European Union

Constitution Changes No Threat to Democracy, Hungary PM

Share
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban
Getty Images

A defiant Hungarian PrimeMinister Viktor Orban dismissed criticism that changes hisgovernment has made to the constitution are anti-democratic,saying there was no evidence of any breach of European Unionrules.

The EU, the United States and human rights organisationshave accused Orban of using constitutional amendments to limitthe powers of Hungary's top court and undermine democracy in theformer Soviet satellite. The move follows steps last year tochange Hungary's media laws and the retirement ages of judges.

Speaking before attending an EU summit in Brussels, Orbansaid Budapest was ready to explain the latest moves andchallenged critics to produce concrete evidence of wrongdoing.

"Who is able to present even one single point of evidence-facts, may I say - which could be the basis for any argumentthat what we are doing is against democracy?" the conservativeprime minister told reporters.

"Saying 'we don't like something' is not concrete enough toreact... I am more than happy to answer their questions."

He faced more disapproval on Thursday, the first day of thetwo-day summit, where the main focus was economic policy for the27-member bloc to tackle its sovereign debt crisis.

Many of his EU peers see the changes, which passed throughparliament on Monday, as the latest effort by the nationalistleader to assert power over other branches of the state.

Since returning to office in 2010, Orban has defied the EUon principles such as media freedom and central bankindependence, resisted pressure from the International MonetaryFund to change economic policies, and angered foreign investors.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso reiteratedhis concerns to Orban during the meeting and said the EUexecutive would assess of the new rules to prepare its response.

"We will use all instruments in our competence to addressthis issue," he told reporters.

The latest changes mean the constitutional court can reviewthe constitution or changes to it only on procedural grounds,not on substance, and scrap all decisions of the court madebefore 2012.

Defiant

Despite Barroso's warning, there is little the EU can do torein Orban in. Beyond political pressure, the EU executive canstart legal proceedings but the process is onerous and unlikelyto yield quick results.

In the EU, where political decisions are taken by consensus,pressure could mean isolation, weakening Hungary's voice inpolicy discussions. But Orban said he was not concerned.

"You are not guests of an isolated nation today," he toldthe more than 100 reporters who attended his news conference.

Accusing his EU critics of generalising, he said Hungarywould suffer no consequences from any EU displeasure.

"We don't have a feeling that we are victims... I amabsolutely optimistic about the Hungarian economy and Hungarianpolitical life. We are not victims. Do I look like a victim?" hesaid. "We will win, I am sure about it."

Orban has said his government had the right to use itstwo-thirds majority in parliament to overhaul a constitutionthat it calls a hangover from the communist era.

Brussels disagrees. Many European leaders are concernedinadequate democratic norms in some countries in eastern andcentral Europe could undermine the fabric of the bloc.

Speaking after Thursday's meeting, German Chancellor AngelaMerkel said a parliamentary majority should not be "abused". .

"(It) should be treated very carefully," she told reporters.

In Berlin, the EU's justice commissioner Viviane Reding saidthe Commission had the means to enforce its views.

"The Commission will examine Orban's constitutional changesand their consequences," she said. These could, she said,include cuts in EU payments to Hungary or restrictions on itsvoting rights.

"You don't play around with the constitution. You can't goand change the constitution every six months," Reding said.