupied that a number of the new provisions may violate EU law”.
A strongly worded statement from Barroso's office identifies risks to the independence of Hungary's central bank and of the country's data protection officer, and concern over a provision for mandatory early retirement of judges and prosecutors. The threat to the central bank's independence prompted the EU and the International Monetary Fund to break off talks on financial assistance to Hungary last month.
“The Commission stands ready to make full use of its prerogatives to ensure that member states respect the obligations they have accepted as members of the European Union,” the statement said. Waving the stick of infringement proceedings is clearly intended to prompt rapid Hungarian compliance. “The swiftest way to lay to rest the concerns mentioned would of course be action by the Hungarian authorities themselves,” the statement concludes.
The Commission can refer violations of treaty provisions to the European Court of Justice under Article 258 of the Lisbon treaty. Article 7 of the Lisbon treaty also allows the EU to impose sanctions on a member state in “serious and persistent breach” of freedom, democracy, human rights and other EU values enshrined in the treaty.
A Commission official said that there was no intention at present to invoke Article 7: “That is like a nuclear option, a weapon of last resort,” the official said. But Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament, plans to seek an Article 7 procedure, which can be launched by the Council of Ministers “on a reasoned proposal” by one-third of member states, by the European Parliament, or by the European Commission. “The Hungarian crisis is as important as the euro crisis,” he said. “Both concern the credibility of our Union in the eyes of our citizens.”
Writing in this edition of European Voice, János Martonyi, Hungary's foreign minister, defends the constitutional reform against “summary judgements”. He writes that the government is “open to criticism, provided it is fair and specific”, and concedes: “We were certainly not immune to error, including errors of judgement and of communication.”
György Schöpflin, a Hungarian Fidesz MEP, also said that the Hungarian government was willing to make changes. “It is a question of interpretation,” he said. “If there is something to be done, the Hungarian government will do it.” But he cautioned against calls for sanctions against Hungary. “The more they attack, the more they will drive people to the far-right Jobbik party in Hungary,” Schöpflin said. MEPs on the civil liberties committee will discuss the matter with a senior Commission official today (12 January), in preparation for a plenary debate next Wednesday (18 January).
In a separate development, also yesterday, Olli Rehn, the European commissioner for economic and monetary affairs, announced that the Commission would take measures against Hungary for failing to curb its excessive public deficit.