The Hungarian government appears not to accept that the rule of law can be a criterion to judge member states. Interestingly, until very recently, they always claimed that Hungary fully adhered to those principles, and that the rule of law worked perfectly in the country. But now, as the Finnish Presidency takes up previous proposals by the Commission and the European Parliament to connect EU financial support to the functioning rule of law in member states, Viktor Orbán has changed rhetoric. Until now, the rule of law has been celebrated in Hungary. From now on, the rule of law, as a category, is not applicable.
It is worth noting that the EU applies rule of law principles even vis-à-vis countries aspiring to become EU members. They are part of the most fundamental Copenhagen Criteria for accession, which precedes anything else in membership negotiations. The rule of law is the first criterion next to democracy, human rights and respect of minorities. I cannot recall that at the time of Hungary’s own accession process, the Hungarian government, or Viktor Orbán, would have claimed that the Copenhagen Criteria are not objectionable.
Let us assume for a minute that Minister of Justice Judit Varga is partially right when she claims that the rule of law has no "universally applicable objective criteria." But then, she might also want to answer the question, whether in the view of the Hungarian government she represents, the country of Belarus, for instance, is an eligible candidate to become a member of the European Union in its current state? Or would Minister Varga, per chance, still agree with her European colleagues that Belarus is in fact not democratic, has no rule of law and that basic human rights are not respected there?
Probably, she would. But if so, there must be some factual basis for this agreement. There must be something tangible that makes us think that Belarus, North-Korea or Turkey do not comply with the principles of democracy and the rule of law. Even if one would grant her - and I am not saying that one should at all - that the political criteria of EU membership cannot be described in terms of universal and objective indicators, a clear difference can apparently be made. "Objective criteria" is not indispensable to having discussions on the rule of law, and the rule of law can be discussed and judged.
The problem of the Hungarian government is that it factually and systematically dismounts the rule of law in Hungary. Prime Minister Orbán used to frame this manoeuvre as "illiberal democracy," but now he skips this label and prefers to attach the term "Christian democracy"( as if there were any contradiction between Christianity and the rule of law). It would be most interesting to hear the views of Mr. Tusk, Mrs. Merkel or Mr. Weber, distinguished Christian-Democratic leaders, about the thesis of Mr Orbán.
In 2011, Orbán’s Fidesz party unilaterally passed a new constitution that was to be "carved into stone" - only to be amended no less than seven times in the course of only a few of years. Subsequently, Fidesz made the Constitutional Court an entirely partisan and loyalist body. It has continuously attacked the independence of the judiciary, just recently submitting a bill, according to which retired members of the Constitutional Court will automatically become heads of Councils at the Supreme Court (Kúria).
During the election campaign, police raided opposition party headquarters without any legal basis. The State Audit Office, chaired by a former Fidesz-member of parliament, imposed crippling financial sanctions on opposition parties. For this, it delivered no legal arguments of any substance, there is nowhere to appeal, and the heavy fines imposed werebe collected by the authorities without any legal remedies in place.
The few Fidesz-supporters and Orbán-fans in Europe admit that there are problems with the rule of law in Hungary, but – so goes the argument – Orbán and Fidesz have been elected and re-elected by the Hungarian people. This sounds like a point, but it is also worth reading the election observation report by OSCE/ODIHR. It is written in a diplomatic language, but it is abundantly clear about the facts. The report describes in unambiguous terms the imbalanced media-situation in Hungary, the "pervasive overlap between state and ruling party resources, undermining contestants' ability to compete on an equal basis" and the "intimidating and xenophobic rhetoric, media bias and opaque campaign financing constricting the space for genuine political debate." It explains that "access to information as well as the freedoms of the media and association have been restricted", and "the ability of contestants to compete on an equal basis was significantly compromised by the government's excessive spending on public information advertisements that amplified the ruling coalition's campaign message."
There is a long list of measures that have curbed the rule of law in Hungary. The words above are not mine but they are quotes from a most professional and most credible intergovernmental institution. The facts, circumstances, items of legislation, acts of the Executive, behaviour of the media (especially the "public media"), piece-by-piece enable us to exactly define those criteria of the rule of law that Minister Varga finds so elusive.
As it is widely known, after a long monopoly of power, Fidesz lost elections earlier this year in several municipal cities. Prime Minister Orbán offered good cooperation with newly-elected mayors representing the opposition, but the following day, he submitted a bill adumbrating several restrictions on how cities can get and how they can spend funds. I have an offer to Minister Varga. I shall agree that no provision in the Treaties of the European Union bans a prime minister to take revenge on cities that voted for another party than the PM’s party. In return, Minister Varga, could you agree that such laws punishing opposition voters are not in line with the notion of the rule of law? Or, Minister Varga, do you really think that these laws are perfectly alright?
Back in Hungary, when members of the opposition offer these arguments, the government immediately accuses them of simply wanting to do the bidding of George Soros. The Brussels Empire. The foreigners. We are all “migrant-fondlers,” – a term the government-loyal media is shouting day and night. The Hungarian government would not dare argue the same ugly way in the European Council’s chambers. Instead, they try to talk themselves out of the mess by questioning the most basic principles of the EU, seeking for excuses based on a lack of objective criteria. It is still a rather weak argumentation, even if I admit that it is a progress compared to invoking George Soros.
Democrats all over Europe agree that the rule of law can, and should be, the subject of a meaningful discussion. Apart from Orbán’s Mamluks, barely anyone is complaining about the “lack of objective criteria." The Finnish presidency must be commended for pushing such dialogue. If for nothing else other than out of respect for their own voters, Mr. Orbán and Mrs. Varga should stand up to the challenge and try to come up with some arguments, instead of miserable excuses to derail the whole debate.
Only countries such as North Korea and Belarus would behave like this, and insist on their “sovereignty” rather than respecting democracy and indeed the basic rights of their own citizens. Is the fear of losing “their money” so great that they would want to risk being compared to the leaders of those regimes? A genuine discussion with EU leaders clearly seems the wiser option.
Even wiser would be starting to repair the damage Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party have inflicted on Hungary, once a frontrunner in democratic changes, and restore the rule of law to the country he claims to love so much.
Klára Dobrev is a member and a Vice-President of the European Parliament, and a member of the S&D group representing the Democratic Coalition party in Hungary.
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