European Body Threatens to Sue Hungary Over Its Policies
By JAMES KANTER
COPENHAGEN — The European Commission warned the Hungarian government on Wednesday that it would face legal action unless it modified by Tuesday policies that undermined the national central bank’s independence and threatened to tip the country toward authoritarianism.
European officials had hoped that the threat of losing sorely needed financial assistance from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund would force the Hungarian government to change course, but it has not.
Instead, the Hungarian government’s intransigence prompted European officials to say in the sternest terms yet that they were prepared to take the government to court to reverse what critics fear is a drift back to autocracy in Hungary, a former Communist bloc country.
“The commission recalls that a legally stable environment, based on the rule of law, including respect for media freedom, democratic principles and fundamental rights, is also the best guarantee for citizens’ trust and confidence of partners and investors,” the European Commission’s warning said. “This is particularly vital in times of economic crisis. The swiftest way to lay to rest the concerns mentioned would of course be action by the Hungarian authorities themselves.”
The showdown revolves around the adoption of a new Constitution and a number of laws at the end of last year that remove checks and balances on the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
The three measures of particular concern to Brussels are the independence of the national central bank, mandatory early retirement of judges and prosecutors at the age of 62 instead of 70 and the independence of the national data protection authority.
The European Commission said that it “remains preoccupied that a number of the new provisions may violate E.U. law” and that it “reserves the right to take any steps that it deems appropriate, namely the possibility of launching infringement procedures.”
It said it planned to complete a full legal analysis of the Hungarian laws within days and make a decision on whether to start a process that could eventually lead to a lawsuit by Tuesday. A formal European case could take months.
Viviane Reding, the European Union’s commissioner for justice who is involved in this case, suggested Wednesday that Mr. Orban was abusing his parliamentary majority to reshape the Hungarian Constitution for the benefit of his governing party, Fidesz, rather than for the benefit of the nation.
“A dominant position brings with it a special responsibility,” Ms. Reding told her colleagues.
The Hungarian government “should make use of its two-thirds majority in a responsible manner, and always fully in line with E.U. law,” she added.
Another group that has stepped into the fray is the Council of Europe, which is based in Strasbourg, France, and is responsible for enforcing the European Convention on Human Rights.
“There’s a real danger of Hungary going off the rails,” said Thorbjorn Jagland, the Council of Europe’s secretary general. “Our concerns are about very important components of a democratic society.”