A few thousand protesters took to the streets on Saturday, calling on the ruling Fidesz party to withdraw its proposed fourth amendment to the constitution that only came into force last year. This came two days after activists staged a sit-in in the courtyard of the Fidesz headquarters building in District VI.
Critics see the proposed fourth amendment to Hungary’s Basic Law as a bid to codify numerous pieces of controversial legislation that have been struck down by the Constitutional Court in recent months. Despite the protests at home, the greater part of the pressure on Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s right-wing government is coming from abroad. The government – whose appointees unilaterally drafted the original document in 2011 – insists that the changes it wants to make are merely of a “technical” nature. The protests are work of political adversaries and international left-wing and liberal circles, sometimes funded from abroad or acting at the behest of lobby groups with vested interests, according to government rhetoric.
President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, telephoned Orbán on Friday urging him to address the concerns being voiced in Brussels “in accordance with EU democratic principles”. Spokesman for the EU’s executive, Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen, said the concerns would be discussed in “continued bilateral consultations”.
In a busy day for the line to Brussels, European Parliament President Martin Schulz also phoned Orbán to tell him of “concerns” within the EU legislature. “I recommended to the Prime Minister to urgently ask the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe for its opinion before the Hungarian Parliament votes on those amendments. During our conversation, Prime Minister Orbán promised to send to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, to whom he had spoken only an hour earlier, and to myself a letter clarifying the matter.”
Orbán’s letter – which the Prime Minister’s Office emailed to reporters – was brief and, arguably, rather short on clarification. The prime minister simply stated the commitment of his government and Hungary’s parliament to “European norms and rules”. The letter ended optimistically: “I am convinced that I can rely on your personal support and on the cooperation of the European Commission”.
The previous day, the council of Europe had called on Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government to postpone the vote on the consitutional amendments, which is due this Monday, 11 March. The 47-member pro-democracy organisation, which is separate from the EU, wants to give its Venice Commission a chance to verify whether the proposals meet with international law and Hungary’s commitments under the European Declaration of Human Rights.
Perhaps more significantly, for a government that has often shrugged off EU concerns over its domestic policy since taking office in 2010, some member states – among them Hungary’s largest trading partner Germany – are running out of patience with their more recalcitrant peers. “We … believe that a new and more effective mechanism to safeguard fundamental values in Member States is needed,” wrote the foreign ministers of Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Finland in a widely reported letter the the Commission last week. “As a last resort, the suspension of EU funding should be possible.”
Currently the strongest weapon in the armoury of the EU’s executive, referred to as the “nuclear option”, is the suspension of voting rights for a member state. It has so far only been used against Austria, back in 2000 when the extreme-right Freedom Party joined the government. Liberal and left-wing eurocrats have already called for Hungary to be threatened with the same sanction.