The soothing words of Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, do little to counter his government’s assaults on the independence of Hungary’s press, judiciary and central bank. Without strong European pressure, Mr. Orban is unlikely to change the new banking, judiciary and media laws.
Mr. Orban’s conciliatory tone in an appearance before the European Parliament last week came a day after the European Commission announced it would take Hungary before the European Court of Justice, if necessary, to overturn the laws. Hungary now acknowledges that it needs financial help from Brussels and the International Monetary Fund, which it cannot expect to get without some concessions.
Mr. Orban said he would be able “to rapidly solve” the issues that the European Union has raised. And in a radio interview on Friday, he said he would drop a controversial plan to merge the central bank with the financial markets regulator, but without providing details. Mr. Orban’s tepid assurances are not enough. He must fully restore the independence of the central bank and the judiciary and stop punishing his media critics.
The new Hungarian laws violate European Union rules enshrining institutional checks and balances and individual freedoms. One law permits the government to expand the constitutional court and pack it with political appointees. Another allows the prime minister to appoint key central bank officials. Still another reduces the independence of the country’s data-protection agency.
These laws are part of an alarming pattern of efforts to undermine democratic principles. A press law that went into effect last year has been used to intimidate critics of the government. A new electoral law seems designed to favor the ruling party and its allies. A constitution that took effect this month will make it hard for any future government to change the economic and social policies put in place by Mr. Orban’s current majority. Unless Europe compels Mr. Orban to change course, Hungary could become the first former Soviet satellite to lose its hard-won democracy.
Unimpressed by Mr. Orban’s facile promises, the majority parties in the European Parliament now want governmental leaders to consider invoking a clause of the E.U. treaty that would strip Hungary of some voting rights if Mr. Orban continued to flout European law. Europe’s powers to nudge Hungary back from authoritarianism are limited. But to its credit, it has begun wielding them.